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We are not excused from trying

It’s a feature of modern life that we’re bombarded with more information than we can process. We can absorb the general ideas -- such as the push in Quebec to turn the hemisphere into a 34-nation free trade zone -- and not see all the consequences. Or, closer to home, in a period of rising layoffs, euphemized as “downsizing,” we know tougher economic times are being signaled, but we don’t grasp all the ramifications.

In the flash floods of crises, headlines and problems, we need to keep re-anchoring ourselves so we’re not swept away, so we don’t tune out.

We all have lives to get on with. We can’t be turning our energies this way and that all the time. Yet we all have obligations to others.

Where, in God’s name, we might seriously ask, do we begin?

“Being a believer,” wrote the U.S. Catholic bishops in “Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice,” a 1998 runup to the millennium, “means that one lives a certain way -- walking with the Lord, doing justice, loving kindness, living peaceably, practicing what Jesus preached.” Just reminding ourselves it is Jesus who wants us to get involved in these things can have a calming effect -- given the constant storm of demands on our compassion, and the limited number of hours in the day.

We’re all in there somewhere, “teachers and scientists, farmers and corporate executives,” the bishops wrote. They pointed out that the most common Christian witness is “the sacrifice of parents trying to raise children with concern for others, the service and creativity of workers who do their best to reach out to those in need, the struggle of business owners trying to reconcile the bottom line and the needs of employees and customers, and the hard choices of public officials who seek to protect the weak and pursue the common good.

“Working for justice in everyday life,” the bishops wrote, “is not easy.”

One of our difficulties as Americans, insulated in so many ways from the troubles of the bulk of the world, is to get a fix on the overarching philosophy driving global economics. We need an understanding of the ideological mindset that governs most of what actually takes place.

Takes may vary on what that mindset is, but it is clear that the overarching philosophy is different from that of Christians, or believers, in this way: It does not have the needs of the least, or the neediest, as its starting point.

So, at home, the layoff season is cavalierly underway to shore up corporate profits. (We’ll soon learn what the 1990s welfare reforms truly wrought when the newly impoverished discover this country no longer offers a safety net.) Nor will a 34-nation free trade zone “bring good news to the poor.”

There can be jobs, maquiladora style often enough, there can be new investment, there can be some increase in the standard of living. Ultimately, though, hemispheric economics will be adjusted to more directly serve the needs of the largest multinational corporations. The ownership, the profits, the intellectual property rights, the land, the distribution systems, the patents will all gradually accrue to fewer and fewer owners, most of them in the First World, and most of them U.S.-owned.

That, in a nutshell, is the 21st century capitalist system represented by Quebec and the World Trade Organization. At the highest altitudes of socio-economic manipulation, profit is key.

Many who protest against such inequalities see just chunks of the entire picture, and grapple with the problems as best they can. The folks who were gassed in Seattle and again in Canada, those on the front lines of the desperate, disorganized opposition to socio-economic greed -- their concerns are warranted. But their protests have been mere skirmishing compared to the great struggle yet to come.

The serious battle, whether by worldwide boycott or legal actions, will come only when enough people and organizations come together in large numbers to challenge economic imperialism. That strong and sustained opposition is still a long way off.

But if the least are ever to be served, ideological confrontation is inevitable. As the bishops wrote, American Catholic voices, representing “citizens of the world’s leading democracy,” are needed “to shape a society with greater respect for human life, economic and environmental justice, cultural diversity and global solidarity.”

Reshaping this society is slow going. Right now those fighting economic imperialism are losing ground. But we’re not excused from trying.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001