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Works Righteousness or Social Justice: Have the Churches Lost their Social Voice?

Social justice, a theme of social ethics, threatens to fall by the wayside when every right is given to capital in turbo-capitalism. W.Zademach, pastor in Oberfranken, Germany active in the religious socialist movement describes the three planes of social justice: assuring the survival of the weakest, basic social rights and participation in the production conditions of the econmy. Translated from German
Works Righteousness or Social Justice

Have the Churches Lost Their Social Voice?

By Wieland Zademach

[This article originally published in: Utopie kreativ, October 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.linksnet.de . Wieland Zademach, 1943, is a pastor in Oberfranken and writer on theology and philosophy engaged in the religious socialist movement.]

For over 20 years we have witnessed the following development: After a brief economic boom with falling unemployment, a higher base of unemployment remains than after the last boom phase. If a social outcry occurred in earlier years in reaching "alarming numbers" with one, two or three million, a paralyzing resignation now spreads with long-term unemployment of four to five million persons. In 1982 a study of the KDA (Church Service in the World of Work) titled "Beyond Full Employment - On the Future of the World of Work" raised the question whether full employment is even possible in a system that denatures the person into a cost-factor. In the middle of the 90s, the ecumenical consultation process "For a Future in Solidarity and Justice" focused on possible alternatives to the exclusive fixation on paid labor and new relations to work, employment and performance. At the same time a study of the EKD (Evangelical church in Germany) titled "Work for all" showed socially friendly and financially possible ways of creating many new jobs.

For a long time the problematic of work and unemployment has been a theme of Christian social ethics and a subject of many reports on all church planes. Nevertheless - or therefore - the speechlessness of our churches and communities is surprising and shocking. Their pastoral problematic is acutely affected by unemployment. Do the church and theology have a certain joint responsibility, at least for the deficient sensitivity about unemployment?

The Theological Problematic

The church no longer contributes in organizing society and the economy as right after the war up to the 60s. The times when the church as the church was concerned about more asset-formation in the hands of workers or more joint determination are obviously past. A dialectic of the church's speechlessness and society's unwillingness to hear is produced by a deficit in the church presence in society and by a deficit in the theological penetration of its own social-ethical initiatives. Three questions arise regarding central Protestant positions.

Questions on the Reformed Work Ethos

The one-sided economic fixation on work is deplored in nearly all church opinions. The gainful economy became almost a "category of being" or "industrial religion". The KDA study twenty years ago declared: "We don't say I do this or that but I am a locksmith, baker or laborer. God is unemployed where work is idolized and people are processed. However the loss of work is like death when work as the purpose of life ends in this work society (KDA 1,21). The definition "Labor is conscious practical activity. Animals don't work. Work is the specific human activity bringing materials out of their natural state to improve their usefulness" (KDA 1,6) turns against such economistic narrowing - whether consciously or unconsciously referring to Karl Marx. "To what extent is the activity-side of human existence, the movement of life itself as work in the widest sense, constitutive for the meaning and destiny of human life?" The theological answer declares, "God's commission, effectiveness and promise have their place" in work (KDA 1,7). The term labor is reclaimed theologically in many church opinions.

Where are "God's commission, effectiveness and promise" in the life of those "released" in the course of the "third industrial revolution"? What "natural state" can be changed for "improved usefulness"? What activity-side is "meaningfully constructive"? Doesn't every traditional Reformation work ethos break down absolutely given the inevitability of this "third industrial revolution" with its consistent mass unemployment among those who most need Christian solidarity, the unemployed? The Lutheran work ethos that moves work near the church service and the Calvinist ethos regard prosperity gained through the gainful economy as a personal assurance of their own predestination. Whoever has internalized this work ethos must then fall into a deep depression when the possibility of fulfilling this work ethos is taken away. Will we actually justify the coming "two-thirds society" of "owners of labor" and degrade the rest to our caritas or charity?

