September 7, 2009
It’s an honor for me to, once again, be with the Sant’ Egidio community…to participate in the Prayer for Peace…and to engage in dialogue and discussion with so many distinguished members of the global community.
At yesterday’s opening ceremony, we learned how especially fitting it is that we hold today’s discussion on religion and the challenge of materialism, here, in Cracow. As it was seventy years ago this month that Poland was invaded from the west and the east by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
No two better examples exist than Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia of governments that totally embraced the ideal of materialism—the belief that physical material is the only reality. Such a belief, of course, destroys human dignity and denies the existence of both God and the soul—the spiritual essence… animating force…and divine spark that exists in all of us. It’s a philosophy that’s incompatible with most of the world’s religions—including, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. And it would help lead the Nazis and Soviets to a view of women and men solely as economic units…as producers of goods…as—in the words of the late John Paul II, and former Archbishop of Krakow—“some kind of instrument, with a work capacity…”
But even though Nazi brutality and Soviet tyranny have faded into the mists of history, exploiting individuals as economic units…as instruments of profit…as resources for production…remains very much a part of our present reality.
We need only look at the current state of the global community to see that this is true. Our current era of free market globalization—where people are more interconnected and individuals more interdependent—has brought us opportunities and possibilities that were unthinkable just a generation ago…when barbed wire still scarred the face of Europe. But it has also produced staggering differences in wealth and well being.
We all know the statistics: Over three billion people live on two U.S. dollars a day—and that number increased by 90 million this year alone, due to the world financial crisis. Entire communities are being exploited, neglected, and marginalized…and one of the great injustices of the contemporary world is the contrast between the few who posses so much…and the many who possess so little. We must recall the words of C.S. Lewis—that we must always question, “what things are worth having—at what price…”
As people of faith, how do we address this? As today’s topic asks us, can our traditions of faith offer something unique to serve as a remedy for the affliction of materialism?
I believe they can, because we can never confront materialism and inequality in the global community by seeing these issues as simply economic problems—we must view them has having significant moral dimensions. As such, they can only be overcome by decisions and actions which are essentially moral…decisions which are influenced by faith traditions that celebrate the human dignity and divine spark in all individuals.
Above all, these moral decisions and actions must emanate from the idea that free market wealth creation…that economic relations between individuals and nations…and that the distribution of profit and wealth must be conducted subject to the common good.
But in order to accomplish this—in order to confront materialism and inequality—we must undertake three things: We must look within ourselves…we must work to promote authentic human development…and we must advance global solidarity. Today, I’d like to briefly examine each idea with you.
In the nineteenth century, the great U.S. author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote an allegorical tale called “Earth’s Holocaust.” Hawthorne described how a group of social reformers planned to cleanse the earth of imperfection by igniting a giant bonfire on the open prairies of the mid-western United States. Into the blaze, they would throw every conceivable cause of evil, including instruments of war, money, etc. The great fire burned for days, consuming everything in it. But it did not create the perfect society. Hawthorne’s message was simple: The reformers failed because they could not reach the ultimate cause of human misery—the human heart. They had looked outside themselves for change, when it could only start by looking within…by purging their own hearts.
In order to confront materialism and global inequality, we must first take a deep and penetrating look within our hearts and minds to seek out— and acknowledge—the dark roots of injustice, hatred, conflict, fragmentation and marginalization that grow there in the shadows. We must then actively engage in a world where exploitation, fragmentation and marginalization demand our response.
Guided by what our traditions of faith tell us, whether it be the Koran, which asserts, “should ye not strive in the cause of God and of those who are ill-treated and oppressed?—men, women, children…” or the Hebrew Scholar Maimonides who tells us to “Anticipate charity by preventing poverty…” we must accept responsibility for the most vulnerable…the most needy…the most wounded in our midst.
We need to champion a stronger international framework for the allocation of resources that can effectively respond to the challenge of the exploited and neglected. We must support global structures and institutions that promote equality. We must advocate a global economy that benefits not the few, but the many. And we must remember that every act of purchasing has moral implications.
But as we work to change our hearts and minds, we must remember that our goal is not simply to help others overcome economic inequality—but to work for authentic human development. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate “authentic human development concerns the whole person in every single dimension.” And authentic human development must be judged on the basis of whether it leads to conditions which facilitate human flourishing at its deepest levels.
Only through the attention, creativity, ambition, and satisfaction that an individual is able to bring to her or his work, can he or she grow, achieve fulfillment—and becomes more “fully human.” If this is denied through exploitation, abuse, or marginalization, than authentic human development is impossible.
But as we work to advance authentic human development, we must also promote global solidarity. Solidarity demands that we recognize the innate human dignity of every individual. And it demands more than simply service to the exploited…to those in need…to the marginalized. It demands a true love of others that seeks to express itself in works of social justice.
As Pope John Paul II observed, “Solidarity helps us to see the ‘other’—whether a person, people, or nation—not just as some kind of [resource]…to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful—but as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper,’ to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves…in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.” (Encyclical letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 39)
Just three months ago, the great Polish-born philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski—who had lived under both Nazism and Communism—passed away in England. Having spent his youth as an ardent communist and atheist, he would eventually become one of the most internationally famous opponents of Marxism and secular materialism. On a trip to the Soviet Union in 1950, Kolakowski would later write of the “material and spiritual desolation” he saw there.
His observation was the perfect description of the inevitable outcome of unchecked materialism anywhere in the world. And with its emphasis on the spiritual, it also speaks to why materialism cannot be challenged simply by economic measures. It must be confronted by moral actions—actions influenced by our traditions of faith…and actions which require us to look within our hearts…to promote authentic human development…and to embrace everyone in the global community.