Plenary on economic justice

Rev. Dr Nancy Cardoso is a Methodist pastor working in the ecumenical pastoral commission on land, based in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Empire and religion : gospel, ecumenism and prophecy for the 21st century

When Janis Joplin sang in the distant 1960s, ‘O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz,' it seemed a piece of harmless fun, but in a way it was a prophetic condemnation, in advance, of a trend in Western Christianity: voracious consumerism. 

Today this spirituality of the market economy has taken complete possession of some sectors of Christianity, and prayers alternate between continuing to pray to God for a Mercedes Benz and, already in some cases, ‘O Mercedes Benz, buy me a god!' or even, ‘Mercedes Benz, be my god!' - as if material goods themselves could be the way to fullness of life. 

The divine beings vying to bring ‘our daily bread' to our tables feed not only on the total control of the processes of food production and distribution, but are also gobbling up the forms of consumption represented by quick-moving fast-food outlets. Today, world trade in agricultural products - especially cereals, meat and dairy products - is controlled by no more than twenty oligopolistic groups of transnational corporations located in the United States and Europe. ‘Give us this day our daily bread, O Monsanto, Cargill, Swift, Anglo, ADM, Nestlé, Danone, Syngenta, Bunge!' 

So, ‘on earth as in heaven,' globalized capitalism in national capitals - an unfathomable metaphysical mystery - is punishing farmers in poor countries, whom they are treating as permanent debtors, while at the same time the debts of agriculture in rich countries are being cancelled in the form of subsidies, tariffs and free trade treaties - and there is no one who ‘can deliver us from that evil.' The last WTO round in Hong Kong showed that the farming capitals in the United States and Europe will not be ‘led into temptation' and will continue to defend the interests of their agricultural, industrial and service sectors. The peasant workers of Korea, India and Brazil, and other countries, know that the governments negotiating in Hong Kong had no legitimacy to negotiate on their behalf. 

Capitalist transnational corporations want more: they want ‘the kingdom, the power and the glory' by controlling the land, water and seed stocks. They are already lords of other people's work. They now control and determine the monetary value of their livelihood and their actual lives. ‘Hallowed be the name' of patents and technologies that make inroads into people's inner being, their possibilities and their vulnerability, and then make fresh profits out of medicines, chemical products, biological products and genetically modified products. 

‘Hallowed be the name' of the business campaigns that declare themselves to be environmentally friendly, community-building, child-friendly, educational sponsors who by complex sleight of hand attempt to disguise the voracious appetite of the profit motive. False NGOs, promotional moral talk, funding of campaigns and community initiatives, with no questions asked about profits or motives. 

Regardless of life, war fulfils its role of ensuring access to cheap materials and labour, of expanding and protecting markets for capital's consuming hunger and its passion to enslave. Money passionately loves profits and will not tolerate any obstacle, restriction or regulation. ‘My kingdom come!' cries capital, seated on its divine throne at the heart of the world, making itself out to be god. 

In the pride of its heart, capital says, ‘"I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas." You think you are wise… and no secret is hidden from you. By your wisdom and understanding you have gained wealth for yourself and amassed gold and silver in your treasuries. By your great skill in trading you have increased your wealth, and because of your wealth your heart has grown proud… You think you are wise, as wise as a god… Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence and you sinned… Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendour… By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries' (Ezekiel 28: 2-6; 16-18).

Ezekiel's prophecy is forceful and amounts to saying simply and directly, ‘You are only human! You are not God!'

Who today knows how or is able to produce such theology and prophecy?

Who is able to condemn and combat this spiritual aura conferred on a social phenomenon, this illusion that things, that economic systems are natural or eternal? The dominant economic system becomes before our eyes no longer a historical social phenomenon: rather the world and its beings, personal relationships and human creations become commodities; business takes on an impetus and existence of its own that cannot be questioned, a movement that sweeps us along to perpetuate inequality and violence, without our even realizing it. The economy and economic relationships rule humankind, instead of being seen and appreciated as the product of humankind in history, and for that reason capable of being overcome, criticized and reinvented.

Our theologies and pastoral policies are tired and exhausted. The economic system has taken over Western religious language, leaving more or less generous margins for the churches that have before them the easiest option, which is to become an integral functional part of the whole package presented by capitalism, offering religious goods as commodities, and services in the form of powerful fundamentalisms and charismatic spectacles of marketing and prosperity. 

