Love is Stronger than Death: A Review of “The Impossible”

Although its release has been strangely muted in the US to date (perhaps due to the already-overcrowded holiday movie schedule), Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible has awed audiences in Europe (becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all time in its native Spain) and established itself as one of the finest films of 2012, if not the last decade.  The true story of the Alvarez-Belón family’s harrowing tale of survival in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, The Impossible is one of those movies that leaves you dazed and emotionally eviscerated as you walk out of the cinema in silence, and then keeps on haunting you in the days that follow.  I’d heard going in that the film was a tear-jerker, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary emotional intensity, which had you choked up by 15 minutes in (if not sooner) and didn’t let that feeling subside until the end credits rolled.  Nor did it evoke tears in just one emotional key, whether of grief or sentimentality; rather, it pulled its viewers, along with the characters in it, through the full range of human feeling: horror, hope, fear, anger, grief, gratitude, love, loneliness, and joy. 

This is perhaps the greater feat because the audience, of course, already knows what is going to happen—you know when the tsunami is going to hit, you know it’s going to be bad; you know (if you’ve read any reviews whatsoever; so I wouldn’t consider this a spoiler) that this family of five will be separated from one another and in the end be reunited.  But once the wave hits, you suddenly realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen.  That, at least, was the case for me.  I must confess to taking a very naive and detached view of the tsunami in the past; yes, people died, but it was quick, right?  Never mind that drowning is a terrible way to die.  One does not really grasp, until one watches this film, how a tsunami is not a mere wall of water, but one that is quickly filled with a thousand objects that can cut, slice, bruise, and puncture; that it hits at a force that will dash human bodies like rag dolls into whatever object is nearby.  And the physical agony that is portrayed (though truth be told, with considerable restraint), is nothing to the emotional pain of fear and separation that follows, for families that have been ripped apart.  

 

The film’s power, of course, comes in large part from its compelling source narrative, and indeed the fact that it is based on a true story, so that there is no hiding from the awful reality it portrays.  For that reason, there are no doubt better films that have been made; films that required much more creative screenplay writing, more daring directing, more extraordinary displays of acting.  But this film certainly does not rest content with a good storyline, or else it would hardly succeed in drawing in the viewer so completely.  And indeed, the story is perhaps, when you boil it down to its constituent elements, a fairly thin and simple one: tsunami hits, mother (Maria) and oldest son (Lucas), are separated from father (Henry) and younger sons (Thomas and Simon); Maria struggles for survival in hospital, tended by Lucas, while father searches for them; in the end they are reunited.  What transforms this simple storyline into one of the most moving depictions of human fragility, love, and courage to appear on film is its unwavering, unrelenting realism, in which every detail—every image, every gesture, every facial expression, is pregnant with meaning.  This realism is underpinned by stellar acting and masterful cinematography.

The actors for all five members of the family put in fantastic performances (all the way down to the four-year-old son), but Naomi Watts’s performance as the Maria is particularly strong, and has earned her some Oscar buzz.  Of course, since she spends the majority of the movie lying on a bed near death’s door, her role probably does not have enough variety to win the award, but it remains a memorable performance.  Still more impressive perhaps was the young Tom Holland’s profoundly genuine portrayal of 12-year-old Lucas, who is forced all at once to grow from a boy into a man when he is suddenly responsible for his gravely wounded mother’s survival.  Although the screenwriting has been criticized as one of the movie’s weaker points, I was struck by how effectively the film succeeds in connecting us emotionally with its five main characters in the brief space of 15 minutes of film time before the wave hits.  We have to care about these people—just another handful of privileged white tourists taking a Christmas vacation in paradise—and to identify with them as people.  And by the end of 15 minutes, we certainly do.

 Some reviewers have commented that the strength of the movie is its myopia—its conscious, ascetic refusal to wallow in the sheer scale of the disaster, and instead to communicate it to us on a human scale, through the eyes of a single family.  (It is for this reason, among others, that it is hardly apt, and more than a little insulting, to refer to the film as part of the genre “disaster movie.”)  Nowhere is this more true than in the cinematography, in which Oscar Faura has recreated for us the family’s bewildering experience by only letting us see what they see.  We are trapped within their very limited perspective, disoriented by the chaos around us, unable to comprehend the big picture, unsure where we are or what’s happening next.  Only at a few key moments does the camera pan out to let us see the enormity of the catastrophe, to put into perspective this one small tale of suffering among tens of thousands of others, and because this wide-angle is used so sparingly, it is devastatingly effective when it is used.

