What do Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Nigel Farage of UK Brexit fame, Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte and Pope Francis have in common? They are all “outsiders” who have tapped into a backlash of widespread discontent and anger from hundreds of millions of people who feel disenfranchised by the political, ecclesial and economic establishments which have taken a stranglehold on the global levers and benefits of power and capital. Each has been a catalyst in unleashing a tidal wave of social upheaval of tsunami-like proportions.
Each has offered new hope. It may be based on nationalism, xenophobia, racism, a socialist dream or a Christian gospel of justice and mercy. Whatever the driving force, hope is on offer. In a world of 15-second TV sound bites, high unemployment, widespread poverty and clear signs that the divide between the rich and the poor is widening by the minute, these leaders have given hope to those who feel shut out of the mainstream.
This huge groundswell of people has finally managed to have a say. They feel disenfranchised, that nobody cares about them. They are saying, “no more”.
At the heart of this disenfranchisement lies a core problem — the god of neo-liberal economics. In every corner of the world, including New Zealand with Rogernomics, its forces have divided people into winners and losers, haves and have-nots. The public purse has been carved up for private ends through the privatisation of public assets like transport, health and medicine. Expenditure on public housing, welfare and programmes for the poor has been
slashed. Systematic attacks worldwide on trade unions have weakened worker rights. The result is a time-bomb ticking in the middle of the planet.
The winners and the “haves” have accrued power and wealth beyond anything previously dreamed of in human history. The sagging middle-class, workers and the poor have been left behind to fight each other for the leftovers. Neo-liberal economics, the value base of which is greed and competition in which only the strongest survive, creates hundreds of millions more victims each year. Its rapaciousness is insatiable. Witness the TPPA and RCEP (the Asian trade deal) and similar negotiations still proceeding at pace and in secrecy. These agreements, which are all about further disempowering people and allowing corporations to steal even more, show contempt for the common good.
The myth of free trade without protection for local industries and workers is part of the gospel of neo-liberalism. The “globalisation” of the economy has provided welfare for the rich and capitalism for the poor, freedom for capital and restrictions for labour. Just 62 individuals now hold the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion people, one-half of the world’s population. In New Zealand, 10 percent of the population holds 60 percent of the wealth, up from 55 percent in 2010. The gap is widening. The bottom 40 percent hold just 3 percent! (NZ Statistics, June 2016) This is clearly wrong.
Millions are reacting against this giant economic fraud. They see that what we are ending up with is not a society of equal opportunity, inclusiveness and equality, “but a permanent capitalist theocracy that ensures a two-thirds society, with the majority divided and indebted, managed by a corporate class, and a permanent working poor”. (John Pilger, Counterpunch, June 2016). They see it. They don’t like it. They are voting against it.
We teach that God speaks to us in these “signs of the times”. These sinful international structures are clearly against the common good of the human family and the well-being of the planet. But as Christians we have hope. So what signs can we read?
First, that the empowerment of the poor and the hope it brings is a central Gospel teaching, part of the promise of the New Covenant enacted by Jesus. Are these movements a sign of this?
Second, that this huge global empire of financial greed and injustice sits on shifting sands and will implode, partially or fully, sooner or later. The conglomerates and international banks and their allies in governments won’t have the final word. They will fail as they have failed before. Our faith teaches us that God’s will cannot be thwarted forever. (Amos 2/6-9; Matthew 5). The Reign of God doesn’t allow for it.
Third, they sense that small and local is better than big and brassy as found in Washington, Rome, London, Manila and Brussels. They want smaller, more personal, more local, more say. Through such structures, people feel a better sense of belonging and of having some control over their futures.
Pope Francis can read the “signs of the times”. He offers hope at every turn. With the gospel in hand, he has consistently condemned the neo-liberal economic system, calling it “grossly sinful”; he has highlighted the plight of the poor, their need to be respected and their voices to be heard; he has challenged the wealthy to share out of a sense of justice, not just charity; he has repeatedly begged for an end to war and condemned the arms industry that keeps fuelling it; he has called for tolerance and hospitality for immigrants and refugees, drawing attention to the need to respect each as a child of God.
Francis has addressed these issues fearlessly and witnessed to a hope-filled future. He preaches hope and acts with courage. Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Fr Jim Consedine is a priest of Christchurch diocese