Our Job Description As Christians

Robert Jensen

In the game of political
word association, “Christian” almost always conjures up “conservative” and
“evangelical.” Those folks—often right wing and fundamentalist—have been
enormously successful in equating their politics with religious faith in the
contemporary United States.

For the Rev.
Simon Harak, faith-based politics leans in a different direction. There is a
lot of compassion but little conservatism in the Christian politics of the
Jesuit priest.

Harak was an
ethics professor and part-time political activist until 1999, when he resigned
his teaching position at Fairfield University to work full time with Voices in
the Wilderness, a Chicago-based group trying to pressure the U.S. government
to lift the economic sanctions on Iraq. The author of Virtuous Passions:
The Formation of Christian Character
, Harak is at work on Vicious
Passions: The Deformation of Christian Character

do you think most people think of when they hear the phrase “religion and

HARAK: With all
due respect to the kind of politics we see in the “700 Club,” conservative
Christians may have captured the media but they haven’t cornered the market on
religious morality. In the 1970s and 1980s, conservative folks launched
themselves into the national scene more prominently and they have dominated
the notion of Christian values ever since. But what the public doesn’t see in
the media is all the social justice work done by progressive Catholics and

There’s a lot
of talk from conservative Christians about being “biblically based.” But I can
tell you that my ethics and political activism come straight from the Bible,
from Jesus and the gospels. I’m taking it straight out of the book.

Where does
your conception of faith and politics come from?

In the 1970s,
when I entered the Jesuit order, there were a number of activists and we would
talk about Christianity and political involvement. That’s when I began to
understand that nonviolence is not just a reaction—you hit me but I won’t hit
you back. It’s a commitment to work for justice so that violence is no longer
necessary. I began to understand Jesus in the tradition of the prophets, and I
began to see that the things that the prophets insisted on—justice and
liberation—are very much part of my Catholic tradition.

That has led
you to be quite critical of U.S. military and economic policy. Why?

We have to
start by acknowledging that we are about 5 percent of the world’s population
consuming about 25 percent of the world’s resources. Do we really think people
in Central America, for example, are happy to see their kids starving so we
can drive SUVs? If not, then we have to ask how things got to be this way.
People around the world aren’t donating these resources to us; there must be
some coercion involved.

Once we begin
asking those questions, we can talk about the strategies the United States
uses—military force, economic coercion—to enforce that disparate structure of
the allocation of goods around the world. After that, it’s hard not to become
pretty radical in the quest for justice.

What is
justice? How do we make it real in the world?

I would begin
with community, our need for other human beings. We are bound to each other,
and the question is how we work out those relationships. What are the moral,
spiritual, and physical requirements for people to live in community? For me,
that means following in the ways of Christ, but what that means in the
concrete and how we translate that is complicated.

Is justice
possible in our current economic system?

Frankly, I
don’t think so. You can’t love God and money. You can’t base your life on the
acquisition of goods and be moral, too. You have to base your life on the fair
distribution of goods, not their acquisition. The idea that everyone should
have enough—and even a little bit more than enough to provide leisure and
peace—that’s very important for humanity and important in Catholic social
teaching. But beyond that level, acquisition becomes evil. And this is a
society based on acquisition.

Is the
American devotion to so-called free market economics compatible with

The notion that
we are all one people is part of the Catholic tradition, but I don’t think
people realize how much that notion is being mediated through the market. Most
people don’t have time to look at how a market ideology is affecting us. But
we need to understand just how much of the world is controlled by institutions
like the International Monetary Fund, how much of the decision-making is based
not on human concerns but on money.

This is a
highly individualistic culture and we have a lot of work to do on the idea
that one can truly share things and share one’s life. Unfortunately, we’re not
hearing that from the pulpits as much as we need to.

Your work in
ethics and politics doesn’t focus on sexuality or abortion, which often seem
to be central concerns of the Catholic Church. Why?

This culture
tends to reduce morality from a social question to a personal thing. But with
the focus on sex, it’s not just personal—it’s reduced to the genitals of the
person. It’s paralyzing to reduce morality to that.

I want everyone
to live sexually integrated and sexually holy lives. But we have to get our
priorities straight. Can we broaden our field of what counts as immoral? If
someone says “She’s an immoral woman,” folks immediately think of sexual
behavior. But what if we ask the question about people who have a couple of
homes and a yacht, while their brothers and sisters walk the streets looking
for food—is that immoral? That’s a question that rarely enters our minds.

To make this
point I have asked people, “When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima—when we
caused 135,000 deaths at a non-military target—what did the U.S. Catholic
bishops say?” The answer is, nothing. But what if the Enola Gay had dropped
135,000 condoms on Hiroshima? There would have a hue and cry that would not
have ended to this day.

It’s easy to
point our finger at sexuality. But I think it takes courage and a certain
willingness to lose status, to lose worldly power, to ask other kinds of moral
questions, to challenge the oppressors with the power of liberation.

