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Sunday Homily: Pope Francis, Jesus and David Brooks on Wealth Redistribution

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Readings for 3 rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23

According to an Oxfam report released last Monday (Jan. 20 th ), the 85 richest people in the world now have as much wealth as the world's 3.6 billion poorest people -- i.e. as much as half the planet's entire population. Eighty-five people!

The report's publication makes clear the importance of Pope Francis' recent Apostolic Exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" (E.G.). That's because the pope's "Joy of the Gospel" specifically addresses the injustices of income inequalities.

The Oxfam report also reveals as fatuous a recently advanced defense of vast wealth differentials in the very terms the pope criticizes. (I'm referring to David Brooks' New York Times column -- see below.) Oxfam's report also makes relevant the readings in today's liturgy of the word. They address inequality by reflecting the mentality of the poor and Jesus' commitment to the working class in first century Palestine's social context of obscene differences in wealth between rich and poor.

Before looking at those readings, I wonder what you think of that Oxfam statistic. Once again, the richest 85 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion -- the poorest half of our planet's population.

Personally, I find that shocking and almost unfathomable. Yet the New York Times' David Brooks says inequality is not the problem. As a powerful apologist for the rich, Brooks alleges that only those locked into a "primitive zero-sum mentality" would believe that the poor are poor because the rich have too much of the earth's resources.

The economic pie is continually expanding, Brooks implies. So even though good jobs have been off-shored, and Wall Street bonuses are indefensible, the problem of inequality cannot be solved by wealth redistribution schemes or raises in the minimum wage. Instead, the real solution is to educate the poor -- furnishing them with the cultural attitudes and job skills necessary to lift them from poverty caused by single parent families, school drop-outs, and the resulting generations-long culture of poverty.

Brooks' argument is hackneyed. And in its familiarity, it illustrates the fallacies about poverty commonly subscribed to by the rich. Those approaches nearly always embrace a version of trickle-down theory. They find poverty's solution in reforming the poor and educating them for the hi-tech jobs that will emancipate them from poverty. Mainstream intellectuals reject measures like minimum wage increases and higher taxes on the rich as "populist" and as introducing class-conflict themes that are dangerous and counterproductive.

It is such dodges by the rich that were specifically rejected by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium. There the pope says unmistakably that extreme wealth on the one hand and abysmal poverty on the other are interconnected. In fact, he accuses the powerful of actually "feeding upon" the powerless (E.G. #53). They're eating them up!   Francis also rejects out of hand the trickle-down mentality behind Brooks' observations. The pope classifies Brooks' reference to a "primitive zero-sum mentality" as itself being "crude and naïve."

In fact, what the pope actually says about trickle-down theories can't be repeated too often. He writes:   "In this context some people continue to defend trickle-down theories . . . This opinion which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power . . . Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting."

Pope Francis also scraps apologetics like those Brooks employs when he essentially blames the poor for their poverty and would save them by "education." Here Francis' specific words are: " Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an "education" that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless."

Pope Francis' words bring a startling reminder to would-be Christians that economic questions -- considerations of social justice and equality -- are central to Christian faith. Francis' words sensitize us to a reality that presents itself to believers every Sunday if we're attentive enough to perceive the socio-economic dimensions in each week's readings.

Today's readings once again offer a case in point. The first selection comes from the prophet Isaiah. It recalls a time when Israel had been released from painful exile and enslavement by ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq). According to Isaiah, exile was a time of anguish, darkness, gloom and distress -- the pain inevitably experienced by the exploited then and now. Liberation from slavery's "rod and yoke" changed all of that. Darkness and gloom were replaced by light, joy and rejoicing.

Significantly for the topic at hand (inequality and its remedies) the prophet uses two poor people's images to describe the change. The joy of the liberated was like that of peasants reaping the fields at harvest time. Now, however, the harvested crop would belong to them, not to idle landlords.   In this new situation reaping the fields presaged a time when hunger would be replaced by feasting.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)
 

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