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The Religious Consultation on Population,
Reproductive Health & Ethics


Population, Poverty and Sustainable Development

By Daniel C. Maguire

President, The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics

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To frame my remarks, I have harnessed eight keynoters or tone-setters. The first keynoter is Gerd Theissen a German scripture scholar. He noted the human absorption during the last hundred years with finding "the missing link" between apes and true humanity. He suggests calling off the search. The "missing link" has been found. It is us. We are a stage toward true humanity. We have not reached it. If we had reached it we could not live comfortably with holocausts and starvation and the devastation of the earth. No, true humanity is not yet. It certainly is not us.

The second keynoter is Robert Heilbroner, the political economist. Heilbroner looked behind our veils of respectability and concluded that "there is a barbarism hidden behind the superficial amenities of life." In a similar vein, the great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel cited "the secret obscenity, the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference." This enduring malignancy was the target of all biblical prophecy. It is also the root cause of our ecocrisis.

Next, anthropologist Loren Eiseley's indictment: "It is with the coming of human beings that a vast hole seems to open in nature, a vast black whirlpool spinning faster and faster, consuming flesh, stones, soil, minerals, sucking down the lightning, wrenching the power from the atom, until the ancient sounds of nature are drowned in the cacophony of something which is no longer nature, something instead which is loose and knocking at the world's heart, something demonic and no longer planned--escaped, it may be--spewed out of nature contending in a final giant's game against its master." And we are winning in that game. We are defeating nature---and, of course, ourselves, nature's supposed pinnacle.

Next keynoter, philosopher John Dewey: Dewey noted that we would all agree that a U.S. senator who called his broker before a key vote to ask how his vote could best enhance his personal portfolio. Such a senator who had concern only for his personal enrichment is by any definition corrupt. Similarly, said Dewey, a citizen who votes his own portfolio and financial advantage is equally corrupt. To vote is an act of citizenship not of personal aggrandizement. It is an act of social justice geared to the common good. It is only because our social consciences are so undeveloped that we can live and vote without regard to our moral obligations to the common good.

The next keynoter is a cartoon that pictured a father and mother at a kitchen table with their three children. Bills are spread across the table. The father announces grimly: "Because of inflationary pressures, we are going to have to let two of you go." The joke is a good one because in a family or household, you don't let people go; you find new modes of sharing. And that leads into our next keynoter, Douglas Meeks who says that the first and last question from the biblical perspective is "will everyone in the household get what it takes to live?" Jewish and Christian scriptures see the human race as a household. Hardship is met by sharing, not by writing off the poor. In fact in biblical perspective, you cannot speak of the poor. You must speak of our poor. The difference is crucial. They are our poor and they are our problem.

And finally the ringing challenge of Deuteronomy 30 which pictures God as saying that he has set before us life and he has set before us death, and he has begged us to choose life for the sake of our children. All of Torah is in those words, and a look at the earth, most of which is a slum, witnesses to our perverse and persistent choice of death.

Looking at the Sun

To understand our current sins of earth-savaging, over-consuming, and over-populating we have to look at facts that are, like the sun, too painful for our direct gaze. Instinctively we look away. To know and remember that from which we shy we need a primer, a short catechism of the basic interrelated facts about population-consumption-ecology...and the three must be hyphenated and seen together. We must return to this primer frequently. Here are some suggestions from my primer:

Oysters are a good beginning. The fabled Chesapeake Bay once enjoyed a thorough filtration by the massive oyster population every three days. Thus cleansed, the Bay flourished and teemed with life. Now the oysters are so depleted that the filtration occurs only once a year with portentous results.

All life depends on cropland and water. So too, all economies. As Undersecretary of State Timothy WIrth says, "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment." Yet, topsoil, that precious and thin layer of life support, that takes centuries to develop, is washing like blood into the seas and rivers. In 30 years, China, where one of five humans lives, lost in cropland the equivalent of all the farms in France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. All of China's major rivers are polluted. Less than one percent of the earth's water is usable by humans and it is unevenly distributed. Most of Africa, the Near East, northern Asia and Australia suffer from chronic water shortages. Threats of water wars are already on the horizon.

The seas, like the land, are spoiling. Of the seventeen major world fisheries, nine are in decline and all the others are threatened by unsustainable fishing practices. Per capita supplies of water, fish, meat, and grain are declining.

Not surprisingly, people, in solidarity with the decedent earth are dying too. Four million babies die yearly from diarrhea in the euphemistically entitled "developing world." Almost 15 million infants die yearly from poverty-related causes. Life-expectancy among the poorest in the world is 45 years.

