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Rev. G. Jude Geiger Headshot

The Pope, the Jew, and the CEO

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Last week, Pope Francis made a statement that the media found incredibly shocking. According to The Guardian, the Pope called "unfettered capitalism 'tyranny'." In his statement, he went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the "idolatry of money" and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education, and healthcare." Possibly, most notably he asked, "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"

At casual glance, following only the media's portrayal of the statement, one might think this was a radically new position for the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis also said he was merely continuing the thinking of Pope Benedict who had planned to say as much prior to his sudden retirement. And the ethical teachings of Jesus long and clearly have been understood to support the poor and struggling in the world over those with means -- who remain hard of heart.

The Pope's timing around Hanukkah was particularly apropos. He developed within Latin American Christianity -- which over the past 40 years or so has been influenced strongly by Liberation Theology. This branch of Christian thinking grounds itself in the biblical moments of Liberation. Think Passover, where the Jews are freed from slavery. Or Hanukkah, where a people rise up to overthrow foreign ways. In these stories, and more, we see a religion that teaches that God sides with the poor of the world; that the oppressed will be set free from their oppressors.

This thinking says that our faith can't be in money, or the stock market, or any of the thousand things our commercials tell us we need to be whole. Liberation doesn't mean freedom to do what we will. Rather it means freedom to be whole; to be a meaningful participant in community; that there is hope in the world; that worldly powers do not always win out; that another way is possible; that we can be authentic; that we matter.

The spiritual revolution of the Jews did not happen as individuals alone. It birthed in families, and houses of worship; it was grounded in the community that it sought to save. That is the crux of Pope Francis' critique of unfettered Capitalism. It becomes a tyranny of the few over the work of the many. The community then becomes secondary to the success of the individual with a myth that the individual's successes neatly and evenly distributes out to all who are blessed to witness 'their magnificence.'

With retailers pushing the start of Black Friday earlier and earlier, we should question the morality of this practice. Having employees work on Thanksgiving Day is in itself not a moral failure. Some people are just scraping by and need the work. Having been raised in a working class family, with a mom who worked retail, and a dad who often worked opposite hours so that I was never alone -- I appreciate the reality of working holidays. Or as a minister, holidays are usually the time when my work is the busiest -- seeing family who live out of state is almost impossible. It's the nature of my vocation. The moral failure is a system that makes it so that people must work on holidays in order to survive.

To compare to one of its competitors, Costco pays its cashiers an average of $15.06/hour vs Walmart's $8.51/hour. That's about $31,000 per year vs. just under $18,000 per year. Both companies are doing exceedingly well for annual profits. Both are clearly Capitalistic. But Costco functions in a model where the executives don't need to make eight-hundred times the salary of their cashiers, only fifty times. According to CNN Money, Walmart CEO Michael Duke's compensation is the same as what 796 of his employees combined make in a year, compared to Costco CEO James Sinegal's 48 employees. Though Walmart is open on Thanksgiving, Costco remains closed. I can't think of a clearer articulation of the differences between unfettered Capitalism and one with regulation or moral regard for its impact on communities and families. We can choose a Capitalism that serves all of us, or we can celebrate a tyranny this holiday season.