 

Although I have frequently used words like “horror” and “awful” above, the dominant theme of the movie, believe it or not, is beauty.  The score, composed by Fernando Velasquez, is sublimely beautiful and moving, yet appropriately restrained in most of the film; Bayona and Velasquez, thankfully, are not among those who think the only way to elicit the requisite emotions from their audience is to subject them to a crescendo of melodious strings in nearly every scene.  In the first fifteen minutes, the cinematography pierces our hearts both with the physical beauty of the landscape, and the beauty of a family’s love for one another, made almost unbearably bittersweet in its ominous tranquillity—a particularly powerful and recurrent image is the placid sea, both before and after the tsunami, so beguilingly peaceful and apparently innocuous.  After the wave hits, our eyes are treated to little that is physically attractive (although we are still reminded on occasion of how little even the most horrible disaster can do to efface the beauty of creation).  Instead, it is the beauty of courage and of love that overwhelms us again and again.  This love is of course, above all, the love of a family for one another, and there have been few more eloquent odes to the love of a father for his son, or a mother for her son, of a husband for his wife, of a son for his mother, than this film.  Hard is the heart that comes away from this without being inspired to deeper gratitude and more fervent love for family, one of God’s most precious gifts. 

Yet it would be wrong to imagine that this film self-indulgently steeps itself in the sentimentality of one family to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands of others affected.  Just as in the cinematography, the myopia of the storyline serves ultimately not as a set of blinkers to insulate us from the enormity of the tragedy, but as a lens through which to come to terms with it.  Fundraisers have learned that the surest way to a human heart is through one compelling story of loss and need; if treated to a barrage of images and statistics about the thousands who suffer, our emotive capacities shut down, overwhelmed. But the one story can and should serve as a symbol, a proxy, for the thousands of others, by which we are moved with compassion for all.  So it is here. 

One insufferably snide and snobbish reviewer complained that what we are treated to is little more than the story of “a spoiled holiday,” which trivializes the deaths of 220,000.  One is tempted to wish upon this reviewer a similarly spoiled holiday, complete with impaled thigh and seaweed-vomiting.  We are given, indeed, a glimpse of what a mere “spoiled holiday” might look like, when we encounter an American couple, a few hours after the tsunami, griping that “no one seems to know what’s going on” and about how they “just wanna get out of here.”  When Henry staggers up to them, bloodied and desperate, and implores them to borrow their cell phone for just a minute, he is rebuffed, “Hey man, look around.  Everyone around here needs something.  I need this phone too.  So bug off.”  The suffering experienced by the family in this film is a far cry from a mere “spoiled holiday,” and yet we are never at any point allowed to forget that they are comparatively lucky.  In key moments of their own joy, we are treated to brief reminders of those around them for whom the search for loved ones will have no happy ending.  Most crucial is the final scene of the film, where, fortunate enough to be headed on a private plane to a Singapore hospital, courtesy of a well-dressed Zurich insurance agent, we and they are sobered by a glance out the airplane windows as it passes over the devastated coast. 

Nor do they themselves forget the plights of others in the midst of their own.  A key sub-plot of the film is Lucas’s transformation from the self-centered adolescent to a young man eager to help others in need.  The relative selflessness that comes with caring for his injured mother is just the first step in this: right after the wave hits, he is concerned only with getting her to safety, and refuses to stop to rescue a small boy calling for help; his mother insists, asking him to imagine what he would want another survivor to do if that boy calling for help was one of his younger brothers.  By the rescue of this boy, and by Lucas’s later acts of service, some of the other tragedies unfolding around them are transformed into happy endings.   

 

Refuting the PC Police

The sheer pettiness of today’s political correctness police was on full display in some of the reviews of The Impossible over the last month. We have already encountered the snide remarks of A.O. Scott for the New York Times, calling the film the tale of a spoiled holiday, but his review was glowing compared to the sniping of some critics.  Stephen Whittey, of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, opens by complaining, “Official estimates put the death toll at roughly 228,000 people, most of them children. Of the total number, roughly 9000 were European tourists, many of them on holiday in Thailand. ‘The Impossible’ is the first major movie to center on that disaster. And it ignores the Asian causalities to focuses strictly on the troubles of an upper-class British family of five,” before grumbling about how bourgeois and un-interesting the main characters are, how trivial their tragedy.  The Guardian, generally a fine publication except when it comes to predictably politicized film reviews, goes much further (to The Guardian‘s credit, they published a counterpoint here).  Critic Alex von Tunzelmann arranges the review under six headings: Nationality, Society, Disaster, Race, Fate, Verdict.  Under the first, she complains about the English nationality of the main characters, then under the second, about their financial means—”their elegant beach resort is so jam-packed with rich white people that it could be mistaken for the Republican national convention.”  Under the fourth, she rants,

“When the tsunami subsides, the film’s dubious racial politics make an unwelcome reappearance. Maria is tended to by a villageful of kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything. They take her to a hospital. En route, there are lots more wounded white tourists lying around in the road, some being tended to by yet more kindly Thais not saying anything. Both at the beach and in the hospital, almost all the victims of this disaster appear to be white.”  

