Many years ago, while visiting rice farmers in Sri Lanka, I met a church leader based in the city. His work with local people involved supporting and investing in local enterprise, as a response to local communities devastated by biased economic policies that disrupted livelihoods and family life. I will always remember his message to me: “We as Christians have a duty to practise the faith we preach; Jesus moved amongst ordinary people, and so should we.”
I reflected on this for some time. In fact, I still do! This visit was followed by another journey a couple years later to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where I met and spent time with sugar cane workers, and experienced the appalling conditions they live with. I also learnt about the insufferable reality and the vast profits made by corporate owners of the sugar industry located in other countries. Equally clear – and even more troubling – to me was the connection between those workers’ suffering and what we eat.
My journeys over the years have exposed me to many many experiences of wrongdoing to poor and vulnerable communities, and one thing I’ve learnt is that these stories of structural injustice are not a one-time thing; it’s a complex web of exploitation, enabling extravagant acquisition and consumption. This is the reason why I’m an advocate for social justice issues in and outside the Church; it’s my way of being held accountable to the faith I believe in.
I believed that if more people simply knew what was on the other end of their material wealth, their consumption patterns would change. But merely knowing, I learned, was not enough to enable radical social change toward justice. The chains that bind us into systemic exploitation of others and of creation are intricate and cleverly hidden; this is not just flesh-and-blood stuff. The good news is these chains can be broken and transformed. Isn’t that what Jesus taught us?
Jesus presents us with another narrative: He presents a world that is just and fair, and the principles of that Kingdom value equality, dignity and human worth. And so, the world is full of people doing just that. Chains as ‘structural evil’ are the forces that seek to bind our power to live in ways that work out what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves, as well as protecting all aspects of God’s creation. These forces include: intricate webs of interrelated power arrangements, ideologies, values, practices and policies. Together they have unintended snowballing and catastrophic consequences on the lives of the have-nots.
By ‘structural evil’, I do not refer to metaphysical forces beyond human agency. To the contrary, while structural evil may be beyond the power of individuals to counter, it is composed of power arrangements and other factors that are humanly constructed, and therefore can be dismantled by other human decisions and collective actions should we desire.
So maybe it’s time to confront a contradiction and a question of morality that makes an assumption we are caring human beings, motivated not only by self-interest but also compassion and a desire for justice and goodness. And yet, in our paradigm, a ‘good life’ entails consumption, production and acquisition patterns that threaten our capacity to sustain life and planet as we know it. The system exploits vast numbers of people worldwide, some even unto death. Our current way of life and biased public policies contribute to severe – even deadly – poverty and ecological degradation on massive scales.
For example, with climate change, the haves of the world are responsible for the vast majority of the greenhouse gases that have already accumulated, and yet it is the have-nots who bear the brunt of its effects. This crisis divides us both in terms of culpability and vulnerability. (I’ll pause here to say that if your church is not yet signed up to the Big Church Switch, please sign up at www.bigchurchswitch.org.uk. The Big Church Switch is a simple and practical idea of supporting the move to clean, renewable energy.)
The devastating hand of economic violence is not limited to other lands. It strikes in the richest countries across the world. Of the ‘new financial wealth’ created, over 90% goes to the richest 20% of the nation’s people. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most citizens in middle-income countries are either poor or low-income. However, when taking a closer look at the poor, they are disproportionately women and often people of colour. It renders countless children malnourished and without homes or access to health services.
Within the body of the Church, both clergy and lay are called to resist evil; support the weak; defend the poor, and intercede for all in need (and we do this in different ways), but I wonder if it’s worth applying a framework to help us think about how we confront systemic evil.
Augsburg Fortress (a publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church) talks to a framework that has four fundamental markers, and I have found this helpful. The first is its focus on moral agency, referring to moral-spiritual power to “do and be” what we discern we ought – ethics, as a response to the question of “what we are to do and be”. The second marker is the de-privatisation of sin, love, morality and spirituality in constructions of the Christian faith. In this space we are looking at corporate bodies, institutions and establishments. The next marker is the commitment to social justice and the quest for environmental sustainability as inseparable. Finally, the marker of spiritual vision — enhanced capacity to see “what is, and what could be”, and God’s presence within creation working toward the latter.
If, like me, you are up for resisting and calling out systematic evil, then get involved in a movement or a cause and, being powered by Christ’s vision and hope, dare to imagine the alternative, and work tirelessly to make it happen.