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.