Power and Wealth Matter, But So Does Human Flourishing

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Political power matters. Economic security matters. Any worldview totally divorced from material reality is one bound to perpetuate injustice, needless suffering, and further division. Humans do not live by bread alone, but we also need bread.

In a true, genuine democracy with authentic freedom, political participation cannot be reserved for the few. Government of, by, and for the rich is plutocracy, not democracy. Government designed to perpetuate white supremacy or racial hierarchies cannot be reconciled with democracy or freedom. Those working to establish free democracy and liberate people from hunger and desperate poverty must pay close attention to material conditions and the distribution of power.

But we run the risk of dehumanizing—or, more precisely, depersonalizing—others when we view them exclusively through the prism of how much power or money they have. When we think of ourselves this way, we can easily slip into a radical individualism that ignores the plight of the vulnerable and the common good. When we think of society through this lens, we can easily fall prey to collectivist ideologies that treat individual persons as cogs in a machine rather than as unique persons with innate worth and dignity. In many ways, collectivism and extreme individualism are two sides of the same coin.

Power and material security matter for human flourishing, but they certainly are not the only things that matter. Human worth is not based on how much money a person has or how much they contribute to society through their work or how many consumer goods they purchase. It is innate and immeasurable. And it is rooted in our nature as not just physical, but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

When we understand the nature and worth of the person, it transforms how we view ourselves and others. Acts of generosity are not a foolish waste of our hard-earned money but expressions of love for those we value. People who run into burning buildings to save people they have never met are not throwing their lives away, but may very well be pressing the limits of human potential with their courage and selflessness. The Black Christians who forgave the Charleston church shooter who massacred their loved ones were not afraid of demanding justice and equality, but were instead motivated by a sense of integrity and living out the radical faith, hope, and love that they believe endures all things and can transform all things. The parent who turns down a promotion at work that would involve far more travel in order to spend more time with their children is perhaps not sacrificing their potential but fully realizing it.

The reality is that we only truly flourish in community with others. The pandemic has made this vividly clear. Even introverts (like me) that do not mind a great deal of solitude understood that something important was missing during these lockdowns and quarantines. We need community. We are drawn toward communion. To resist this in order to maximize our individual or collective power or wealth is to betray our true nature.

In communities where relationships are rightly ordered, we do not become means to an end. We are not reduced to one of our characteristics. We do not discard those who seemingly lack utility. We are recognized as whole persons—and as entirely unique and irreplaceable.

How unique? Think of a child cradled in the warmth of a parent’s embrace. How irreplaceable is that child to the parent—and the parent to the child? Think of your dearest friend. What makes them so dear to you? Is it their style or your shared interests—or who they are at their absolute core? It is easy to understand the infinite worth of each person when we consider how irreplaceable they are to those who love them most.

If we start from a belief in the worth and dignity of each person and a commitment to creating a society where each person can truly flourish and reach their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential—a vision shared by personalists from Emmanuel Mounier to Martin Luther King Jr. to Pope Francis—the struggle for justice will neither ignore power dynamics and material conditions nor stop there.

We can fight against systemic racism—and for universal brotherhood and sisterhood. We can work to build a more equitable, sustainable economy that benefits all, rather than simply giving more people the resources to pursue happiness down the false path of consumerism, where the next thing you buy is always supposed to fill the hole in your heart or eliminate the insecurities gnawing at you. To build a just society, we must tackle unjust inequities and tyrannies, but we must also construct a future that allows true, integral flourishing—for all.


Around the Web: Articles on Racial Justice and Reform

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Race Manners: Which Black People Should I Believe? by Jenée Desmond-Harris: “Should you weigh the perspectives of people who are personally affected by racist policies? Of course. But you don’t have to weigh them all equally. Gather information and learn, yes, but as you’re digesting all those tweets and articles and interviews, ask yourself questions like these: Do I generally consider this person or media outlet to be smart and trustworthy? Do I see eye to eye with this person or media outlet on issues about which I feel more clear and confident? Does what I’m hearing line up with my values?”

Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism by Esau McCaulley: “When people point out bias or racism in structures (health care, housing, policing, employment practices), they are engaging in the most Christian of practices: naming and resisting sins, personal and collective. A Christian theology of human fallibility leads us to expect structural and personal injustice. It is in the texts we hold dear. So when Christians stand up against racialized oppression, they are not losing the plot; they are discovering an element of Christian faith and practice that has been with us since the beginning.”

Why Is the Country Panicking About Critical Race Theory? by Spencer Bokat-Lindell: “Florida is one of six states in recent months that have passed such pedagogical regulations — which in some cases apply to public universities — and 20 others are considering measures to the same effect, often explicitly targeting critical race theory. Where did this movement come from, and what are the underlying disputes? Here’s what people are saying.”

