LOUISVILLE – What responsibility do churches and Christians have to address the tremendous disparities of wealth in the world? And why is that so hard for many people of faith to do
Theologian Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, in presenting the Edwards Peacemaking Lecture at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on Nov. 14, described issues related to wealth as being the biggest moral issue of the day – with more than 46 million people living in poverty in the United States, with half the people in the world surviving on less than $2.50 a day.
Given that, religious leaders and faith communities have an opportunity to invoke a theological imagination for a new time, Hinson-Hasty said – to tell a new version of the story, in which market values are not controlling and the well-being of the whole community, rather than the creation of wealth, becomes the controlling narrative.
Hinson-Hasty, a Presbyterian teaching elder who is an associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, spoke at the seminary’s Caldwell Chapel on the evening of Nov. 14. The event was sponsored jointly by the seminary and by the Center for Interfaith Relations’ Festival of Faiths Fall Forums, an annual event in Louisville.
That morning, Shanta Premawardhana, a pastor from Sri Lanka and the president of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (a consortium of 12 seminaries known as SCUPE), gave the Presler lecture on the theme of “Greed as Violence.” That consortium, Premawardhana said, has an intentional practice of sending students out into urban areas, “so they can listen to the struggles and the pain and the stories and the questions of ordinary people,” and then consider what Scripture and religious traditions have to say about those questions. Their study begins in the margins, Premawardhana said, not the privileged center.
He spoke after Louisville seminary student Madison Muñoz led the call to worship with “a prayer for those who have too much,” for those trying to choose between diet and regular soda when others are parched for water; who struggle to pick the right outfit when others wear “the same shirt and pants they have been wearing for many months;” who live in 14-room houses while families of 10 are crammed into a one-room hut, grateful for the shelter.
Premawardhana and Hinson-Hasty also gave these lectures not long after the conclusion of the 10th World Council of Churches meeting in Busan, Korea, where representatives of the global church pushed for consideration of issues with economic implications – ranging from environmental degradation to population growth to the exploitation of women. Premawardhana formerly served as director for the Program Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches. And Hinson-Hasty has served as a research consultant for the council’s North American Regional Forum and Hearings on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology.
Hinson-Hasty, just returned from the WCC gathering in Korea, spoke of the stark economic disparities discussed there – a world in which the richest 10 percent owns 85 percent of the global wealth, and the bottom half of the world’s population subsists on barely 1 percent of the total global wealth. “There is no doubt that neoliberal economic policies generate money and wealth,” she said. But “has the creation of wealth increased the well-being of the whole community, the whole entangled web of life?”
Faith communities have a distinctive opportunity, she said, to refine the debate about wealth inequities – a subject in which many of the religiously unaffiliated are deeply interested, she said.
But there can be resistance to these approaches. Some religious leaders “don’t believe that climate change is a problem,” Premawardhana said. And some practice what he described as “empire theology” – in which helping the poor is accepted, but asking hard questions about why they are poor is not. He quoted the former Roman Catholic Archbishop in Brazil, Hélder Câmara, who said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, a World Council of Churches policy group, has drawn several conclusions about this dynamic, Premawardhana said. Among them:
“Greed is a form of violence.”
Non-Christian religions have much to say about the inherent value of all beings and the interconnectedness of the world.
Those who have much in material terms benefit from listening to the voices of those who have little.
“Mission is not to those who are poor,” Premawardhana said, but often from the impoverished to those who have abundant wealth. “Those who are hungry today have something important to tell us about economic justice, about life and its meaning,” about the importance of sharing, he said.
“Those who are suffering in the Philippines have something important to teach us” about faith and life’s fragility. “We must allow those at the margins to teach us, to missionize us and to convert us.”