Friday, March 21, 2008

Famous Jesuit Challenges People

Keynote at Boston College Sees World Renowned Jesuit Challenge Christians for a Better World

If a Jesuit university is not being persecuted, then something is wrong!" Father Jon Sobrino made this statement at Boston College this past week at the end of his keynote address entitled "Jesuit Catholic Universities in the 21st century". It encompasses many of the virtues and beliefs espoused throughout his lecture. Father Sobrino is the renowned Jesuit theologian famous for his life long struggle against injustices and human rights violations in El Salvador. He was the spiritual advisor to the martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero who was shot dead by a right wing death squad on March 24, 1980 while celebrating mass and is heralded as the Mahatma Gandhi of Latin America. Father Sobrino narrowly escaped assassination at the university in El Salvador that he founded. He was away giving a speech abroad when six Jesuit faculty members and two lay workers were murdered by the army for teaching and preaching against the establishment (the government, the military, and people of privilege) on behalf of the poor who were suffering blatant human rights abuses during a vicious civil war.

Some people may think 'persecution' an odd choice of words but when you listen to Sobrino you cannot help but feel you are in the presence of a modern day prophet. In Catholic pedagogy prophets speak truth to those in power. Although his tone was softer than his written words, Sobrino's passionate discourse challenges the very core of American culture. He contends that consumerism and capitalism are flawed and that Christians (he believes the term Catholic is too narrowing) and especially Jesuit Universities should be attempting to come up with different or altered economic models. His argument is based on Jesus' preachings of the 'here and now' reign of God on Earth as stated in the Lord's prayer "…on earth as it is in Heaven…". Sobrino warns us that consumerism and the capitalism in practice today are overwhelmingly exclusive and wrought with injustices. He observes that consumerism causes people to extend themselves, live beyond their needs, and excessively use resources. The capitalism that he denounces preaches the accumulation of wealth and the building and building of capital often at the expense of others. Rather, he espouses a model that "rejects the accumulation of wealth and capital and is based on providing basic needs and the pure word of development".

While I believe both 'isms' have their positive aspects (e.g. helping to create and maintain the overall economy and support the private sector), each has the potential to be gravely misused. In the USA, whether we look at energy consumption, the role of corporations and corporate capitalism, or our foreign policy, it is evident that a disproportionate amount of our wealth and power is concentrated within the hands of the few. A recent CNN article notes "US income disparity reaches highest since 1920s". With all the excessive gains and wealth created by the US and world economies there are still billions living without access to clean water, dignified living space, or the rights to quality education or healthcare.

Sobrino challenges all people and especially Christian universities to have a mission of "influencing society in the right way". He speaks of the "crucified people". These are the overwhelming majority of the world population that live in poverty or face human rights violations that keep them oppressed. He challenges us to look at these people as Christ on the cross and to do two things. First, reflect on why these people are up there and if we did anything in anyway to aid in the process. Second, ask ourselves what are we doing now to help that person down.
How do we do this? Sobrino would say through solidarity and "a compassion that lights the dark spaces of the world". Some may dismiss him as a communist or socialist but they would be stuck in the past and not understand his message. He is talking about humanity and how the social institutions should have a mantra of "research with reason": Look at what is wrong with this system and tweak it or develop a new one. Perhaps instead of stressing accumulation of capital, the stress should be on pure development and basic needs. Perhaps multinational corporations that have long been accustomed to running rough shod over foreign governments and labor markets should have to take into account universal labor rights and environmentally friendly approaches. Perhaps instead of giving CEOs 50 million dollar bonuses the money could be used to create new jobs or run corporate social responsibility programs.

Sobrino's message brings hope but focuses on reflection, the courage of action, and social responsibility. It puts less stress for change on the institutions and large entities and more on the person and the individual. It transcends religion and is a cause that anyone can take up.

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