My Growing Curiosity about Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology: Birth of the New Man, Managua, Batahola Community Center, Nicaragua. Showing the Magi as Carlos Fonseca, Che Guevara, Sadino and Archbishop Romero. [source]

I have become increasing curious about Liberation Theology. As I continue to become disillusioned by the state of politics in the U.S., including the politics of the Church (or certain prominent sections of the Church), and as I learn more about Latin America and its rich, but also violent, history, and as I have become increasingly curious about Saint Romero and the modern history of El Salvador, I find myself confronted with Liberation Theology. Can Liberation Theology teach us, perhaps even provide a way, for the Church seeking to follow Christ is a deeply broken and anti-Catholic world?

Almost immediately I find vociferous Liberation Theology antagonists. These are primarily conservative and/or traditionalist Catholics. Liberation Theology, they say, is merely Marxism dress up in some Catholic vestments. Ironically, while many of the conservative Catholics revere Saint John Paul II, it this quote from that dynamic and “muscular” anti-communist pope that sparks my interest:

Insofar as it strives to find those just answers – penetrated with understanding for the rich experience of the Church in this country, as effective and constructive as possible and at the same time consonant and consistent with the teachings of the Gospel, of the living and the everlasting Tradition Magisterium of the Church – we and you are convinced that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary. It must constitute a new stage – in close connection with the previous ones – of that theological reflection initiated with the Apostolic Tradition and continued with the great Fathers and Doctors, with the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium and, in more recent times, with the rich heritage of the Doctrine Church, expressed in documents ranging from Rerum Novarum to Laborem Exercens . ( Emphasis added. Full text here)

Is this not an endorsement of Liberation Theology? Those who say it is actually just Marxism with a Catholic veneer seem to lack understanding. Or do they? I’m still learning.

I am reading Gustavo Gutiérrez‘ excellent and classic work, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. In it I find an excellent explanation of the Catholic faith. Thus far I find no overt Marxist ideology (thus far) and, in fact, I find a challenge to such ideas. I ought to be clear at this point for the sake of honesty: I am not against all Marxist ideas, nor am I against all aspects of socialism. I am against all the evils done in the name, or using the name, of Marxism and socialism, just as in a similar way I am against all the evils done in the name of capitalism, republicanism, democracy, anarchy, fascism, and any other ideologies or systems of political and economic organization that men use against others. Men are wicked and they will wrap their intentions and deeds in whatever language is most convenient to “justify” their actions of power over others. Men will also quickly and effortlessly excuse evils done in the name of their own systems (those they accept) and their own cultures (those in which they were raised, or into which they were adopted, and in which they find acceptance). Thus, I am still cautious. I have studied the evils of man and the systems he builds. I am not yet convinced that socialism, and there are many versions and definitions of socialism, is or must be inherently evil, or must produce evil men. I am also not convince Liberation Theology is or must be fundamentally socialist, even if it informed by Marxist methods of social and political critique.

So I proceed with my research. I am curious.

Cardinal George was once asked about Liberation Theology and he gave a quick answer. It think his answer represents a kind of thoughtful middle ground that I feel I can get behind. However, I also wonder if he, and Cardinal Ratzinger whom he references, had an adequate understanding of Liberation Theology. Thus, I don’t completely buy into it, yet.

I do not think modern Americans (U.S. citizens) can quite fathom the context in which Liberation Theology developed. I certainly have never lived within a context like those in which Liberation Theology developed, arguably, out of necessity. In fact, U.S. citizens are rather notorious for having strange and perverted ideas about Latin American and its history, including U.S. foreign policy towards that Latin America, its governments, its resources and, more importantly, its people. We are also formed through decades of propaganda (for better or worse) to believe anything that is in any way associated with socialism or Marxism must be gravely and irredeemably evil. For most Americans this is an objective and unquestionable dogmatic truth. I am not convinced, but I am not wary either.

If we, for a moment, set aside the wrangling over theories, over political and economic systems, and about the examples of evil men, and simply consider what we Christians are called to do as we live out the Kingdom of God in tangible actions, we might find a calling to change the world. Pope Paul VI gave us some perspective in his encyclical Populorum progressio, an encyclical that informed Liberation Theology’s development, in which he wrote:

It is not just a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not just a question of fighting wretched conditions, though this is an urgent and necessary task. It involves building a human community where men can live truly human lives, free from discrimination on account of race, religion or nationality, free from servitude to other men or to natural forces which they cannot yet control satisfactorily. It involves building a human community where liberty is not an idle word, where the needy Lazarus can sit down with the rich man at the same banquet table. [full text here]

Liberty must not be an idle word. Is that not the foundation of Liberation Theology? Of course, people will argue over that notorious and wonderful word: liberty.

But when politics and faith become entangled, it can be hard to know if one is talking about one or the other. And yet, how can the gospel not also be political? In God there is no separation, is there? In this world there is truth, there is heresy, there are lies, there is evil, and there is love. These things are present in all aspects of human life. Does not the gospel speak to all of that? Are not politics also under the reign of Christ? And what happens when we open our eyes beyond narrow, single-issue, lesser-of-two-evils, U.S. politics and begin to wonder if others, in others places also have eyes to see and hearts that long for justice? What do we do when they see things differently than we do and speak in foreign tongues and use words that frighten us and yet still call us brothers and sisters in Christ? What ought we to do then?

Still, the history of Liberation Theology and its proponents is interesting and, at times, perhaps troubling even for many in Latin America. But it is also fascinating. And there are, naturally, different perspectives.

This short Religion and Ethics piece gives a brief overview and some perspective, and not without moments that will give a traditionalist Catholic conniptions, make a conservative Catholic cringe, and make a liberal Catholic pause:

Is the Church today under Francis more attuned to Jesus? I don’t believe it is. But I also cannot buy in its entirety the critique of traditionalist Catholics (mostly Americans) who demonize Francis and the Church hierarchy today. There is so much that is bad, but there is so much that is good, and there is much good (I firmly believe) going on in the world beyond the horizon of American Catholics and their limited understandings and their historical prejudices. Perhaps that is where most of the good is happening.

One aspect of Liberation Theology, or at least as something clearly linked to it, is the fact of Catholic priests and bishops renouncing their vocations for political action in the name of Liberation Theology. For example, Fernando Lugo, who was a Catholic priest and bishop, then became president of Paraguay, gave up the priesthood for politics:

Lugo resigned his ordinary from the Diocese of San Pedro on 11 January 2005. He had requested laicization in order to run for office. However, the Holy See refused the request on the grounds that bishops could not undergo laicization, and also denied him the requested canonical permission to run for civil elected office. However, after Lugo won the presidential election, the Church granted his laicization on 30 June 2008. [from Wikipedia]

This bothers me a great deal. Why must they do this? I don’t know. Have they lost the faith, turned from God, or have they made the right choice? I have my opinions, but I’m holding off judgement until I know more. I first came across Lugo in Oliver Stone’s fascinating documentary film, South of the Border. I have a hard time faulting Lugo for making his decision, though i’m bothered by it. I am in no place to criticise him. I also sense that his position became somewhat untenable as he found himself between the Church that tends to side with those in power and Christ’s call to help the poor. And yet, I don’t like the decision he made and I am curious about his eternal destiny. What will Christ do with him and others like him?

