Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Theology of Liberation and the New Creation

The concept of a biblical approach to addressing poverty has always challenged me, especially since learning of St. Francis of Assisi’s commitment to voluntary poverty when I was a teenager.  What should be my role, as a person of privilege, in helping to bring justice and equity to the poor?  Several years ago, inspired by Francis of Assisi and the modern day Shane Claiborne, I could think of no better way to figure this out than by moving to the Bronx and living in community with others wanting to figure this out too. 

Shortly after moving to the Bronx, my roommates and I were blessed with the opportunity to get to know two people who moved into the apartment above us whose life and work was steeped in the practice and culture of liberation theology.  I was intrigued by the many stories they told of oppressed peoples in Central and South America, and even here in the United States, rising up and confronting the established powers with the power of the Gospel.  The power of the Gospel in the hands of the poor and oppressed seemed like something St. Francis of Assisi would have rejoiced at seeing.

While I do not profess to be an expert in liberation theology or the history of the Latin American church, I have learned from Joseph Nangle OFM in his book Engaged Spirituality that the liberation theology movement led to a decision made at the 1968 Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Medellín, Colombia, to prioritize the poor over the privileges of the established order. The impact of this decision by the church hierarchy was not inconsequential: more and more people sought to join this movement which was improving the authenticity of the church, now that the church was authentically serving the New Creation. And over the next ten years, a thousand people were killed for working to implement this vision, by those who preferred the status quo – continuing the Christian tradition initiated by Jesus of the faithful being persecuted by empire. 

This is the backdrop of where our current pope, Francis, was formed and lived out his early years.  The Latin American church, Pope Francis, and all they represent show us what it means to live out what Fr. Joe Nangle calls an “engaged spirituality” – a spirituality that impacts how we live every aspect of our lives.  Living a life of voluntary poverty, a counter-cultural lifestyle that prefers simplicity to consumerism, is a direct threat to the empire of capitalism that permeates society.  Following Jesus’ call to leave everything behind and follow him, the way Francis of Assisi did, leads us more fully into our faith and begs us to develop a deeper spirituality whereby we can live a richer, fuller life.  Living out an engaged spirituality allows us to recognize our interdependence with one another and all of God’s creation, and feel a sense of reverence and wonder about it all.

It is from this perspective we can best appreciate what Pope Francis has to share with us in his encyclical Laudato Si’.   Pope Francis lays out the framework for an integral ecology – one in which we recognize the responsibility we have as human beings to humbly come to terms with our place in the world.  Building on the spirituality and mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi that is so clearly expressed in St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, Pope Francis continues on to “read the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3) and lays out what St. Francis would say “is ours to do” in this day and age, in order for us to rise to a new consciousness and accept the responsibility God gave us when he gave us the gift of life on Earth.

When God became incarnate through Jesus, He did so to show us how to live as a human being on Earth in such a way that would allow us to honor our Creator.  Through Jesus and the many parables He gives us throughout the Gospel, we learn how to prioritize the needs of the poor and marginalized, not take more than we need, and counter the empire that leads to suffering and injustice.  What Pope Francis is doing now is building off of the lessons of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, and many others from recent church history who are also working towards the “New Creation.”

This “New Creation” is what is referred to in the Lord’s Prayer, Isaiah 65, Revelation 21, and in many other places throughout the Bible and religious liturgy.  It is the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of so often and invited us to join him in building.  We are invited to be co-creators with God, which maybe is another way of interpreting the call St. Francis heard to repair God’s house, when he prayed in front of the cross of San Damiano. What greater honor do we have than the opportunity to accept this supreme invitation? 

To build the New Creation, we will need to take a sincere look at the institutionalized racism, economic inequity and environmental injustices surrounding us, and examine our contributions to the injustices and desecration of the ecological web of life.  We as humans have pushed our ecosystems beyond that which is sustainable, and it is we humans (especially the most vulnerable, who are least responsible for the desecration) – as well as other creatures – which are suffering the consequences of veering too far away from God’s original plan for humankind.  I am of the belief, much like Pope Francis, that the only hope for humanity may lie in the humility and spirituality delineated by the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the posture towards creation he shows in his Canticle of the Creatures.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Trade Deals Hit Poor Hard

There’s something about lived experience that is so much more useful than what we can learn through reading textbooks, news articles, or other third party sources of information. Life teaches us things that become imprinted on our beings in ways that cannot be undone by hearing critiques from those with their own uncompromising agendas. For me, a public health nutritionist, international trade deals were not something that I normally would have paid much attention to had I not met people who were able to show me the connections between the trade deals negotiated behind closed doors and the tremendous disenfranchisement and poor health of people living in poverty, both in the Bronx and across the world.

It was through hearing stories of Mexican peasants forced off their farms and into poverty and economic migration across the US-Mexico border, for example, that I understood the legacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Given the impacts that past trade agreements such as NAFTA have had on those experiencing involuntary poverty, we must look critically at the trans-national agreements currently being negotiated: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA).

