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The Danger of Being Swept Along (cont.)

January 8, 2011 Leave a comment

A follow up from this morning’s post:

Evil is overcome only by good, hate by love, egoism by generosity.  It is thus that we must sow justice in our world.  To be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice.  One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.

All this sounds very nice, you will say, but isn’t it just a little bit up in the air?  Very well, let us get down to cases.  How do we get this principle of justice through love down to the level of reality, the reality of our daily lives?  By cultivating in ourselves three attitudes:

First, a firm determination to live much more simply – as individuals, as families, as social groups – and in this way to stop short, or at least to slow down, the expanding spiral of luxurious living and social competition.  Let us have men and women who will resolutely set themselves against the tide of our consumer society.  Men and women who, instead of feeling compelled to acquire everything that their friends have will do away with many of the luxuries which in their social set have become necessities, but which the majority of humankind must do without.  And if this produces surplus income, well and good; let it be given to those for whom the necessities of life are still luxuries beyond their reach.

Second, a firm determination to draw no profit whatever from clearly unjust sources.  Not only that, but going further, to diminish progressively our share in the benefits of an economic and social system in which the regards of production accrue to those already rich, while the cost of production lies heavily on the poor.  Let there be men and women who will bend their energies not to strengthen positions of privilege, but, to the extent possible, reduce privilege in favor of the underprivileged.  Please do not conclude too hastily that this does not pertain to you – that you do not belong to the privileged few in your society.  It touches everyone of a certain social position, even though only in certain respects, and even if we ourselves may be the victims of unjust discrimination by those who are even better off than ourselves.  In this matter, our basic point of reference must be the truly poor, the truly marginalized, in our own countries and in the Third World.

Third, and most difficult:  a firm resolve to be agents of change in society; not merely resisting unjust structures and arrangements, but actively undertaking to reform them.  For, if we set out to reduce income in so far as it is derived from participation in unjust structures, we will find out soon enough that we are faced with an impossible task unless those very structures are changed. 

Thus, stepping down from our own posts of power would be too simple a course of action.  In certain circumstances it may be the proper thing to do; but ordinarily it merely serves to hand over the entire social structure to the exploitation of the egotistical.  Here precisely is where we begin to feel how difficult is the struggle for justice.

Pedro Arrupe, “Men and Women for Others,” in Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, 185-186

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The Danger of Being Swept Along

January 8, 2011 2 comments

Do not allow yourself to be overcome by evil, but rather, overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

I have been thinking a lot lately of the way in which American culture (maybe just consumerism) shapes the way in which many of us conceive of happiness and the default life we seek to live: more things, more comfort, etc. To live life unreflectively is to live life in this way. (Although I am sure this way of thinking/living is pervasive across society and particularly the well-off, I am speaking here mostly of myself as a white male from a comfortable background. I speak as one who is privileged, as one who already has comfort, support, education, etc.). I have nothing profound to say on this topic, but the writings of Pedro Arrupe (superior general of the Jesuits from 1965-1983) have challenged me to keep thinking about this theoretically and practically. A couple short passages:

In a talk on racial discrimination and inequality in America, Arrupe quotes a 1949 instruction from his predecessor as superior general John Baptist Jannssens. In the passage Jannssens describes the situation of the lower classes and concludes by juxtaposing this with those who are well-off socially and economically: “and at the same time [to be in this lower class is] to behold…the very people for whom one works, abounding in riches, enjoying superfluous comforts, devoting themselves to liberal studies and fine arts, loaded with honors, authority, and praise” (“Interracial Apostolate” in Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, 156). Comfort, time for study and leisure, honors, authority, praise: to what extent are these my highest desires if I am honest with myself?

In the context of doing “works of justice,” Arrupe describes the need to have “a firm resolve never to profit from, or allow ourselves to be suborned by, positions of power deriving from privilege, for to do so, even passively, is equivalent to active oppression. To be drugged by the comforts of privilege is to become contributors to injustice as silent beneficiaries of the fruits of injustice” (“Men and Women for Others,” 179). It is precisely this “being drugged” that I am trying to understand more fully. One way in which this manifests itself is the way in which we compare ourselves to others. It is incredibly easy to look around and see others that have so much more than I have. Seeing others with more has two effects on me: sometimes it strengthens my desire for more – I want that too; other times it ideologically comforts and soothes me – at least I do not have as much as some people. It is easy in this case to ignore my privileged existence and sooth myself with the knowledge that as a graduate student and future professor in America I am not “rich.” Of course, if I take a more global perspective  and recognize that compared to the world as a whole I am at the top economically, socially, and in terms of education, can I be described as anything but rich?

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