Monday, November 17, 2008

Padilla, Christians and justice

In case you're wondering, reason for lack of updates: busyness + tiredness. Thank you for all those who prayed for me. I am still feeling the effects of tiredness and my schedule isn't going to ease anytime soon.

I had the chance to listen to Rene Padilla, the well-known missiologist, tonight. I had been expecting a talk on the relationship between mission and social action/responsibility, but it turned out to be more specifically on globalization, particularly its economic dimensions and a call to be involved in structural change. The first half of his talk focused more on the phenomenon of globalization, particularly its negative implications, drawing especially from Joseph Stiglitz, (I suppose you could call it an attack on capitalism, but more on that in a moment) and the second half of his talk was on the need for justice.

The response from the floor (the talk was given to postgraduate students) was quite spirited and at times, even tense, with a fair number disagreeing with some of the solutions Padilla offered. I should say that Padilla was fairly general - I don't get the sense he offered any concrete ways forward.

I have to say I could see the points of view from both sides. Padilla repeated often that Christians had to work "for justice", but I think he didn't really pinpoint the real issue at hand, which to me was: how best to work for justice? Everyone in the room agreed that Christians must stand for justice, but Padilla seemed to assume that his way = justice, whereas I don't think it was that straightforward. A few people in the room, especially those who were trained economists, was quite keen to point out that they thought capitalism was actually the best way in which to lift people out of poverty. Which leads me to what I think was the other question being debated: what is capitalism? Padilla was describing the way in which current global structures serve only the interests of the powerful, what he called "socialism for the rich". So the ensuing question becomes: is what we see practised in the world today a truly capitalistic model?

On the other hand, I was uncomfortable in particular with the way one person was so keen to defend the capitalistic model. Using the ascent of China as an eg., he then utilised a common line of argument: in the light of other alternatives, working in a sweatshop (he didn't use this term) was the best option, at least they're earning a little vs. starving to death on the streets. Padilla responded with the riposte of these people being the equivalent of modern slaves, and this guy said: "Yes, but they're voluntary slaves." I have some sympathy for his argument, but I was appalled by his flippant response. Surely the point is that while the capitalistic model has succeeded in this respect by offering the best option at this very moment, we need to try our best to keep improving their conditions and challenging those who cynically exploit them? And as another girl pointed out, those who were formerly in poverty are now using their newfound "freedom" to exploit others.

Another related issue was where change really should be effected, at the individual or structural level. Padilla was adamant that structural change was needed. I'm rather ambivalent on this issue. It seems to me that ultimately, everything boils down to individual actions - thousands or millions of individual actions to be sure, but it's still at that micro-level and so it seems best to work change on that level. On the other hand, there is a sense in which institutions do appear to have lives of their own that can't be easily undone. I wonder too, for eg., whether Padilla emphasises victimhood too much. And as someone pointed out, we had to be careful not to confuse material gain with spiritual gain, although they are inter-related. I think Padilla was right to point out that surely when Jesus speaks of abundant life, there must be some aspect of that which refers to life here now - how much better life would be if basic needs are met! But there's the other side of me that recognises that I am in a privileged position, relatively speaking, and that it is right to talk of sin not only as rebellion but as pollution, victimization etc., i.e as something external as well as internal. We (i.e humanity) are sinners, perpetrators, but also sinned against, casualties. There was part of me too that wondered how much of the debate was due to the cultural spectacles we wear: Padilla is South American, which will naturally be more community-minded, whereas many in the crowd were Westerners, where they would be more inclined to think more individualistically.

Actually, I can't help but feel that we're looking at the problem too much via "left-wing/right-wing" spectacles: one seems to put too much trust in the invisible hand of the free market, the other too much in the provision of the State. Both seem to me to come close to idolatry. In that sense, I've become a bit of a pragmatist. I don't think there's a model that would solve all our problems in the here and now, but that all we can do is to "make the best of it", to borrow the title of John Stackhouse's recent book. I was also pondering how this works out in the context of Christian unity. I think Christians will disagree, sometimes profoundly, on what the best strategy, and possibly even priority, of how to work for justice. Like I said, I think Padilla, a self-confessed non-economist, seemed to me to occasionally over-simplify. I recognise that I am less of an "activist", in that I don't immediately want to be absolutely dogmatic on issues that are not so clearcut and press on full-steam ahead. So I know in some sense, I must also be careful not to let a lack of expertise in the subject stop me from being committed to wanting to live as salt and light.

And I just don't think we can demonise those with whom we disagree. I don't think I would have voted for Obama, but I am not going to break fellowship with a thoughtful (or even not so thoughtful) Christian who has.

It was good to hear from Padilla. These are just off-the-cuff musings really. I needed to let them out somewhere, and this happened my chosen forum.

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