Similarly, one of the more prominent theologians of the Liberation Theology movement is Leonardo Boff. Also a former priest and a sharp critic of the Church, he gave up the priesthood for social activism. This documentary gives a rather good picture of Boff and his views:

I am not sure what to do with this. Is Boff’s direction the right one? I’m inclined to think not, and I feel about him much as I feel about Fernando Lugo. And yet, I do agree with the general direction of some of his views, up to a point. I am also concerned about any movement where men give up the priesthood for the movement, or stop wearing traditional clerical clothing. However, I don’t know enough about Latin American history and culture to know the meaning of all that. I also think there is a generational element to it. Older, baby-boomer, 1960’s radicals might have thrown off their religious garb because that was the spirit of that age, whereas younger priests and religious today might insist on wearing more traditional religious clothing for, ironically, similar reasons. I can’t say, but it would make some sense to me. We are all far more children of the zeitgeist than any of us want to admit.

Still, I firmly believe that it’s all too easy to get pulled away from Christ and His kingdom by the enticements of the world and worldly politics, and thus lose one’s soul. I believe Liberation Theology is, at its heart, an attempt to avoid that, but clearly many questions still remain about many of its adherents. I am inclined to read some of Boff’s books eventually.


In summary, I know very little at this point, but I am inclined to believe Liberation Theology is a good thing and ought to be taken seriously, perhaps re-thought and re-addressed, by more Catholics. I also am beginning to think the Church (once again) dropped the ball in a big way by not more fully embracing it and thereby helping guide it rather than leave priests and faithful Catholics essentially on their own, sometimes feeling abandoned by the Church. This, I think, was a huge missed opportunity at a crucial time in Latin America. In a sense, I believe the Church “lost” Latin America, in a sense, because of this.

I welcome any comments pointing me to more resources.

The Salvadoran Civil War and the Martyrdom of Óscar Romero


Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president (pres. 1977-1981) that oversaw the giving of military aid to the government of El Salvador during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. Carter was the first American president that I became aware of as I began to pay attention to the news as a boy. The first American president I voted for was Ronald Reagan (pres. 1981-1989), who came immediately after Carter. The Reagan administration increased the giving of military aid and support to the Salvadoran government. In 1980 the Salvadoran government was behind the brazen assassination and martyrdom of the then archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, now a saint of the Catholic Church. Thus, my first vote as an American citizen, though not for Carter, and actually for Reagan’s second term which happened years after Romero’s death, is nonetheless indirectly but forever linked to the death of a saint. I only just realized this. Unfortunately, this is the reality of being an American voting for candidates who then go on to promote questionable and sometimes terrible foreign policies. Of course I plead ignorance, but we’re all ignorant of many things, and that doesn’t mean we are not complicit at some level, even if not actually guilty. Perhaps its “structural complicity?”

Anyway, I am learning more about one of the Church’s most recent saints, Óscar Romero. I believe Romero’s concerns were ultimately spiritual and heavenly, but they played out within a volatile political context, and he was martyred for them.

The battle lines of politics are always much more than politics. There are narratives competing with narratives, ideologies with ideologies, and almost always class struggle. In the U.S. we are not allowed to talk about class struggle or the structures of economic inequality or we are immediately labeled a socialist or communist. There is a powerful narrative in that labeling, and that narrative and the hegemonic forces behind it drive a great many other narratives. Human beings, being sinners and fearful, will all too readily kill other human beings for the sake of the narrative they hold dear, often for very selfish and ignorant reasons. From Cain until now we have been killing our brothers. But Christ calls us to love our brothers, our neighbors, and even our enemies. Saint Paul tells us our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is against spiritual forces of darkness. The entire narrative of salvation being written by God in the very fabric of creation tells us to trust in Him and that He will fight our battles. We forget this every day. They forgot that in El Salvador too. But many, including and perhaps especially Óscar Romero, did not forget it.

I know very little about the Salvadoran Civil War, but that is the historical context of Saint Romero’s assassination. I perhaps know only a little more about Saint Romero than I do about the war, which is to say almost nothing. Here are three contemporary news reports on the war, its brutality, and role of faith and the Church.

This 1983 documentary takes a look at both sides of the war and provides an intimate overview of the attitudes and perspectives of each side:

Made by the same filmmakers as the above film, this is an excellent documentary from 1983 on the religious aspects of the war, in particular the ideas of Liberation Theology:

Here is an in-depth documentary about the Salvadoran civil war and the life of Óscar Romero. It was made before he was canonized a saint.

Here is a great lecture by Michael Lee (Fordham University) on the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood:

I suppose little seeds were planted in my life along the way to prepare my heart and mind for caring for and wondering about the life, legacy, and meaning of Saint Romero’s martyrdom and case for sainthood.

In 1984 (the same year I voted for Reagan) a largely unknown, but with a passionate fanbase, Canadian singer-songwriter and brilliant guitarist released a song that became a surprise hit. I vaguely remember that song, but I was so politically, geographically, historically, and socially unaware that I didn’t get what the song was about, except for the fact that I felt as much as anybody that we all need a rocket launcher sometimes. But the song was specifically about the brutal wars in Central America, the dictatorships that promoted and leveraged them, the support those dictatorships received from the U.S. government, and the terrible havoc they wrought on the lives of the people. Here is Bruce Cockburn, 30 years later, performing live and acoustically his song If I had a Rocket Launcher:

Jordan Peterson & Slavoj Žižek debate — “Happiness: Marxism vs Capitalism”

I find this discussion posted below wonderful. Neither Jordan Peterson or Slavoj Žižek are Christians, but they are both influenced deeply by classically Christian concepts. In this discussion , which was billed as a debate but turns out much better, begins with each speaking formally for 30 minutes, then each getting 10 minutes to respond to the other’s intro speeches, then it goes into a back and forth series of questions and responses. Both of these men have lively minds and that kind of humility that undergirds the search for truth. In effect what we have here is a modern version of a Platonic dialogue.

I have been somewhat of a fan of Žižek for years and more recently of Peterson — not an unqualified fan of course. In the end, at least in terms of this “debate,” they constitute, or at least lean towards, a kind of Christian balance but, I believe, without the full realization they are doing so. Peterson lays out his path, a kind of stoicism as it were, of pursuing the good life, and Žižek responds with a deep pessimism. My immediate thought was of St. Paul writing to the Romans about how he does the things he ought not to do and does not do what he ought, thus finding within himself the principle of sin acting against him. We might agree with Peterson’s path but find ourselves repeatedly incapable of staying on that path. In this sense the biggest lacuna in this particular discussion, and I believe in both men’s general work about the human condition, is a complete understanding of sin and its effects, though they both seem to have a better understanding than most. Nonetheless, this dialogue between these two original (especially Žižek) and deeply cogent (especially Peterson) thinkers is an incredible opportunity to have one’s mind creatively engaged.

Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

Radical Feminism: Voices from 1969-1970 and beyond

Here’s a fascinating time-capsule from a key time in the feminist movement. Certainly it is dated, and some of it may seem a bit corny to us today, but the core message is still powerful and shocking — and not surprising too.

From a traditional Catholic perspective one can easily see why feminism, at least as it is presented here, was seen as incompatible with Catholicism — it has at its core the destruction of the traditional family. On the other hand, consider how much feminist thinking has entered into our culture and, in many ways, become the de facto position. Something about feminism captivated the collective consciousness of vast swaths of western culture and beyond, and has stayed with us and continued to influence and shape our culture.

In many ways this video is so sad — so much heartbreak beneath the surface of power posturing and strident demands. Consider where our society had to gotten to in order for these women, and so many others, to feel as they did. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to consider how such a radical change in attitudes may have also had a demonic element. I think it’s likely a lot of different elements and motivations were at play, some good and some bad.

And then three years later, this…

More “throwback” videos here.

Judgement and Works


BTW, our eternal destiny — salvation or damnation — is based on the works we do.


Growing up in church* I frequently heard teaching that included something like this: “I know it may seem the passage (or verse) says X, but in fact it really means Y.” In other words, although on the surface it looks clear, don’t be fooled. Since we know that such and such doctrine must be true, we therefore know that this passage can’t really mean what it seems to mean. This kind of approach was most evident (to me at least) on the topic of faith versus works. Since, of course, we know we are saved by faith alone (sola fide) then we know passages that say we are saved by works must actually be saying something else.

