A Very Sick World

Jon Sobrino insists we must change the world and that another world is not only necessary but possible.

On 6 November 1989 Ignacio Ellacuría1 [1] gave a speech in Barcelona, which turned out to be the last speech he ever made: ‘Together with all the poor and oppressed people in the world, we need utopian hope to encourage us to believe we can change the course of history.’ That was nearly twenty years ago. What about today?

Certainly, history has brought about important new developments. From a historical viewpoint, René Girard [2] thinks that we are seeing the birth of a kinder humanity, that is more concerned for the victims: ‘No society has ever been as concerned about the victims as ours is.’ However, he believes this is ‘really only a show of concern’; he does not want to ‘call the world we live in blameless’. But he does insist that ‘it is an unprecedented phenomenon’. It could be something like what happened in the axial age, from the eighth to the sixth centuries BC, as described by Jaspers. And, despite his strong criticism, which we quote below, Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga says that ‘humanity is “on the move” and turning towards truth and justice. There is a lot of utopian hope and a lot of commitment on this sad planet.’ Nevertheless, today we are still deep in a capital-civilisation, which causes extreme want, dehumanises and attacks the human family: it excludes and impoverishes people and divides the world into winners and losers. Our civilisation continues to be ‘very sick’. As Jean Ziegler [3] puts it, its life – both its material and spiritual life – is ‘under threat of death’.

The Wrongs suffered by the Majority: injustice, cruelty and death

There is more wealth on Earth, but also more injustice. Africa has been called ‘the world’s dungeon’, a continental Shoah. According to the FAO, 2,500 million people survive on Earth on less than two euros a day, and every day 25,000 people die of hunger. Desertification threatens the lives of 1,200 million people in about hundred different countries. (Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga)

Sometimes we hear that our present globalised world offers new life chances to poor peoples, through migration. We should not rule this out or deny that migration may alleviate some evils, when people are driven to it by necessity. But today migration is not a simple readjustment of the human species – which has occurred throughout history and can be potentially enriching. Migrations today are particularly cruel because of how and why they happen. Let us quote Casaldáliga again:

Immigrants are denied human fellowship and even the ground on which to stand. The United States is building a 1,500 kilometre wall against Latin America; while Europe is putting up a barrier against Africa in the south of Spain. As well as being iniquitous, this is all part of a programme. In a horrifying letter, written ‘behind separating walls’, one African immigrant warns: ‘I beg you not to think that it is normal for us to live this way; because in fact, the cause is the ongoing injustice built into the inhuman systems that kill and impoverish people [...] Do not support that system by your silence.’

Without batting an eyelid, we carry on in this crazy, shameless way, that is unjust, cruel, contemptuous and insulting. And we often cover up what we do. Here are just a few facts:

Worldwide spending on arms and armies in 2006 was a staggering 3.3 billion dollars a day, while the total value of support to agriculture in rich countries still runs at over a billion dollars a day. (OECD)

The arms trade is one of the most profitable for all governments in the international community. Together with China, the G-8 countries account for 90% of arms exports. At least half a million people are killed annually by small arms. (Amnesty International)

The aim of globalisation is to dominate the rest of us, any other country, any other world [...] Globalisation is simply westernisation. The West wants to be the centre of the world. (Aminata Traoré: World Social Forum, Mali)

Directly or indirectly, hunger, weapons, forced migrations through lack of land, water or soil, result in death. There are also diseases, which in one way or another lead to death: AIDS, malaria – with the scandalous complicity of the multinational pharmaceutical companies, who have sought to protect their own patents by lobbying against making much cheaper life-saving generic treatments available. Then there are many other sources of suffering, such as unemployment and social exclusion. None of these belong to the order of nature. Their causes are historical. And it is important to recognise that today the fundamental cause is capitalism. As L. de Sebastián [4] says:

‘Real capitalism’ is responsible for the organisation of the world economy that is ethically and morally wrong, for the shameful and absurd coexistence in an ever more integrated world of appalling poverty with unprecedented wealth.

