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I've been listening to some Russian chant lately, big sonorous chords celebrating the Easter season. But even the most joyful of the chants has a bit of a somber ring to it, and perhaps that it is more appropriate than most of us in the United States would like to think.
The world seems to be on an accelerating downward spiral driven by the disordered appetites and priorities that are the norms of our era. The secular ideologies of the Culture of Death have just about driven from the public square the good news of the Gospel and the traditional Christian virtues. References to God haven't declined, of course, every dollar you spend blasphemously proclaims, "In God we Trust." The real translation is: "In THIS god, MONEY, is our trust."
Greed, gluttony, and violence are the dominant personal and civic virtues. Solidarity is scorned, and the merciful are becoming laughingstocks for public amusement. The meek are ground beneath the steel boot of the powerful - FOUR MILLION PEOPLE are dead in a war that most have hardly even heard of in Africa. And they didn't die in battles, this was old fashioned starvation and and disease and the other riders of the Four Horsemen that are attendant to the wholesale destruction and uprooting of cities and territories.
Zimbabwe lost its World Bank credit line last January. As a result, they have been cut off from the world oil market. You may have noticed the stories about the increasing instability there if you read Internet news groups, but there hasn't been much in the mainstream press. Their oil is already gone, what they used to import is going elsewhere, and their country is disintegrating.
After Zimbabwe drops off the oil map, the world price of oil, which had been going up a bit, stabilized. Demand continues to increase, however, and so the question is: who's next to get cut off from the oil market? Which is to say, who's next to be abandoned by the world community to its fate, to maintain the energy gluttony of the United States and Europe? Make no mistake about this: one by one the poorest of the poor nations are being systematically excluded from participation in the world community in order to maintain the privileges, power, greed, and gluttony of the rich countries of North America and Europe. Having looted them of everything that can be possibly carried away - with a thoroughness the most vicious Viking or Mongol Horde could not aspire to - we drop them like a used tissue, they are no longer a concern of the rich. And not surprisingly, their people are dying as a result.
Meanwhile back in America, people continue to manufacture, sell, and buy passenger motor vehicles that get less than ten miles per gallon. What do we care if four million people in the Congo die or if the kids are starting to drop lie flies in Zimbabwe. I'll tell you how much people in the United States care: NOT VERY MUCH AT ALL. Go ahead, try to talk to people about this. I do. It's one reason why people think I'm an eccentric kook.
We willingly close our eyes to these sights, just as ancient Israel refused to acknowledge the portents inherent in their sighting of the dust of the Assyrian war chariots rising over the horizon. God forbid that we should acknowledge that our greed and gluttony have reached the point where our lifestyles have become murderous for the world's poor.
The tragic truth of this Easter season is that as we sing Alleluia's in our churches, a great wave of death has begun among the poor of this world. Cultures and eco-systems can only stand so much greed, gluttony, and violence. Eventually they reach a point of no return, and it begins first with the poorest and most marginalized: Liberia, the Congo, Zimbabwe. Who is next?
We think we are so much smarter than them, but we forget that our prosperity is sustained by capital and resource inflows from other countries. Sixty percent of our oil is imported, and last year we also imported four HUNDRED billion dollars of capital. Our money imports will be more than five HUNDRED billion this year, and projections for 2002 are in excess of $650 billion. What happens if this gravy train that is scooping up the world's capital stops? What if some of that money decides to leave? The oil gets cut off? The point is: greed, gluttony, and violence are like methamphetamine. Stick that needle in your vein, snort that powder up your nose, sure, you'll feel like a million dollars for a while. But when you crash, you crash very hard. And the bigger you are, the harder you fall, just ask the Russians if you doubt that.
Oops, I forgot, we do have a large army, navy, and air force, so if the oil gets cut off, we will just send our kids off to get killed so that we can continue to drive our 8 MPG vehicles. Look at the beautiful young people in middle school right now and weep, many of them are destined to die in a few years in the energy wars of the future. Their lives will be snuffed out forever because of the selfishness of their parents.
Our new Republican Administration is dissing conservation and promoting gluttony. Here's a clip from a May 7th AP wire story: "Asked whether Americans should change their lifestyles amid what Bush has called an energy crisis, Fleischer said, "That's a big no." "It should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life," Fleischer said. "The American way of life is a blessed one, and we have a bounty of resources in this country." The vice president says that while conservation may be a good personal virtue, it is not "sound public policy." Since when did promoting personal virtue cease to be "sound public policy?"
Oh well, his talk is cheap. His kids won't be sent to the Persian Gulf to die for cheap oil. That's the duty of kids from poor and working class neighborhoods.
Which reminds me, we have a Republican president, ostensibly pro-life, and the Republicans control the House and the Senate, and there was a lot of pre-election noise about how pro-life the Republicans supposedly were. Yet, 100 days of the new administration have come and gone, and no legislation has been introduced into Congress to protect the unborn. In fact, this Congress has specifically passed legislation recognizing the "right" of abortionists to kill unborn children. This is a clue. As is the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican who as president of the RNC gave political party money to Republican congressional and senatorial candidates who think that killing unborn children is great public policy.
As far as President Bush is concerned - and I discern this from his deeds, not his rhetoric - taxes, social security, and defense policy are much more important than the lives of unborn children. When do they get a "week"?