Questions on Performance Fixation

"Performance must be rewarded again!" Official church or theological opinions against this fatal unbiblical Pelagian slogan are unfortunately the exception. This is true for the works of the handicapped or the parents of handicapped children who often accomplish enormous work without "achieving" anything... The writing is on the wall of a society seemingly still oriented in "human capital" when parties withy adjectives like "social" or "Christian" as trademarks in their names force the dismantling of state works in this area.

However - and here the question intensifies - can the categories of performance fixation be overcome when church studies and opinions only urge, "treating works in non-gainful or non-formal economic areas as economically equal". The "dual economy" can mean new life that doesn't make private everyday life into the maidservant of the industrial work routine. Human feelings and activities occur without solving the question of monetary provision" (KDA 1,58). Isn't the status quo cemented and the Lutheran article of justification repressed in its social-critical and social-creative dimension? Ultimately theology must take the rap for justifying the present functional society where the person is judged and treated according to his or her assumed function. For those in the function of unemployment, the vision of a dual economy with its positive humane development possibilities can only be a weak comfort (or deferment) since its inner acceptance requires an ethical re-education over generations. Performance-oriented protestant social ethics is not entirely blameless. Individualist components have a fatal effect according to suicide researchers in that the protestant suicide rate is significantly higher than the catholic rate. Given the challenge of being responsible for everything, the freedom of a Christian all too easily capsizes into feelings of guilt or personal failure that are not cushioned in the security of a collective or in alternative life models.

Questions on Models of Distributive Justice

In the future, every Reformation work ethos must be considerably relativized. That God accepts every person should be emphasized again. This must not only occur on the noetic plane - in sermons and pastoral care - to compensate theologically or psychologically for the fate of unemployment. This relativization must also define our actions - according to the inseparable connection of justification as unconditional acceptance by God and sanctification as human approval of this event expressed in cooperation in God's salvific acts in this world. "Justificatio" is the medial side and "sanctificatio" is the active side of one and the same event. Referring to unemployment, this means that one cannot leave matters in resigned acceptance or psychological reinterpretation of the situation. An active strategy for change must be carried out. Interpreting the world differently is not enough, as Marx said. The world must be changed. Expressed biblically, the truth must be done!

A deep malaise or discomfort comes over me with the attempts to uncouple the connection of work and income through redistribution. "Since participation of every individual in the social work process is no longer possible, the question is inevitably: "How can the social wealth produced by fewer and fewer persons be justly distributed to everyone?" (KDA 1,22). This demand is system-imminent since it sanctions the present situation and is deeply reactionary as long as it doesn't strive to make the concerned into subjects of changing their situation but lets them decay into objects of state welfare! What is central is a just distribution of work, not the justification of performance and the resulting necessity of a just distribution of the social wealth. As the churches confessed to being the "productive power of social inequality" on the eve of the fall 2000 EKD (Evangelical church in Germany) synod on the theme "Responsible Global Economy", no creative will appears here any more. Rather the way is paved for a cynical sanctioning of worldwide class antagonisms.

Nevertheless a person is more important than any rationalization principle! When a new situation demands a new system, its realization must be actively pursued. In this context, "sanctification" means concretely changing structures instead of sanctioning the symptoms of the system. Infiltration of the system - in no longer treating performance, competition, income and occupational position as ultimate and supreme values - is not enough any more than the reference to the practical necessities and our deficient power to replace the market economy with a more humane order.

Social Justice as Starting-Point and Goal

Why shouldn't the discovery that the economic system has become structural egoism or a waste product have the most social effects? Catholic social ethics with its capitalism criticism was always a little more sensitive than protestant ethics. In addition, a change of the economic order in the "First World" probably represents the only really effective presupposition for the removal of misery and oppression in the so-called Third World.

Ideas and Positions

Three planes can be distinguished in attempting a definition of social justice: assuring the survival of the weakest, basic social rights and participation in the production conditions of the economy.