What is to be said in response to these charges?  Well, the first thing to be said is that no defense is really necessary.  The choice of rich Westerners was not some arbitrary politicized decision to make up a story about characters we could identify with.  Rather, a Spanish filmmaker encountered an extraordinary real-life story of a family of Spaniards, and decided that it deserved to be told.  The decision to use well-known English actors rather than Spanish actors speaking Spanish was an understandable decision to make sure the film had as wide a distribution as possible, so as many people as possible would be exposed to this extraordinary story.  Purists might complain, but the Alvarez-Belón family fully supported the decision, and judging by the film’s extraordinary reception in Spain, so did their countrymen.  As an English speaker, I’m certainly not going to complain, as the power of the film is easier to appreciate without subtitles.  In any case, a wealthy Spanish couple is every bit as much part of the global elite as a wealthy English couple, so this decision was not an elitizing move.  Bayona cannot pretend the family, and the other tourists, are not wealthy—why else would they be vacationing at a Thai resort?  And the fact that the preponderance of the victims in the Khao Lak area portrayed in the film are European is a simple submission to historical fact—this was the tourist area, and the majority of the dead and injured here were foreign tourists.  (That said, von Tunzelmann and others exaggerate in claiming that we almost never see any Thai victims—the hospital where much of the film takes place is a cultural melting pot if there ever was one.)  

Bayona found a good story, and told it just like it was, and there is no shame in that.  Both Scott and von Tunzelmann, unlike Whittey, acknowledge that this is a good story as far as it goes, but grumble that Bayona should’ve worked in the stories of some Asian victims as well.  But as mentioned above, precisely the effectiveness of the film is its resolution that “less is more.”  Trying to help us better grasp the scope of the tragedy by working in a few other tragic stories, and spreading our reserves of empathy over a dozen more characters, would have almost certainly made for a poorer film.  Again, as mentioned above, the narrow focus serves not to exclude other victims, but as a lens by which we may come to feel the pain of all.  Viewed this way, we may ask whether the film falls prey to Whittey’s objection: “Western movies always insist on seeing global disasters through Western eyes. It’s as if filmmakers doubt we can identify with anyone who doesn’t look or act exactly like us. Which insults us, actually, and hobbles cinema. One of the great powers of this emotional medium is that it easily encourages us to identify with people who look or act nothing like us.”  Whittey’s general point is true.  Films of third world tragedies usually make use of a first world lens.  Even in films like Hotel Rwanda, where the heroes are Rwandan, they are very Westernized Rwandans—which is why they survive, for that matter.  Blood Diamond needs Leonardo DiCaprio alongside Djimon Hounsou.  But this is not, I think, anything to be terribly ashamed of, or insulted by.  Rather, as powerful a medium as film is, it still has difficulty dissolving the immensely powerful barriers of culture and language.  I’m not saying it can’t be done; but it is difficult, and films that attempt it will rarely reach as wide an audience.  We accept the need for film to mediate between reality and ourselves, manipulating reality in the process in order that we might really be brought to experience it.  Real-life events do not have soundtracks playing in the background, yet few of us complain when films use music to help evoke in us the same emotions that the characters portrayed are feeling.  Similar mediation, reducing the otherness of a radically different culture, is often necessary if we are to come to terms with the Third World at all, rather than it continuing to feel wholly alien to us.  

This is, I’m afraid, especially true when it comes to portraying disasters.  We in the West have great difficulty relating to the suffering of the Third World poor; it is simply too much for us to comprehend.  The images and statistics send us into overload and cause our empathetic faculties to shut down.  When the Haitian earthquake killed 200,000, it felt like just another tragic chapter in the sad saga of that nation, a tragedy almost too deep to engage with emotionally.  The Japanese earthquake, although less tragic on the whole, was for this reason more moving for many of us.  Bayona’s film, then, might be seen as an attempt to help us come to terms with the suffering of all the victims of the Asian tsunami by giving us that suffering in a manageable dose, in a form we could begin to relate to; by this means, our emotional faculties would be trained in the empathy necessary to begin to comprehend the suffering of all the others—those who were not rich, white, and Western.

 

On a related note, I would suggest that part of Bayona’s point is to emphasize the way in which such disasters radically level social and economic hierarchies.  When struggling for survival, we are all reduced to the same common denominator: human.  For many critics (interestingly, themselves all rich white Westerners, who perhaps enjoy tropical vacations from time to time), it was unconscionable that we should pause to lament the suffering of a rich white Westerner, who probably deserved what they had coming to them.  And yet such a reverse discrimination, a cultivation of cultural self-loathing, is no way to overcome the barrier between the privileged and the poor.  On the contrary, the recognition that we too can suffer, that we too can bleed, can be forced to struggle barefoot and barely-clothed through swamps in search of medical help, that we too can be subject to great forces of nature beyond our control, that we too can find our families torn apart by disaster, that vulnerability and suffering are not the sole prerogative of poor Asians and Africans—this is a powerful message of the film.  Indeed, not only does the tsunami result in a leveling, but in an inversion, as rich Europeans are thrown into a position of absolute dependence on the kindness of poor Thai villagers.  

