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American waldensian society
Journal of Latin American Hermeneutics. ISSN 1668-2610 – Year 2011 – Instituto Universitario ISEDET
Practices of Justice1
I would like to express my deepest thanks to the American Waldensian Society for inviting us to be here today. We are celebrating 100 year of friendship with the Waldensian churches in Europe and Latin America, but you already know that. What you may not be aware of yet is that in this invitation you already are experiencing a practice of justice. The Society is telling all of us that they do not want to work as an agency sending money abroad, in an act of charity, but as brothers and sisters creating communities between Italy, El Río de La Plata and the USA. When you invite the other to your home, you open up your life to the other. You and the other become brothers and sisters related in mutuality. Community is possible because everybody has something to share with others and something with which to enrich others. Inviting us today creates mutuality because you are saying, “Maybe you have something to share with us, too.”
I prepared this short presentation about “practices of justice” in the following way. First, I wil clarify my starting points. I believe we are living in a time in which injustice is not just a problem of particular people or situations but is at the very heart of the “new economic order.” Second, this “new economic order” is a new empire that has colonized our subjectivity. Then, I will consider the possibilities of local churches and see how we can move from charity toward real practices of justice. My whole point is that today a real practice of justice cannot avoid the task of “decolonization” of us from this captivity.
1. The New World Disorder
First, I consider that we are living in a deeply unjust world. In the World Council of Churches‟ document named Agape, we find this shaming data:
“In 2003, 7.7 million persons owned wealth worth US$ one million or more. The sum of their wealth reached US$ 28.9 trillion, or almost three times the United States national product that same year. In the meantime, 840 million people worldwide are undernourished and 1.5 billion – the majority of whom are women, children, and Indigenous Peoples- live on less than one dollar a day. The world‟s richest 20 percent account for 86 percent of global consumption of goods and services. The annual income of the richest 1% is equal to that of the poorest 57%, and at least 24,000 people die each day from poverty and malnutrition.”2
These are the statistics of this unjust world. The unjust situations that lie behinds these data are not a matter of particular people being unable to function in this world. Rather, we are facing a structural problem, a structural evil. The “New World Order” system survives by sucking the life out of humanity and God‟s creation.
Second, some people consider that we are living in a time of empire. Meaning “.the coherence of economic, cultural, political and military powers that constitute a global system of domination directed by powerful nations and organizations.”3 The novelty of this empire is that it works from within us. Professor Néstor Míguez from ISEDET points out:
“The empires of antiquity imposed their dominion through physical enslavement (slave system). Modern imperialism used economic mechanisms to dominate (industrial capitalism). But the
1 Presented at the Centennial Anniversary of the American Waldensian Society, 2006.
2 World Council of Churches, Alternative Globalization Address to People and Earth (AGAPE). Background Document
, 2005, p. 9.
Journal of Latin American Hermeneutics. ISSN 1668-2610 – Year 2011 – Instituto Universitario ISEDET “postmodern” Empire works through the colonization of desire. It works, as never before, through the colonization of subjectivity.”4
What he is suggesting is that the establishment of empire through cultural mechanisms has been able to introduce itself inside us. If the motor of the economic is to consume, I become a compulsive consumer.5 If the market works better with competence, I become individualistic and competitive. If society mixes up public with private affairs, I go to talk shows
to chat about the problems that I have with my wife…
However, the colonization goes even deeper. Our desires are the desires created and manipulated by the market‟s needs. We see and feel only through the eyes and the sympathies of the empire.
The colonization is so strong that we give the name “New World order”
to this unjust disorder.
We justify war in the name of peace. We accept as a patriotic act the fact that someone is
listening in on my telephone conversations. We accept the torture of others to defend ourselves
from terrorism. We become terrorists to fight against terrorism.
Finally, the empire pretends to be the only possible way. Every Empire, from Egypt, through Assyria, Babylonia, Rome and the present, pretends to be eternal. Francis Fukuyama honestly expresses his dream (and the dream of the empire): This is “the end of history.” There is nothing else, nothing new to be expected anywhere or at any time.