Social justice is a theme of social ethics insofar as social ethics is occupied with interpersonal relations mediated by social structures. As people can act good or bad, the structures created by them can be more or less just, more or less unjust, never absolutely just but thoroughly "evil". "Sinful structures" were identified by the theology of liberation and the present pope John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical "Sollicitudo rei socialis". The market mechanisms left to themselves appear as "practical necessities" and make the rich richer and the poor more numerous with a fatal-fatalistic effect since the poor cannot become poorer but can only starve to death.

The ideology of the global and total market doesn't recognize any social justice. F.A. Hayek only accepted an ethic of individuals, not a social ethic that could judge social structures according to a standard of social justice. For him, justice was an individual virtue that - conforming to the system - is limited to respect for property and fulfillment of contracts. Hayek regarded the churches' support of "social justice", this "slogan of socialism", as disastrous. Thus a "heavenly promise of justice was replaced by a worldly promise". The reproach was directed especially at "the roman-catholic church" that made "the goal `social justice' into a part of its official doctrine".

Hayek erred here since the Catholic Church developed "social justice" independently and didn't adopt it from socialism. The 1931 encyclical "Quadragesimo anno", mentions "social justice" as a term for strictly and wisely disciplining economic power. The 1961 encyclical "Mater et magistra" insisted that "social progress must follow and correspond to economic progress so that all population sectors can share in the growing wealth of the nation" and "the tensions resulting from unequal conditions decrease and don't increase". This was described as an "important command of social justice".

On the plane of world public interest, the "obligation to social justice" according to the 1967 encyclical "Populorum progressio" means overcoming everything "unhealthy in economic relations between powerful and weak people", that is "excessive economic and social inequalities.. in the one family of humanity" as the second Vatican council proclaimed ("guadium et spes").

Distributive justice to overcome excessive inequalities is a term requiring precision. Karl Marx criticized the 1875 Gothaer program of the SPD (Socialist party in Germany) for aiming at "distribution of consumption resources" instead of "distributions of conditions of production". Socialism is more than the just distribution of the means gained by the capitalist mode of production. Socialism meant for Marx "the objective production conditions are the cooperative property of the workers themselves" (Karl Marx, Political Writings).

Assuring the Survival of the Weakest

First of all, social justice should be spelled out under present production conditions since people live here and now and cannot be fed with hopes for socialist relations of production. Recalling the ethical and legal minimum required by social justice under conditions of neoliberal capitalism is vital.

This ethical and legal minimum is enforceable as an "ultima ratio" through a right of resistance of all those lacking the essentials of life. The 1891 encyclical "Rerum novarum" that didn't recognize any basic social right spoke of that "most extreme emergency" where assistance for the poor is an enforceable duty of justice, not an act of Christian charity. In plain English, this means: when people lack the necessities of life, they may gain what is lacking illegally. With this argument, for example, the Koln cardinal Hermann Frings at the end of the Second World War called the anxious and freezing population to "petty larceny". The result was a storm on the food supply and the coal supply of the allies. Since then "Fringsen" is the word for morally legitimated petty larceny.

What this ethical minimum - together with the right of resistance - would mean nowadays on the world scale cannot be imagined. Every day 100,000 people die of hunger or its consequences. Around 850 million are permanently gravely malnourished. Two billion live without adequate food, without medical care and without access to clean drinking water. Achieving progress here is urgently necessary for the sake of the survival of the whole world population.

Basic Social Rights

Social justice requires far more than only assuring naked survival. Relying on Thomas Aquinas, "Rerum novarum" urges an adequate measure of outward material goods that a person needs unconditionally for virtuous life. Today the basic social rights to education, work, housing and health concretize the basic value of social justice. Unlike traditional freedom rights like freedom of conscience, religion and speech, these rights don't require non-interference by the state but direct active action and intervention, not a right to equal treatment but rather a right to unequal treatment for balancing or compensating unequal conditions.