But do they? A good question to ask is, if the writer (St. Paul, St. John, etc.) of any passage in question meant what one has now figured out it “really” means, then why did he write it the way he did? In other words, if the writers of the New Testament meant to say we are saved by faith alone, then why didn’t they write that way? So many times they wrote we are saved by works, as well as by faith, grace, mercy, baptism, etc., that one wonders how did they get their doctrine so messed up?! But of course their doctrine was correct, and it is we who must correct our thinking.

As an example of what I mean, below are examples where New testament writers (many of the words are from the mouth Christ) point to something other than sola fide.

Anyway, I too feel convicted of often letting myself off the hook thinking it doesn’t ultimately matter how I live my life as long as I have faith. It’s a trap I fall into too often. I think we all do. Perhaps it’s a human tendency, perhaps a product of my Protestant upbringing (though I see it everywhere). And caring to do good is not the same as doing good. Caring may be enough, I mean I’m going to fail again and again, so caring has got to count for something, but I wonder.

Some might say that God doesn’t intend us to actually do good works, only that we try, miserably fail of course, and then turn to Him. That that is the purpose of having good works set before us as a goal; not that we do them but that we try and learn we can’t. I don’t see that teaching clearly articulated in scripture.

Some might say that good works are fine, and of course we should do them, but they are ultimately meaningless, that any work we do is really worthless. Again, I don’t see that teaching clearly articulated in scripture. In fact, clearly the opposite.

What I do see are repeated calls to good works, and that those works are critically tied up in our eternal destiny, and our movement towards becoming one with Christ and holy like our Father is holy. I also see we are utterly sunk without God’s grace and mercy. But still, we are called to be holy, to do good works. Our eternal destiny depends on it.

Judgement and works brothers and sisters. What do we do with this? What do we do with these verses?

Matthew 7:19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . .”

Matthew 7:21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Note: See the next several verses (7:22-27) to get a fuller picture of the implications.

Matthew 16:27 “For the Son of man . . . will repay every man for what he has done.”

Matthew 25:34-36 “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (cf. 25:31-33, 37-46)

Luke 3:9 “. . . every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John 5:29 “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Romans 2:5-13 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-11 . . . inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve and work of faith by his power, . . .

1 Peter 1:17 . . . who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, . . .

Revelation 2:23 . . . I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

Revelation 20:12 . . . And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (cf. 20:11-13)

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Revelation 22:12 Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.

Those are just a few of many passages.

Peasant's Head

*Sometimes I joke that I was moved from the hospital directly to the First Baptist church nursery, such was my experience.

“The Greatest Error in History: Christianity Placing Violence Under the Patronage of Jesus”

Recently I have personally discovered Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy. He is a powerful advocate for Christian Non-Violence or Pacifism. Years ago I came across Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. That was my first experience with Christian pacifism. More and more my inclinations lean in this direction. In fact, though I am willing to consider other arguments, and will change my mind if necessary, for now I cannot see any compatibility between being a follower of Christ and any kind of violence, including going to war. I say this while still finding stories of heroism in war deeply moving.

Here is one of several talks you can find online by Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy:

Just War Theory – an overview

This is a great overview, in six short videos, of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Just Defense (formerly Just War) Theory or Doctrine. It is also a critique of where that theory stands today in light of modern ‘total” war, and ultimately advocates for the original Christian position of pacifism, or peace making.

John Paul II on Parents Educating their Children

The following is from FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO:

The Right and Duty of Parents Regarding Education

36. The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a fully human life. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, “since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children. Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs.”(99)

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.

In addition to these characteristics, it cannot be forgotten that the most basic element, so basic that it qualifies the educational role of parents, is parental love, which finds fulfillment in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service of life: as well as being a source, the parents’ love is also the animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruit of love.

This gets to the heart of why we have chosen to homeschool our children.

novel reality: authorship and free will

Should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna?

This should sound like a strange question. And it does sound strange. Of course Raskolnikov should not have committed murder. But wait, does Raskolnikov exist? This is a crucial question in light of the question of transcendence. If Raskolnikov exists at one level of reality (as a character in a story) then Dostoyevsky must exist at a higher, more substantial, more transcendent level of existence. Which leads us to another question: Is Raskolnikov free of Dostoyevsky, that is, does Raskolnikov have free will, did he freely choose to kill Alyona Ivanovna? If not, should Dostoyevsky have been arrested for murder?

What strange questions. And yet they help us triangulate toward an understanding of our relationship to God. We think of God as being the author of creation. If so, then we can think of ourselves as being players in the story He is authoring−History. Raskolnikov is a real character within the world of the work we call the novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is real, but Dostoyevsky is more real. Raskolnikov’s existence, including his every choice, and even his thoughts, are contingent on his author, on Dostoyevsky. We are also contingent. We are real but God is more real. Or to put it another, more difficult to swallow way, if God is real (the standard of reality) then we are not real.

Of course, in a very critical and important sense, we cannot say we are not real, for “not real” is not the category of existence that God has given us in terms of our experience and in terms of our moral choices. We are real, for that is what we know. God may be more real, or so much more real that in comparison we seem merely like characters in a novel, but the reality we live is very real to us. Our reality is a gift of God’s creative act. We are real and we must come to terms with it. But we also must come to terms with God being more real, being our author, our creator. Or perhaps we do not “come to terms” with God, for that is a kind of negotiation. Instead we bow the knee, lie prostrate, tremble before God, who is both loving and terrifying.

God is sovereign, thus in an important sense we are not free from God, for we cannot be free from God and continue to exist. And yet, it is clear that it is God’s will that we are free to make choices, especially moral choices. Raskolnikov is not free from Dostoyevsky, and yet Raskolnikov’s choices (willed by the creative act of Dostoyevsky’s mind extending onto the page) are free and thus can be judged. He is not a puppet of his master, rather he does what he himself wills, and we read it that way even though we know an author is behind it all. We know we have free will because we experience free will. We know God is thoroughly sovereign because nothing can exist apart from God, and nothing can be counted on−including God’s promises−unless God is sovereign. But we cannot live fatalistically nor can we blame God, for we do what we will−and we know it. If we are held accountable for our free choices then we have met justice.

So, should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna? At the level of the world of the work, at the level of the story, the answer is no, and Raskolnikov should have to pay for his crime. And yet, at the level of the author, at the level of reality in which Dostoyevsky lived, the answer is yes, for it was the will of the author that it should be. This is the prerogative of all authors, and if we call God the author of creation and of our existence, then we must understand the prerogatives that are properly assigned to God, our creator, our author.

Against the “Sovereign Self”

This article was first published on the Classical Conversations Guest Article blog.

The rise of the sovereign self* has become foundational for two sociopolitical systems presently deemed most worthy in modern societies: modern democracy and modern consumer capitalism. However, for these systems to be beneficial they must rely on a sovereignty of the self exemplified by the ability to rule oneself properly. We now live in an age (equally created, perpetuated, and exacerbated by the rise of the sovereign self) in which the very idea of proper behavior has been called into question and, for the most part, jettisoned. It may be that democracy and capitalism, regardless of their strengths, now fueled by moral relativism and a profound ignorance of the past, will become the two most powerful tools of our own destruction, wreaking havoc on all that is noble and good.

How we, as a society, have chosen to educate ourselves is fundamental to this predicament. By shifting from the prescriptive to the descriptive, from the normative to the analytical, we have given increased power to transform the natural world into the hands of untransformed man, and we have elevated cultural relativism to an unquestioned supremacy in an age of increasingly dubious and tribalistic sub-cultures. In fact, descriptive education leads to the de-transformation of man and to the removal of all institutions that might shore up virtue. Man, given his natural tendencies, thus slides back into the baser aspects of his nature.

