Happy Thanksgiving, Pope Francis.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 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? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

This week’s Evangelii Gadium is something new to me. Maybe I’m reading too much of the technology press, or maybe Thanksgiving has me unusually reflective, but this was a revelation.

This whole line of argument is new to me. It’s more sophisticated and resonant than some tired Naomi Klein distillate. It’s more relevant and useful than any Marxist tropes about class warfare. This isn’t about oligarchy, freedom, or the oppressed. I read this, and I realize that my vocabulary for expressing our humanity has been reduced to Paypal donations to typhoon victims and the esoterica of tax policy.

When I’m feeling strong and charitable, and want to make the world a better place, I immediately think about where and how I should spend my money. Consumption somehow became a political act1. One grocery store over another, one charity over another. It’s Orwellian. My range of expression is reduced to a credit card transaction and a “+1” of someone’s abbreviated thought fragment. It isn’t just futile. It diminishes me as a human being. Pope Francis has been able to articulate this in a way that’s very exciting.

The progressive, liberal project feels threadbare and bankrupt. The libertarian vision for the world is intensely cold and unforgiving. To think of these as the only two choices for our culture (and myself personally) is unsatisfying. More accurately, orthodoxy isn’t rewarding. It’s just easy. Pope Francis is encouraging us to be pragmatists. The goal isn’t to accrue power and influence to one institution or another. The goal is to have a society and culture that encourages each of us to recognize the humanity in each other. That’s messy and complicated. It defies orthodoxy. It’s the most important thing we can do.

[via Raw Story.]

  1. I’m reminded of “Criticism of “Buy Nothing Day”, from the Left,” which continues to be one of the most popular posts on this site eight years after I posted it.