The basic right to assured existence requires a social subsistence level that the state must guarantee to all the poor. For example, the "working poor" have a claim to a wage allowing them to pay for their livelihood. How the state grants assured existence - whether through minimum wages, a guaranteed minimum income, wage subsidies etc. - cannot be decided once and for all. The right to assured existence involves a justiciable right. Only the state can guarantee the social subsistence level without respect of person and prevent the poor from being dependent on judgments of public welfare authorities, private or church mercy. The love that would replace social justice would be loveless.

The different compensatory function of basic social rights shows that the relation of justice and equality appears different again and again. Social justice requires a redistribution of unjust income- and assets conditions, whether through progressive taxation or through social security. Unfortunately a very different redistribution has occurred for a long time in our society. This redistribution doesn't occur "down from above" as critics of the welfare society presume but "up from below" as all the statistics show. All the recent wealth studies for developed industrial countries prove this unequivocally. In Switzerland, the richest 3% of the population own half of all assets, just as much as the remaining 97%. 7.5% of workers are "working poor". 20% of the population are dangerously near poverty and could fall below the poverty line with their next dental bill. In summary, the welfare state has not contributed to overcoming poverty. The little redistribution that it has accomplished has hardly overcome the ever-growing gulf between poor and rich, to say nothing of the gap in the world standard.

Social Justice and Socialist Justice

The current discussion of income justice distinguishes between secondary distribution through social transfers and primary distribution through wages. The production conditions are faded out. This is very unjust since the real primary distribution occurs here. Through the priority of capital over labor, the state guarantees accumulation possibilities for the side of property that are denied the side of labor. The question about power is connected with that denial. The injustice begins practically - as political powerlessness - where labor lacks joint determination in the economy, where capital has a sole right of determination over factories and businesses.

If conversely "the objective production conditions were the cooperative property of the workers themselves" (Karl Marx), these massive wage differences couldn't arise that are common today between "simple" employees and top managers. There would be no "working poor". The welfare state would have a real subsidiary function and wouldn't produce social justice as a compensation for the failure of the economy. If the social life were organized cooperatively or autonomously in another way, the slogan "Less State" would first have a meaning. If this slogan becomes successful again and again today, it may meet a fundamental need for original social justice - even if "Less State" inverts this authentic need within the dominant production conditions into its exact opposite.

Impulses from the Biblical Social Order

The existing instruments of tax-, environmental- and social legislation are hardly adequate to bid farewell to the growth ideology for consumer goods and firm-oriented profit-maximization. These instruments are managed - or not managed - by politicians who obviously write social redistribution up from below on the banner of their social Darwinism and reflect the shareholder value mentality propagated by capital for preserving their own power. If the economy were forced to defer the question of saleable consumer goods for the question of necessary services, new and more effective mechanisms of investment guidance and investment control would be necessary. The practical consequence from this insight is that the church must take sides for the interests of the unemployed in its option for the poor and for the rescue of the environment in the preservation of creation. The church must become a lobby, partisan from case to case in the concrete political party sense. If this cannot be expected from the church hierarchy on account of its "well-balanced fetishism", community members must do this lobby work. As "God's people", they must honor with their "orthopraxis" what the churches, as institutions with all their "orthodoxy" never seem able to do.

Sabbath Ethic as Contrasting Model

The goal of a democratic "alternative civilization" propagated some time ago by political scientists like Oskar Negt and Iring Fetscher would be a sensible starting point for a responsible theological social ethic today. These efforts that go far beyond reconsidering theologically the relation of work and performance and rediscovering the Old Testament social order should be encouraged. The direction for further reflection can be marked out.

In his Heidelberg dissertation "Diakonia in Dialogue with Judaism", Klaus Mueller tries to bring together what originally belonged together: Jewish-rabbinic Messianism and Christian expectation of the reign of God - nourished from the same root of the Hebrew Bible with its impulses for social structures. Mueller makes insights from the Jewish tradition fruitful for possible social-diakonic conduct in the present. The insight that service of the neighbor can be theologically established and articulated as the right of the neighbor assigns a place to diakonic praxis between the Christian community and welfare state reality. The outlines of a "Sabbath diakonia" sketched by Mueller suggest hidden system-overcoming resources in this tradition.

