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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Structures of Sin

Personal Sins of the Rich and the Poor

"If the present situation can be attributed to difficulties of various kinds, it is not out of place to speak of "structures of sin," which. . . are rooted in personal sin and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them, and make them difficult to remove."

"And thus they grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people's behavior."

"Sin" and "structures of sin" are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us."

(Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36).

The reality of the "War against the Poor" is a common theme in
Catholic social teaching and the Bible, but this is rarely recognized
or discussed in the modern debate regarding social policy.

Indeed, current rhetoric suggests that the poor are solely responsible for their situations, and that there are no social, economic, or governmental structures that oppress the poor -- other than those specific programs designed to provide food, income, and medical care for the poor, which are blamed for encouraging dependency among the poor.

The astonishing thing about these assertions is their willful blindness not only to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the Bible, but also to the general tenor of human history, in which the weak and the powerless have always been at the mercy of the rich and the strong.

Based on this historical judgment, the burden of proof would appear to be on those who claim there are no (or very few) structural problems in regard to poverty in America (e.g. Bauman, 4-5).

The great problem tends to be a one dimensional focus and analysis which is so popular these days. Liberal capitalism suggests that if left to its own free operation, the marketplace together with the "natural generosity" of people will resolve all of the problems.

In a truly free market, the only poor people will be those who are
lazy (c.f. the writings of Charles Murray). The few "deserving" poor
people that are still around once laissez-faire capitalism is fully
implemented can be cared for by voluntary charity.

In this analysis, people are poor not because they have been "made poor", but rather because of inherent personal defects. Politically, this is the dominant philosophy today in the United States.

But this analysis doesn't answer the question: is this truly free market possible, given the power of the "overwhelming thirst for profit at any price" and the "overwhelming thirst for power at any price" identified by Pope John Paul II as two of the key problems of the modern era?

This is countered by the Marxist/socialist insistence that the problem as totally structural, that poor people have no responsibility for their situation; everything is the result of class warfare. This focus on structure came to full flower in the 1960s and is fundamental to the design of many of our social programs.

Both of these seemingly opposed schools of thought (laissez-faire
capitalism and collectivism) reduce the human person to a mere
economic calculation and exalt production and capital over labor
and the human person. This has been identified in Catholic social
teaching as their major errors (e.g. in Laborem 7, 13).

In Catholic social teaching, the problem is personal -- and the
problem is structural. Both must be addressed, both must be the
objects of conversion, and both must be redeemed by the blood
of the Cross.

Moreover, Church teaching reminds us that the personal problem that relates to poverty is not only the sin of the poor, but also the sins of the rich. It is these sins that build the primary structures of sin that oppress the poor.

Catholic social teaching would predict that social policy that tilts too
far either way (i.e. onto structural reasons or onto blaming the poor)
will fail and make the problem worse, which proof seems increasingly
evident in modern US welfare systems, including some of the changes recently enacted to the system.

The discussion which follows is focused on the structures of sin that arise from the personal sins of the rich and the poor. The order of the discussion does not represent a judgment of their importance. It is meant to be as comprehensive as possible within the limitations and parameters of this paper.

In Sollicitudo, John Paul identifies two of the structures about which he is concerned: the all-consuming desire for profit, and the thirst for power with the intention of imposing one's will upon others at any price (37).

Consider this to be an attempt to describe, count, and name the ways those two structures of sin have proliferated and born bitter fruit in many areas of life.

http://www.justpeace.org/structures/structures.htm


SIN

"Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behavior of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins."

"It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate, or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear, or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required; producing specious reasons of a higher order."

(Reconciliatio et Paentientia 16, quoted in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,
note 65, Pope John Paul II).

Pope John Paul II speaks often of "structures of sin" that oppress
the poor.

These are rooted in the personal sin of individuals, out of which
over time, develop systems that enable, encourage, facilitate,
and propagate social sin and oppression (Catechism 1869).

To understand society's structures of sin, we must first consider
the problem of the personal sins of individuals.

This analysis contributes to a better understanding of structures
of sin that oppress poor people, just as the discussion of societal
sin helps us to understand forces and situations that are driving,
enabling, and facilitating personal sin.

http://www.justpeace.org/structures/sin.htm


Personal Sins of the Poor

The poor are no less susceptible to the "seven capital sins".

The effects of their sin on the social structures of oppression, though, are less than that of the wealthy because there is a power differential between the rich and the poor. A poor person who engages in self-destructive behavior affects himself and a limited circle of associates (friends, neighbors).

But the sins of the rich -- who may, e.g., be responsible for the unemployment of thousands, or the destruction of entire neighborhoods via urban "renewal," the financing of drug distribution networks, and the propagation of hate speech about the poor -- are as deadly to the poor as anything they do to themselves.

The poor are human persons who possess dignity and who reflect the
transcendent God. To not call the poor to account for their personal
sins that contribute to their plight, is to deny their essential
humanity and their dignity.

But it must be remembered in the current context, that to note the
existence of personal sin as a contributing factor to poverty is not
to claim that (e.g.) the poor are solely responsible for their plight,
or even that they hold the major responsibility for their situations.

Much of the sin of the poor has been stimulated, enabled, and
encouraged by the structures of sin that have their foundation
in the personal sins of the rich, the powerful, and the affluent.