What is this sovereign self? Before we seek a definition we must recognize that in a very real sense we are truly free of each other. My life is ultimately my responsibility in terms of my choices and my moral standing. Though we are social creatures and must live our lives in relation to each other, each of us must come to terms with our own, unique, individual selves. And yet, though we are ultimately, existentially free of each other we are not free of God. I cannot escape God. I must come to terms with Him. And in doing so, in taking God seriously, I am thrust into the true nature of freedom, that is, the choice to love. I become, in a very real sense, inextricably tied to others, to my neighbor, even to my enemy. In my freedom I become a servant. Such a servant is a man with a heart and soul, a man with the opportunity to embrace his nobility. The sovereign self, however, follows a radically different agenda. Seeking to be completely free modern man reduces God first to a watchmaker, then kills Him, then worse yet, makes Him into a useful myth. Man is now free of God, except that now he assumes God’s place. For all its freedom the sovereign self has only two options available, the tyranny of might and the tyranny of relativism. So-called enlightened societies are quick to point out the wickedness of mightful tyranny but relish the false promises of relativism.

What are the philosophical characteristics of the sovereign self? Among many here are several:

    • Ontological anti-realism: A belief in no objectivity regarding the existence and nature of anything. Many different ontological frameworks produce a constant interplay or flux of multiple “realities.” Ultimate questions of the nature of reality are thus unimportant. Individuals create their own realities. Even gender is largely ephemeral and personally transmutable.
    • Epistemological skepticism: Truth cannot be known. What is true for you is not necessarily true for any other. Thus one only has one’s inner impulses, one’s personal desires of the moment, for determining what is true.
    • Condemned to self: One is trapped in oneself and cannot truly know another, be known by another, or be other than what one chooses. Individuals are isolated by ontological anti-realism (nothing is objectively real) and epistemological skepticism (nothing is objectively true) and thus have only pleasure left to them.
    • No moral order: There is no objective morality bound to something beyond itself. There is a multiplicity of moralities and none are objectively more true than any other. Individuals must arbitrarily choose either an ordering moral system, e.g. religion or pragmatism, etc., or find morality in a vague inner voice. In short, we are all (and merely) individually embodied subjective moralities.
    • Beauty is a matter of personal preference: We cannot say beauty is truth and truth beauty, for there is no truth apart from what is true for oneself. Thus beauty can only be personal preference. That anything can be broadly understood as beautiful is a coincidence of history, cultural programming, and perhaps some quasi-Jungian collective unconscious.
    • All authority is inherently dubious: Established authority, i.e. any social or religious order, is questionable (and likely evil). One must embrace a suspicion of authority. A kind of personal soft-anarchism, free of political structures, economic responsibility, and objective morality, is the mode du jour.
    • Culture is tyranny: Culture is authority and a form of violence. What has come before may be historically interesting, but should be understood as a kind of tyrannizing power over the powerless. One must throw off (or not buy into) the cultures of the past and create one’s own.

It must be stated that, while many live and breathe these characteristics, few can articulate them. Most of us tend to operate at an uncritical level and would be hard-pressed to define the parameters of our worldviews, or to find the language necessary to speak coherently about them.

What are the values of the sovereign self? Among many here are several:

    • A lack of a moral imagination beyond personal preference: Traditional questions about morality, and even what constitutes a moral question, leave many modern people nonplussed. If morality is purely personal there is no need to struggle with the kinds of moral questions that have challenged the great thinkers through the ages.
    • Delayed adulthood: Particularly in affluent societies where one’s survival is largely taken for granted, there is little requirement to grow up. Consequently men (it’s mostly men, but women too) remain adolescents. Thus relationships are entertainment, parenting becomes a game, and the challenges of responsibility are uninteresting.
    • Communication is only for getting along or for pleasure: The great gift of communication, whereby men can sharpen each other and together pursue truth, is set aside for the more immediate desires of personal peace and good times. Communication, thus, becomes guided by a selfish pragmatism and a falsely moralistic utilitarianism. Communication becomes only a tool to shape the world according to one’s individual desires.
    • The necessity to acquire: The sovereign self has become the sovereign consumer. We have market driven cultures, market driven classrooms, and market driven churches. The consumer drives the content and experience rather than the statesman, the teacher, or the pastor. In the act of acquiring one is no longer condemned to be free, as the old existentialists claimed (e.g. Sartre), rather one revels in the continuous possibility of one’s relationship to the market. Buying (or not buying, as does the modern ascetic known as the minimalist) marks one’s territory and defines one’s self.
    • Fluidity of time/fluidity of relationships: Individuals, by using technology to live a more non-planned/non-scheduled life, create more convenient and “in the moment” relationships. Naturally, these relationships are also less “solid” or substantial. Additionally, always being “connected” creates a sense of not being alone; the problem of loneliness is “solved” and ennui kept at bay.

Much more can be said, and said better, about the sovereign self. But one can see the influence of this multivalent way of thinking pervading the world in which we live, including the world of politics, religion, and education. All of us in modern post-industrial societies are pressured to think this way. We have to work hard to follow another path. It must also be said that the sovereign self is primarily characterized by a profoundly ironic inability to rule oneself. Both the inherently faulty first principles and the inevitability of perverse outcomes secures that in one way or another the sovereign self is, in fact, a dethroning of man from his glorious place over creation. Sin plays no small part in this.

In times past people tended to believe there was a shared reality, that creation indicated the existence of a living logos in it and behind it, that morality extended from a transcendent origin, and that man has a nature. Therefore, man believed truth existed, could be known, could be communicated, and that man was beholden to the truth. With confidence cultures were created, traditions promoted, and ideals held up. The sovereign self has no need of all that. By definition, in fact, it must reject it.

Christian classical education stands in contradistinction to the sovereign self, its philosophical characteristics, and its values. When we teach our children in light of Christian classical principles we are building a bulwark, however small and precious, against the corrupting influence of the sovereign self and its enticing claims. Whether we feel it or not, in humble ways we are shining lights into the darkness.

* I am borrowing this term from a lecture given by Ken Myers at a 2010 Society for Classical Learning conference.

The Mystical Body of the Corporation

This is a fascinating lecture. If you are not familiar with the history of how and why the modern corporation was created, or of their roots in Medieval society and law, you should take the time to watch this. One thought I take away is whether the modern corporation was born out of the broader Enlightenment project of doing away with normative morality, personal responsibility, and the nobility of man, in short, doing away with God and the world He created. Or, to put it more bluntly, is it a sin to create a modern corporation?

The lecturer is Dr. Eugene Brian McCarraher. His curriculum vita.

>Bill Nye believes in science


I like Bill Nye the Science Guy. If you have kids you probably have seen his show at one time or another. He is a great science teacher within the context of television (which has limitations, but can have a place as well). Bill Nye has a wonderful, goofy shtick that is engaging and somewhat effective. His goal, it seems to me, is to get kids excited about science. It’s possible that he succeeds in this, though real science if quite different in terms of personal experience. Regardless, it is clear that Nye loves science and is keen to promote it. So I am not surprised by his comments in a recent Popular Mechanics article. The article presents some statistics about the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. The numbers tend to show a surprisingly low level of embracing of evolution by teachers, at least in terms of confidently teaching evolution as scientific fact. Nye responds by saying this is horrible. No surprises there. But then he goes on to say:

Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back. And it’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster.