Many pro-life people are actually making excuses for this lack of action from the Congress and the White House. Our local paper, the Daily Oklahoman, used to regularly pound its pulpit during the Clinton years about abortion, but now that the Republicans are in control, they seem to have forgotten about the issue on its editorial page.
The President certainly has an excellent speech writer, but it is nevertheless a scandal that he was invited to speak at the dedication of the John Paul II center, and not one of the bishops or cardinals present publicly asked when the vote would be in Congress on a partial birth abortion ban. Not even one!!!! And this was after his administration affirmed its continuation of the harsh sanctions against Iraq which have murdered more than a half million Iraqi children. Someone should write the American church a letter that begins, "With burning sorrow. . . "
The journeys of justice and peace that we walk in solidarity with the poor have no place for the closing of our eyes to these realities of modern life. It would be easy to do, ignorance is often bliss, but that would mean abandoning the Gospel call of solidarity. The four million dead in the Congo from a stupid war aggravated by the foreign policies of the wealthy countries of North America and Europe are our neighbors. The children of Iraq who die because of the embargo are our neighbors. We would like to think that this is not so, that we have no responsibilities to them, but this is a damnable lie of the devil. The voice of the Lord calls us to solidarity and love, not cruelty, mercilessness, greed, and gluttony.
To paraphrase something people often quote about world war II and the holocaust of the Jews . .
The children of Iraq died, and I said nothing. They don't live in my neighborhood, they don't go to my church, they really weren't "people" in the same way that I am "people". They are my country's enemies.
The children of Africa died, and again I was quiet. Things are a mess there, they have caused their own problems, they should solve them.
The children of Asia died, and I closed my eyes. There's too much sorrow in the world, I can't bear to look at it, besides, if I did, what could I do?
And then the children of America began to die, when I called out for help, there was nobody to hear the cry, because they had gone before us into the valley of the shadow of death.
May we find the grace and strength to stand against the wicked powers of death which threaten to overwhelm this world.
And as we find that grace, let us remember that we are not powerless before these dark forces. The proper response of Christians to the greed and gluttony of this era is to live our religion. If the world whores after greed and gluttony, let us reduce our appetites, discipline our habits, reduce our expenditures, earn less money, burn less energy, turn resolutely away from materialistic consumerism - and teach our children to do likewise. Instead of stealing fresh vegetables from the mouths of poor children in third world countries, let us grow our own, or buy them from local farmers.
Manual labor is a discipline we can become re-acquainted with, and there will be spiritual blessings as well as better food on the table. When we do spend our money, we should do so intentionally - avoiding as much as is possible the giant transnational corporations in favor of the locally owned and operated business. Instead of a fast food franchise, look for the family-operated independent hamburger stand. We can learn to sew, and thus stop exploiting workers in poor countries for low quality disposable clothing, however "stylish" the mass marketers would like for us to believe that they are.
If a family doesn't kill their television entirely, then all must study it, together. Otherwise, every time it is turned on it is simply a vehicle of indoctrination in the worst aspects of the culture of death. We must teach our children to ignore the advertising, and to critique the programs. And if we spend more time watching television than we do reading books, perhaps we should consider how disordered our appetites have become.
We should also make our voices heard, letters can be written to presidents and congresspersons - and also, I think, to our pastors and bishops. We can talk with our neighbors, and be an example of Christian living in a sorrowful world, offering hope, healing, and reconciliation not only with our words, but also by our deeds.
In other words, we do exactly as the spirit of the Easter Liturgy teaches us: we come out of our Egypt of Oppression and live in freedom. We cease to be both slaves of consumerism and masters of death. Abraham Lincoln said that as he would not be a slave, so he would not be a master. Conversion is not an overnight affair, it is lifelong, it happens day by day, moment by moment, choice by choice. Will you continue to exploit the slaves who serve you in foreign lands, who labor to bring you cheap disposable junk - or will you stop your oppression of others and thus find your own family's liberation? Will you continue to be a glutton, nothing more than a cancerous biological and social organism that consumes and excretes with no thought of your own tomorrow or that of future generations? Or will you learn what stewardship and dominion should mean for Christians?
These choices may seem hard, but they are easier than you think, and they get easier as time passes. We don't acquire bad habits over night, and we get out of the hole we are in the same way we got into it: one step at a time. If we can't do everything all at once, certainly all of us can do something. And then tomorrow, something else. And next week, still another task can be tackled. To be virtuous requires that we practice virtue, replacing bad habits with good, turning away from our wicked ways and embracing the light, goodness, wisdom, justice, and peace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I answer you, on the day of salvation I help you, to restore the land and allot the desolate heritages. Saying to the prisoners: Come out! To those in darkness: Show yourselves! Along the ways they shall find pasture, on every bare height shall their pastures be.
"They shall not hunger or thirst nor shall the scorching wind or the sun strike them; for he who pities them leads them and guides them beside springs of water. I will cut a road through all my mountains, an dmake my highways level. See, some shall come from afar, others from the north and the west, and some from the land of Syene.
"Sing out, O heavens, and rejoice, O earth, break forth into song, you mountains. For the LORD comforts his people, and shows mercy to his afflicted." From Isaiah 49
Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City
on the 8th of May, in the year of our Lord 2001.
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