And yet, with less earth to share, there are more and more of us. It took 10,000 generations to reach the first 2 1/2 billion; it took one generation to double it. Till the middle of the next century, the momentum is unstoppable. Overall fertility rates have been declining over the past 40 years but mortality rates are dropping even faster, and so our numbers inexorably grow.

World population is like a triangle, with the reproductive young at the wide base and the old at the narrow top. Until the model becomes a rectangle, with a more balanced distribution of young and old, the growth will not stop, nor does anyone expect it to. And 90 percent of the growth is in the poorest parts of the world.

Humanity hit this earth like a vicious plague. Only conscience and a sense of the sanctity and interconnectedness of all life can save us from our penchant for terracide. For many in the world, the apocalypse is now. Their famished bodies and the land on which they scramble to live are damaged already beyond repair. (The cropland of Haiti and Ethiopia, for example, is so depleted that it cannot feed its people even in the best of weather. Too much of the land has been killed.) We, the first world royalty can ignore all this; such is the way of royalty. But as kings learned to their eventual undoing, the dying goes on and our royal comfort is precarious because all life on this frail planet is linked.


"The poverty of the poor is their ruin," says the Book of Proverbs.

And the ruin is not just material. Poverty rapes and kills the spirit of the poor. We underestimate its complexity and cruelty. There are four dimensions to poverty:

(1) Material limit. Poverty does mean a lack of material necessities. For the one billion people in "absolute poverty" the most basic essentials are critically lacking and death is fastening it grip on them. Note too that fewer than 3 billion people could eat as we eat, i.e. on a North American diet. We are almost 3 billion beyond that now. Limits have already been passed.

(2) Poverty strips the human spirit of its two indispensable prerequisites, the two things we cannot do without. They are, I submit, respect and hope. The opposite of respect is insult and as Aristotle said, insult is the root of all rebellion. Respect is the recognition that our humanity is valued at its worth, that others recognize that humanity is a shared glory and our possession of it is acknowledged. Poverty turns the goodness of the world into a taunt for it denies the poor the ecstasy of life that is their birthright. It is galling and killing to be so disvalued.

Insult is treatment that implicitly denies that we matter. African Americans in the United States, for example, eat insult with their daily bread. As law professor Derrick Bell says, there is no white person in this country who at some level of their being does not think blacks to be inferior, and there is no black person who does know that and resent it. Given the persistent record, the same could be said for the often subterranean but ever active belief of men that women are inferior and that their disempowerment is the law of nature. Women have noticed this and felt the pain. The result is called feminism and its success is our last best hope for our bi-gendered species.)

Hope is also best described by its opposite. Its opposite is paralysis. Only hope activates the human will. Only possible good motors our affections and stirs us to action. Without hope, we are catatonic. Even Sisyphus had to be hoping for something or he would have left that rock where he found it. Poverty suffocates hope for it repeatedly shows possibility to be illusory. Infants reach for hope starting with their birth and the infants of the poor already show with their eyes that there is no hope for them. Hunger and pain have already told them that their humanity does not count.

The stripping of respect and hope from the poor is well systematized. Capitalism from its start had poverty in its train. Serfs in the feudal, pre-capitalist system did often have a kind of paternalistic social security. They were part of a unit that shared the essentials out of a kind of practical necessity. With the dawn of modern capitalism, the serfs were cast out to look for work and security. Capitalism had two choices from the beginning, either to correct its deficiencies and care for those who were cast out by the blind mechanisms of the market, or to embark on the systematic vilification of the poor implying that their plight was their own doing and not an indictment of the system. Capitalism embraced the second alternative with passion.

The Statute of Laborers in 1349 in England made it a crime to give alms to the poor. In modern terms this meant cutting off welfare from these "lazy drones" who opted freely for idleness. This same spirit was in The Poor Law Reform Bill in England in 1834 which said explicitly that the main cause of poverty was the indiscriminate giving of aid which destroyed the desire to work. Again, there was nothing wrong with the system, only with those left out by the system. Of this 1834 bill Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would say decades later, "it made it a crime to be poor."

In the United States, 19th century writers like Herbert Spencer said that poverty was the direct consequence of sloth and sinfulness. One writer said: "Next to alcohol, and perhaps alongside it, the most pernicious fluid is indiscriminate soup." Cotton Mather had set the tone. "For those who indulge themselves in idleness, the express command of God unto us is, that we should let them starve." (The current Republican Contract With America is not discontinuous with this villainy.)

