Leisure reading time has been in shorter supply for me this year than it has been in over a decade. For that reason, I’ve quit reading several books lately soon after beginning them; I don’t want to waste time reading something that I’m not enjoying. I mention that because there was never any question of dropping Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda’s Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation until the end. It’s a bracing, informative, and challenging read. Stealing away small chunks of time in the evening, sometimes enjoying an hour or two on a weekend, I slowly worked my way through, and it was time well spent.
Moe-Lobeda offers a fascinating exploration of “the complex webs of exploitation enabling our extravagant acquisition and consumption … the intricate webs of interrelated power arrangements, ideologies, values, practices, policies, and ways of perceiving reality that span generations and have unintended snowballing consequences.” The unsettling message here is that we wealthy, over-consuming Americans do not have what we have simply because we are more fortunate or more resourceful or more blessed, but as a result of human choices and structures that obtained these “blessings” for us at least in part through systematic oppression of and robbing from others.
Others are poor because our economic systems make them poor, to defend and support our overconsumption. In the words of one Methodist bishop Moe-Lobeda quotes, “African children die so that North American children may overeat.”
No, we’re not all villainous plunderers — at least not consciously. Most of us participate in and/or benefit from the villainy with little awareness of it. We even ignore it, vaguely aware that it would break our hearts to know more, but thinking we may as well avoid knowing since there’s nothing we can do to change it. But Moe-Lobeda insists, we must make ourselves aware of it, not only because we’re involved in it, but because we can do something about it. “I cannot overstate the importance of recognizing this paradox,” she writes: “Structural sin, while it cannot be dismantled by individual actions, cannot be dismantled without them.”
One of the strong points of this book is that it is very specific and concrete. She offers a wide variety of things we can do, goals that can be attained, problems that can be addressed. She “names names” — not only the bad guys, but the good guys, too, the people and organizations who are already doing things to make the world better, whom we can get to know and with whom we can join forces (to name just a few: United Students against Sweatshops, the fair trade movement and even fair trade towns, Oxfam, 350.org, the Faith Action Network, Walmart Watch, and Food First). I found myself turning to the internet to find out more about activist organizations she features and issues she shines a light on. Of course, some will be more appealing than others to various people, but the point is, they’re out there and in many cases doing effective work.
Too often, we absolve ourselves by our gifts to charitable organizations that offer direct aid to those in need. And that is both good and quite essential. But it’s clear that it is not enough, and if it leaves us with the impression that we’ve done our part, it’s even dangerous. Moe-Lobeda writes:
Such charity is a strong and necessary response to God’s call to love neighbor as self. However, alone, it is NOT a turn away from — a renunciation of — structural sin. I may respond in charity to a homeless woman and continue to support and benefit materially from public policies and corporate actions that render her homeless. I may help pay for the injured child’s surgery [she refers here to a young Iraqi boy brought to the United States during the war in Iraq for reparative surgery after U.S. bombing wrecked his leg, which briefly garnered much attention and generated a lot of charitable donations] while still enjoying cheaper oil enabled by the Revenue Sharing Agreements with Iraq obtained in part through the American war on that country. I may rebuild houses in New Orleans and remain a beneficiary of the white privilege that made Katrina’s victims disproportionately Black.
Moe-Lobeda is not Catholic, but her work in this book bears much in common with teaching to be found in Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio and Evangelii Nuntiandi, John Paul II’s Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, and especially Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. She agrees wholeheartedly with Benedict’s insistence in the latter encyclical that “if we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity.” In fact, the entire book could be taken as a detailed explanation of what Pope Benedict means when he calls structural reform “the institutional path — we might also all it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly” (CiV, sections 6 and 7).
I suppose I was a little frustrated that Moe-Lobeda seemed at times to absolve a little too easily the real people who are responsible for the unjust actions, structures, and processes she addresses. Within such structures, she says, “No specific person may be held responsible.” The evil is “not traceable to any one person.” It is “not a direct act by identifiable individuals.” But as she herself points out elsewhere, “Every system of evil requires personal actions to make it work.”
And there were a couple of highly theoretical chapters that could probably have been left out. For example, readers know what the author means when she talks of loving one’s neighbor. Chapter 7, an exhaustive 30-page consideration of what love is, was unnecessary, distracting, and a little boring. The book would have been just as good, incisive, and effective without it. Chapter 6 is one of the weaker chapters, too. Also, numerous problems with spelling, commas, periods, and more became distracting at times.
But none of that should dissuade anyone from reading Resisting Structural Evil — not just reading, but responding, too.