2. Practice of Justice in Local Churches
If the problems are global and huge, but our strength is not, what do we do? Many local churches ask themselves this question and, in response, leave aside the “macro” problems in order to focus on specific, particular situations. This is good. It is better to do something for someone than do nothing for all of humanity. After all, many people are able to survive because of the shelter we offer, the “chicken soup” we serve, and the houses we repair for wintertime. Some of these persons even discover a new meaning for their lives in these spaces. These activities of charity are good and necessary for people living in extreme situations. Without such charity, many more people would die. However, Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, in reference to the “new capitalistic ethic” points out:
“Charity is, today, part of the game, as a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic oppression. It is a blackmail to the superego of gigantic dimensions. The developed countries are „helping‟ constantly to the undeveloped ones with assistance, credits, etc., avoiding in this way the key problem, meaning, their complicity and co-responsibility in the miserable situation of them.”6
Zizek is talking about governments, corporations and so on. However, I think that there is an element of truth in his comments that also is applicable to our own situation. We should ask ourselves if our charity tends to change, even at a tiny level, the key problems or if it just tends to support the unjust situation. How can we reconcile the shelter for the homeless, the “chicken soup,” the home repairs with the big and real problem? This is for me the key question in our practice of justice today.
First, if we take a look around us we will realize that we are not alone. We cannot enclose ourselves. We should be able to see beyond our own yard and be in contact with other churches, religious groups, social organizations, thinkers and particular people and seek to
4 Néstor Míguez, “The Empire and After. Keeping the Biblical Faith in the Midst of Oppression”, draft paper, p. 6.
5 Zygmunt Bauman in his book Liquid Modernity
suggests that “the postmodern society considers its members basically in their quality of consumers, not as producers.” Zygmunt Bauman, Modernidad Líquida
, Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica de Argentina, 2003, p. 82. Originally published in English: Liquid Modernity
, Polity Press and Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000. I am quoting from the Spanish version so it may differ in the English version.
6 Slavoj Žižek, Violencia en acto: Conferencias en Buenos Aires
, Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2004, p. 105.
Journal of Latin American Hermeneutics. ISSN 1668-2610 – Year 2011 – Instituto Universitario ISEDET cooperate with them. There are many people trying to practice justice but they, like us, sometimes feel lonely, powerless and tired. We need one another and we need to be together.
Second, what is the specific contribution that we as Christians may bring to enrich the practice of justice? Our specific contribution is at the very heart of our existence and mission as Christian churches.
When there is an empire that pretends to be eternal, we should proclaim the
ephemeral existence of any human endeavor and the everlasting presence of God.
If the empire has colonized our minds, we should “decolonize” ourselves, practicing
When the present is too overwhelming, we need to nurture our preaching and
practices, relying upon and even crying out to our merciful God.
1. The Everlasting Presence of God
Every Empire pretends to be eternal. Yet we know that this is not true. From Genesis 3 to Revelation 21, we know that eternity is reserved for God. Every human and every creation of his/her hands is ephemeral. This empire, like the others before it, will pass away. There is a future. There are alternatives, because the empire does not have the last word.
The myth of expulsion from the garden in Genesis 3 ends saying:
“He drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24, NRSV).
Humanity and its creations are condemned to pass away. This is what the prophet is invited to tell the captives of the Babylonian empire:
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6b-8, NRSV)7
Similarly, it is the word revealed to John under the Roman Empire. He saw the sealed book and he saw the falling of the Roman Empire, an empire that persecuted and kil ed John‟s communities:
Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste. Rejoice over her, O heaven, your saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.” (Revelation 18:20-21, NRSV)
The Empire declares that there is nothing else beyond it, yet we know that this is not true. If the Empire is not the end, we have a future. There is cause for hope. There is something else to come, a new world to dream about and a new society to build.
As I mentioned before, the innovation of the present empire is that its power is not limited to a specific place. It is nowhere and everywhere, even inside us. We need to be exorcised and to transform all our practice of justice into an exorcism.
Journal of Latin American Hermeneutics. ISSN 1668-2610 – Year 2011 – Instituto Universitario ISEDET
You may remember the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). Do you remember the name of the unclean spirit? The possessed man answers Jesus: “My name is Legion
; for we are many” (v.9, NRSV). Legion
is the only Latin word used in the New Testament and it is not casual. The empire has possessed the demoniac: because of that, he has a self-destructive practice. This man embodies what is happening to his country. Like his country, he is possessed by the Legions
. When Jesus liberates this man from the Legion,
Jesus not only heals this particular man, but also performs a symbolic act of liberation for the whole society. The people of the town understand the meaning and implications of the symbol, so they invite Jesus to leave. Nobody wants to have trouble with the Legions. Jesus accepts and gets into the boat with his disciples. The healed man tries to go with Jesus, too. However, Jesus says to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you” (v.19, NRSV). This man becomes a symbol and a message of God‟s liberation and mercy.8 Likewise, our practice of justice should be able to enter fully into the particularities of a situation and point beyond that situation. We should be able to exorcise ourselves and one another from the subjectivity of the empire.
It is possible to be freed from the imperial mind that “.exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” (Rom 1:25). God in God‟s grace is able to transform us into makers of justice (Romans 3:26).