Religion joined the attack on the poor in a big way. Drawing from Augustinian and Calvinist predestinationist themes, it divided humanity up into the saved and the damned. Wealth came to be seen as a sign of God's favor, and then, of course, in a double whammy, poverty came to be seen as a mark of God's disgust. Bishop Lawrence of Massachusetts intoned: "In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes...Godliness is in league with riches." It is hard to get further from the Gospels that put God in league with the poor: "Blessed are the poor...of such is the kingdom of heaven." And of the rich? It would be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to get them to take a God's eye view of their hypocrisies. Privileged classes, as Reinhold Niebuhr prophetically reminded us, have always been shamefully full of self praise. They have traditionally heaped moral encomia upon themselves, dubbing themselves "nobles" and even, in that classical misnomer, "gentlemen."

So the poor must not only be stripped and starved. They must also be insulted and blamed for their poverty and painted as too lazy to go out and get those mythical decent jobs that are noteven there!

(3) It is an insight of the Jewish and Christian scriptures that poverty and wealth are correlative. As Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza says: "In Israel poverty was understood as injustice." Guilt was assigned to the system, not to the poor. The temple of prejudicial economic deals had to be attacked, and the prophets from Jeremiah to Jesus undertook that mission with gusto.

(4) Poverty is genocidal and the malignant indifference and masked barbarity that underlie upper class virtue are complicit in the quiet slaughter of the poor. Poverty kills with an efficiency that could only be matched by all-out nuclear war. The wars that we have had are pikers in inflicting death compared to poverty. What war could kill 40,000 infants a day and do so with a silent efficiency that allows the polysaturated guilty to sleep comfortably in their beds, consciences fully anesthetized, with no rumble of distant guns to disturb their rest.

Theopolitical Dynamite

People of faith, step forward. A judgment scene from a modern Matthew might address you this way: "Woe to you people of inert faith. You are pathetic. You have bought the modern myths about the irrelevancy of religion. You carry in your scrolls and traditions what the orthodox Jew Pinchas Lapide called 'theopolitical dynamite,' a dynamic and powerful vision of what life could be, and yet you behave with impotent timidity, content to bleat and pray on the sidelines at a safe remove from the play of the powerful. Your faith traditions have turned history on end in the past. They could do it again. Return to them and taste their strength."

A brief visit with the forebears of Jewish and Christian faith might be enlivening.

The moral revolution to which we are unworthy heirs began in the years 1250-1050 B.C.E. At this time, as Israel formed, there were neither Jews nor Christians. What there was was a rag tag group of escaped slaves, nomads, wandering pastoralists, and misfits from surrounding stable societies who all got together in the hills and began what was a workshop for a new humanity. Disgusted by what they saw in the kingdoms around them, they rethought life with its politics and economics, from the bottom up. Here is a sampling of their revolution. (For more, see my The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution, Fortress Press.)

Symbols are powerful. They are tidal forces that move minds and history. One of the symbols of that time was "the image of God." It was used to sacralize the power of the king or pharaoh. The king was to be obeyed because he was the image of God and the sacrality of God shone through him. The Israelites coopted this imagery and transformed it. Their experience in Egypt and elsewhere convinced them that whatever royalty was it was not Godly. The pharaohs who enslaved them, broke their backs and killed their youth were not the image of their God. So where was that image?

Here it is, they answered. See this baby in my arms gently suckling, this is the image of God. See my grandfather by the fire, a little less clear in mind than he used to be, but he is the image of God. Go to the reflecting pond; look at that imperfect face smiling back at you; that is the image of God. You are the image of God! And with this audacious transmutation of symbolism, history turned a corner. The implications of this symbol-grab gave a mighty tilt toward modern democratic theory with its bills of political and economic rights. The Leviathan of the state could not crush citizens who knew that they were the image of God. Neither could despotic religious leaders belittle the dignity and rights of those whose spirits bore the imprint of the sacred.

Next the busy Israelites turned their self-confident attention to royalty. Royalty is not something past. It is a permanent human temptation. Royalty build pyramids with the privileged few at the top and a huge supporting slave base below. Royalty, Israel decided---and they had the scars on their backs to prove it--is evil. Royalty is exploitation. It is murderous in its intent and in its effects.

In an historical first, the Israelites threw out royalty. They would have no kings or queens. And for their first two hundred years--for as long as the United States has existed!!--they pulled it off. They had judges and leaders, but no kings. Or, more cleverly yet, they said: "We do indeed have a king. That king is the Lord. Any other claimant of kingship is a fraud." This was a rethinking of political power without parallel, and it too changed subsequent history.