We need to choose the difficult option and learn to say again, ‘By your many sins and dishonest trade, you have desecrated your sanctuaries' (Ezek. 28:18). The world and its living beings, peoples and their cultures, the earth, water and seeds - everything that moves is sacred! And no economic system that produces injustice and dishonest dealing can be blessed or legitimized or tolerated in the name of God.

The gospels, the Law and the prophets, which are accepted in our Christian tradition, demand that we confess God throughout the inhabited world - the oikoumene - but that we give that confession concrete form, in the struggle for law and justice as the full accomplishment of the world and our humanity.

However, the theology that we are doing today is sterile, because it attempts to hide behind systematic exegetical generalizations that fail to name, choose, opt, state preferences, take a stand, refute, be outraged, condemn or resist. 

At the beginning of all things, the world order was divided into sky, water and land, setting up relationships within the whole created world: weather, night and day; dry land and water; land creatures and the birds of the air; living beings in their animal and plant forms.

‘Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds." And it was so' (Gen. 1:11).

So God said, ‘Let them live!' and all came to life, as an exercise in similarities and differences, as question and response, consecutively or simultaneously. Everything is alive and everything is good.

The whole book of Genesis examines again and again the issue of the highly delicate relationships between living creatures and the constraints placed on them by land, water and fire; between the constraints placed on the earth, on the plants and on the beasts, and the human mouth and its hunger. The hunger of the world, the hunger of the human body produces new relationships within the created world. Hunger produces contemplation, observation, work and its technologies. Hunger is the world's yearning, the longing for more, for life. It is hunger that establishes the critical creative relationship between living beings and their surrounding environment. And God saw that it was good.

Starting with this ordering of creation the text goes on to emphasize the essential but difficult relationships between the physical world and its vegetation and human bodies and their hunger. The book of Genesis describes crisis situations of food shortages at the beginning of the narratives of the wanderings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Going to Egypt is always represented as a consequence of a shortage of food: 

‘Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe' (Gen. 12:10). 

In the following narrative, we read that ‘The land could not support them' (Gen. 13:6), giving limited access to resources for survival as a reason for remaining in small family groups engaged in animal husbandry. Thus human groups and their memories are also marked by issues of food insecurity within the wider framework of the farming and land policies of empires. 

In this context the story of Cain and Abel is fundamental. The text recalls different ways of life and work and relationships with God. Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain tilled the soil. That is the one piece of information that we are given: two different ways of organizing people's relationship with the earth, work and relationships with other people. 

The offering is made. Cain offers the fruits of the soil as his offering and Abel offers some of his animals: fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. God looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but God did not look with favour on Cain and his offering. Simply that. Various explanations have been given to explain this situation. Why did God prefer Abel and his offering?

The gauchos here in Rio Grande do Sul would like to interpret this story by seeing God as a gaucho whose favourite food was a barbecue, but perhaps we ought to look elsewhere for alternative interpretations!

I take it to be possible that this text recalls two ways of life, two ways of organizing work and relationships in antiquity. If Cain represents agriculture, he should be seen as part of an economic system of exploitation based on forced labour and tribute, probably in the setting of the city-states in Canaan under Egyptian influence. 

Abel would thus represent human groups engaged together in different economic activities that were not the monopoly of the city-states with their tribute and forced labour. Abel, the keeper of sheep, would be found among the Canaanite population of the high plateau, who resisted and survived on the basis of smallholdings, nomadic sheep-rearing, the activities of bands of mercenaries or groups involved in trading, either as merchants or carriers of merchandise. 

The significant fact is that God chooses, elects, prefers the latter way of life to the former. That explains the conflict. Cain is angry and his face downcast. God says, ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door… You must master it' (Gen. 4: 6-7). 

This description of the two offerings could mask the violence, hiding the wild beast… If only God would accept both offerings! But the God in this narrative refuses to legitimize the offering that is the fruit of violence and sin. Cain comes out of the ritual offering with his face downcast. He has been rejected. No. Cain is incapable of mastering the violence inherent in his way of life, because it is systemic violence. That is the function of the ritual act: it assesses, scrutinizes, sheds light on production methods, and it opts, states a preference.

Cain cannot cope with living without divine approval. He invites Abel out into the country - and, in the final definition, that is what it is all about: land! Cain kills Abel. Simply that. Apparently, Cain decided to kill Abel because he, Cain, had been rejected by God. Seen in that way… God could be to blame!

