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A liberationist manifesto.

Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World. By Rebecca Todd Peters. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, pp. xx + 141. $39 (paper)

In Matthew 25.31-46, Jesus seems to sum up his ethical message with what Catholics would later call the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, taking in strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and imprisoned (plus one extra mitzvah, burying the dead). All these actions, or habits, are often labeled "charity" and considered central to Christianity; but Rebecca Todd Peters (Religious Studies, Elon University) wants to move beyond both the term and the narrow notion of (sometimes complacent) personal virtuousness associated with it:
   Not that charity is bad, but that
   charity is not enough. The issue is
   one of moving people's thinking
   and actions from focusing exclusively
   on charity to considering
   how we are called to transform
   the world in ways that reflect
   social justice. An ethic of solidarity
   that arises from the moral value
   of mutuality moves people from a
   practice of doing for others to a
   practice of working with others.

Peters' argument is at once strongly ecumenical--open to practically every position along the religious-to-secular spectrum--and, for committed liberals, all but indisputable. She backs it up with analyses of the selfish blindness and outright oppression built into the globalized economy and its American fountainhead. Her tone is moderate, even at times a little verbosely bland; but her case is solid. The only (inevitable) problem is that when you present sweeping formulas for universal transformation (salvation? redemption?), there are bound to be lacunae and unresolved issues.

It's easy enough for Peters to ground her manifesto in the cluster of crises now bedeviling the planet: malnutrition, greenhouse gases (with factory farms the single greatest contributor), catastrophic environmental degradation, exploding Third World (or "two-thirds world") indebtedness, the ever-expanding gap between rich and poor, the persistence of slavery and near-slavery, etc.

Peters claims that the cure for this (if there is a cure) is the ethics of solidarity, which she breaks down into four "tasks": metanoia, honoring difference, accountability, and action. The first means less old-fashioned "repentance" than a much taller order: "a radical transformation of heart, mind, and soul that literally makes one a new person." For First World Christians, this involves seeing the evils of "neoliberal globalization" and abandoning a whole inherited package of naive attitudes toward "economic development, consumerism, growth, and happiness." "Honoring difference" is something beyond mere multicultural sensitivity. It's sympathetic sharing of the perspectives of all the people whom white Americans (and white Christians) tend to view as Outsiders (racial, sexual, ethnic, economic, and so on), but who offer "unique perspectives ... that help in understanding the world, and its problems in new and different ways." "Accountability" is owning up to the multifarious avenues by which individual citizens, churches, and the nation as a whole have helped to drive, and have profited from, worldwide injustice. "Action" is, not surprisingly, the trickiest category of all, with a vast and vague menu of possibilities: lifestyle changes, volunteering, reaching out to poorer communities around town or across the oceans, and efforts to change the "global market economy." (Peters gently faults that favorite bourgeois response, writing checks, though sending money to groups like Doctors Without Borders sounds reasonable enough.)

All this is positive and convincing, but various rough or fuzzy points remain to be worked out. Peters vigorously condemns "paternalism" in dealing with poor societies, which is fine. But what if the "perspectives" such cultures offer include (as they do) things like female infanticide, FGM, child marriage, homophobia, and gross scientific ignorance? It's not p.c. to say it, but the West really is, in certain areas, more advanced than a number of Third World peoples: for instance, westerners seldom murder persons under suspicion of witchcraft. America's bloated military budget certainly qualifies as serious sin, but Peters ignores the enormous amount of ongoing low-tech violence unrelated to the Pentagon. This approach is part of the wholly-innocent-victims meme that can refuse to address major disasters like Third World overpopulation because, as Peters says, First Worlders, with their lower birthrate, still leave a much deeper and more dangerous carbon footprint. Yes, the West has a catalog of horrors and abuses to answer for, but the larger truth here may be that all cultures contain destructive elements (Peters barely touches on humanity's inveterate custom of torturing animals), and that all perspectives are at least partly skewed.

Such imbalances can be fixed, however, and don't invalidate Peters' generous thesis. Its greatest vulnerability is one that she herself frankly admits: it looks all too utopian if one tries to imagine it spreading beyond the realm of smallish, idealistic ventures. "Restructuring systems of corporate accountability seems impossible. Developing new, sustainable justice-oriented economic theories seems unattainable." (The utterly depressing matter of how to effect broad transformation with a Congress paralyzed by the G.O.P. isn't discussed. Then too, large portions of the earth, like China, Russia, and Iran, appear to be closed off to believers seeking to practice ground-level mutuality.) Nonetheless, there are some non-trivial glimmers of hope such as Muhammad Yunus's micro-credit and micro-financing system or BALLE (the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies). And many Christian parishes are linking up with needy people whom they seldom paid attention to before.

In the end, one might ask to what extent is this undoubtedly noble cause a Christian one? Peters rejects any "exclusivist" theology, and she embraces allies from all over. She repeatedly cites Jesus, but more as moral and prophetic exemplum than as Savior. (Might any reference to the afterlife constitute a betrayal of the suffering billions trapped in the here and now?) She looks to the Bible for powerful thematic images; but that creates another kind of difficulty. The story of Exodus naturally evokes grand thoughts of liberation, but this is spoiled by the death of "first-born of the maidservant who is behind the mill, and all the first-born of the cattle" (Ex. 11.5). She celebrates Nehemiah for condemning usury and exploitation of the common people by the nobles and officials of Jerusalem, but she never mentions that in Nehemiah's second administration he led some brutal ethnic cleansing by ordering all Jews who had married foreign women to divorce them. On the other hand, the denunciations of injustice by Jeremiah or Habakkuk that she quotes fit seamlessly into her general fine of attack.

Like other works of liberation theology, Solidarity Ethics begins with a desperately fallen world that it attempts to heal by implementing Christian visions of restoration (cf. Jesus quoting Isaiah 61.1,2 about preaching good news to the poor). At the same time, anyone not given to self-congratulation over his or her comfortable-to-luxurious status and aware--as all morally mature persons are bound to be aware--of the proliferating miseries both at home and abroad is welcome to join Peters in her searching examination of conscience. Pope Francis, for one, would vehemently approve.

--Peter Heinegg
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Title Annotation:Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World
Author:Heinegg, Peter
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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