There is a compelling scriptural and theological foundation for Catholic Social Teaching (CST) that need not be elaborated here. There is a rich and moving imagery for the Kingdom of God that represents the eschatological fulfilment of the ultimate common good. Here suffice it to say that there are complementary understandings in other religious traditions, among them the Gandhi’s seva-marg beginning with the last and the least, so beautifully expressed in his favourite bhajan Vaishnava Janato, the Bhodisatva mythology, the inclusiveness and equality of the Umma in Islam, the non-violence of Jainism, the bravery of Sikhism,… All these makes for inter-religious possibilities with like-minded collaborators, that can bring together faith-based NGOs in a dialogue of action. Further there are other secular and political ideologies that vibe with this vision. This can add an ‘extra-religious’ humanist dimension to our dialogic endeavour. We still have to articulate a “sacred secularity” and a spirituality to go with it, as Raimundo Panikkar has suggested, to consolidate our resources and inspiration, both ideological and theological.
If we understand spirituality as a vision and way of life, then within the on-going practice of such a spirituality, praxis must become part of a discernment process, that opens us to that ‘inner voice’, the still small voice of conscience that speaks to us, as persons and in groups, in the innermost recesses of our hearts, where our deepest desires and concerns, our hopes and longings, not just for our own enlightenment and fulfilment, but of that collective dream waiting to be brought into the reality of a more just and human world. Too many of us suffer from the disease identified by the Australian aboriginals in their encounter with the colonialists: the White man he hath no dreaming!
Our world is becoming a dreamless nightmare, where the rich suffer from affluenza – the bad effects of effects of living in a society where many people are too rich, such as always wanting new, expensive things or having to work too hard – and the poor suffer from deprivation and disease. We must find the motivation to bring hope to this broken, bruised, hope-less world. A social activist spirituality, whether religious or secular, faith-based or otherwise must be one of hope, so emphasised by the Marxist Ernst Bloch in his Principle of Hope, (1986) and so poetically expressed in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methusalah (1921): You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?" This is a worldly hope in the promise of the future reality as the noumenon hidden in the maya of the present phenomenon.
CST is an ideology of caring and sharing. For such an ideology to be effective it must be alert to, and deal promptly with the convenient abuse in the ‘free rider theorem’ that results in the ‘tragedy of the commons’. The person or group that rides free on the generosity and goodness of others selfishly, taking advantage of a set up but not contributing in turn to the venture, hollows it out. Eventually, once a certain threshold of free riders is crossed, this leads to a crash that can only be set right by starting all over again with all the participants internalising the required mind-set.
This corrosive and contagious malaise is rooted in a mind-set that seeks one’s own advantage, not community benefit, private profit, not social welfare, materiel goods, not spiritual happiness, individual privilege, not the common good. Common responsibility for the common good becomes no one’s responsibility! This is a social Darwinism where the devil takes the hindmost, each for oneself in a war of all against all. This precisely was the basis of Thomas Hobbes social contract, which begins on the premise that human life is “poor, nasty, brutish, short”, and only authority and force can sustain the social fabric. When this is inadequate, it leads to the ‘tragedy of the commons’, the degradation of common resources that finally presages the “war of all against all”.
This ‘tragedy of the commons’ is most apparent in our present ecological crisis, but the same happens when social resources and social capital are drawn down but not reinvested in and replenished. Our present social crisis is surely the result of an excess of individualism and little sense of communitarian responsibility.
Salvatore Quasimodo expresses this movingly:
“Each alone on the heart of the earth impaled upon a ray of sun:
and suddenly it’s evening.”
We have forgotten John Dunne’s inspiration:
No man is
an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
For any effective network, this commitment to a common purpose for the common good is imperative, a sine qua non. Indeed, it is the relationship of inter-dependence between the nodes in the net that sustains it, or else it unravels into loose strings and isolated knots.
The theological basis for such a communitarian understanding of the human has a firm basis in Scripture, where the kingdom of God is for the people of God as a people, a community, not just as individuals. Salvation, for the Catholic Christian is not an individualistic affair, but concerns us as persons-in-community, who make up the people of God that includes all persons of goodwill. As such we are called to collaborate with each other; this is embedded in our mission.
A second implication is regarding collaboration. This is essential for the complexity of the tasks to be dealt with today: confronting new challenges with our limited and ever diminishing resources, not just material and financial, but especially of personnel. However, partnerships cannot be genuine if they are instrumentalised. Collaborators must be partners not employees or volunteers who execute assigned tasks. Obviously, partners must be called to own the endeavour and their ownership will be proportionate to the responsibility taken, or rather given and accepted. To the extent they contribute their resources and invest themselves, they can claim and must be given ownership of the endeavour as well. This is the meaning of an equal, or rather equitable and meaningful partnership, and it demands a basic level of trust.
So much of our organisational collaboration suffers from a corrosive clericalism, that is unable to trust lay person to be worthy and equal partners. This is the battle that Pope Francis is fighting in the Vatican dicasteries with their hierarchies and bureaucracies. It is part of a war that needs to be fought at lower levels and in other places as well. The assumption that only our own can be entrusted with our missions seems to show that so little has been learn from the recent scandals in the Church, not just at the local level, and in religious orders, not excluding our own. Undeniably then, clerical betrayal of trust and mission has been enormous.
Equal/equitable partnership demands an appropriate initiation of, and training for would-be partners. They must be competent and committed, and getting them there must be the responsibility of those sharing their mission. The spiritual understanding of here is mission as gift, a gift that has to be shared, not kept for oneself. Sharing this gift means making collaboration with others a part of our mission, not a practical need to be fulfilled by employees when finance is available or by volunteers when finance is short. This is where collaboration must be grounded, in our obligation to share the mission we are called to together.
These are but two implications spelt out here. There are any others that need to be elaborated, which will depended on the context. This can be done in an on-going praxis and suggested earlier.
In summary then the starting point must be a practical praxis: learning from the past and reflecting on the present, reaching out to the future. This needs a socio-cultural analysis based on Catholic Social Teaching, which is in essence about caring and sharing. This in turn must be concretised in a social democratic ideology, applicable in the local context. For faith-based groups this can be further inspired by a liberation theology for Asia that goes beyond the religious to find a sacred space in the secular so that all like-minded persons of goodwill can be included in a dialogue of action for the common good. Only a spirituality of hope can make this praxis, this ideology, this theology sustainable. And finally, discernment, collaboration and networking are founding premises which can make this mission effective for the kingdom.
This is a beginning exercise in theorising a people’s movement. It may seem a dream. But if I dream alone it may not add up to much, but if all dream together, that can make our dream a reality! Thus our audacity can go even further than daring the improbable, and reach beyond to even the impossible, because nothing is impossible with God. Could we then dream of things that never were; and I say "Why not?" Are we willing to “Row out into the deep water” (Lk 5:4).
(Author’s note: This is a revised version from an earlier article that appeared in Jivan, Sept 2017.)
Shaw, George Bernard, 1921, Back to Methusalah, Brenano, NY.
(Published on 16th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 42)