And so it may be that the rich who oppress the poor must share
in these personal sins of the poor.

Pope John Paul has noted (in his Brazil speeches of 1980) that
the primary problem affecting the poor is injustice, and that
the injustice of the rich drives the sin of the poor.

The Vincentian movement, which perhaps has more direct
experience with the poor than any other Catholic movement
except for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, says that
while there are exceptions, most people are poor because they
have been made poor.

This is a direct contradiction of the "popular wisdom" of the era.

The poor contribute to their problems when they engage in fraud
to receive public and private welfare assistance, abuse welfare
and hospitality providers, envy those who are making efforts to
better their circumstances.

Also when they are lazy about working to better their condition, commit sins of anger and wrath, engage in drug addiction and peddling, practice conspicuous consumption, sexual immoralities, and abortion, and when they commit crimes against each other
and the rich.

These personal sins participate in the social sins that cry out
to heaven, including their personal acts that oppress other poor
people (e.g. crime), murder of the innocent (gang/thug activity),
not helping each other, not participating in their neighborhoods,
and not living in solidarity with the rest of the community.

It is important that we not idealize the poor, but it is equally
important not to demonize them nor to avoid confronting
unpleasant facts about American society via a fixation on
blaming the poor for their own plight.

The Gospel message is that everything in human society needs redemption -- rich, poor, middle class, government, economic structures, cultural and community institutions.

Sometimes Jesus wears very distressing disguises when He
comes among us.

http://www.justpeace.org/structures/poor.htm


Sins of the Rich and the Powerful

When I am referring to the "rich" in this context, this should
be read to be the affluent as a broad social class.

The author recognizes that individual rich people have varying
degrees of culpability depending on their stewardship, their
advocacy and/or willing participation in the social sins of
their class, and their attitudes and actions towards the poor.

All people are sinners and this includes the rich. Their personal
sins help build the structures that oppress the poor.

Through pride, the rich assume that because they have money,
they are somehow better than those who are poor.

With avarice, they use special pleadings, campaign donations,
and other such activities to gain political favors granting
preferential treatment and direct monetary subsidies.

They cash their Social Security checks even though they do
not need the money and they use the Medicare system even
though they can afford to pay for their own medical care.

They deliberately destroy neighborhoods so that they can
speculate on the property.

In their sins of envy and covetousness, the rich see the welfare
check or the food stamps of their poor neighbor and they cry out,
"Give those to us the rich -- you the poor do not deserve them!"

Through all of this operates the sin of wrath, which yields a public campaign of vilification of the poor, upon which their latest special pleadings are built.

Driven by lust, the rich sexually exploit the poor through pornography
and prostitution, cruelly using the poor as objects to be manipulated
denying their dignity as human beings.

As gluttons, the rich abuse the stewardship of their property,
engaging in conspicuous consumption, feasting, and royal living
while others barely subsist in poverty and want.

By laziness -- the very sin they accuse the poor of committing -- the rich avoid their personal and social obligations to the less fortunate, refusing to do the works of mercy as commanded by the Gospel and the Church.

They ignore the structures of sin that oppress the poor, and in order to escape social responsibilities, they scorn the poor and blame them for their plight, politically exploiting them without pity.

These are sins that produce the "sins that cry out to heaven," including a share of the responsibility for the murder of the innocent (abortion and other violence against the poor caused by social structures that encourage sin), social sodomy (the abandonment of society's obligation to the poor), the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt (persecuting the poor via structures of sin, such as the "War on the Poor" described herein), the cry of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner (direct sins of omission and commission toward the poor), and injustice to the wage earner (non-payment of a just living wage).

Bottom-feeders of the Marketplace

It is no surprise to discover that the rich exploit the poor
economically. This has been noted since ancient times (e.g. the
prophet Amos' denunciations of speculators that oppress the poor).

Modern "bottom feeders of the marketplace" include pawn shops,
plasma centers, check cashing centers, slumlords, drug dealers,
pimps and johns, and prison labor.

Proponents of free markets often defend these activities on the
economic grounds that they provide goods and services to people
who would otherwise suffer without them.

But this analysis ignores the role of government regulation in
creating ghettoized markets where instead of a free interplay of
buyers and sellers, market entry is severely restricted and a handful
of preferred businesses (those with the necessary capital, contacts,
systems and skills to handle the government regulations) are allowed
access to a captive population which they then proceed to loot.

Since the markets these "bottom-feeders" operate in are so restricted and regulated, they cannot be seen as true market operators, but rather, as market exploiters.

For example, the interest rate charged at all pawn shops in Oklahoma City is 240% per annum. Despite the fact that there are numerous such establishments in the greater Oklahoma City area, there is not one single pawnshop with a lower interest rate.

Given the nature of a free market, which should be characterized
by volatility of prices and charges (that is, prices go up and down,
rather than always staying the same), the author is therefore
suspicious of government regulatory actions that encourage price
fixing and collusion among pawnshop owners.

Check cashing centers are another market in which competition
appears to be minimal, despite the existence of numerous such
outlets. Market fairness is easily limited or even abolished
entirely by business' special pleadings and outright corruption
of legislators and city government.

This is a big market limitation that is rarely acknowledged by its conservative defenders.

http://www.justpeace.org/structures/rich.htm

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