Apocalypse Today: Pope Benedict XVI on Justice and False Gods
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
I. Theme and Sub-Theme
Four years ago, Muslims launched The Common Word movement in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s elocution at Regensburg. This led to a response by Protestants at Yale University and then to a formal meeting at the Vatican between Pope Benedict XVI and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. At the same time it expanded to include Judaism, at the initiative of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Last year, this on-going movement expanded further to include the Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, in a corollary movement called The Common Ground.
The latest development in this on-going response of spiritual and religious leaders around the world to the apparent collapse of civilization was an unusual un-programmed remark, lasting twenty minutes, by Pope Benedict XVI. This constituted his opening address on October 11, 2010, to introduce a Synod of Bishops from around the world who had gathered to address the problems the minority Catholic Church faces in Muslim-Majority countries. This date commemorates the opening on October 11, 1962, of the Second Vatican Council, one of the great conciliar gatherings that occur historically no more than once every century. The 185 participants include nine patriarchs of the Mideast’s ancient Christian churches and representatives from 13 other Christian communities. A rabbi and two Muslim clerics will address the meeting as well.
The role of Christians in Muslim-majority countries was the official theme of the synod, but, in fact, it was a sub-theme.
On this first day, attention focused on the decision by Israel that day to require new citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a “Jewish and democratic” state — a bill criticized by Arab Israelis as racist and a provocation. The Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, Antonios Naguib, who is running the synod, called the decision a “flagrant contradiction”.
Benedict summoned the bishops to Rome to help address a major flight of Christians from their traditional homes because of war, conflict, and economic problems. In Iraq alone, Catholics represented 2.89 percent of the population in 1980; by 2008 they were just .89 percent.
An influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly women from Africa and Asia who work in service industries in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, has helped offset their numbers. But it has also created new pastoral issues for the church in countries where freedom of religion is limited.
As it currently stands, Catholics represent just 1.6 percent of the Middle East region’s population, according to Vatican statistics. Christians as a whole represent 5.62 percent.
The great importance of this synod goes far beyond this scope of its stated purpose. Pope Benedict XVI introduced the major theme of the synod and the major challenge to all faith-based leaders in the world today by stating that we are now in the “apocalypse” against which all the world’s religions have warned. This apocalypse is the concentration and dominance of forces in the world that “enslave” humanity.
II. The False Gods of Power, Prestige, Plutocracy, and Wanton Pleasure
An apocalypse (Greek: Apokálypsis; “lifting of the veil” or “revelation”) is a revealing of something hidden from most of humankind in a time dominated by falsehood and misconception. In a certain sense, what Benedict spoke was his “apocalypse”—his “lifting of the veil” on the hidden truth behind the appearances and lies of our time.
And what did the Pope “reveal”?
He “revealed” the false “gods” of our age, the hidden “divinities” of our time, and he named several of these “false gods” from whom we must free ourselves if we are to turn to the one, true God: 1) the world’s anonymous financial interests, 2) the promoters of terrorist violence, and 3) drug-traffickers.
He argued that all three of these groups are in the service of “false gods”—divinities which must be “unmasked” if God’s kingdom of justice and peace, the kingdom of the true divinity, is ever to reign on this earth. The major threat to civilization, as brought to the surface only in the past year by the public media, is the wealth gap and concentration of capital ownership, which in an era of capital intensivity, relegates 90% of humanity to the status at best of wage-slaves.
In his remarkable words of reflection at the Synod after the reading of the Office for the Third Hour, Pope Benedict declared: “Think of the great powers of the present day, of the anonymous financial interests which turn men into slaves, which are no longer human things, but are an anonymous power which men serve, by which men are tormented and even slaughtered. They [i.e., anonymous financial interests] are a destructive power, a power that menaces the world. ...
“And then the power of the terrorist ideologies. Apparently in God’s name, violence is done, but it is not God: they are false divinities, divinities that must be unmasked, that are not God. ...
“And then drug-trafficking, this power that, like a devouring beast, extends his hands towards every part of the earth and destroys: it is a divinity, but a false divinity, which must fall.
“Or also the way of life propagated by public opinion: today it is so, marriage is no longer important, chastity is no longer a virtue, and so forth. These ideologies that dominate, so much so that they impose themselves with force, are divinities. And in the suffering of the saints, in the suffering of believers, of the Mother Church of which we are a part, these divinities must fall, it must come to pass what the letters (of St. Paul) to the Colossians and to the Ephesians say: the dominations, the powers fall and become subject to the one Lord Jesus Christ.”
III. The Christian Perspective
For Muslims, the phraseology of subjection to Jesus can best be interpreted as Sufis often do. In the daily readings of the book of meditations, Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI, for February 25 on the dangers of reducing Christianity to moralism, the Holy Father says: “The temptation to turn Christianity into a kind of moralism and to concentrate everything on man’s moral action has always been great. ... For we are all living in an atmosphere of deism. It seems that there is no room for God himself to act in human history and in my life. What is left? Our action. So we are the ones who must transform the world. ... If that is how one thinks, then Christianity is dead.
