Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Structures of sin

I've been reading, in fits and starts, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It is a "concise yet complete" guide to the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, compiled at the request of Pope John Paul II. It's a better read than you think.

At section 116, the document discusses the disruption brought about by sin:
The consequences of sin, insofar as it is an act of separation from God, are alienation, that is, the separation of man not only from God but also from himself, from other men and from the world around him. "Man's rupture with God leads tragically to divisions between brothers. In the description of the 'first sin', the rupture with Yahweh simultaneously breaks the bond of friendship that had united the human family. Thus the subsequent pages of Genesis show us the man and the woman as it were pointing an accusing finger at each other (cf. Gen. 3:12). Later we have brother hating brother and finally taking his brother's life (cf. Gen 4:2-16). According to the Babel story, the result of sin is the shattering of the human family, already begun with the first sin and now reaching its most extreme form on the social level".
Thus sin creates a "twofold wound", one in the sinner himself and one in the relationship with his neighbors. Because we are social creatures, because of human solidarity, every sin has social consequences of some sort.

There is also an order of sin that is explicitly social in nature:
Certain sins, moreover, constitute by their very object a direct assault on one's neighbour. Such sins in particular are known as social sins. Social sin is every sin committed against the justice due in relations between individuals, between the individual and the community, and also between the community and the individual. Social too is every sin against the rights of the human person, starting with the right to life, including that of life in the womb, and every sin against the physical integrity of the individual; every sin against the freedom of others, especially against the supreme freedom to believe in God and worship him; and every sin against the dignity and honour of one's neighbour. Every sin against the common good and its demands, in the whole broad area of rights and duties of citizens, is also social sin. In the end, social sin is that sin that "refers to the relationships between the various human communities. These relationships are not always in accordance with the plan of God, who intends that there be justice in the world and freedom and peace between individuals, groups and peoples".
Social sins are acts of injustice, denials of human rights, and violations of human dignity committed on a scale larger than the individual. Furthermore, these social sins have a particular staying power:
The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin. These are rooted in personal sin and, therefore, are always connected to concrete acts of the individuals who commit them, consolidate them and make it difficult to remove them. It is thus that they grow stronger, spread and become sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light. The actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbour, as well as the structures arising from such behaviour, appear to fall into two categories today: "on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one's will upon others.
Segregation was a structural sin. Racist individuals institutionalized their personal sins in the structural sin of segregation. The civil rights movement awakened the conscience of the nation and condemned this. This led, eventually, to a national repentance which took the form of abandoning segregation. This does not mean, of course, that individuals repented of their racism. But it does illustrate the idea of structural sin and how it must be dealt with, namely, by acknowledging it and collectively repenting of it.

There are many structures of sin in the world today. There are social structures in various parts of the world that oppress women and create an atmosphere in which domestic abuse and sex trafficking flourish. Our own system is currently ordered in such a way that rich executives can drive businesses (and whole economies) into the ground, deprive workers of their jobs, and walk away with their wealth intact. Many more examples could be given.

Catholic social teaching gives us language we can use to condemn these social structures in moral terms, not just in the political terms of bad policy. Sin does not cease to be sin simply because it is committed on a grand scale.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Congolese civil war and the role of conflict minerals.

There is a brutal civil war raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. An April 2007 study numbered the dead at 5.4 million and some estimate that 45,000 have died every month since then. What makes the war particularly gruesome is the fact that over 500,000 women and girls have been raped by the warring factions. It's been called the rape capital of the world.

Nicholas Kristof has written at least two columns on the situation. "Orphaned, Raped, and Ignored" tells the story of some of the war's victims."Death by Gadget" discusses the campaign against "conflict minerals" - the metals used in consumer electronics which are also one of the sources of the conflict in Congo. The warring factions extract these minerals and sell them to finance the war.

Raise Hope for Congo is an organization that is trying to raise awareness of the war and the role of conflict minerals. They've produced two videos. First is a spoof of the Mac vs. PC ads: "I'm a Mac ... and I've Got a Dirty Secret". The second is a more straightforward explanation: "Conflict Minerals 101".

A Thousand Sisters is the story of how Lisa Shannon, a successful but depressed businesswoman, found her "life's mission" while watching an Oprah show about the Congo. I haven't read the book but I plan to. There are also some helpful resources on the website.

The good news is that an amendment to the financial reform bill passed on July 16 requires that all publicly traded corporations audit their supply chains to ensure that they are not indirectly financing the civil war. However, Niraj Chokshi says that companies need to take the initiative - and that it wouldn't be too difficult. A 60 Minutes report on conflict minerals is also embedded on that page.

Dana Goldstein accounts for the $17 million pledged by the United States to help end the rape crisis in "Is Obama Failing Congo". Finally, Delphine Minoui tells the story of Chouchou Namegabe in "Congo's Anti-Rape Crusader".

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How the bankers took food from the hungry.

Yesterday I read the following, quoted in the introduction to Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor by Paul Farmer:
The big bankers of the world, who practice the terrorism of money, are more powerful than kings and field marshals, even more than the Pope of Rome himself. They never dirty their hands. They kill no one: they limit themselves to applauding the show.

Their officials, international technocrats, rule our countries: they are neither presidents nor ministers, they have not been elected, but they decide the level of salaries and public expenditure, investments and divestments, prices, taxes, interest rates, subsidies, when the sun rises and how frequently it rains.

However, they don't concern themselves with the prisons of torture chambers or concentration camps or extermination centers, although these house the inevitable consequences of their acts.

The technocrats claim the privilege of irresponsibility: "We're neutral," they say. (E. Galeano, The Book of Embraces)
"Wow," I thought. "The terrorism of money. That's a stiff charge." Then I read an article from Johann Hari today:
At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn't afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls it "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions."
Why did this happen? Neither supply nor demand changed enough to account for it. Biofuels production accounts for some of it, but only a fraction. The main cause is financial speculation.

This is not a matter of crop futures, which most of us are familiar with. With crop futures a farmer and a trader enter into a contract in which the farmer agrees to sell a share of his crop to the trader at a fixed price on a fixed date. Both the farmer and the trader share in risk, since the crop may or may not be worth the price fixed in the contract.

Futures did not cause this food crisis. In the 1990s, the investment banks (like Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Deutsche Bank) won the right to trade derivatives on these futures contracts. That is, the trader could sell his contract to another investor, who could then sell it to another investor, and so on. Like the mortgage backed securities which were a prime cause of the 2008 meltdown, these derivatives have lost all real connection to meaningful transactions and become high priced lottery tickets. They don't produce anything of value. They only serve to enrich those who hold them.

So when the bankers started moving out of the collapsing real estate market in 2006 they moved into what they believed were safer investments, like these food contract derivatives. This increased demand, which increased the price of the derivatives, which pulled up the price of the crops. The price only fell when investors started pulling their money out of the market as part of the general meltdown.

Thus the financial speculators and investment bankers literally starved millions of human beings, practicing the terrorism of money.

The Pathologies of Power by Paul Farmer
"How Goldman gambled on starvation" by Johann Hari

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.