Free trade, at first glance, sounds like a good idea. It seems like an opportunity to provide an expanded market for entrepreneurs wishing to engage in an exchange with others who may be outside of their regular circles of customers. But as I have learned from trade justice activists, when global corporate powers set the agenda, they do so at the expense of the working poor, small businesses, health, environmental sustain-ability, and even democracy. The negotiations which led to the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) included advisors from many industry trade groups, while non-governmental organizations representing human rights, labor, the environment, and other social justice causes were barely given a voice at the table. Due to this imbalance, there is an inherent structural lack of democracy within the WTO, whereby, because decisions are made by consensus, powerful countries are able to dominate trade policy and put pressure on smaller and poorer countries to accept larger countries’ agendas, allowing for corporate-managed trade at the expense of social, environmental and developmental interests. According to a Discussion Course on Globalization and its Critics published by the Northwest Earth Institute, WTO rules allow countries to challenge non-tariff barriers which can include “policies put in place for health and safety, environmental, and human rights concerns.”

 It should not come as any surprise that despite public resistance in dozens of countries, trade negotiators have developed new trade agreements outside the WTO. These new agreements advance corporate interests to an even more extreme degree than WTO negotiations allowed. Further, the new agreements being negotiated unfortunately have again not taken into account the voices of the public and developing countries. Instead of building on the concept of democratic participation of membership in the WTO and negotiating more regional trade deals which would give more economic opportunities to developing countries, as former director-general of the WTO, Supachai Panitchpakdi, from Thailand has pointed out, the agreements on the table are predominately US and European centric trade deals. These deals would benefit the big corporations at the expense of the small companies, health, the environment, and the human rights of those in the lower and middle classes. The deals weaken labor and environmental standards employed in production processes and lead to more jobs being shipped overseas as companies seek to find the cheapest possible labor.

Exploiting their inside track to the negotiations, the corporations have influenced the development of new trade agreements which would give them even more global power than they were given through the WTO. For example, TPP and TTIP would expand the number of corporations who would qualify for investor state dispute status, the ability of international corporations to sue sovereign states for regulations that infringe upon their profits or expected future profits. This could mean natural gas companies suing the New York State government for the profits they may have generated had it not been for the recent state-wide ban on hydraulic fracturing. Further, twenty-four of the twenty-nine chapters of the TPP text do not even relate to trade, but instead include sections on food standards, labor, environment, and intellectual property, for example. The intellectual property chapter includes provisions for companies to extend their intellectual property and patenting abilities, such as over seeds and other agricultural inputs, as well as pharmaceuticals. In the case of pharmaceutical patents, this would mean increased prices of medicines and health care, which will strain public health systems and leave the most vulnerable unable to afford important medications.

TPP proponents claim that the agreement would create new jobs in the US. However, critics of the deal have found that the very study from the Peterson Institute of International Economics that is cited to show that 650,000 new jobs would be created in the US also predicts that the TPP would actually create zero additional jobs. Further, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, any projected gains for US workers would be wiped out by inequality that the TPP would produce. All of the job creation and promises being touted by the TPP advocates can be summed up in these words from Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I have found, particularly among labor unions, that there is a great concern that the TPP would encourage companies to outsource manufacturing jobs to countries where workers could be paid lower wages—undoubtedly at the expense of labor standards and human rights as well. In the Bronx, developers would be incentivized to tear down current apartment buildings and ship in materials—produced without regard to the workers or the environment—to build new housing developments, displacing some 7,000 families from their homes. Meanwhile, as trade negotiators and corporations support the outsourcing of jobs, there are efforts to localize production. Perhaps out of a necessity for their own sovereignty, community residents have started to come together to create cooperative development initiatives that provide workers with living wages as well as dignity and empowerment. But again, because of the restrictions on government procurement contracts, the TPP and TTIP would push local businesses—including construction businesses—out, in favor of what can be found within the global corporate marketplace.

While the negotiating texts of the TPP have been kept secret from the public and access is limited even for members of US Congress, President Obama asked for and received fast track authority from Congress, after a huge fight from the advocacy community.  Congress has thereby effectively surrendered its constitutional authority to shape trade agreements, and prevented the public from having a say in the negotiations. Our government may have decided that corporations are people, but in the eyes of our Creator, corporations will never be people. Not unlike, St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up a wealthy inheritance to live alongside the poor and care for all of creation, we need to call out the financial motives behind these trade deals, and stand up against the destructive effects they are having on our families and communities. The most important thing we can do right now is raise awareness about the dangers of the TPP and let our Congressional representatives hear our concerns about these trade agreements. We cannot allow corporations to ruin our environment and our health. The people who run these corporations are disconnected from the reality that we are interdependent with the land; their decisions are going to hurt all of us, especially the most vulnerable.

While fast track has already passed, opposition to the trade treaties is growing, so much so that it may be possible to still prevent the treaties from passage. May we gain strength from Pope Francis and his call to the whole world in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, to call out our government’s support of policies and treaties which make the rich richer and the poor poorer.