BEST OF TIMES WORST OF TIMES
By Lee Cormie
As we approach the end of the second millennium since the birth of Christ, there are many reasons to pause and reflect, as Pope John Paul II has called the whole Church to do.
Whirlwinds of change are transforming the character of life on earth. In our emerging global civilization, human choices are helping to shape the fate of communities, nations, and ecology as never before. In the debates and struggles over these choices, people's hopes for the future, and the faith which grounds them, have never been more central or historically significant.
Perhaps as never before, the Church is called to renewal. On the eve of the third millennium the Spirit is calling us to read the signs of the time, to articulate anew the "good news" in history the coming of the Reign of God and to witness concretely to it in our lives and in the pastoral priorities and structures of our Church.
There are many reasons for hope for the future. New specializations, techniques and technologies are vastly expanding our capacities to see, from the interior of the atom to distant galaxies on the edge of the universe. Global communications and transportation enable us to leap the barriers of distance and ignorance. New technologies are transforming workplaces and may promise the elimination of dangerous and boring work, and the expansion of leisure time. Medical advances promise miraculous new treatments. Genetic engineering promises new breakthroughs in agriculture and in the treatment of many diseases.
Since the 1960s we have witnessed many new social movements affirming the right of historically voiceless and marginalized people to speak for themselves, and to have a voice in the centres of decision-making power. Apart from questions concerning the wisdom of certain positions and demands, these movements have been historic, vastly expanding the circles of dialogue. In the process, these "new" voices of poor and working peoples in the Third World, blacks and other peoples of colour, First Nations, women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and all those speaking on behalf of peace, and of the earth, have immeasurably enriched discussion in every sphere.
In the Church, Vatican II unleashed the winds of renewal, helping to incorporate the whole people of God in witnessing to the gospel. Lay people became involved in ministry and in theology. Canadian and other First World missionaries travelled throughout the Third World; they were often converted anew by the faith of the poor they encountered there, later returning home with important news for the rest of us. The voices of the historically marginalized burst out in the Church, too, evoking a contemporary experience of Pentecost. These "new" voices re-awakened the whole Church to justice as a constitutive dimension of evangelization. Third World liberation theologies, feminist and black theologies, gay and lesbian theologies, Hispanic theology, eco-theology, and the theology of peace, have immeasurably enriched the discourse of the Church, transforming it, like Joseph's coat, into a rich multi-coloured fabric. They and others are renewing our understanding of the inculturation of the gospel in different contexts and the spiritual riches of inter-religious dialogue. And they are helping to make real the Church's vocation to universality.
There are also many reasons for dread. Billions of people are mired in poverty, and almost a billion live at the edge of starvation. The gap between rich and poor within countries and between them is growing. Class conflict and social turmoil are increasing. And the ecological foundations of life on earth are in peril.
Historically unprecedented concentrations of power are being estab- lished. Fifty-one of the world's 100 largest economies are corporations, not countries; one-third of all global trade consists of transfers among different branches of giant corporations, making a mockery of notions of "free" trade and "competitive" pricing. Top corporate managers and investors are obscenely paid and wield extraordinary power. And in the midst of the widespread confusion and turmoil accompanying epic change, the wealthy and their supporters are articulating their own vision of the future, at the heart of which is worship of something called the Free Market. And it involves nothing less than a re-invention of society even of nature on a global scale.
In this agenda of globalization, instead of easing the work of over- burdened workers and expanding leisure time, new technologies are being deployed in ways which eliminate good jobs and increase work intensity in those that are left.
Instead of promoting wider inclusion of voices, global media corporations are eliminating the distinct voices and channels of local media; in their places we get cultural homogenization in the Hollywood spirit of Rambo and Baywatch, and consumerism as an object of devotion.
The awesome capacities of genetic engineering and other new technologies are being rushed into use with an eye only to profit, blind to their potentially catastrophic "side effects". Across the Third World most people find themselves unnecessary either as producers or as consumers. Almost two-thirds of the world's peoples are destined to be only window shoppers in the temples to consumerism (shopping malls) dotting the globe.