This was the most bizarre of von Tunzelmann’s complaints, as she carped about the racism of depicting “kindly Thais rescuing white holidaymakers without saying anything” (for the record, they were saying plenty, but in Thai—presumably von Tunzelmann would’ve considered it less racist if they miraculously spoke English).  Exactly how is it racist to depict another culture as “kindly”?  Are we to demand rather that other cultures all grow up and learn to display the kind of callous self-absorption that we in the West have perfected?  Scott’s review perhaps clarifies the source of the complaint, charging that “these acts of selfless generosity are treated like services to which wealthy Western travelers are entitled.”  But it is difficult to see where on earth Scott and von Tunzelmann have concocted this impression from.  On the contrary, one of the most powerfully moving scenes in the film is one in which a Thai family, having dragged Maria to safety, bandages her wounds, puts her on a makeshift stretcher, and, in a wonderfully human gesture, puts a fresh clean blouse over her bleeding and partially exposed breasts.  Far from treating this like a “service” to which she is “entitled,” Maria is overwhelmed, and struggles to find a way to articulate her gratitude, weeping and croaking “Thank you” over and over again.  One could hardly ask for a more touching depiction of the kindred humanity we all share, regardless of wealth or nationality.

 

Theology

This review has grown overlong, so I will confine myself to a few brief remarks on the theological dimension.  The 2004 tsunami, of course, called forth a flood of reflections on theodicy in the weeks and months afterward, asking how a good God could cause or allow such suffering.  One of the most eloquent, but ultimately frustrating, responses was David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which rightly called out callous hyper-Calvinists for their presumption and lack of compassion, but failed to provide any convincing alternative to the bogeyman of Calvinism into which he lumped together so many of his opponents.  Bayona’s film avoids all such questions; indeed, is so staunchly secular and empty of God that it must be a self-conscious omission.  The film’s tagline is “Nothing is stronger than the human spirit,” and sure enough, the film’s characters find all the physical and emotional resources they need in themselves, never calling upon God either in anger or for aid.  It would be easy to pick on this humanism, and it is probable that Bayona is a doctrinaire secularist.  From a Christian standpoint, however, I think it is preferable to think of this silence about God as another dimension of the film’s self-imposed myopia, its “less is more” aesthetic.  (And after all, the Book of Esther reminds us that God does not have to be mentioned for us to recognize him as the chief Actor.)  By focusing its spotlight so resolutely and single-mindedly on the truly extraordinary power that is the human spirit, on the marvels of human courage and human love, I found that the film indirectly did homage to the One in Whose image humankind, and human love, were created.  As Richard Hooker argued, we give God the greatest honor not by denigrating His handiwork to focus on Him alone, but by honoring Him in His handiwork, of which we—and our capacity to love—are the greatest expression.  

This then indirectly suggests a theodicy of sorts.  It can sound tired, clichéd, and even callous to say that God allows tragedies and natural disasters to happen in order to make a more beautiful story.  Yet it was no exaggeration when I said above the the most prominent theme of this film is not grief, but beauty.  The beauty of human souls and human love, which is purified and given occasion by physical suffering, outweighs the worst ugliness that a fallen nature can inflict upon us.  Death provides the occasion for love, love which overcomes all death.  This cannot, of course, be the whole answer, or a fully satisfying answer, to the problem of evil and suffering (no answer can be), but it remains one we must not forget, and one that anyone who has seen The Impossible is not likely to soon forget. 


Tetzel on Craigslist: Commodification and the Demise of the Commons

In his incisive and thought-provoking new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel invites us to step back and take stock of the results of the rapid expansion of market logic into every area of life that the last generation has witnessed.  Economics has transformed itself from a discipline concerned with the production, exchange, and allocation of material goods and services to a master-science claiming to describe the logic of all human social relations in terms of cost-benefit analyses.  In tandem with this theoretical shift has come the increasing subjection of areas of life once governed by non-market norms to the logic of free exchange driven by supply and demand.  Many today, including (perhaps especially?) many Christians may have difficulty in seeing what is wrong with this trajectory—after all, doesn’t this represent the triumph of free, voluntary social relations over against coercive, top-down ones (for a critique of this gross oversimplification, see here)? 

 Inasmuch as the logic of the market, though, is amoral and nonjudgmental—it doesn’t matter what you want and why as long as you’re willing to pay for it—Christians should be deeply concerned, and should heed Sandel’s call to bring morality back into the picture, asking about the moral consequences of subjecting more and more of our lives to the logic of exchange (especially as Sandel himself does not provide a theological basis for this moral concern).  Accordingly, I want to reflect here on the first set of phenomena he examines, “Jumping the Queue,” from a more explicitly theological standpoint.

 

In his first chapter, Sandel surveys at a variety of cases, around the world, in which the “ethic of the queue”—first come, first served—has been replaced by the “ethic of the market.”  The examples range from the relatively innocuous (the option to pay extra for a “fast track” pass at an amusement park) to the somewhat more troubling (the option for solo drivers to pay extra to use the carpool fast lane in crowded cities) to the downright dirty (lobbyists paying homeless people to stand in line for them overnight so they can be assured a place in Congressional hearings).  