What struck me about this quote, which seems rather straightforward, is that it presupposes a naturalist/materialist philosophical position which is false. The idea that “science is the key to our future” comes out of the Enlightenment project which has both a deep power and fundamental flaws. This is even a bigger issue than whether evolution is scientific theory or fact. On the other hand, it is fair to say that “science is the key to our future,” but in a way not intended by Mr. Nye. Science has provided so much that we love and value, but it has not changed the human heart. In that sense science will bring about at least as much pain as good. Nye has forgotten that not many years ago people lived in fear of total earth annihilation from atomic bombs and radioactive fallout. The reality of that potential scenario is still with us. But that is not the real problem. If we continue to live and act as though science will solve our problems then our ultimate undoing will come from science in service of the human heart. The 20th century was the century of blood. Science made that possible. That will be our scientific future.

I support much of what Nye says. We must support science in the classroom. The problem is that science is one of the lesser subjects. The humanities, history, language, philosophy, and theology, social studies, literature, and rhetoric, are all more important subjects than science. That is a bold statement, but science must be in the service of those subjects, of that kind of education, first than put out front as something “solid” and powerful that is foundational. Physics and biology are not a foundational subjects of study. Our problems do not come from the inability to understand, manipulate, and subdue the natural world. Woe to the society that advances in subduing the earth ahead of knowing why to do so. Woe to us, for we are there.

Another way to say this is that believing in science, as Bill Nye would have us do, is fine as long as one first and foremost believes in a morality that guides that science. I would argue that that morality must over-arch all of life, including science, but also including relationships and all human action. I would also posit that morality must, necessarily, be metaphysical in origin. I am a Christian and I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I do not see another metaphysical origin to morality that can compete. On the other hand, to “believe in science” is, on the whole, laughable. That’s like saying I believe in Higher Criticism or Semiotics. One can speak of their relative value, but one cannot believe in them in the way one can believe in God. Science cannot prove or disprove God, but neither can science address what Christians really mean by believing in God. Such belief is not so much a question of existence, though that is a part of it, rather it is like saying, “I believe in you.” It is about trust and character, two necessary aspects of human existence that science cannot begin to explain or provide a satisfactory alternative.

Bill Nye, thanks for much of what you do. I love your show. But do not unwittingly lead us down a path to destruction, even in the name of something as appealing a science.

Global Supply Chains and the Commandment to Love One’s Neighbor as Oneself

[I am reposting this from my other blog.]

The title of this post is also the title of my thesis which I wrote for my Masters of Business Administration program three years ago. To get some idea of what sparked my thinking and led to my thesis topic you can watch the video clip below about workers in developing countries as they support the demands of the developed world. You have already heard about sweat shops in third world countries. Here is a little of what they look like:

What are we, those of us in the most powerful nations on earth, going to do about the globalization of capital and corporate power? The world may be becoming increasingly, economically “flat”, as Tom Friedman says, but is it becoming morally flat as well?

It may sound strange to ask what we are “going to do” about globalization. Isn’t it a good thing? Isn’t it about the expansion of wealth and freedom? Isn’t it about the Internet and better communication? What we don’t typically hear about is the hidden costs of globalization, or about what that word conjures up in the minds of those in the developing world. For much of the world globalization includes the realities in the video above. For the rest of us that reality is often hidden.

I am, by nature, a rather conservative type. I don’t get easily bent out of shape over issues. I don’t seek revolution at the drop of a hat. I also grew up a Christian and was, until a few years ago, a registered Republican. I am still a Christian, and because of taking my faith seriously I could no longer be a Republican. Now I am an independent. But it’s not really about politics. It’s about a perspective on the world, on how I want to live. It’s about what kind of person I want to be and where I want to end up. And it’s also about the kind of world I want for my children and their children.

When it came time for me to choose a topic for my MBA thesis I felt the need to tackle something to do with ethics. I felt I needed to address, for myself, the underlying moral issues inherent in business and economics before I went out from my schooling into more business adventures. So I picked the topic of the treatment of women workers in global supply chains and the ethical implications for businesses that rely on the benefits from those supply chains (like lower costs and faster delivery, etc.). My thesis became, for me, a kind of introduction to the larger topic of ethics and, more specifically, how should someone who claims to be a Christian act in the world.

The following is from Chapter One of my thesis:

Consider this scenario: when a shopkeeper opens her doors in the morning and hangs out the welcome sign it is time to get to work. The pressures of the day quickly crowd in as she must meet the demands of her customers and her business’ bottom line. She must manage her time and her employees, deal with suppliers, and try to make plans for the future while also trying to fully understand the past. Questions of ethics are considered, if considered at all, largely in the immediate context of the day-to-day routine. Our shopkeeper will have to decide where she stands on being truthful and honest with those whom she works; she will make ethical decisions around how she manages her accounting and pays her vendors; she may even face moral questions about what products she sells and whether they are good for her community.

Now let’s assume this shopkeeper is also a Christian, one who makes claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and one who participates in the life of Christian culture. The ethical issues for the shopkeeper will not be any different from any other shopkeeper. However, she now carries the burden of having to follow some explicit commands with regard to the world, most notably to love her neighbor as herself. And who is her neighbor? Is her neighbor only the immediate customer or vendor with whom she does business? Or, given that she lives in an increasingly globalized world, does her neighbor include those with whom she now has connections, even though they may be on the other side of the planet and at the distant end of her supply chains?

If our shop keeper then decides that she does want to build her business around the idea of loving her neighbor as herself, and then apply that philosophy to her dealings with her supply chains, she must decided how to do that. What options are available to her? Does she choose servant-leadership as a leadership style? That is, will she seek to be a servant first and, as Greenleaf (1991) says, “to make sure that other people’s highest priority meeds are being served” (p. 7)? Does she choose to buy only from suppliers that treat their employees well? Does she seek to instill corporate social responsibility into her business practices?

These kinds of questions might be of little importance if it were not for two realities. The first is that the world is more connected than ever before. The second is that many workers in global supply chains, particularly those in developing countries, often have few of the rights or freedoms those in Western and Northern societies take for granted and may even assume to be inalienable. This is not to say that the benefits of free-market capitalism have not brought greater wealth to many developing countries, nor that many of the world’s poor have not seen at least some economic improvement to their way of life. However, as the gap between the world’s poor and the world’s rich gets bigger, and as facts continue to come out regarding the all too often harsh treatment of laborers, including women and children, within global supply chains, one cannot help but ask whether a laissez fair, free-market philosophy is the best approach for creating a fair and just system that benefits all stakeholders appropriately.

A Christian business person must ask these kinds of questions, not merely because economic systems come with their own set of moral presuppositions about human nature and human needs, but also because in the day-to-day world of business, as it is in life, one’s actions flow from one’s beliefs. If a Christian is to take seriously the commandment to love her neighbor as herself, then it only makes sense that that command, that challenge, would raise such questions. Maybe one of the great historical ironies is the interconnectedness of free market capitalist thinking and Christian theology; ironic because one system is based on self-centeredness for its success and the other is based on other-centeredness. Our shopkeeper will have to decide if this interconnectedness is both useful and valid.

I go on to describe how global supply chains work, including the fundamental pressures they impose, such as cheaper labor and fast delivery. I then describe how those pressures necessarily create negative conditions for many workers. I then describe the common conditions of working women in those supply chains. (I chose women workers because of the data available and because they represent more than half of the global workforce while often being in the weakest position with regards to labor rights and fair treatment.) Finally I examine how some have sought solutions, for example the concepts of corporate social responsibility (CSR), fair trade, and servant leadership.

I also examine how Christianity has shifted away from social concerns by becoming a personal/private faith thing rather than an “all of life” thing. This shift has led many Christians for forsake the requirements of their faith, that is, to be “salt of the earth” as it where. Too many Christians, I argue, see their faith as a purely private matter, except for a small handful of political issues.