High interest rates and debt have strangled governments' capacity to meet basic human needs and manage development. The increasing weight of global industrial civilization on the ecology is being overlooked, or dismissed with blind faith in the capacity of corporately-developed technologies to provide solutions.
Well-funded think tanks and political organizations are helping to legitimate this agenda and the shrinking of democracy which it requires. The poor are being demonized as lazy and corrupt, and working people as inflexible. Power is being transferred to international financial institutions, like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the new World Trade Organization, and the commissions monitoring free trade agreements.
Taxes on corporations and the wealthy especially are being reduced. The social programs which defined the welfare state in the First World are being eliminated, along with "aid" to the Third World. Many of the functions of government are being "privatized". The rich and the aspiring-to-be-rich everywhere are revolting against the notions of "common good". In an effort to insulate themselves from the bad fruits of this agenda, they are withdrawing from society, creating islands of affluence defined by the private provision of health care, education, insurance, and security. Everyone else is entreated to tighten their belts and be "flexible". Insecurity and turmoil are spreading, along with the personal and social diseases accompanying them.
Tidal waves of refugees and immigrants are washing over borders everywhere. Increasing areas of wealthy First World countries like the United States and Canada look more and more like Third World poverty, devastation and misery.
Christian witness in many forms has flourished since Vatican II, even unto death, as in the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero and thousands of others. But tensions and conflicts have erupted within the Church, too. For some, the reforms introduced at Vatican II seemed to call into question the doctrines, liturgical practices, and moral priorities which had been widely preached. Epic change has added to the confusion, transforming the contours and dynamics of existence, rendering inadequate in various ways traditional categories and frameworks, and promoting widespread confusion.
New voices and experiences are challenging existing contours of discussions and forms of authority. In some quarters they have provoked defensiveness, efforts at restricting dialogue and restoring narrow forms of authority as alien to the early Christians and their faith in the Spirit as to late 20th century sensibilities.
Christianity, as Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino reminds us, requires fidelity to the real, even when the news is bad. More important, though, are the signs of hope, even if seeing them requires the eyes of faith.
The neoliberal project for a new world order reflects deafness to the voices of the great majorities and blindness to the devastation it brings. Beyond success for a few, historic concentrations of wealth and power, random innovation, mindless change and global social upheaval, it is not working in any larger sense.
As the Canadian bishops pointed out in their recent pastoral letter, the seeds of a different future are already sprouting in groups, networks and movements of poor and marginalized peoples and those in solidarity with them around the world.
A different Spirit is present wherever people are witnessing
...to humility in the face of the delicate balance of God's creation and our ignorance, rather than the drive to dominate;
...to deep respect for others and commitment to dialogue, rather than the drive to manipulate and exploit;
...to concern for the common good and willingness to make sacrifices, rather than individualism;
...to modest aspirations for a decent life in a civilization of austerity, sufficiency, or "enough", rather than infinitely-expanding consumerism and waste.
Along this path all have a voice; fairness and equity count more than efficiency; workers and their families more than competitiveness; local communities, future generations and the planetary community more than corporate bottom lines and markets. And faith is placed not in markets, or the wisdom of the powerful and affluent, or science, but in the Divine.
The upcoming synod and jubilee represent opportunities for renewal of the Church, too. With appropriate humility concerning the limitations and sins of the Church, especially concerning the marginalization of poor in general and of women in particular, it provides an occasion for the renewal of hope and faith in a time of apocalyptic dread and millennial hope.
As its origin in the Jewish scriptures suggests, the jubilee is a time for witness to faith in the real historical possibility of forgiveness of debts and restoration of everyone's access to what is needed to meet basic needs, rest for the earth, and renewal of society.
On the eve of the third millennium the moral of the creation story in Genesis is truer than ever before: In human hands increasingly rests responsibility for the whole of creation! The vocation to sisterhood and brotherhood in a single planetary community is more urgent than ever. And the Church's vocation to witness, in solidarity with those on the margins and with the earth, to a different hope in history is more relevant than ever.
Lee Cormie is a Professor of Theology at St. Michael's Faculty of Theology, St. Michael's College and the Toronto School of Theology.