“Paul opposes the power of God to the power of the sin (hamartia
) expressed in the concrete injustices (adikiai
) of history. The Gospel is a power where the justice of God is expressed. Because of that it is Gospel, meaning good new for those thirsty for this justice in a world full of injustice.”9
We should be capable to transform our daily activities into practices of justice and a process of decolonization. The lesson does not come from a manual of politics but from the Gospels, from the ministry of Jesus. You may remember the conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees and that the conflict was not only because of what Jesus said but also because of what he did. He cured on Saturday but he also ate with sinners and Publicans. In a daily event such as eating, Jesus was practicing justice. When Jesus sat with sinners and publicans, he was consciously breaking apart the whole structure of the society. The boundaries of cleanness and uncleanness were broken down. The supporters of the Jewish religion of that time were shaken. Again, regular people and everyday situations became the perfect medium through to challenge the whole system.
Eating was one of the most powerful activities of Jesus‟ ministry. Jesus used eating as a way to build a community of equals that stood in stark contrast to the hierarchical society of his time. When Jesus sent out his disciples without food, money or extra clothing he was trying to organize a movement in which “.an equality of spiritual and material resources are shared. [.] Eating together as a strategy to build or rebuild the peasant community on radically different principles than honor and shame, master and client. It was based on an equalitarian sharing of spiritual and material power on the basic level.”10 A daily and necessary activity became a symbol of a new world to come. Those who broke bread with Jesus were not only eating food. They are enjoying an appetizer of the coming Kingdom of God.
Let me give you another example of how the Gospel of Mark creates a strong contrast between the practices of the empire and the activity of Jesus. You surely remember the “Feeding the five thousand” story of Mark‟s Gospel. I am not so sure, however, that you remember the event
8 This interpretation of the text is supported for most of the scholars. See for example Joachim Gnilka, El evangelio según San Marcos
, Vol I, Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme p. 1993, pp. 231-242; John Dominic Crossan, El Jesús Histórico. La vida de un campesino judío del Mediterráneo
, Buenos Aires: Ediciones Planeta, 1994, pp. 331-335. Originally published in English: The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant
. Harper San Francisco, 1991.
9 Elsa Tamez, Contra toda condena. La justificación por la fe desde los excluidos
. Costa Rica, DEI, 1993, p. 113.
10 John Dominic Crossan, op. cit., pp. 358, 360-361.
Journal of Latin American Hermeneutics. ISSN 1668-2610 – Year 2011 – Instituto Universitario ISEDET before. John the Baptist is killed during a banquet offered by Herod for his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee (Mark 6:14-29). Now Jesus is also offering a banquet for the people of Galilee, those who “were like sheep without a shepherd.” Of course, their “shepherds” were banqueting with Herod. At one banquet are the leaders, and the word of God is silenced when the prophet is killed. At the other banquet, the people are present, the word of God is listening (v.34), and the blessed food satisfies everyone. If we are able to contrast our daily practice with the practice of the empire, we will be offering an alternative to humanity. We will be decolonizing our minds and liberating our subjectivities.11
Scarecrows of Fear, Sowers of Compassion
This world needs our weeping, our laments, our complaints raised to who is able to change our world. After all, Israel‟s slavery began to end when the people cried out:
After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning.” (Exodus 2:23-24, NRSV)
This world, this mentality, does not want our cries. It shuts down our feelings of compassion. It needs indifference. It needs consumers ready to silence every uncomfortable feeling with shopping or with Prozac
Walter Brueggeman in his book, The Prophetic Imagination,
published in 1978 proposed, among other things, that we should “express openly these same fears and terrors than we have been denying and so deeply repressed for so long that we do not know that they are there.”12
When people rush to consume, they are not only looking for ephemeral satisfaction, but also running away from their own pain, frustration and fear. If we cannot change the world, let us run away from it.
However, weeping together makes us aware that it is not only my problem. Crying together is the first and primordial affirmation that the situation in which we find ourselves is not good. This is not heaven. Groaning together to God is to remember that this painful world is not God‟s wil . Praying together for a new world is the first step toward starting to build that world.
This unjust world needs our practice of Justice. The whole creation is groaning in pain for it (Romans 8:22). Not only the creation is groaning, however, but us, too. Let us share our pains. Let us tell everyone that this world is not God‟ will. Let us go out to share the news that something new is coming. Let us begin to decolonize ourselves and introduce God‟s subjectivity into our lives. Let us be reborn from above because “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5, NRSV)
11 Similarly, when Jesus said to his disciples: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28, NRSV), he is creating a contrast between his movement and the empire‟s tyranny.
12 Walter Brueggeman, La imaginación profética,
Santander: Sal Terrae, 1986, p. 59.
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