From the standpoint of the Christian ethical tradition, these developments might be described as a “demise of the commons.”  As I have discussed at length on this blog before, the Christian ethical tradition long insisted on the priority of common use over private property.  That didn’t mean that private property was unjustified, but it meant that it did have to be justified.  It wasn’t a self-evident, self-justifying fixture of the natural order.  For the Christian, God has created the world for the use of all his creatures, and above all, for the use of mankind.  Since all men are created equal, the world’s resources are intended to provide equally for the needs of all.  As an institution, then, private property is to be justified on the basis that it can most effectively facilitate the use of the earth to meet the needs of all.  This being the case, any given holder of private property possesses his title on the moral condition that it be used not for his mere private benefit, but for the community at large.  The ongoing commitment to common use may be demonstrated in a private property economy in at least three ways: 1) by the use of private property in such a way that its fruits accrue to the benefits of others—preeminently employees and customers; that is to say, if I am the proud possessor of an apple orchard, I can ensure that the orchard serves common use by paying the apple-pickers a good wage and by selling the produce on to customers at a just price—but not, say, by intentionally allowing half the apples to rot so as to drive up the price of the others and make a better profit; 2) by the redistribution of the profits of private property to society at large, or to the needy—this can occur through taxation, or through voluntary giving to charity, or both; 3) by the preservation of certain areas—whether physical spaces, particular resources or services, or kinds of social relations—from private appropriation, maintaining them as common resources which everyone can use within the constraints of certain rules of fairness (rivers and oceans, for instance, are generally treated this way).  

 A good economy will combine all three.  The second, I would suggest, is the worst, because it does not necessarily challenge the logic of private right—you can do whatever you want with your property, and make as much money as you want, just share a little of your plunder with the rest of us when you’re done, will you?  When voluntary charity is the form of redistribution, the selfish logic can in fact be reinforced, as the giver thinks of himself as a magnanimous benefactor sharing from what is rightfully his alone, rather than someone recognizing the claims of others on the fruits of the earth.  Nonetheless, society today favors the second most of all, whether in its coercive forms (as the left prefers) or its voluntary (as the right prefers), because it is the least intrusive on the logic of private possession.  The third used to be recognized in many ways and institutions throughout society, but these are being steadily eroded.  Sandel’s examples draw particular attention to this phenomenon, particularly notable in the practice of ticket scalping for free public events or services (in China, scalpers wait in line for $2 doctor-appointment tickets, and then sell them to the desperately ill for much higher prices; in New York, free Shakespeare in the Park community theatre tickets are resold on Craigslist for $125).  Deeming such public services inefficient, we increasingly prefer to withdraw them from the sphere of common use and auction them off to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this tendency is an inevitable result of the Lockean logic within which we have long justified private property.  For Locke, private property exists not as a means to common use, but as an extension of our right of self-possession.  We have an inalienable right to ourselves and our own actions; therefore, why not to those things with which we have “mixed” ourselves in the form of our labor?  A free community theatre presents itself as the possession of the whole public, which we are free to come and share in, but which we cannot simply appropriate and make it our own.  But if Locke is right, why not?  My money, as the product of my labor, is the extension of myself, and there is no reason to appropriate to my own exclusive use whatever my money can buy, whether it be the fast lane or a ticket to a papal Mass ($200 on Craigslist for Benedict XVI’s first visit to the States).

 

In embracing this logic, and asking, “Where’s the harm?” Protestants are forgetting their theological heritage.  After all, more than anything else, the Reformation was a rejection of the commodification of religion, the subjection of God’s grace to the logic of exchange and private acquisition.  Late medieval Catholicism, after all, did a booming trade in souls and spiritual benefits.  Indeed, the phenomena of “jumping the queue” which Sandel documents has its precise complement in the indulgence trade which sprung up in the late Middle Ages, and the many other ways by which those willing to pay could speed their souls to heaven—almsgiving, funding private masses, even hiring surrogates to fight in a crusade.  The rich were able to buy a fast-pass to heaven, to “jump the queue” of purgatory.  Why does this trouble us?  Well, the issue of inequality, as I have just hinted, is obviously part of the problem, and Luther’s war against indulgences was motivated in large part by his anger at the oppression of the poor it entailed.  The rich nobleman, with a modest outlay, could pave his golden highway to heaven without great difficulty, while the mass of poor peasants felt shut out of the kingdom, scrimping and saving their meager resources to purchase indulgences.  Sandel, of course, draws attention to the same problem of inequality in the phenomena he looks at.  The queue is the great equalizer.  The richest must wait as long as the poorest to go through security at the airport.  The poorest has just as much opportunity to see Shakespeare in the Park as the richest.  Where the ethic of the queue dominates, income inequality is not a major issue, because the poor man’s lower income does not bar him from access.  He has rights of common use.  But the more the ethic of the queue is replaced with the ethic of the market, the greater the benefits of the rich.

