Converting the Church

In his epochal commentary on the biblical Epistle to the Romans in 1919, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth reminded his readers that “It was the Church, and not the world, that crucified Christ.”

These are words that we need to recall constantly. Authoritarian governments have sprung up all the world in recent years, many of them supported by people calling themselves “Bible-believing Christians.” Even as I write, such folk in Brazil are preparing to vote into the Presidency a former army officer who is brazenly racist, misogynistic, contemptuous of the poor and defensive of the military dictatorship in Brazil’s dark era of repression.

A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That such an ecclesiastical conversion is possible is shown by the case of the Roman Catholic Church. In the first half of the twentieth century the Roman Catholic Church was denouncing the discourse of human rights, and its fear of communism led it to support fascism in Europe and Latin America. All that changed with the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and the widespread influence of liberation theologies. Today it is the Roman Catholic Church that is spearheading resistance to dictatorships and human rights abuses in many parts of the world, much to the shame of their non-Catholic Christian brethren. So we should not lose hope.

Earlier this month, nearly four decades after his death, the former El Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero was declared a “saint” by Pope Francis. Romero was killed by members of a death squad while performing mass at the Church of the Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Romero was an outspoken champion of the poor in his country. The day before his death, he publicly denounced the violence carried out by the country’s armed forces against civilian populations during a mass at the National Cathedral. His death sent shockwaves throughout Latin America. It made many sceptics more open to what the Church had to say. Today, when mass consumerism and social conformity has stifled dissent and counter-cultural resistance, the Church (for all its inner contradictions and tensions) quietly and courageously follows Jesus in caring for the poor, the foreigner and the vulnerable.

On this Blog I have often drawn attention to the global class of the “super-rich”, the miniscule fraction of the world’s population who own all the wealth and so influence governmental policies. Last year, a former British journalist Richard Reeves, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., argued in his book Dream Hoarders, that in the U.S it is the top 20% who are the real American villains: a large group of well-heeled pickpockets with huge bonuses on top of high salaries, tax breaks on mortgage interests and college savings funds, who engage in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans.

The book shows how this upper-middle class, while not having seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires, are able to dominate the country’s top colleges, insulate themselves in wealthy neighbourhoods with excellent private schools and public services, and enjoy the best health care. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that — an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, sending them to the top universities, providing them with social connections that make a difference when entering the labour force, helping with internships, paying for college tuition and home-buying. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder — such as reduction in wealth and inheritance taxes, exclusionary zoning, or legacy admissions to colleges.

I believe this is happening all over the world. It may be the top 20% in the West and Japan, a smaller proportion elsewhere, but it’s really the upper middle-class (to whom many of us belong) who are limiting opportunity for everyone else.

This is not a political divide: it’s a social chasm. It doesn’t seem to matter who wins political elections; no party has the will to challenge the way of life of the upper middle classes.

Will the gubernatorial elections in the US next month make any real difference? The upper middle-class Democrats dislike Trump but they are happy to sit out his presidency as they are doing quite well financially under him.

The Rev Martin Luther King famously observed that it was as a cruel jest to tell a man to lift himself up with his bootlaces when he didn’t have any boots.

First published on Vinoth’s Blog

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