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Faith and Justice in a Postmodern World

Faith and Justice in a Postmodern World

Michael Amaladoss SJ

 

T

he 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus realized that the promotion of justice is an integral dimension of the profession of faith. Faith is not merely belief but commitment to love God in the Other, that is, all others. In a context of injustice and inequality, loving others, especially the poor, demands that we ensure that they receive what is their due as humans in the world. This calls for a transformation of the economic and political structures that make people poor. Faith is therefore not merely fidelity to religious ritual or to an otherworldly spirituality. It has to do justice through the transformation of socio-economic structures. (cf. Decree 4)

The 34th General Congregation realized that the transformation of socio-economic structures is not possible without cultural and religious transformation. In a situation of cultural and religious pluralism this can happen only through dialogue between cultures and religions in the context of an awareness of God’s presence and action in that dialogue. The Congregation also mentioned areas besides poverty that needed attention: human rights, globalization, the defence of human life, environment, human solidarity, Dalits and indigenous peoples, the excluded, refugees and displaced persons. It also spoke of a need for our own personal conversion. (cf. Decree 3)

The 35th General Congregation, while recommitting the Society to this mission, highlights two elements of the contemporary world that need special attention, namely, globalization and postmodernism. Let me look at them from an Indian point of view.

 

Globalization

 

GC34 had already spoken about globalization in the context of “a growing consciousness of the interdependence of all peoples in one common heritage.”

 

“While this phenomenon can produce many benefits, it can also result in injustices on a massive scale: economic adjustment programmes and market forces unfettered by concern for their social impact, especially on the poor; the homogenous ‘modernization’ of cultures in ways that destroy traditional cultures and values; a growing inequality among nations and – within nations – between rich and poor, between the powerful and marginalized.” (D. 3, 7)

 

It is a pity that the document does not spell out the “many benefits” but focuses only on the negative factors. GC35 does make a positive remark about globalization of the network of communications and how this can be used advantageously. This is an indication that globalization itself is a neutral phenomenon. It can be abused for economic, political and cultural domination. But it can also be used for building the global solidarity of people, especially those who are struggling to promote justice in various ways. I am afraid that, in talking about globalization, GC35 is ‘globalizing’ a particular western attitude to the phenomenon. Colonial capitalism was the dominant force in the world from the 16th century onwards. The communist revolution created an alternative model of state-centred ‘socialist’ capitalism, however contradictory this may sound. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this alternative disappeared and liberal capitalism seeks to dominate the world. But for a person living in a Third World country like India there is nothing very new about all this. The colonizing countries dominated and exploited the rest of the world for nearly four centuries. Though political colonialism disappeared in the middle of the 20th century, economic, commercial and military domination and exploitation continue. The global domination of Euro-America, though it may take new forms, is thus nothing new for the Third World.

There is, however, a new element in the contemporary picture. At the political level (and also at the cultural and religious level,) the now politically independent Third World countries are resisting such globalization. India and China are modernizing without ‘westernizing’. They are not in the process of becoming secularized in the same way as Europe was. The Muslims are even resorting to violence to defend their religious-cultural identity, though they may be branded fundamentalists for this. The Third World countries stand their ground today in international bodies like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO), though they are dominated in other international entities like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both of which are controlled by the richer countries. The picture of the Doha round of WTO negotiations is instructive. The USA, the European Union and the Third World countries, led by Brazil, India and South Africa, pulled in different directions, making agreement impossible. It is obvious that the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries offer a counterbalancing force to the Europe and America. The OPEC countries exploit the others in their own way. So globalization is not as smooth as one might pretend. We live in a multi-polar world. There are many international NGOs networking today to resist globalizing tendencies. The post-colonial situation has empowered the poorer countries politically and many of these countries do experiment with mixed economies.