I’m a conservative who believes systemic racism is real by Michael Gerson: “Though our nation is beset with systemic racism, we also have the advantage of what a friend calls “systemic anti-racism.” We have documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment — that call us to our better selves. We are a country that has exploited and oppressed Black Americans. But we are also the country that has risen up in mass movements, made up of Blacks and Whites, to confront those evils. The response to systemic racism is the determined, systematic application of our highest ideals.”

Service, patriotism and the promise of Black liberation by EJ Dionne: “In his interviews with Black veterans, Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington, found a patriotism rooted not in the reality of their moment but in aspirations for the future — “hope that America would recognize its founding values. It’s the thing that kept them going,” he told me.”

The War on History Is a War on Democracy by Timothy Snyder: “The memory laws arise in a moment of cultural panic when national politicians are suddenly railing against “revisionist” teachings. In Russia, the supposed revisionists are people who write critically about Stalin, or honestly about the Second World War. In the United States, the “revisionists” are people who write about race. In both cases, “revisionism” tends to mean the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.”

His Name Was Emmett Till by Wright Thompson: “A Mississippi-history textbook taught at one in the early 1990s didn’t mention Till at all. A newer textbook contains 70 words on Till, calling him a “man” and telling the story of his killing through the lens of the damage that two evil men, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, did to all the good white folks. Half the passage is about how the segregationist governor was a “moderating force” in a time when media coverage of Till’s murder “painted a poor picture of Mississippi and its white citizens.” This textbook is still in use.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

We’re making the wrong argument for a four-day workweek by Christine Emba: “When we focus on how a shorter workweek will make us better employees, we’re making the wrong argument to our bosses and ourselves. The four-day workweek shouldn’t just be about becoming more productive — the real benefit is that it would allow us to be fuller people.”

‘A Form of Brainwashing’: China Remakes Hong Kong by Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stevenson: “With each passing day, the boundary between Hong Kong and the rest of China fades faster. The Chinese Communist Party is remaking this city, permeating its once vibrant, irreverent character with ever more overt signs of its authoritarian will. The very texture of daily life is under assault as Beijing molds Hong Kong into something more familiar, more docile.”

For Americans struggling with poverty, ‘the safety net in the United States is very, very weak,’ expert says by Joe Heim with Mark Robert Rank: “We show that 60 percent of the population between 20 and 75 will experience one year below the official poverty line, which is very conservative. And three-quarters of Americans will experience either poverty or near poverty, just above the poverty line. So people ask me: Why are those numbers so large? And one of the reasons is: If you look over longer periods of time, what happens is that things occur to us that we didn’t anticipate. So things like losing a job or a family splitting up or getting sick or a pandemic occurring. When they occur in the United States there’s not a lot to protect people. The safety net in the United States is very, very weak. So when these things happen, folks are very much at risk of falling into poverty.”

We need a national paid family and medical leave program. Here’s what Congress can do by Rachel Lea Scott: “The pandemic has underscored the depth of human interconnectedness, particularly how our health is often impacted by that of our neighbors and co-workers. A robust paid family and medical leave program benefits all of us, whether or not we are ever in a position to need to use it. As people of faith, this is precisely what we mean when we talk about promoting the common good.”

‘You Just Feel Like Nothing’: California to Pay Sterilization Victims by Amanda Morris: “Under the influence of a movement known as eugenics, whose supporters believed that those with physical disabilities, psychiatric disorders and other conditions were “genetically defective,” more than 60,000 people across the United States were forcibly sterilized by state-run programs throughout the 20th century.”

How Catholic social teaching improves all ‘four Americas’ by Michael Sean Winters: “I would submit, however, that the best way to ameliorate the worst features of each of these four narratives is with the strong tonic of Catholic moral teaching, and our social teaching more specifically.”

U.S. Proposal for 15% Global Minimum Tax Wins Support From 130 Countries by Liz Alderman, Jim Tankersley and Eshe Nelson: “An effort to push the most sweeping changes to the global tax system in a century gained significant momentum on Thursday when 130 nations agreed to a blueprint in which multinational corporations would pay an appropriate share of tax wherever they operate.”

Biden’s child tax credit should be obvious. Yet the result is revolutionary. by Christine Emba: “There were sure to be fumbles in a rollout of this size, but the expanded child tax credit is a watershed movement in how we think about helping others — and a template for effective anti-poverty policy in the future.”