Mindful of the biblical priority of time over space, a quality of time is regained that is more than urgency, functionality and efficiency. From the Sabbath right of God, "church service in the world of work" means "testifying and pleading for the wholesome category of interruption" today more than ever. The rhythm of seven days doesn't follow a natural process or growth ideology but runs crossways as a transcendent disturbance to all supposed civilized plausibilities. The criterion for the rationality of the work process would be the working person. The standard for its efficiency would be the preservation of life, not production growth or increased profit. The workdays of the week would exist for the sake of the Sabbath understood as a life-giving work of liberation in the comprehensive sense.

An "Economy of Enough"

Independent of Klaus Mueller - and nevertheless based on his exegetical conclusions -, Franz Segbers in his Marburg dissertation "The House Rules of the Torah" offers guidelines of a social economy in the perspective of God's social order. Starting from the question how the economy can really be useful to life today, Segbers analyzes the conceptions of the social market economy and neoliberalism and asks about their anthropologies and ethics. Insights about the Torah as a foundation of theological ethics or about the protestant roots of the social market economy, about cult marketing and the criticism of idols of the Hebrew Bible are very illuminating.

Against a market economy of insatiable persons, the Bible sets an "economy of enough", participation and sharing from the abundance of creation instead of an artificial scarcity. The ethical substance of the Sabbath idea shows that "the category of enough is a cultural category, not an economic category". More cannot improve what is enough. Insofar as the Sabbath is the practice of a good life or an art of living of "having enough", it stands for a third goal beyond work and rest. The purpose of the Sabbath is to be liberated from instrumental work and to become free for activities beyond its objectives. Altogether the seven-rhythm is the Sabbath economy with the Sabbath, the Sabbath year and the year of jubilation, an ethically pretentious deliberation concept that liberates dependent workers, slaves, debtors and land from the dominance of the logic of the economy, liberating people not the market.

Churches must make a racket

In recent times, the CDU-delegate Heiner Geissler appealed to the churches in Germany: "Make a racket and begin an argument". The churches must meddle politically so "western democracies essentially change their international policies". Geissler speaks of a "total failure" of western democracies regarding the absence of a world economic order.

"Hundreds of millions of people are excluded under the conditions of a global turbo-capitalism." One must speak out against the dance around the golden calf, "that greed for money devouring the brains of politicians and economic bosses". The alternative is "solidarity instead of capitalism" (epd Oct 11, 2001). When Carl Amery dedicated his new book "Global Exit - The Churches and the Total Market" (2002) to the theology student Elisabeth Kasemann murdered in Argentina in 1977, the discomfort in the religion of the total market - and its church toleration - had long assumed ecumenical dimensions.

Carl Amery propagates the exodus of the churches from the system of the total market that he describes as fundamentalist. From his perspective, a clear counter-culture is necessary instead of adaptation to the market. As in the times of the Roman empire of the emperor cult that was demanded of everyone regardless of religion, the "religion of the total market" is presented today as the overriding authority ultimately without alternative. As Jews and Christians didn't follow the emperor cult at that time since there wasn't any salvation expectation from that cult, churches today are forced to resistance against the worship of the market without alternatives. Amery raises the question whether the "confrontation with mammonism" must not become a confessional question.

From the formulation of catholic social doctrine, Amery and Geissler come to similar conclusions as the Reformed World Alliance proclaimed at its 1997 plenary assembly in Hungarian Debrecen with its "processus confessionis": to overcome concrete neoliberalist capitalism. What is involved is an "obligating process of growing knowledge, enlightenment and confessing regarding economic injustice and ecological destruction", naming the idolatry that celebrates the global and total market. Ultimately "the mammon-addicted bourgeois society is challenged with the prophetic No of a `reign of God consistency test' and radical questioning of the supposed Christian values of this society. The ecumenism of Christ's body with its ethical differentiations could be an adequate answer to globalization!

However reforms in society will never be possible without reforms in the church itself.

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