To apply this logic to salvation, as the late medieval Church did, was to utterly corrupt the grace of God.  The Christian faith is not a private possession to be bought and sold.  God is not a marketable commodity.  In response, Luther preached a spiritual economy of free grace, of a great common spiritual possession that we were invited to enter into and share in.  Just as the physical world was created for the common use of mankind, not for the purpose of being parceled off to the highest bidder, so our heavenly inheritance was a shared possession to which we were given a birthright by the grace of Jesus Christ, not a store of merit to be purchased by those who could afford it.  

But as this picture shows, the problem is not just inequality.  Conservatives, indeed, would reject Sandel’s concern about inequality and would defend the onward march of commodification on the basis that we live in a meritocracy, that the rich are rich because they’ve earned it, and the poor are poor because they haven’t.  Everyone has, in principle, an equal chance to get those Shakespeare in the Park tickets even if they cost $125, because everyone has an equal chance to make that money, if they’re just willing to sweat and toil enough for their slice of the pie.  Let’s ignore for now how little this picture resembles reality.  The problem is, as Sandel argues, that more than just inequality is at stake.  Even if everyone had equal opportunity to buy and sell children, for example, doesn’t mean they should.  Some things simply shouldn’t be treated as commodities, because this flies in the face of their proper nature, corrupting the way we view them.  Children are an obvious and extreme example, but perhaps, he suggests, the same concern applies even to community theatre or papal masses.  Some things lose their real value when we try to put an exchange value on them.

Again, the case of Luther’s protest is instructive.  Inequality was not the only problem with the late medieval religious economy.  After all, you didn’t have to be rich.  It was handy to be rich, because then you could get the benefits without working; but if you were poor, you could still get in the fast lane to heaven too—if you worked hard enough: fasting, praying, pilgrimage, deeds of charity, rituals, etc.  Ultimately, the Church could counter, it was a meritocracy, not an aristocracy.  But that was precisely the problem.  Luther understood that this corrupted the whole nature of what was on offer.  The favor of God wasn’t something you worked for, but something you were freely given.  It was something that belonged to you by virtue of being in the family of God—in Christ, we are sons and fellow-heirs, not hired laborers trying to earn our keep.  

 

Perhaps by thinking through the theological implications of how the logic of exchange corrupts our relationship with God, privatizing us into self-interested agents, we may gain insight into how the logic of exchange, when extended beyond its proper boundaries can tend to corrupt our human relationships, substituting the agenda of acquisition for the agenda of participation.  

 

Addendum: An additional thought—lurking behind all this is the question of plenitude vs. scarcity.  That, of course, is the major disanalogy between what Sandel is talking about and what Luther was dealing with.  God’s grace really is infinite, which is why it’s so wrong to treat it as a finite commodity to be apportioned out, whereas Chinese medical appointment tickets are genuinely finite.  Not only do you not have to pay for Jesus, you don’t have to stand in line for him either.  There is no limit on how many people can participate in the common good that is God’ s grace, but there is a limit to how many people can participate in the common good that is Shakespeare in the Park. It is the scarcity of something that convinces economists that it should be apportioned by market mechanisms.  Of course, I think that it is precisely our sense that certain things should not be scarce, should be treated as unlimited goods, that in many cases informs our sense that it is wrong to pay for them.  Is this just self-delusion, trying to pretend that things aren’t scarce when they are?  Or ought we to cultivate such an attitude?  To what extent is the perception of scarcity self-fulfilling?  All such questions I shall merely raise for now, not attempt to answer.


Calvin the Capitalist?

In his Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation, Ronald Wallace shoots the tired old hypothesis full of holes.  After first surveying Calvin’s teaching on usury, and pointing out just how restrictive his “permission” of it was, he tells us: 

“Though he believed in the necessity of some distinctions remaining, he believed that the appearance of extreme differences in wealth and poverty within a community was inexcusably evil.  His comment on Paul’s ideal that ‘through giving there should be equality’ is illuminating.  ‘Equality’, in Paul’s mind, he thinks means a ‘fair proportioning of our resources that we may, so far as funds allow, help those in difficulties that there may not be some in affluence and others in want’.  The vision given in Christ’s parable of Lazarus in heaven lying at the bosom of Abraham implies that riches do not shut against any man the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven but that it is open alike to all who have either made a sober use of riches, or patiently endured the want of them. 

“Calvin believed that Christ’s command to us to ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ might under certain circumstances demand the giving away of capital as well as current income.  It enjoined that ‘we must not be satisfied with bestowing on the poor what we can easily spare, but that we must not refuse to part with our estates, if their revenue does not supply the wants of the poor.  His meaning is ‘Let your liberality go so far as to lessen your patrimony and dispose of your lands.’ . . . The answer the Lord gives to the greedy who argue too much about their rights to keep their own is, ‘It is indeed thine, but on this condition, that thou share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that thou eat it thyself alone.’ . . . This teaching tends to have more in common with medieval thought than that which lay behind the vigorous growth of Capitalism.”

