I apologize, in advance, for the somewhat misleading title of this post. It just didn’t seem appropriate to write something called “What Economy Would Jesus Stimulate?”
Tomorrow, all eyes will be on Barack Obama as he takes his inauguration oath and becomes the forty-fourth President of the United States. Beyond the obvious historical significance of this inauguration and the collective sigh of relief that will be released by many in the nation after eight years of President George W. Bush, there will be one topic on everyone’s mind: The Economy.
In his inaugural address, and in the days afterward, President Obama will spend much of his time outlining what his economic stimulus will look like, how it will operate, and who it will benefit. Those of us who have been working on this issue at the grassroots level for the past year or more are not going to be thrilled. Our platform has been left out of this discussion.
We already know that there will be tax cuts for the wealthy and that there won’t be enough “main street” bailouts for real people. Even more importantly, we know that the bailout is meant to get us “back on track,” which is depressing for those of us who have been working in the poor and marginalized communities throughout this nation, the canaries in the coalmine, because we know that “on track” means getting over this economic hump and getting back to the booming businesses of prison construction, gentrification, corporate globalization, de-regulation, wage theft and militarization.
In this “Christian Nation” of ours, who is asking “What Would Jesus Do?” Imagine if the inauguration were not a speech, but a press conference, and somebody asked President Obama how his stimulus plan matched up with Pope John Paul II’s idea that “The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; the production to meet social needs over production for military purposes.” Cue the crickets.
Living in Los Angeles, I can tell you that this last boom cycle was really one of the worst misallocations of resources in the world, and it was downright sinful. While our economic boom was based on the construction of hundreds of thousands of luxury apartments and condos, gas-guzzling luxury vehicles, iPods, big-screen TVs and the like, our county boasted the largest number of homeless individuals anywhere in this nation: somewhere around 80,000 people on any given night. LA has more homeless people than my hometown has residents!
Who would Jesus bail out?
As a progressive Catholic, I think that the Church just missed a BIG opportunity. American Catholics, especially our hierarchy, have been pretty silent on the issue of the economic stimulus and its implications for the American economy.
It has been a year since the Bishops called for the stimulus package that the Bushies served up to do something for low-income folks. The last statement they made about the US Economy before that was just after September 11, 2001, in which they made the call for temporary extension of unemployment benefits and a raise in the minimum wage. Of course, nobody even noticed either of these letters enough to comment on their relative temerity.
This is not the way it used to be! In 1986 the US Bishops published their pastoral letter on the US economy, titled “Economic Justice for All.” Three years earlier they had issued their letter on War and Peace, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” a letter that set them at odds with the Regan Administration’s nuclear arms and foreign policies.
Many conservative elites, especially Catholic businessmen, watched anxiously and with a dash of dread, fearing that the Bishops would “go too far again” with their pastoral letter. As the Bishops worked on the letter and the first draft was released and debated throughout 1985, many expected the final product to be, at the least, controversial.
“Economic Justice for All” did not disappoint. This is one of the best pieces of work that the US Bishops have ever produced. In the letter, the Bishops boldly explore the implications of the Gospels and moral teachings of the Church on the operation of the US economy. The letter examines the economy as a tool that society can use to bring dignity to every human being, both in our country and around the world. It also attempts to explain to Americans what exactly the Church means by a “preferential option for the poor,” and how the US economy must center on it.
You can imagine how unhappy it made America’s ruling elite to read that the letter “presents a strong moral challenge to policies that put large amounts of talent and capital into the production of luxury consumer goods and military technology while failing to invest sufficiently in education, health, the basic infrastructure of our society and economic sectors that produce urgently needed jobs, goods and services.”
Not only were the Bishops taking a stand for a total restructuring of the US Economy—they were getting attention for doing it! Recently I read Re-Imagining American Catholicism by Eugene Kennedy, and I was shocked at how much press the USCCB was getting when these pastoral letters were issued. They really had Regan on the ropes and did a lot to sustain the countless progressive Catholic movements of the 1980s. They weren’t trying to get tangled up in politics, per se, but they did want to say what was right. They wanted to ask, and begin to answer, “What Would Jesus Do?” with the economy.
Those days, sadly, are long gone. This past year was clearly a moment that Progressive Catholics and our hierarchical leadership failed to seize. Imagine how different Barack Obama’s inaugural address would be if we had been saying, with a loud and unified voice, that we needed to reconsider the economy entirely. Imagine what we would see on January 20 if we had really forced our President to answer the question, “what economy would Jesus stimulate?”
Bill Przylucki is a community organizer in Westside Los Angeles. He is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a graduate of Boston College. He believes that you gotta pray like only God can do it, and act like only you can do it.