He continues, “Love has the capacity to transform the world. It spurs our love and, in this communion of the two wills, one can go on. ... Christian faith is properly the faith of ordinary people. It comes about in a state of obedience that places us at God’s disposition wherever he calls. It is the same obedience that does not trust to one’s own power or one’s own greatness but is founded on the greatness of the God of Jesus Christ”.
Pope Benedict XVI further explains this in the reading for January 30 as follows: “God is not simply infinite distance; he is also infinite nearness. ... He expresses himself in the man Jesus, although not exhaustively, since Jesus, though one with him, nevertheless addresses him as ‘Father’. God remains the One who is infinitely more than all visible things. ... Man is so made that God can enter into union with him. The human person, who seems at first sight to be a kind of unfortunate monster produced by evolution, at the same time represents the highest possibility the created order can attain”.
Literalist Muslims and many Christians today fail to understand the subtleties of the Logos, which for Christians refers to Jesus but for Muslims refers to the Qur’an. The classical scholars of the third through seventh Islamic centuries, however, referred to in the mainline Qur’an commentaries, distinguish true polytheists from the Christians who say Jesus is God only in an observable form as a divine manifestation and who believe in multiple revelations to humanity.
As Muhammad Asad puts it in his commentary on Surah Ma’ida 5:77, “The Christians do not consciously worship a plurality of deities inasmuch as theoretically their theology postulates belief in One God, Who is conceived as manifesting himself in a trinity of apects or ‘persons’, of whom Jesus is supposed to be one”. In reference to Surah al An’am 6:23, Asad says, “The mystical doctrine of the ‘trinity’, in the Christian view, does not conflict with the principle of God’s Oneness inasmuch as it is supposed to express a ‘three-fold aspect’ of the One Deity”. He quotes the Great Commentary, the Tafsir al Kabir, by Muhammad Fakhr al Din al Razi (died 606 hijra), who explains that “The person concerned does not subjectively visualize [ascribing divine qualities to a being or force other than God] as denying God’s Oneness”.
Even the collection of canonical gospels and letters preliminarily established by Emperor Constantine in the first council of Nicea in 325 A.C. does not define Jesus as God, despite the Nicaean Creed to the contrary. My book, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective, as well as in the sequel now under preparation, entitled The Natural Law of Love and Reconciliation: A Christian Perspective, quotes the many references that some Christians cite in support of the Nicaean Creed and points out that none of these references in the Christian Evangelium or New Testament contradict the Islamic teaching that Jesus is a g;lorious manifestation of God, namely, of God’s attribute of mercy, just as the other two “persons” of God, the Father and the Holy Spirit, manifest His attributes of power and wisdom as the three parts of a single trinity.
Both Meister Eckhart, who succeeded Saint Thomas of Aquinas in the chair of theology at the University of Paris seven hundred years ago, and Hans Kung, who may be the greatest living theologian in any faith, distinguished the level of Being, marked by the names of God, from the level of Beyond Being as understood by the classical Islamic theologians and by every human being in one’s created nature.
The announcement by Pope Benedict XVI of the apocalypse is significant because he is one of the greatest spiritual leaders in the world today, despite his earlier unfamiliarity with the fact that classical Islamic tradition and the Catholic tradition of the Fathers of the Church are nearly identical.
The spiritual perspective on human rights and on the diabolical forces aligned against them is shared equally and entirely by the greatest traditionalist thinkers in both Christianity and Islam, as well as Judaism. They recognize a direct relationship of the person with God and therefore conceive of human rights as sacred, including the right of persons and communities to a government that is limited by the sovereignty of God.
Above all they recognize, as discussed in my book, The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice, that the practice of morality, traditionally known by America’s founders as the virtues, is the purpose of spiritual wisdom and is not independent of it. In the language of Christianity this means that moral theology is united with dogmatic theology in a single discipline of knowledge, which is similar to what Muslims call the Sunnatu Allah or natural law evident through the normative jurisprudence of the maqasid al shari’ah.
IV. The False Gods of Modern Finance
When Pope Benedixt XVI speaks of the “anonymous financial interests” that menace the world as the major diabolical force in the world he is referring not so much to the capitalists who seek wealth and power as an end in itself but also to the institutions that promote such polytheism. He is carrying on a century-long tradition of encyclicals condemning the exploitation of labor by a system of concentrated ownership of capital that justifies itself by invoking the free market of competition between capital and labor as an engine of growth.
The only solution is a binary system of economics whereby every person in society owns one’s own labor and also contributes to the production and consumption of wealth through individual ownership of stock in productive enterprises. The alternative is socialism, in which the government owns everything and redistributes the wealth of society at the cost of every incentive to be creative and productive.