How did Iraq
and the lifting of the sanctions become central to you?

The short
answer is Jesus. The longer answer is that my folks were born in Lebanon, but
grew up in the U.S., and I’ve always been interested in the Middle East. That
interest increased when I became religious; this was the place where Jesus
walked around. The commitment to nonviolence led me to be concerned. So when
in 1990-91 we had the Gulf War massacre, all those concerns came together.

I had been
working on nuclear war for a long time and I saw that as soon as the Soviet
Union collapsed we would find a new enemy and sure enough it became the Arab
peoples and Islam. So I’ve sort of followed U.S. officials’ demonizing of our
so-called enemies, saying, “No, no, that’s not the right way to go.” Since the
Gulf War, the killing hasn’t stopped and I will be involved until they stop
killing Iraqis.

When you
talk about one million civilians dying as a result of the siege on Iraq, you
have used the term evil. What do you mean by that?

As an ethicist,
evil is one of those things I chew on. We also have this wonderfully rich
tradition of the demonic in Christianity, of an evil being out to destroy
humanity. Lucifer is the enemy of our human nature, a kind of active force
that is against humanity, against human nature.

When people are
so caught up in the power and the status, so blind to the killing, this is the
stuff of the demonic. When you go to Iraq and see the suffering, and then come
back to the United States and hear people talk about how the policy is worth
the price, it’s hard to argue you are not dealing with something demonic. How
could humanity not be moved by this?

I once heard a
politician’s aide say, “The Iraqis have to know that if they differ with
American foreign policy there are consequences.” When you get to that point,
where the humanity has been occluded, it’s very helpful to have a doctrine
that says there is something more than just badness going on, there’s an
active force that is trying to defeat humanity.

That’s where my
faith is so important. I have stood at the bed of children dying in Iraq as a
direct result of our policy—by design, it’s what the sanctions are designed to
do. But there is hope, in part because Jesus found a way to redeem all of
that, including the people who ran away when they should have struggled and
the people who perpetrated the evil.

Let’s go
back to your doctrinal differences with Christian fundamentalists, who often
insist that Christianity is the only way to salvation. How do you deal with

One of the
things the Muslims say, and it’s addressed in the Koran, is that God could
have made us all one community, but we are different communities so that we
can vie with one another in good works. So if we want to prove, as Christians,
that we have the better path to God, then how do we do that? More life, more
liberation, more justice. If belief in God is justice in action, then let’s
vie with one another, let’s show that we have the best way through acts of
liberation and justice.

It does say in
the Bible—and this is the bugaboo for those who believe exclusively in
Christianity—that “no one can come to the Father except through me” from the
gospel of John. But I think the way to read that is that Jesus is saying, “If
you want the kind of relationship with God, which I call Father, then the only
way you will get it is coming through me.” But that doesn’t mean that is the
only way of relating to God, in the way Jesus did. God is so wealthy and rich
in spirituality that there are thousands of ways of coming to God.

You also
seem very comfortable working with secular political activists.

When I first
came to New York I ran into a lot of socialists and was impressed with their
commitment to a better world. There is lots of common ground. I think what is
crucially important is personal relationships. People work with you and see
that you come through for them, and vice versa, and you develop respect. Then
people start to ask each other, “What makes you tick?” It’s a tradition in the
Christian church to see the commonality in human aspirations.

stereotype of a Catholic pacifist is of a quiet, humble person. Yet you can be
sharp-edged and harsh in your public talks.

I tend to look
at the prophets, who were pretty vocal and strategic and extraordinarily harsh
sometimes. I wish I could be as authoritatively harsh as they were. Jesus took
on the hypocrites and had explosions of anger and frustration at the blindness
of the religious and political leaders. I’m also trying to balance that with
my role as a pastor, which requires being gentle with people.

Do you find
it hard to avoid being overly pious or self-righteous?

For me, in
Christianity there is a transcendence that allows, in the best of things, a
kind of humor, a kind of non-ultimacy about the project you are undertaking.
You realize, the project that I’m doing is important but not ultimate. There’s
only one ultimate; it’s God and I’m not it. We have to take ourselves
seriously, but not ultimately seriously. That ability to take things off the
ultimate pedestal gives us breathing room and even a moment of humor.

Many secular
people do not see Christianity as relevant to their lives, especially their
political lives. How would you argue for that relevance?

Jesus came into
one of those conquered worlds dominated by the sole superpower of its time.
Rome knew what you had to do to enforce empire, just as this American empire
today knows. There were positive things about the Roman empire—good roads,
consistent law—just as there are positive things about this empire. But if you
step out of line, you get put on the cross.

You read about
the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, but what about the people they
conquered, who didn’t want to be ruled? Those are the very people to whom
Jesus came and for whom he lived and died. Remember, to be crucified, you had
to be convicted of insurrection against the empire. That says a lot about our
job description as Christians.