I do not see globalization as a specifically “Christian issue.” There are many perspectives and answers available. But I find narrowing the scope down a bit helps to crystallize the issue for me. I do not see in the Bible anything specifically about free trade (though I might be missing it), but I do see a lot about feeding the hungry and helping the poor. Recently a professor of mine related a story where he was teaching about globalization and one of his students, a man from Africa, said that when he hears the word “globalization” he knows it to mean Western imperialism. There is something that rings true for me about that student’s perspective, and that bothers me.

Much of my thinking has shifted over the past several years as I have tried to take seriously the teachings of Jesus. The irony is that the teachings of Jesus contradict much of modern, popular Christianity in both its focus and its call to action. I have become convinced that mainstream, right-wing (and many left-wing) Christians just may have become the new Pharisees – the pious religious types who Jesus railed against and who eventually killed him. They do church really well, they do religion really well, and they keep everything in “perspective” and “balanced,” but their hearts have become hard – and I know what I’m talking about because I am one of them. Because of this I chose to focus on the implications of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as a foundational challenge. I figured that commandment cuts through a lot of garbage.

This video interview with Tony Campolo offers some idea of what I am talking about:

I won’t say that I am in Campolo’s camp entirely, and I don’t cite him in my thesis. However, I will say that his teaching challenges me deeply.

I am also challenged by numerous other thinkers, most of whom are not Christians, and some are even anti-Christian (though their understanding of biblical Christianity is often rather thin). But I believe truth can be found just about everywhere. The following video clips further pad out the topic.

Christian “progressive” Jim Wallis talks about living out one’s faith:

Left-left-wing academic and leading progressive thinker Michael Parenti on globalization and what it really means:
Parenti is no fan of Christianity by any means, or any religion really, but he is a very sharp thinker and erudite historian.

Brilliant and exacerbating Noam Chomsky on globalization:
I find myself more and more fascinated with Chomsky’s work. Years ago I read a book of his on linguistics for my MA thesis (not my MBA). Since then I have most only heard him speak. His observations on power politics are illuminating. Chomsky and Parenti do not see eye-to-eye on several issues.

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine speaks on the topic of global brands, the topic of her famous book No Logo:

Famous activist, historian, and progressive thinker Howard Zinn on American Empire (a topic related to globalization):

Not all is doom and gloom. Consider the Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis clips above and the clip below.

Towards a solution – Fair Trade:

I have to say the process of writing and defending my thesis was longer than I anticipated, but it was a very rewarding process. I am glad I finished school and I am excited about my future career. I will say, however, that I have not, for me personally, solved the issues raised in my thesis. I still struggle to fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor, and I’m sure I always will.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Ethics and Love: An Examination of Human Will and the Veil of Ignorance

But Christianity never suffers a man to go in vain, not even a single step, for when you open the door which you shut in order to pray to God, the first person you meet as you go out is your neighbor whom you shall love.
~ Kierkegaard from Works of Love

An everyday Christian (whoever that might be) may inventory various ethical propositions and decide that all have their strengths and that none are entirely favorable. That Christian may then determine, motivated by faith or by tradition, to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all other pretenders for the pinnacle of the ethical, and that which will systematically envelop all possible conditions. And let us say our Christian, with full care and consideration, develops such a theory, with the Christ as his center and God the Father as his master. Will not, then, this ennobled person still struggle against the masses of people who would, without hesitation, denounce or, worse yet, merely shrug away his system, just for being from a different world (or bowing to a different god) than theirs? Might not, then, this Christian seek an ethical approach that would unify the goals of faith and tradition with the general desires of humanity (if there be such a thing) even merely only as a strategy?

Certainly, a method of approach is needed, for to spring too quickly is the hunter’s faux pas. One must be a modern ethnographer of sorts, slowly assimilating into the world of the people under scrutiny, while keeping, secretly of course, a safe moral distance. And this Christian will certainly realize the best methods tend to encourage the participation of those for whom conversion is the goal. In other words, people will more likely accept a conclusion they helped to create than one thrust upon them, especially one that determines the courses of their future actions. And if a Christian ethics is likely to have at its core a series of obligations, then a method that also seeks obligations is a strategy worth considering.

Looking for a method of participation toward obligations, our Christian might choose the philosophical thought experiment of John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls proposed a kind of mental game (but a game of serious implications nonetheless). What if, he suggested, one were to try and mentally create the best possible world, by way of a social contract of sorts, with one significant caveat: one would not and cannot know where one will end up in that world? In other words, think of a world in any fashion one chooses while keeping in mind that one may end up in power or poverty, in India or France, in silk suits or in chains. What kind of world will one envision? The mental experiment is a kind of research in reincarnation where one imagines the next life and then has to accept one’s fate on the other side. Not knowing where one will be in this imaginary world is a kind of conditional ignorance Rawls calls the original position, or the veil of ignorance. The neat trick of this original position is that as one seeks his own advantage, he must seek the advantage of all. The seriousness of Rawls’ experiment is that one is really thinking about this world and creating the foundational ideas that may undergird a platform for change.

A friend of our Christian may ask what is it about this world that needs changing? If one does not say “everything,” then one might as well start choosing particulars. Our Christian may state that a good place to start is with economic injustice, and that seems fair enough.


Shell and the Niger Delta

One child died after being caught in the crude. About 20 of our people are going to hospital each day with skin problems, breathing difficulties and other illnesses.

(Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta, p. 1)

The world needs oil. The world, in this sense, is the industrialized and proto-industrialized world; an ever ravenous beast for petroleum and its myriad of products, from gas to power our oversized SUVs to the non-animal, synthetic fabric products used to make the outdoor clothing of nature enthusiasts. Backroom deals are made over oil, wars are fought over oil, and debates about need, greed, and the future of oil are part and parcel of our world. And occasionally, even in the midst of the already fomented controversies about oil, there are cases that raise additional questions, if only because of their scale and/or implications. Shell Oil production in the Niger Delta region of Africa is just such a case.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Oil and natural gas are Nigeria’s largest industries accounting for more than 98% of export earnings and about 83% of government revenue, and around 40% of it GDP. (Petroleum in Nigeria) Most of that oil is located in the Niger Delta region. Nigeria is also the 10th largest oil producing nation and the U.S. remains its largest customer of crude oil, accounting for about 40% of Nigeria’s total oil exports. From the time the British discovered oil in Nigeria in the 1950s the industry has been marred by political and economic difficulties, including corrupt military regimes, collusion between foreign oil companies and Nigeria’s government, abuse of indigenous peoples, and significant, ongoing pollution of the region. Although all the major oil producing companies have their stake in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell (locally known as Shell Nigeria) has by far the largest investment and produces about 50% of Nigeria’s total oil extraction.

The physical impact of oil extraction has taken a significant toll on the people and environment of the Niger Delta. Correspondingly, almost none of the vast wealth produced by the oil extraction has gone to the people in the region. Uncountable oil spills have created such a level of pollution that any hope of reclaiming the land to even an approximation of its original health is largely fantasy. Neither Shell, nor the Nigerian government, has shown much interest in either cleaning up the mess or reducing the causes of the pollution.

The human toll has also been high. Many Nigerian citizens suffer from air, water, and soil pollution. There is little to no doubt that much of the human suffering in the Niger Delta region comes from the insidious curse of oil and related contamination. Bronchial asthma and other respiratory diseases, gastro-enteritis, and cancer have all been recorded at significantly higher levels among those in the region than elsewhere. Neither Shell nor the Nigerian government have shown much interest in alleviating the suffering or addressing the obvious sources of the suffering.

One area of investment of great importance to Shell is helping to fund the Nigerian military. The military, under the auspices of protecting Shell from unlawful harm and dissent, have killed numerous indigenous people, destroyed several villages outright, and brutally stopped peaceful, non-violent protests. Shell has admitted to purchasing weapons for the military and of paying specifically for the military to go into villages which, in each case, has resulted in death.