In India, for instance, there is a Public Distribution System to provide the essentials of life to poorer people at subsidized rates. There are affirmative action programmes for Dalits and Tribals, as well as religious and cultural minorities. Employment generation programmes have also been launched. Indian industries are protected against global takeovers; global monopolies are resisted. While it is true that corruption and mismanagement vitiate these programmes, the fact is that they are there and are proving useful to many people. In a democratic country like India, the poor also have the power of the vote and cannot be ignored. Local and even national governments have been chosen or thrown out for economic reasons during elections. On the other hand, a certain globalization of the knowledge and service industries is bringing jobs and economic progress to the emerging middle class in India. There are still many poor people, but the solution does not lie in sharing poverty through a distributive justice of available resources. We have to create riches that can be shared and these cannot be created today without integration into the global processes of production and the market. India had a protected, mixed economy for decades after independence and it led us nowhere. Progress is being made now only after India has opened up to the world, though in a controlled way. It is true that India has to be careful not to play into the hands of the multi-nationals. But the experience of China, and later India, not to speak of other Asian economies like Thailand and Korea, has shown that opening up to the globe carefully need not always be detrimental. It is significant that Europe and America, after preaching the virtue of open economies to the rest of the world, are now playing protectionism in the WTO with regard to agricultural subsidies, for example.

I think that the phenomenon of globalization has, therefore, to be approached not ideologically and abstractly, but practically and sensitively. Globalization, thanks to the facility of communications, is a fact. The poorer countries should not close themselves in or shut themselves off, but organize themselves and fight for their rightful place and share in the world economically and politically, even while defending their cultural identities. It is also surprising that, while people talk about abstract forces like globalization, no one dares to challenge prophetically the rich and the powerful, and the multi-nationals of the world, who are out to exploit the poor. The problem is that our documents are often strong on ideology, but weak on praxis. The fact that they are also ‘global’ documents cannot be an excuse.

If I may be permitted an aside, I suggest that the church itself seems to seek global domination without respecting the identity and autonomy of the different local churches and their cultures. At times it seems that a claim is made that we cannot be Christians without being culturally Greco-Roman.

 

Postmodernity

 

Postmodernity is another global phenomenon that people like to evoke. Europe was ‘religious’, but with the Enlightenment and scientific progress, became ‘rational’ (modern). Now that the claims of ‘reason’ have weakened, it is said to have become postmodern. There are sociologists who would speak rather of late modernity than of postmodernity. One could discuss whether America is postmodern in the same way as Europe. Science and technology do not seem to have had the same secularizing influence in America as in Europe. The Asian experience has also shown that one can become scientific and ‘modern’ without becoming secular. So I doubt whether postmodernity is really a global phenomenon as some claim. As a matter of fact, many of the Third World countries may still be negotiating the tensions between tradition and modernity. Some of the middle class elites in these countries with pre-modern roots in the villages but with technical and service jobs in the cities, may be passing directly from pre-modernity to a situation which some may call postmodern. But they integrate this passage in ways very different from young people in Europe. It is perhaps too early to analyze this, since it is happening just now and we do not know how it will develop.

Postmodernity is often linked to relativism. The pre-moderns had faith-based absolutes. The moderns had reason-based absolutes. The postmoderns are said to reject both types of absolutes and believe only in personal experiences, perceptions and affirmations; hence they are considered to be relativists. Obviously, if truth is what I say without any reference to an objective order, then it is relativism. But such a discourse does not recognize legitimate pluralism, which it brands as relative. This may be true in a mono-cultural or mono-religious society. But in India with its rich pluralism of cultures and religions absolute affirmations are not possible and pluralism need not be relative.

God alone is absolute. But God is beyond whatever we can say about God. As the Scholastics used to say, we can say that God is, not what God is. God as an absolute is perceived and affirmed by each one of us in different ways conditioned by our personality, culture, history and conditions of perception and the language of affirmation. The God I affirm is absolute, not my affirmation of God. The young today are not interested in my abstract absolute statements about God. They are rather interested in what I can share of my experience of God. But my experience is always conditioned by various factors. The experience of each person (even one’s own at various times) is bound to be different. In so far as my experience is of God, it is true. But it is not the whole truth about God. It is limited, related to God on the one hand, and to my various conditionings on the other. In that sense it is relative and pluralistic, while true. It is in and through the many limited affirmations that I reach out to the absolute God without ever really grasping God fully. St. Thomas Aquinas said that even the incarnate manifestation of the infinite God is limited. (cf. ST III, 3, 7). Such a pluralism of affirmations is therefore legitimate and is not relativistic in the postmodern sense. Moral principles sound absolute in the abstract: “Thou shalt not kill”. But what constitutes killing in the concrete is subject to many conditioning factors.