Or, rather… the violence against Abel was already an integral part of Cain's offering and that is why it was not pleasing to God. Cain's way of life and production involved denying life to Abel and to other human groups with him. That is why Cain's offering was rejected.

Offerings do not simply offer themselves. The function of religion in economic exchange does not consist of establishing regulations and procedures, but of determining value, i.e. formulating economic values, shaping structures and strengthening assessment mechanisms.

This ritual exchange or offering contains the cultural mechanism for calculating value, i.e. what can be given and exchanged and what is kept and retained. It is not the intrinsic value of beings or things that determines the difference between what is retained and what is acceptable in the form of an offering, but it is society that confers value and produces the scale by which to measure the meaning and function of ritual exchanges.

God reappears in the narrative, asking the key question, ‘Where is your brother?' 

Cain's reply is well known, ‘I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?'

God replies, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground.' 

It is one of the most probing narratives in our tradition. It is a dialogue between God and the violent brother and the other brother who, as a victim of violence, is speaking in the form of blood spilt on the ground. 

For some reason or other, this narrative has remained dormant in our theologies. This radical understanding of a God who prefers, who discriminates, who chooses, has given way before a co-opted theology that no longer knows how to ask the difficult questions. It is a community life that no longer sees itself as a space where life is assessed and true worth established. 

Alas for us! God is no longer asking, ‘Where is your brother?' We have made a god who whispers sweet messages of forgiveness and reconciliation, without the critical courage that makes the violent bow their heads in shame, unable to claim any human or divine qualities. They are cornered wild beasts prepared to destroy!

This god is no longer able to hold a conversation with the ground. This god now does not hear the cry of the blood of people and beings who are being downtrodden by an economic model that knows no limits, accepts no regulation and brooks no opposition.

On the periphery of world Christianity there are minorities who stress the need for a theology that liberates: that liberates God, and the earth, and the men and women whose humanity is being denied every day by capitalism. This World Council of Churches has been a privileged and sensitive space where voices can be raised that are not heard in our countries, in national churches or in regional councils. Men and women who no longer wish to repeat again and again the North American and European theology that ceaselessly pores over itself and its dearly loved theologians, what they have said, what they have written. Throughout the world young theologians are silenced by a dominant North American and European theological model that is weary of becoming good news, that is cosying up to the knowledge industry in the service of an economic model which gives privileged place to its comfortable, stable consumerist societies.

They no longer want to know about a God who asks questions, who causes the powerful to bow their heads in shame and encourages the weak to announce the Kingdom of Justice. They no longer ask after their brothers and sisters, because they have created NGOs and agencies that fund works of charity but do not ask questions about the system. 

The blood crying out from the ground becomes a case study, an experience mentioned in the course of the liturgy, but it does provoke the anger that refuses to continue to tolerate ways of life and production based on violence and inequality.

Together with many brothers and sisters here in this space I have learned not to refrain from asking these questions. I have learned with brothers and sisters from different churches and different countries to organize campaigns and efforts to opt constantly for a way of life and production based on justice that will enable us to walk with straight backs, open minds and tranquil hearts.

This Assembly must acknowledge and identify its tasks so as to commit our churches to take up again a prophetic evangelical stance in the world. ‘No one can serve two masters,' said Jesus. It is either God or money, life or death and all the difficult issues contained in that question, ‘Where is your brother? Where is your sister?' 

We need to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, what the Spirit is saying through the blood spilt on the ground, through our brothers and sisters not present here! We need to listen to the earth, to learn to engage in conversation with the blood of people who are being destroyed. 

We need to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the empires of this world: ‘You are not God. Bow your heads in shame.' Let the wild beasts be mastered: Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Monsanto, Cargill, Swift, Anglo, ADM, Nestlé, Danone, Syngenta, Bunge. 

We are not motivated by an all-embracing missionary project for the whole world. Our passion comes from what we learn in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and from our lively faith, which is able to live with differences without being afraid of being destroyed or disappearing. 

The faith that affirms God's grace in the building of another possible world is not like the strength and wealth of the successful but is like an adventure of love, caring for life, for the world, for ourselves. 

‘As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything' (2 Cor. 6: 4-10). 

Nancy Cardoso Pereira
Methodist pastor
Member of the Pastoral Land Commission
Professor of Ancient History
Porto Alegre Institute of the Methodist Church