Much more can be said of the role of Shell and other oil companies in the Niger Delta. The overwhelming question is not whether Shell, in collusion with the Nigerian government, is doing bad things. That is fairly obvious, even in light of the great apparent value of having billions of gallons of oil available to the world’s economic system. The question is why do these things happen? Why do companies, and apparently the people that run them, seem to care more for innumerable profits and the power necessary to guarantee those profits than for what we all, in our better moments, claim to be of a higher good, that is, human life in its fullest and most meaningful sense? Does the answer lie with economic systems or with human nature? Or both?

Working Women in a Global Economy

Exploiting the circumstance of vulnerable people – whether intentionally or not – is at the heart of many employment strategies in global supply chains.

(Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004, p. 4)

For a citizen of an post-industrialized consumer society, where goods are offered in vast quantities and competitive prices, the global supply chain is critical to economic maintenance. With margins to be managed all along the way, goods must be produced quickly, efficiently, and at virtually no cost. Laborers must (as so-called free markets dictate) be found who will work without complaint for low wages. In other words, exploitation of human life-energy, in its more negative connotation, is becoming increasingly de rigueur for modern global economies supplying consumer based societies.

Certainly there is nothing new in exploiting human labor for one’s own gain. The pharaohs built their pyramids, the caesars conquered the known world, and U.S. farmers harvested their cotton by the sweat of the subjugated, conscripted, and vanquished. What makes the present day so singular is the combination of scale, perceptions, possibilities, and gender.

Increasingly, women are playing a central role in the global supply chain. In fact, the majority of jobs at the end of the chain, from sewing, to harvesting and packing fruit, to making shoes, are done by women. Given the poverty of the countries where many of these women live one might assume that having the opportunity to participate in the global supply chain ,working for some international company producing goods for affluent societies, would provide a release from the shackles of penury. All too often the very opposite seems to be the truth. The following examples were taken from a recent Oxfam report (Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004):

  • In Chile, 75 per cent of women in the agricultural sector are hired on temporary contracts picking fruit, and put in more than 60 hours a week during the season. But one in three still earns below the minimum wage.
  • Fewer then half of the women employed in Bangladesh’s textile and garment export sector have a contract, and the vast majority get no maternity or health coverage – but 80 per cent fear dismissal if they complain.
  • In China’s Guangdong province, one of the world’s fastest growing industrial areas, young women face 150 hours of overtime each month in the garment factories – but 60 per cent have no written contract and 90 per cent have no access to social insurance.

When one walks into a major retailer, a supermarket, or any other conveyor of goods in North America or Europe, one is likely to be confronted by products made by underpaid, overworked laborers from the global exploitation network. Marx was concerned that workers in capitalistic economies would lose contact with the results of their work, that they would become alienated from the very product of their own energy and efforts, and even from labor itself. Ironically, it is not only the laborer who have become alienated from their products, it is the consumer who has become alienated from the reality of their consumables. The shopper perusing the shelves in The Gap, or Target, or Wall-Mart, or Safeway is typically unaware of the toil behind the products displayed before them, or the true cost of those products. And the true cost is increasingly carried by the women (and their families) who toil in harsh conditions, with low pay, no benefits, and little guarantees. Therefore, it is not only the companies who rely on these women, but it is the pleasantly ignorant consumers who are, though unaware they may be, happy to let someone else bear the burden.

Might there be a different way to doing global economies? The question is not about the rightness or wrongness of abusing women’s social positions within the global supply chain for economic gain, for its wrongness is evident. Rather, the question is how is it that so much injustice seems to be a part of a system that so many apparently good, ordinary people readily accept? Where is Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding all these selfish desires toward the best possible outcomes for everyone? Or maybe the solution is, in fact, not an invisible hand at all, but a will toward love.

Putting Meat on the Table

Worker looses hand. Worker loses legs. Worker killed.

(Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants, 2005, p. 2)

At you local grocer, neatly wrapped in clear plastic and styrofoam, laying in rows under bring lights, are the appealing displays of relatively fresh meat, from poultry to beef, pork to veal. But the packaging belies a deeper truth than what’s for dinner. Certainly, one truth is that meat comes from animals and does not magically appear at the store; somewhere an animal had to die for this display of tasty comestibles to exist. However, another more serious truth lies behind these neat rows of animal protein, that is the human toll of the meatpacking industry.

In the U.S., the meatpacking industry, with its slaughtering and processing plants churning out mass quantities of products for the American table, is home to some of the most dangerous jobs in the world. More significantly is the harsh reality facing the workers in these factories. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report (Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants): “Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They aggressively block workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the vulnerabilities of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work site.” (p. 1)

Workers put in long hours, face possible death, amputation, and maiming daily, are not allowed freedom of association, fear reporting injuries for fear of being fired, and suffer ignominious treatment in abject conditions due, not least in part, to the fact that many of the workers are immigrants. According the report, these abuses are not rare, isolated cases (bad enough as that would be), but represent “systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.” (p. 1) A great amount of ink has been spilled defending the rights of animals against the meat and poultry industry. Little has been said, unfortunately, about the human toll.

The report also highlights that the U.S. government has committed itself to upholding and protecting rights guaranteed in several critical international documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and members Families. These documents have formally established at least the following workers’ rights: (a) A safe and healthful workplace, (b) compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses, (c) freedom of association and the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively, (d) equality of conditions and the rights for immigrant workers. The U.S. government has failed to promote and enforce these obligations.

Surely the troubles here described are not merely a government issue about enforcing obligations accepted by the international community. A more fundamental question is why do such abuses of seemingly obvious human rights happen, or maybe “happen” is not the right word. At every turn, as in all of life, choice is available for each player in the process. For some, choice has little personal consequences, for others, choice is a matter of life and death. Using and abusing other persons for one’s own ends is a choice, it does not just happen, regardless of how uncritically one approaches those choices. But the question remains, why do such abuses happen? Where is the basic goodness that we are told people have innately within them? If people are basically good, where then is the rebellion against evil choices? Why is there so much room for selfishness, greed, and the acceptance of other people’s suffering? Could it be that we are without an adequate system of ethics, even an adequate system of economics, to guide us? Could it be that the world is fundamentally the victim of a false idea? If so, where then is the answer to be found?


” . . . [E]xtorted promises are void ab initio.”

~ John Rawls

Applying Rawls’ thought experiment to these case studies forces one to consider the possibility that one could end up as an indigenous person in the Niger Delta, or a woman in Bangladesh making garments for large retail chains, or an immigrant worker in a U.S. meatpacking plant. The potential reality of such an experiment, if it truly could be advanced into real change, would likely be the unraveling of much of the world’s systems, from economic to political, the social to the religious. Rawls’ argues that the implications of his experiment lead to two fundamental principles or maxims.

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

With these maxims in one hand and the case studies in the other, one might imagine how the world could be different. Shell Oil and the Nigerian government would have to consider the inherent inequalities between the vast wealth produced by oil production and the relative poverty and sufferings of local residents and seek to develop a system where pollution is better controlled and more of the wealth is given to the local population. For the global supply chain, one would seek to provide adequate benefits and minimum pay for women workers. For the U.S. meatpacking industry, allowances for worker associations and adequate representation would need to be allowed and encouraged. Obviously, these changes would only be the tip of a vast iceberg. In fact, so many changes would be necessary to carry forth Rawls’ experiment from theory to action that many of the issues described in the case studies would cease to be issues just because the fundamental inequalities that make the case studies the examples they are would disappear.