In short, Calvin appears to have held back to the traditional Christian teaching that private right to property must serve the end of common use, otherwise this “right” degenerated into a wrong against the neighbor, and that the persistence of significant inequality in resources was therefore immoral insofar as it was avoidable.  But it gets even more interesting.  Wallace suggests that Calvin challenged the ethos that is perhaps the chief pillar of capitalism and of modern life, an ethos that few even think to question, so deep is our faith in its benefits—competition:

“It must be noted at this point that Calvin could never have approved of the idea of a competitive society.  Rivalry and struggle of one member with another is impossible within a true Christian body.  No member is living in full health while competing with another.  It is interesting to find how closely on this mater Calvin’s thought comes to that of Kropotkin the anarchist.  In contrast to Hobbes, and to all thinkers who look back to the natural state of man in society as being one of continuous struggle, Kropotkin believed that ‘the law of nature was the law of cooperation, of mutual aid rather than struggle.  Within each species mutual support was the rule. . . .’

“Moreover, Calvin was always warning about the deadly effects of covetousness—an unquenchable and irresistible fire in the soul destructive of all individual and social good.  He called those who extorted cheap labour from the poor, blood-suckers, murderers of a worse type than any street thug.  He was never weary of castigating those who used their financial power to draw money from others to themselves.  He expreses his dismay that when prices were so high wealthy merchants could keep their granaries closed in order to raise the price even higher and thus to cut the throat of poor people’.  Nothing in the commercial world, he believed, could be lawful which was hurtful to other people, and ‘all bargains in which the one party unrighteously strives to make gain by the loss of the other party’ are condemned.  The idea that any form of rivalry in commercial enterprise could help society or tht self-seeking could further the common interest could never have entered his mind.  He believed in restraining rather than in setting free the competitive spirit.  

“The spirit of Calvin has therefore nothing in common with the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’.”

To be sure, so insistently does Wallace press his case here that it seems that he has an anti-capitalist axe of his own to grind.  Nonetheless, most our modern cheery capitalist-cum-Calvinists would do well to consider these points of rivalry between the two creeds.


Wealth Inequality–A Moral Problem?

One of the more interesting chapters in Jay Richards’s Money, Greed, and God is chapter 4, “If I Become Rich, Won’t Someone Else Become Poor?”  This chapter brings us to the heart of the impasse between left and right, with the one side contending that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” while the other insists that, on the contrary, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer too…just not as fast.  From a certain perspective, both claims are true.  Even the right, in its more honest moments, admits that income inequality is growing.  Which means that, in relative terms, the poor are growing poorer.  But is absolute poverty increasing?  The right denies it but of course, it depends where you are talking about–in sub-Saharan Africa, it is.  On the whole, my limited grasp of the statistics suggests that the right is correct, global absolute poverty is slowly declining.  

Now, from the right’s standpoint, this means we do not have a moral problem–the rich are not getting rich at the poor’s expense. (In fact, from the right’s perspective, this would be true even if absolute poverty were increasing; so confident are they in the wealth-creating power of the market, that they would have to chalk this up exclusively to the failures of the poor or their governments).  Richards thinks that he has demonstrated another example of “zero-sum thinking,” revealing the left’s logical and moral idiocy.  If the poor are getting richer too, then why does it matter how fast the rich get richer?  It’s not a moral issue.  

Here we find a clash of moral intuitions–Richards and his ilk honestly feel that there is no moral problem here, whereas others find a glaring injustice.  The source of it, I suggest, lies in different presuppositions about property.  

 

Before dealing with the presuppositional issue, there is a prior hole in Richards’s argument worth addressing.  First, as I mentioned in my review, just because the global market isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game doesn’t mean it never is.  Sometimes the rich really do get rich by ripping off the poor.  Richards says incredulously, “For decades, Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has looked around at the poverty in Latin America and concluded that Latin America is poor, in part, because North America is rich: ‘The poor, dominated nations keep falling behind; the gap continues to grow.’  It’s as if the United States sucks the wealth out of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Peru and leaves Latin Americans without food or houses or land.”  

What a bizarre notion!  It’s as if he thinks that American corporations swept into Central America in the middle of the last century, made deals with local barons to monopolise as many of the resources as possible, worked with corrupt government officials to maintain the status quo, and then, when popular movements started to call for a more equitable economic and political order, they went to the US government and asked that the “communists” be brutally suppressed.  Then, it’s as if the US government went in with guns and money and troops and specially-trained torturers and death squads and helped thugs within Central America wage war against their own people for a couple decades, reducing the people to misery, while American corporations continued to profit.  Can you imagine such a cock-and-bull story?  Preposterous!  And yet, of course, thoroughly documented fact.  

So Richards should be more cautious about cavalierly dismissing the idea that there might be a direct causal connection between enormous First World wealth and appalling Third World poverty.  So eager is Richards to deny that poverty is often the result of exploitation that when it’s undeniable, he denies it in the main text and then admits it sheepishly in an endnote.  After insisting for nearly two pages that we should have no problems with the massive wealth of the world’s three richest people–Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Carlos Slim Helu–because they’ve “created” wealth, rather than taken it, he tacks on a little endnote saying that actually, Slim Helu might be something of a crook, but his point still stands. 

