Fratelli Tutti in Denver (4) — A Very Hard Saying

This is the fourth and penultimate segment of my extended discussion of Pope Francis’ new encyclical letter. It’s the first to address the economic critique of neo-liberal capitalism which runs through this new letter and has been a constant element in virtually all of his previous writings and speeches. Think “Throw-away economy” and “option for the poor.”

As I’ve said several times, the Pope’s letter is a complicated persuasive argument urging us to participate in its reflections about our world. It’s a moral argument made to all people, not a theological essay just for believers.

Yet the center of that persuasive argument is an extended meditation (the entire 2nd Chapter) on the meaning of Jesus’ parable about “The Good Samaritan.” Francis offers this parable to all of us, whatever our religion or ethics. He challenges everyone to shared reflection on the parable’s central question about who is my neighbor, and on the very human roles most of us play regularly in this iconic drama – the Samaritan who stops to help, the Priest and Levite who walk on by, the victim left on a roadside, and even the robbers who left him there.

I was especially struck by Francis’ discussion of the robbers. The pope enlarges the meaning beyond street thugs to the many ways in which the world’s economic and political systems rob people, especially the poor, especially those forced into migration – and so often thrown to the wayside by various new forms of so-called “nationalisms” and by the so-called “laws” of manufacture and trade and finance.

The Pope’s critique of political and economic ideologies is not simplistic, but probing and at times startling. Who, after all, regularly imagines bankers as “robbers” – the sophisticated equivalent of street thugs or, better, pickpockets and con artists. We may feel that way about bankers when there is news of some new fraud by any number of big banks. Yet when we deposit checks or withdraw money or receive a good mortgage from our local bank, we are less likely to think of robbery than of our shared need for reliable banks.

Yet Francis challenges us also to think of these systems from which so many of us benefit and in which we all inescapably participate as networks of organized crime. Or if that seems to harsh, to begin to see them as unwitting and at times unwilling collaborators in massive global forms of robbery.

To see the way that we, for all our efforts to be fair, for all our good intentions and good work as members of the white collar and managerial classes – or as members of blue collar working and service classes – to see that we all nonetheless participate in the robbery and casting to the wayside of so many of our poorer neighbors – at home and throughout the world.

This is, from compassionate and pastoral Francis, a very hard saying.

The dog walks me around the huge, full-square-block construction that’s only a half-block away, between us and Coors Field (baseball!). I’ve come to think of this interconnected set of towers as a beautiful monster. It is a hotel-office-condo-and-shopping complex being built by the Colorado Rockies et. al.: think big banks, a major construction corporation with extensive chains of suppliers and machinery and a very large labor force just for this site – and think as well, of course, government support (tax breaks?) and oversight.

Thanks to the dog, I’ve watched what’s named “McGregor Square” grow from a huge, 4-story deep excavation where once there was a baseball parking lot (with lots of good puppy-pee-places) to its present tri-tower structure.

I marvel every day at the immense collaborative effort involved – from the managers to the supply purchasers to the hole diggers with their immense machines to the endless truck drivers delivering construction materials to the guys and gals who’ve built the walls up and now are building wired internal walls for office and residential rooms…. (That’s a deliberately run-on yet still incomplete sentence.)

It could not be happening at this and at least five or six similar construction projects within walking distance…. It could not be happening without a network of trust and solidarity, agreements and contracts, between labor and management, between different forms of expertise and craft. Even as such an umbrella network of solidarity nonetheless involves major inequalities as well as the inevitable tensions and prejudices which fester along class and racial and ethnic and gender lines.

This beautiful monster will win awards. It will, as the planners and pundits keep saying, contribute immensely to the ongoing development of LoDo and of Denver as a whole. It will probably raise the value of my apartment just down the block. It will, as politicians and planners all agree, make our city more vibrant… (and perhaps eventually more confident in welcoming the halt and lame, the outcast and the immigrant, though this is my fervent wish, one not stressed much by the project’s cheerleaders.)

Yet Francis challenged me to realize that, for all such social goods, the project and its parallels all over the world also still play the robber’s role in the parable. That being the point of this long LoDo digression.

How does it rob? It adds to Denver’s widespread gentrification that is sweeping significant numbers of poorer folk out of the way of progress, casting them onto the wayside.

I remember once getting onto a bus heading back downtown. I sat in the front seats reserved for elders and eventually joined a conversation between two African American elders. Both were lamenting the fact that gentrification in Denver had forced them to move to Aurora, Denver’s sprawling and in parts heavily minority suburb. And now forces them to take a bus downtown where once they could walk.

Even more fundamentally, McGregor Square will be an economic success for Denver precisely because it is one small part of the global machinery of economic “progress” which we call by many names: democratic capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, post-colonial capitalism, even socialist and communist capitalism. This system, for all the many goods it has brought to humanity, nonetheless is based on what Francis at one point “the invisible dictatorship of money.”

I’m part of that system, as is Francis himself.

And with him, I and most of my readers also need to be able to see how our “system” involves an ongoing robbery which, for all the benefits in medicine and food aid, in education and communications, which it gives, nonetheless continues to disenfranchise and impoverish billions of our sisters and brothers around the world. To sweep them to the wayside. And thereby it makes robbers of us all.

Such active “seeing” of the bigger picture just might, with Francis’ insistent prodding, awaken us to the many economic and political changes needed if we are truly to become the neighbors raised by the parable.

As I said, this is a very hard saying – challenging, troubling.

Here’s one of the many ways Francis expresses this hard saying:

“Only when our economic and social system no longer produces even a single victim, a single person cast aside, will we be able to celebrate the feast of universal fraternity” (par . 110).

Yet, as I’ve already said, Francis’ discussion of our economy is not simplistic. He praises the vocation of business people even as he challenges them. He celebrates authentic forms of economic development even as he challenges other forms. He celebrates, to coin a phrase, the diverse wealth of nations – each with its cultural and natural resources — even as he urges the global system to benefit from such resources without robbing the peoples and nations who possess them.

Read and see the complexity of this economic critique, and be blessed with the wit and grace to understand its complex but still very hard challenges.

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