The irony is that Rawls’ thought experiment is unnecessary, though not without individual value. This new and improved world has already been imagined and, though imperfectly, been codified. If our economic and political systems were truly based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, et al., then would not Rawls’ experiment be made manifest, at least to a significant degree? Which raises the question: Is the issue an issue of imagination, or even of knowledge? Do we need to build another castle in the air? Or is the issue about something much deeper and profound, at the level of our individual wills and desires?


And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

~ Matthew 22:39

The dilemma with systems of ethics is that the human heart always finds a way of disregarding them. More importantly, the human heart, history shows us, is capable of great goodness and indescribable evil, and every shade in between. Both the goodness and the evil of the human will can be exacerbated by systems, even as it seeks to overcome them. For Rawls there are two systems, one is the method of deriving the other. Both are capable of being influenced by the corrosive forces of power seeking, arrogance, and self deception. And neither have an answer for ignorance. Rawls’ original position is also a position of perfection, an ideal seeking after an ideal. Is this, then, a truly feasible solution? No, and yet ideals are what create the greatest forces for change. How then shall our everyday Christian friend find a true solution? Maybe the answer lies not with a question, but with an exhortation, and not an exhortation to be ethical, but to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Questions of rights have ways of getting tangled. Business and political leaders can twist out of many ethical questions, or can redefine them in slightly different terms, or can deny them on some imaginary higher grounds. That is because ethics is an outward proposition. Ethics asks people (mainly other people) to change their behaviors regardless of their inward desires. Love seeks to change the core of people, to make them better, to seek what is ultimately good in spite of failures and poor choices. If the powerful decision makers of Shell Oil, the captains of the global supply chain, and the capitalists of the U.S. meatpacking industry were to truly and honestly adopt Rawls maxims there would be significant change for the better. That is certainly true. But if those same decision makers, captains, and capitalists were to love their neighbors (and maybe that is all Rawls really intended) then something truly transforming would happen, and not merely to the loved, but also to the one who loves.

At this point our fearless everyday Christian may realize that an impasse is looming. The strategy of choosing a method that seeks obligations cannot change the human heart. All it can do is build another system with a set of maxims by which to live. It cannot solve the dilemma of good intentions corrupted by ever present evil. Might then our Christian turn back to God and ask for wisdom. And in this turning back, might our Christian have finally set himself on the path for which he set out, namely to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all others? The path might be narrow, but it is well worn: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

A final note

I wrote this paper in 2006 for a business ethics course as part of my MBA degree. I do not think I would change anything in it, though I feel my thinking has progressed somewhat and, if anything, I would expand the paper significantly. Fundamentally I still believe that a critique of business from a moral/ethical stance must include a recognition of the existential nature of human beings. Answers are not found in systems, though some systems are far better than others, rather answers are found in God’s working on the human heart, and that remains a mystery still.


Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants. (2005). Human Rights Watch report. Retrieved Friday, March 17th, 2006 from

Kierkegaard, S. (1962). Works of love: Some christian reflections in the form of discourses (H. Hong & E. Hong. Trans.). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Petroleum in Nigeria. (n.d.) Retrieved Tuesday, March 14, 2006 from

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta. (n.d.) Christian Aid report. Retrieved Monday, March 13th, 2006 from

Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains. (2004). Oxfam International report. Retrieved Monday, March 13th, 2006 from

Additional sources

Compa, L. and Fellner, J. (2003) Meatpacking’s human toll. Washington Post. Retrieved Monday, March 20th, 2006 from

>self centered


The question came up […] about being self-centered and selfish. How can we not be self-centered was implied in the question. Is not altruism the ideal state of being for the Christian?

JAC said: “We can’t but be self centered. If I’m not the center of my universe, who is?” But he qualified this statement by making a distinction between selfishness that is part of my God designed humanness and selfishness that is evil – or what we typically think of when we consider selfishness. To seek the glory that comes from God is both “selfish” and good. The is what Jesus did. He went to the cross willingly, not only because he loved us, but also because he was doing what needed to happen if he was to enter into the glory God had for him, namely to inherit a kingdom. Therefore, Jesus was not altruistic in the way we tend to think of that concept, that is, to completely deny one’s own needs, desires, or wants for the sake of the other. This may not jive with what we are accustomed to hearing.

JAC went on to say: “What makes selfishness evil is not a matter of seeking what is best for myself.” To seek the pearl of great price, as told in the parable, is a good thing. But we know that selfishness can also be, and usually is, evil. He then went on to define three characteristics of what makes selfishness evil:
  1. Seeking shallow desires at the expense of other human beings.
  2. Acting on the self deluded idea that I’m the most important being in the cosmos.
  3. Rejecting the idea that what is best for me is to be like God in my character and then being committed to the well being of others.
To love others is not to ultimately deny oneself, or to only care about the other and care nothing for oneself. To be committed to goodness for its own sake produces love for others as well as an appropriate relationship to all of creation including oneself. It is giving out of love (and consequently out of strength) that does not take away from oneself, but in fact, benefits oneself.

Finally, is selfishness or self-centeredness the root or cause of all that is evil in the world? Some would say one’s sin has everything to do with one’s relationship to oneself, thus implying that self-centeredness is our biggest problem. JAC disagrees. He said: “It’s not my inappropriate attachment to me that makes sin sin. It’s my inappropriate rejection of God that makes sin sin.” In other words, being inappropriately attached to myself is part of rejecting God, but it is the rejection of God that is the foundation of sin. Self-centeredness flows out of our rejection of God.


>just war


As Cain lifted the stone so that he might bring it down upon his bother Abel’s head to kill him, Abel leaped out of the way and grabbed a stone from the ground and threw it at Cain’s head. Cain fell to the ground and died. God came to Abel and asked him, “Where is your brother Cain?” Abel said to God, “I killed him in self-defense.” God then said to Abel, “Did you have to kill him? Was there not a more peaceful solution? Do you not believe that I can take care of you?” Abel said to God, “Like I said, it was in self-defense and, honestly, there really was no other alternative. I know Cain would never change. You know how it is with people like that.”

I am studying about Just War Theory. I am inclined to think that when the layers of arguments are pealed back it comes down to human nature: Sin is the great justifier of its own existence. Sin is the great excuser. I fear that Just War Theory is fundamentally an elaborate excuse system. I recognize this is simplistic, but maybe simple is closer to the truth. The fact that Just War Theory is also the “common sense” position only fuels my suspicion.

More specifically I find fascinating the fact that human beings are utterly captivated with this world. We love this world (my perspective here is Pauline not Platonic). More importantly, we are committed to this world being a certain way and we not only feel the need to make is so, we want the control to make it so. Part of that control is the belief in our right to exist at the expense of others – if it comes to that. In other words, I have my life and no one has the right to take it from me (true, except that God has that right of course) therefore I can take another’s life if my life is threatened (true??). 
In Just War Theory it goes a step further. I have the right, some might say the obligation, to take the life of another if a government tells me to, assuming that government has made the case that the killing is justified. Or, if we don’t go quite that far, I am at least absolved of any need for either justice or mercy for having killed.

We weave our elaborate theories out of our common sense. Our common sense emerges from our captivation with this world. And, like all things human, our common sense is run through with sin.

There is a logic to the Just War Theory, but I fear we only cling to the logic in order to delude ourselves into believing our right to chose to kill in war does not come from our corrupt hearts. We disparage Cain in the Genesis account, but we hold to a position not unlike Abel in the fractured fairy tail version above. We are good at creating a gloss over sin. This does not mean there is no truth in the gloss, but it may still be only a gloss over something we neither want to look at or be seen. (I use “we” in the broadest human sense, recognizing the multiplicity of experiences.)
I am in the process of looking deeper into Just War Theory. I am doing some reading and a lot of pondering. I welcome any suggestions for reading. I will probably write through my process here on SatelliteSaint.