 

But on to the main issue.  Let’s assume that the rich are not taking money away from the poor.  Let’s assume that they really are creating wealth by upright means, and it is slowly, haltingly, trickling down to the poor.  Is there still a problem with this picture?  Could we still say that the wealth of the rich comes at the expense of the poor?  Well, yes, duh.  Richards is untroubled by the fact that Slim, Buffett, and Gates together have as much wealth as the world’s 600 million poorest people–unless they stole it from the poorest, then everything’s fine with this picture.  But St. Basil would beg to differ:

“Are you not greedy?  Are you not acting like robbers?  Are you not usurping that which you have received merely in trust?  He who steals some one else’s garment is called a thief.  But he who fails to clothe the naked even if he were able to do so, does he not by chance deserve to be called by a different name?  The bread which you hold back actually belongs to the hungry; the garment which you lock in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes which rot in your store house belong to the bare-footed; and the money which you are hiding…belongs to the needy.  Thus you do a great injustice to all those whom you could succor…. ‘Whom do I injure’, says the greedy, ‘if I merely keep what is mine?’  But then, tell me, what is really thine?  Wherefrom did you take it?  And how did it get into thy life?  Is the greedy person not like the man who, after having taken his seat in the theater, restrains all latecomers from attending the show, thus acting like one who considers his own that which actually is meant for the common use of all?  Are not the rich of this type?  For after having taken care of themselves by crude usurpation, they declare that everything they have gained by this usurpation is theirs forever.  But if any man would claim only what he really requires in order to satisfy his true needs, and would leave to the needy what exceeds his own immediate needs, then no one would be rich, and no one poor.” 

Richards, Schneider, and Co. will tell us that Basil is a slave to zero-sum thinking.  He thinks that the rich can only be rich by directly ripping off the poor, and they will tell us that they may have been true in Basil’s day, but not in ours.  But listen to Basil.  This is only one small part of his concern.  His main point is that, however you got the wealth, however justly it may seem to be yours, you are stealing by failing to give it when you are able.  From Basil’s standpoint, Buffett, Gates, and Slim’s billions actually belong to the 600 million hungry poor.  We might argue about exactly what this should mean in practice–clearly, you can’t just transfer a couple hundred billion all at once to slum-dwellers in Mumbai, and ideally, we should find ways of sustainably creating wealth for them; and we could argue about whether this “theft” ought to be dealt with legally.  But that’s not where the disagreement lies right now.  Richards sees no relevant moral duty here, no sense in which the superfluity of the rich, not shared with the desperately poor to the fullest extent possible, represents an injustice, represents withholding something that belongs to another.  I dare say he would be flummoxed at the very idea. 

Basil’s rhetoric certainly is revolutionary rhetoric, but the basic notion underlying it is quite simple, and was shared by his successors in the Christian ethical tradition for more than a millennium; the same intuition, I expect, underlies the sense of injustice that many today instinctively feel about global inequality, an intuition that Richards simply cannot relate to.  It is the sense that the world is “meant for the common use of all.”  Private property may be well and good, argued Aquinas, but it must serve the end of common use.  Each person’s right to the use of their own possessions was logically, temporally, and morally secondary to the right of all men to a sufficient share of the earth’s goods.  Again, what this meant in practice had to be worked out carefully–Aquinas did not want an anarchistic free-for-all, in which everyone grabbed for his share.  But he wanted to establish this principle of justice as a starting-point.  And if you accept that, from the standpoint of justice, God created the world for the benefit of all, then there is a problem if the wealth of the world doubles, and 90% of that increase goes to 1000 people, and only 1% to 1,000,000,000 people.  Ideally, you should have a system in which wealth is not created so unequally, but of course such a perfect system is impossible to come by.  If the initial distribution comes out radically skewed, then justice requires redistribution, Aquinas would say.  

If you do not accept the priority of common use, and thus of distributive justice, then it might be a matter for concern and compassion if hundreds of millions die in poverty, but the wealth of the wealthiest is simply irrelevant to this issue.  Questions of justice are irrelevant to this issue.  Charity may be encouraged, but even that shouldn’t be emphasised too heavily; the best thing we can do, Richards and Schneider suspect, is working harder to make the global economy grow and create more wealth, which will hopefully eventually find its way into the hands of the poorest.  

 

Now, perhaps you cannot accept the priority of common use; perhaps you really can’t get your head around distributive justice.  Fair enough.  Even with a number of radical influences, it took me a while.  But it’s important for conservatives to recognise that there is such a principle, widely held to, and in fact historically speaking, the norm among Christian ethicists.  The concern of so many over global inequality, over the fact that “The three richest people in the world control more wealth than all 600 million people living in the world’s poorest countries,” is not just sentimentalising rhetoric and fuzzy thinking, or a juvenile inability to understand that “wealth is created”–rather, it is a morally coherent and cogent posture that needs to be debated at the level of moral theology, not name-calling and statistics-flinging.