We live in troubling times. Inequality is sharply increasing, with the wealth of the top 1% growing while the middle and working classes are losing ground. The infrastructure of roads and bridges is crumbling, and the food industry abuses land, animals, and workers to produce cheap empty calories and prohibitively expensive nutritious food. Trafficking in human beings has raised the numbers of literally enslaved people to a conservatively estimated 30 million worldwide, including around 60,000 slaves working in the United States in the sex trade, as domestics, and in various other industries. Perhaps most critically, high levels of carbon emissions threaten irreversible global climate change, with dire consequences for the future of life as we know it.
The good news is that these problems can be solved. Government policies favoring the wealthy, neglecting the infrastructure, and rewarding massive “factory” farming practices can be reversed. Strictly enforced national and international laws can make human trafficking unprofitable. The best news of all: we have the technology to switch to renewable energy sources and reduce carbon emissions without harming the economy. Separate studies by the Global Commission on the Economy and by the International Monetary Fund concur: the economic effects of dramatically lowering carbon emissions would be negligible, perhaps even positive.
In short: this world can be saved.
But there is also bad news. Our problems require legislative solutions, yet neoliberal distrust of governmental action remains widespread. Ever since Ronald Reagan declared that “government is the problem,” politicians and pundits in the U.S. have increasingly touted an unfettered market as the effective and efficient solution to all social and political challenges. This decades-long attack on governmental action—at the same time that the wealthy have won the right to infuse ever more money into political campaigns—has taken its toll. Even while the “invisible hand” of the market has failed to provide justice, equality, or a healthy and sustainable environment, confidence that progress in these areas can be achieved through political processes remains low. As George Monbiot has aptly observed: “Humankind’s greatest crisis (climate change) coincides with the rise of an ideology that makes it impossible to address.”
So yes, this world can be saved, but only if we are able to overcome our suspicion of political action and recover democratic practices seeking the good of all rather than the profits of the few.
There is no time left to wait in hopes that something or someone else will magically fix the world for us. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is approaching the point at which climate change threatens to become irreversible, perhaps initiating processes that will dramatically increase the rate of warming. Our actions now and in the very near future will determine whether the world becomes more healthy, just, and egalitarian, or spirals downward into greater inequality, more social dysfunction, severe natural disasters, and scarcer resources.
Given the high percentage of Christians in the United States (and in the world), Christian churches and Christian theology could—and should—play a significant role in reviving commitment to democratic action for greater ecological and social justice. As the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, so clearly demonstrated in the early 20th century, fundamental Christian beliefs about the human condition have deeply democratic implications. Niebuhr famously argued that, in this fallen world, democracy is necessary to constrain people’s selfish tendencies to use their power to benefit themselves at others’ expense. At the same time, democracy is possible, he maintained, because grace enables people to rise above their self-interests and work together for the common good.
Attention to Niebuhr’s theology disrupts current optimism about the benefits of deregulation, since his work reminds us that democratic government is essential to protect the vulnerable (including nature) from abuse by the powerful. Nobody should be trusted with unchecked political—or economic—power, since all are sinful and will be tempted to misuse that power for their own gain.
Yet democracy is not merely a means of restraining tyranny and abuse, as though a tense balance of conflicting interests is the best we can hope for. Indeed, what is most countercultural today about Niebuhr’s perspective is his confidence in the power of grace to overcome selfishness and to empower people to work together for the well being of all. In a world of sin and grace, government is necessary not only to prevent evil, but also to coordinate human efforts to work together for the common good.
On this point, Niebuhr is in agreement with the Catholic view that there would be a role for government even in a world without sin. The purpose of government is not solely to control crime but also to foster and organize efforts to build up the life of the community. Of course, this perspective on government contradicts the neoliberal insistence that an unregulated economy, driven by self-interested individuals pursuing profit, will create the best possible society.
Even more challenging to contemporary American culture, however, is the underlying rejection of individualism. Instead of encouraging a self-centered approach to personal fulfillment, Niebuhr affirms the traditional Christian insistence that human beings are inherently social, fully realizing themselves only through contributing to the life of the community.
If ever there was a time when commitment to the larger community and to the common good was needed, that time is now. The world today is poised on a precipice, with the conditions of life on this planet at stake. We will be judged—by God and by future generations—on what we do now to contribute to a more just and sustainable future. Our best hope lies in reviving the democratic processes through which people can seek the common good rather than merely maximizing profit through the abuse of land, animals, and people. Christian support for more democratic action might well determine what kind of world we leave for our children.