What message is your lifestyle sending to the government? Do your words speak peace, but your lifestyle cry out for violence? Everywhere on earth the margins of the poorest of the poor are squeezed to the point of collapse. More people using more stuff require even more stuff. If there is a crowd pushing to get access to something, the weak and the poor will be the first to be shoved out of the way. Are you shoving the poor out of your way in pursuit of your own American dream? This is a terrible thought, but we have a moral duty to ask and answer the question.
In particular we must ask: how much of our nation's policy towards Iraq is driven by the greed, waste, and gluttony that is the basis of the "American lifestyle"?
A Little Way of Justice and Peace
We make many individual economic choices every day, and each year we make political choices. Sometimes in those choices we inflict cruelty and injustice upon others, and sometimes we rape and exploit the natural environment; we close our eyes to the consequences, one of which is war. Thus, the question of the practical details of how we live, of how we shop and spend our money, is one of the primary social justice questions of our era.
The present issue of war or peace revolves around natural resources, petroleum in particular. It's been obvious for a long time that we face trouble ahead with our petroleum supplies, but the response of most American households has been to ignore the warning signals and to continue to spend energy like it was cheap and plentiful. (For some online details, visit www.oilcrisis.com .) The refusal of most American households to responsibly conserve energy is an ongoing demand to the government to use whatever means are necessary to ensure a continued supply of cheap energy; we are telling our leaders that any level of violence is permissible to satiate our thirst for energy and resources. So our refusal to responsibly conserve energy, petroleum in particular, is one driver of the death of the poor.
During the middle of the winter, we load our tables with fresh food, much of which is imported from very poor countries. It is grown by giant corporations on land that is sometimes stolen from its original family farmer owners. They are occasionally murdered, and sometimes just "relocated" to an urban slum, where they are too poor to buy the produce grown on their former lands. Even if those fresh agribizness veggies are grown in this country, they come to your table courtesy of the desperation of the poor migrant farm workers who are willing to work for less than minimum wage. Migrant farm workers typically earn less than $8,000/year. It's never advertised, but this exploitation is included in the price of those supermarket veggies, you get it whether you want it or not.
But we close our eyes to these realities, we deliberately refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for how we spend our money, even as we are stealing food from the mouths of hungry children in poor countries. In fact, we tell ourselves bold lies to make us feel good about keeping these people hungry, exploited, and poor. After all, people would complain if the agribizness corporations had to pay a just wage to their laborers.
How each person and household lives does indeed make a difference. Imperial households support imperial governments. Households rooted in the evangelical counsels and virtues such as poverty, humility, temperance, justice, and fortitude grow a civilization of life and love. If we the people want peace, we must therefore begin by radically reducing our greed and gluttony and our consequent impacts on the natural and human environments. This is a little way of justice and peace, it is open to anybody and everybody.
We make this decision a hundred times every day. . . for example when we obey a self imposed speed limit of 55 miles per hour on the freeways, and when possible we take the bus, walk, or ride a bicycle, and when we vote for adequate mass transit systems, and thus witness peace to the government. Or we can push the speed limits, race between stop lights, and thus call our government to more war, more death, more killing.
And so it comes to pass, every day, in a hundred ways, some big, some small, we call our government to war or peace, life or death, hope or despair, sustainability or economic and environmental catastrophe, by how and where we spend our money..
Gandhi once said that if people had been less willing to go along to get along with Nazi Germany, millions of deaths could have been averted. Is our willingness to go along with this culture's materialistic imperialistic consumerism condemning millions in our own day to death and misery? The answer is YES. Since the American Empire is such a money dependent materialistic society, a significant factor in our nonviolent, peaceful opposition to the culture of death must be to not spend so much money, not buy so much stuff, not store so much stuff, not live with so much stuff, not haul around so
much stuff, not use so much stuff, and then, ultimately, not throw away so much stuff and not bury so much stuff in the ground, where it becomes useless waste. Our addiction to the mindless consumption of stuff is a manifestation of disordered priorities and decadance, not of strength, hard work,
Waste not, want not, our grandfathers and grandmothers once advised us; now people snicker and roll their eyes when they hear such quaint speech. The structures of sin and evil which contribute so much to the problems of this era are fed, one little bite at a time, by the voluntary choices of myriads of people. In like manner, the structures of beauty and wisdom that should replace these evils are planted and grown by the voluntary choices of people who decide they will eliminate or minimize their involvement with structures of sin and evil. We got into this one bad decision at a time, we will get out of it one good decision at a time.
If you think your own personal consumption doesn't really matter in the long run and grand scheme of things because you are only one person, and a special one at that, you are wrong. You are telling yourself something that the system has taught you in order to help you feel better about making bad choices. No one is so special that they get a "waste all the energy and consume all the resources you want" card from the universe that entitles them to wage war on innocent people to secure access to cheap resources such as petroleum.
There is no way out of the culture of death without conversion of heart and mind, and a subsequent change in our ways of living. This is bound to involve considerable personal inconvenience, pain, and sacrifice, and so we knowhow popular this proposal will be. But the stakes are high, for ourselves, our children, and our children's children. Sustainability or catastrophe, that is the future. Despite what the secular humanist capitalists say, particularly in their glorification of greed, you can't found your economy on the seven deadly sins and expect to not have serious problems down the line. Our life on this earth has physical limits. The longer we delay confronting our personal and household responsibilities, the more problems we will face. The sooner we change the ways and manners in which we live, the more secure and sustainable our families, communities, cities and nations will become, and the more hope, peace, and justice there will be in the world. And as there is more hope, peace, and justice there will be less violence, less greed, less arrogance, and more life, love, beauty, and wisdom.
The future will grow from what we plant today. We've seen the effect of entire populations motivated to do evil, but even a few people determined to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before their God can have an enormous impact for good on the flow of events. This is one of the truths of the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; even ten righteous could have averted that destruction, but they were nowhere to be found.
These are grave and terrible times in which we live. New horsemen of the apocalypse ride about the world, seeking the ruin of souls and the deaths of many: Economic injustice and catastrophe, starvation, violence, revolution, war, pestilence, embargoes and sanctions are in the news every day.
In response to the ongoing deterioration of the situation of the poor worldwide, Mother Teresa of Calcutta called upon those who are rich to take and use less, so that there would be more for others. Thus, instead of encouraging fear and violence, plant gardens of abundance and peace. Where others preach hate and fear, live in love and respect; don't demand that the poor suffer so you can live "high on the hawg.". If greed is exalted, praise and live an honorable and evangelical poverty, in the world, yet not of the world.
If this be treason against the culture of death, then the Devil can make the most of it, but our Catholic faith tells us that even though death destroys the body, yet in your flesh you shall see God. There is the valley of the shadows of death, but it is not a place to fear any evil, for if we walk there, God walks with us every step of the way. His staff is there to comfort and protect, and he leads us to green pastures. God restores our soul, and in the end, goodness and mercy will reign in justice and peace. I know that's how this all ends up. I read the book all the way to the end. "And the leaves of the trees were for the healing of the nations." RMW
Originally printed in the Oklahoma City Catholic Worker, Fall 2002 + Page 8 +