Royalty today have different names, but they are always there. Those who eat like we eat are royalty. Those who wear the finery made in sweatshops are royalty. CEO's who make 40 million dollars a year and could not work with less "incentive" are royalty. Royalty are thieves who build privilege and comfort on the backs of the poor. The biblical condemnation of royalty skewers us all.

The Israelitic revolution next turned its attention to property, to the human phenomenon of owning. And they found a lot of malignancy there. With one grand swoop they relativized all ownership. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," sang the psalmist. "You are my tenants," said the God of Leviticus. Sweet and pious thoughts? Hardly. What it meant was that the shirt you wear and the pen you write with are not yours. They are the Lord's entrusted to you and to be used according to the mind and heart of the only real owner on earth. And that owner, remember, was notoriously biased in favor of the poor and suspicious of those who were rich. This rethinking of the stranglehold of absolutized property rights was essential to fulfill Israel's primary economic goal. This was, in Deuteronomy's words: "There shall be no poor among you." That's it. That is the purpose of Torah. That is the will of God. The absolute elimination of poverty.

Our bold revolutionaries had not heard the ancient Thales say that when there is immoderate wealth and immoderate poverty, there is no justice. But that was the Israelitic point exactly. Centuries later Thomas Jefferson would say that when there are unemployed poor "it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right." "Amen!" the Israelites would respond. Ownership must yield appropriately to sharing so that poverty will end. It can be done and there will be no peace until we do it. In this vision, the poor, again, are our poor, and our arrangements and claims must yield so that appropriate sharing will bury poverty. Then and only then can the whole world rejoice.

Next, the Israelites knew that status makes the world go round. Status claims translate into power. And here, our jolly protesters cut the legs from under the throne of royalty. Moreover, they instituted what has to be seen as an epochal moral mutation in the evolution of morals. Through all of history, it was believed with Tacitus that the Gods were with the mighty. It seems a law of nature, visible even in our zoos, that safety and well-being come from identifying with the powerful. What could make more sense!

Israel demurred. It is no longer true if it ever was, they said, that safety and peace comes from identifying with the powerful. Instead it comes from identifying with the poor. Instead of Tacitus' God of the mighty , Israel's God was a "God of the humble...the poor...the weak...the desperate...and the hopeless." This was the consummation of their economic logic. Until we identified with our poor making their cause our cause neither they nor we will ever know peace. The poverty of the poor is their ruin, but also ours. That was Israel's insight. Human peace cannot be built upon a base of human misery. With Hebraic practicality they were telling us: "It won't work!" And it never has.

The challenge that Israel faced was to change hearts. The target of their prophecy was affectivity, what we love and what we hate. They indicted us for our tearlessness. As a Catholic youth I wondered at the strange prayer in the missal Pro petitione lachrymarum...a prayer to beg for tears. A prayer to make you cry. As a boy who had been taught that big boys don't cry I was baffled. I didn't see that it reflected Israel's wisdom that the problem with the world is that big boys and big girls do not cry. The prayer begged God to break through the hardness of our hearts and bring forth a flood of saving tears. Tears would sharpen the ears so that we could hear the cries of the desperate. Tears wash the eyes so they can focus on the pain of a wasted earth. Tears are the baptismal waters of faith and there is no faith without them.

But the prophets did not just want tears. They also summoned forth anger. The Christian John Chrysostom said with biblical brilliance: "Whoever is not angry when there is cause for anger sins!" Good anger, said Thomas Aquinas, looks to the good of justice. The Israelites were angry. They knew the earth was good and that we were ruining it. They knew that poverty results from a lack of sharing and wise planning and that poverty is unnecessary on this "very good" earth. Those who are not mad, don't care.

And the goal of all this? A world full of tears and anger? Not at all. The goal was Shalom, and Shalom is the last word in joy. Israel believed that ecstasy is our destiny. Where joy and the conditions for joy are not present we are partly dead. Joy is the most biblical of emotions. "The good are always the merry," said Yeats' Fiddler of Dooney. The goal of virtue, said the Fiddler, is "to dance like a wave of the sea." And until we dance the dance of joy on a cherished earth we are only half alive. Jews and Christians animated with this vision schematically given here, a vision that pulses vigorously through the veins of their traditions, would be "good news" on a troubled earth. There is much that we can still save on this earth. Then, as a united household, bonded to one another and to our mother earth, humanity could with wild joy "dance like a wave of the sea!"

About the Author

Daniel C. Maguire is a professor of ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is also President of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics. This paper was first presented at a conference on population and religion, sponsored by the Center for Development and Population Activities and the Pew Charitable Trusts' Global Stewardship Initiative. It was published in Earth Ethics, Vol. 7, Nos. 3 & 4, Spring/Summer, 1996.

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