8 Hours a Day, 5 Days a Week Is Not Working for Us by Bryce Cover: “If everyone worked less, though, it would be easier to spread the work out evenly to more people. If white-collar professionals were no longer expected or required to log 60 hours a week but 30 instead, that would be a whole extra job for someone else. That would allow more people into positions with middle-class incomes, particularly young people looking to put college educations to use. We could even guarantee everyone a floor, a certain number of hours, at the same time that we lower the ceiling. That would push low-wage employers to fully use the people they have and not treat them as interchangeable cogs to be called upon or turned away whenever demand necessitates.”


Should Christians Care About Self-care?

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Marcus Mescher writes:

This passage is illuminating because it shows that connection is the way forward. Whatever the disciples do while they rest and whatever they talk about—giving thanks for how they were able to help people or lamenting any obstacles they encountered on their journey—the disciples rejoice and commiserate together. They experience personal restoration precisely through the mutuality of their relationships.

Self-care isn’t just another item on our to-do list; it’s the habit of respect and responsibility that makes the inclusion and interdependence of solidarity possible. It’s no accident that this retreat from the crowd sets the table for the miraculous feeding of five thousand; making time to rest and reflect, to give and receive compassion, and take stock of reasons to be filled with gratitude increase our capacity to practice tenderness and generosity. Healing is a communal gift and task.


Texas Bishops: Don’t Shut Down Our Assistance to Vulnerable Migrant Children

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Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso and Bishop Edward J. Burns of Dallas write:

Texas officials are poised to shutter several religious ministries, which would leave foster children without homes and immigrant children in mass facilities. Unless something changes, this will happen on Aug. 31, in violation of state laws protecting religious freedom.

Across the state of Texas, Catholic Charities provides homelike care to hundreds of vulnerable migrant children every day; many were born in Texas and some were abandoned and alone after crossing the border. Children in our homes often suffer from severe trauma, instability and uncertainty. For those who crossed the border, many escaped or evaded drug cartels and child sex traffickers on their way into this country.

Motivated by our faith, Catholic Charities provides food, clothing and shelter to these children, following Jesus’ command to care for orphans and widows in their distress, to welcome the stranger and to care for those who suffer.

But this work is now in peril. A recent state-level executive order will soon strip the child care licenses from any organization that provides shelter to migrant children, including the six child welfare programs operated by Catholic Charities in Texas. While perhaps well-intentioned, this order has serious unintended consequences. The order wouldn’t just remove migrant children from care; it would also close homes that care for Texas-born foster children. Instead of relieving pressure on Texas’ overstressed foster care system, it would transfer hundreds of these kids each year into a system that is already short on homes.

And it would remove state-level conscience protections for Catholic Charities, exposing us to regulation and pressure from those who do not share our commitment to the dignity, safety and well-being of mothers and children. The move will cost children homes and Texans jobs. Were Catholic Charities to lose their state license, this would strip well over 100 Texas foster children of loving foster families and necessary support, and if our homes closed, it could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic impact in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.


Cardinal Cupich: Flawed Understanding of Freedom Has Led to Environmental Crisis

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Brian Roewe reports:

A bolder embrace of Laudato Si’ in the U.S. requires rejecting individualism, indifference and the “false idol of economic growth” that permits reckless exploitation of the environment, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich said at the start of a conference seeking to bolster the response of the nation’s Catholics to climate change and the pope’s landmark ecological encyclical.

Cupich challenged Catholics to see sacrifice as “essential to saving our planet” and called on young people to meet with their bishops and priests to share their concerns about climate change and urge them to speak out on the environmental challenges facing the world.

“I am convinced that it is useless to talk about advancing a culture of life absent a vigorous commitment — both by individuals and communities — to making the sacrifices required for improving the socioeconomic, ecological and political crises of our time,” Cupich said….

“What does the pope’s challenging message mean for a Christian community that professes a commitment to promoting a culture of life, yet acts with indifference to the call to make the sacrifices needed to protect this common home that God has entrusted to us?” Cupich asked, calling the ecological crisis “the most challenging sign of our time” and one caused by human activity….

A core hurdle, he said, is an idolatry of money in the U.S. that “triggers the worst in us” and leads to individualism, indifference and irrational competition. Fueling that mindset has been a misinterpretation of “dominion” in the Book of Genesis as giving humanity free rein to exploit the Earth….

“We have fallen into the misconception that material growth is synonymous with human development,” Cupich said.

Misconceptions about development have also distorted notions of freedom and approaches to politics, he added. “While the sense of absolute freedom without responsibility has led us to take from the Earth more than we need, it has also alienated us from our fundamental identities as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

“Let’s be clear,” the cardinal said. “Sharing, solidarity and communion are neither anti-freedom values nor the basis of an anti-American ‘socialist’ plan. They are first and foremost Christian values, deep human values that are vital for actual human development.”