The young today affirm their freedom and refuse total loyalty to any system or institution. I do not see anything wrong with this; it seems to me an element of human growth. This is the tension between ‘law’ and ‘freedom’ that Paul explored in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Personal freedom has to be educated and guided, not subordinated to a group or an institution. Our only option then is dialogue with, and persuasion of, individuals. It is sometimes said that the young today prefer spirituality to religion. What they question is not God or God-experience, but institutions presuming to capture God in their formulae and ritual. In the name of God, institutions, and the people who represent them, tend to absolutize themselves. This is fundamentalism. The Indian tradition affirms the Absolute “One-without-a-second”. But it also experiences this Absolute’s manifestation to us in a thousand different ways. Such manifestations are not ‘relative’ in any pejorative sense, but legitimate and pluralistic.

I am not saying that there is no relativism in the world today. There are ‘New Age’ groups that pick and choose elements from various religions to make up their own, but with no basis in authentic religious experience. On the other hand, there are many religions and they have different ways of living and sharing their experience of God. We cannot absolutize our own experience and relativize the experience of others. There is a pluralism here that calls for dialogue. Between absolutism and relativism there is authentic and legitimate pluralism. Some ‘postmoderns’ may be discovering this and I find nothing wrong in it. Their attempt to personalize the praxis of faith is also welcome, though it should not be privatized.

 

Personal Transformation

 

In promoting justice we speak of transforming social, economic, political, religious and cultural structures. But one hears hardly anything about converting the agents – the persons – who create and maintain these structures and who alone can change them. GC34 speaks of converting ourselves. GC35 speaks of using the Spiritual Exercises to convert others. I think that we have to be more practical than this. I shall make my point by quoting Fr. Arrupe:

 

“Clearly, the present world order is based neither on justice nor love, but almost always on personal and national interest. The balance of power is a balance of terror ... One hears the candid statement that only two possibilities exist: either a striking personal conversion of those who have most influence to bring about the needed changes, or the violent tearing down of unjust structures. My own conviction is that violence is not the right way to get positive results. If that is true, the only thinkable alternative is the other: namely, the personal conversion of those who have power and influence.” (Pedro Arrupe, A Planet to Heal, Ignatian Centre of Spirituality 1975, pp. 25-26)

“According to St. Ignatius, we must give preference to people and places capable of multiplying our work for others. He gives these examples: “princes and rulers, magistrates and administrators of justice, people who are outstanding in literature or authority.” My question is: who are these multipliers, these influential people, these “magistrates and princes” of today? Are they, for example, politicians, trade union leaders, youth leaders, influential thinkers, scientists affecting the course of history, those who control the mass media? Today we are aware of the tremendous impact of ideologies, structures, and public opinion. It is crucial that we be active in these fields where we can best spread the truth or remove obstacles impeding evangelization.” (Final Address to the Congregation of Procurators, Oct. 5 1978, 12)

 

This insight of Fr. Arrupe throws before us an important challenge. Our option for the poor leads us to serve the poor as they organize and empower themselves and struggle to promote justice. But it should also lead us to work with the ‘non-poor’ – not the rich, but the people who have power and influence and who can bring about social change. The people whom we have to convert are more likely to be in the First (Christian?) World than in the Third. It is at this level that our universities, journals, intellectual and spiritual apostolate are relevant today.

 

Conclusion

 

Our task in India will focus on our service for the liberation of Dalits, Tribals, women and nature. Being a small minority (just 2.3 per cent), we Christians cannot bring about any social transformation unless we collaborate with people of good will of all religions and ideologies. As a matter of fact, our contemporary experience is one of inter-religious conflict. Religious fundamentalism and communalism are vitiating relations between people and leading to violence. For this reason, even before promoting justice, we will have to engage in conflict resolution and reconciliation.

 

Michael Amaladoss SJ

Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions

Loyola College, Nungambakkam

Chennai – 600 034 – INDIA