The extent of the modern crisis was detailed in my article almost a decade ago shortly after 9/11, entitled “Economic Justice: A Cure for Terrorism”, posted on September 29, 2002, in http://www.theamericanmuslim.org The .trends spelled out there for America and throughout the world have been continuing unabated.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics for 2009 indicate that the United States may be the country in the world with the most concentrated ownership of wealth-producing assets and the greatest barriers to broadened ownership of the trillions of dollars of future wealth.
The top-earning 20 percent of Americans - those making more than $100,000 each year - received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the United states, compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.
A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.
At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, census data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.
“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”
Robert Reich, who is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and was President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, has detailed the extent of the wealth gap today and written books on the subject, including Locked in the Cabinet and Supercapitalism. He is the new president of Common Dreams. In his blog on October 8, 2010, under the title “The Secret Big Money Takeover of America” he writes, “Not only is income and wealth in America more concentrated in fewer hands than it’s been in 90 years, but those hands are buying our democracy as never before – and they’re doing it behind closed doors. … Right now we’re headed for a perfect storm: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top, a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy, and a public in the aftershock of the Great Recession becoming increasingly angry and cynical about government. The three are obviously related.”
Unfortunately, Professor Reich does not associate this crisis of the wealth gap with the underlying cause, which is an ownership gap. He seems to be more concerned that the government provide a good safety net, both at home and abroad, so that the Neo-Cons’ so-called “creative destruction” and the insurgency and terrorism that it spawns can perhaps be postponed or even prevented.
Professor Reich openly advocates “Democratic Capitalism,” which in practice is an oxymoron. Despite his good intentions, his entire approach is pernicious simply because it merely moves a few chairs around on the Titanic. He pits socialism against capitalism. Reich is a Robin Hood re-distributor. He thinks like a socialist, but in fact he advocates capitalism with no idea why a Just Third Way is both possible and necessary. Nowhere does he address the issue of how to expand capital ownership of the trillions of dollars of future wealth as a universal human right and as the only free-enterprise and free-market solution to the growing wealth gap and to the future of civilization.
Solutions have been carefully worked out over a period of decades and are available in the books and articles available at the Center for Economic and Social Justice, http://www.cesj.org which, Norman Kurland and I and half a dozen others founded in 1984 to support President Reagan’s call for a Presidential Task Force on Economic Justice. President Reagan called for a Second American Revolution based on the wisdom of George Mason and his mentor Edmund Burke, who called for the devolution of economic and political power to every individual citizen. He invoked Abraham Lincoln and his National Homestead Act as a pioneer in broadening ownership of land, which back then was the major source of wealth and of America’s initial climb to the status of a superpower. Nevertheless, President Reagan never did diddlesquat to promote such initiatives as a Capital Homestead Act designed to promote his own passionately envisioned future of America as a nation of capital owners.
Unfortunately, the easy non-solution of our problems is governmental redistribution of wealth after it is earned. This may be useful to forestall open rebellion, but it is the height of injustice if one measures economic justice, as one should, by respect for and promotion of private property. The very success of President Obama’s programs merely to regulate the banks more effectively and increase transparency puts us ironically near the bottom of the scale worldwide in our respect for the sacred nature of private property. Rather than bringing the rich down from the unjust heights of their wealth ownership monopolies, which in some ways would be theft or grand larceny, we should perfect the existing monetary system so that ownership of future productive wealth becomes a universal human right.
This is simple, and the Federal Reserve can facilitate this by first respecting Section 13 of the 1913 legislation that created the Fed. The original purpose of this American central bank was to print money in order to meet the credit needs of productive investment. Unfortunately, the First World War hooked the Fed on promoting unproductive debt, so that eventually a third of the entire American GNP was not in real goods but in the counter-productive financial sector of buying and selling interest-based debt.
The Tea Party enthusiasm to fight the “system” unfortunately is not backed by constructive policies to really solve our problems of economic and political injustice. The nattering nerds of negativism who infect the Tea Party movement need a positive message. They know only that they will never get this from either of the two bankrupt parties, which merely promise to make their fundamental policy errors more transparent. Only with a well-thought-out alternative can the Tea Party movement fulfill its stated mission to revive the best of the past from classical American thought in the present for a better future.
Order, justice, and freedom were the three pillars of the Great American Experiment outlined in the Preamble of the American Declaration of Independence. This interdependent triad lies at the basis of Catholic social thought and in its equivalent during the current revival of classical thought in Islam.
Pope Benedict has called us to recognize a state of apocalypse because the entire world, including Americans, are either losing all three of these pillars of civilized life or losing any hope of working effectively toward them. These must be combined as necessarily reinforcing each other, because otherwise our civilization and all the others will have a short shelf-life.
Census Finds Record Gap Between Rich and Poor, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/09/census-finds-record-gap-rich-poor/