All this happens today without being noticed. When there is criticism, it focuses more on the adjective – such as savage capitalism – rather than on capitalism itself and its governing principle: the right to property. As long as that principle is held to be absolute and unassailable, any economy in the world will be structurally configured by a dynamic of oppression; humans beings will be rated according to their ability to produce wealth; their right to possess and enjoy wealth will prolong and add to the oppression of others and, of course, widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Ultimately, this is a cruel society. It is cruel because of the suffering it inflicts on the oppressed, and because of its unfeeling attitude (although there are valiant exceptions) towards that suffering in a world of abundance. Leonardo Boff says: ‘When future generations judge our time, they will call us barbarians, inhuman and pitiless, because of our heartlessness towards the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.’ To give just one example: ‘If human beings had even a little humanity, just 4% of the 225 largest fortunes in the world would be enough to give food, water, health and education to all.’ That is obscene.

We could go on quoting indefinitely. The figures we have given refer to today, not to some pre-globalisation period and they come from responsible and informed sources. But if we want them to help heal our civilisation’s ‘serious illness’, we must heed the warning of a Colombian missionary who has spent eighteen years in Uganda: ‘Statistics don’t bleed; people do.’

We are always seeking excuses to avoid confronting – or even coming into contact with – reality. Looking back, we might say that fifty years ago there was more wretched poverty on the planet, and in a sense that is true. But we must tell the whole truth; that is the only honest way to face reality. Looking to the future, there might even be a sense of euphoria: within two decades China may be able to eliminate the hunger of hundreds of millions of people – although we do not know whether they will manage it, or if they do, at what human cost.

But even if we are optimistic, reality still screams at us. ‘It can’t be like this!’ ‘God is angry’(A. Nolan). ‘The unreasonable has become reasonable’ (H. Marcuse). And we haven’t even mentioned Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Darfur…

Woes of the Spirit suffered by human beings: Dehumanisation

All this turns the vast majority in our world into ‘crucified people, [...] whose human face continues to be wiped out by the sin of the world. The powers of that world keep robbing them of everything, snatching their life from them, yes above all, their life.’

Ellacuría stressed the attack on life. The wealth- civilisation does not produce life; to a greater or lesser extent, it produces various kinds of death. Neither does it humanise people, which is what we want to focus on now. It is inhuman to deprive others of life when it would be possible to ensure it. But even more inhuman is the way that it is done, unjustly, cruelly and contemptuously – sometimes even in the name of a god. And it is inhuman that this deprivation of life should go hand in hand with the head-on pursuit of success and affluence. The wealth-civilisation fosters thinking and feeling that create a cultural and ideological climate poisoning the air the human spirit breathes. So not only is the oikos – our fundamental life-web – sick and in need of healing, but also the very air our spirits breathe. We are dehumanised, because we forget the truth. There is a cover-up of the truth and a proliferation of lies, silence in the face of scandalous inequality between rich and poor, numbness of the rich – and also of the poor – generated and indeed intended by the mass media.

It is dehumanising to forget decency. It is a brazen mockery of the victims to fail to implement important UN resolutions on fundamental human rights. There is massive corruption in nearly all spheres of power, justified by the unquestioned dogma of profit. There is impunity before, during and after atrocities, often carried out by governments themselves. It is also wrong to turn western democracy into an absolute dogma, without checking how it operates.

It is dehumanising to forget maturity, especially now when we hear that our world has ‘come of age’. There are forms of fundamentalism, that look attractive but have serious consequences: individualism, superficiality, success and pleasure are heedlessly accepted, promoted and rewarded. Simplistic and infantile attitudes are sometimes expressed with sentimental language in politics, and particularly often, in religion.

Then there is the dehumanising compliance of the West with Empire – imperium magnum latrocinium (the ‘great thieving empire’), as Augustine called it, even if we don’t talk like that much nowadays. This servility in one form or another, makes the West an accomplice in that Empire’s economic and military crimes and its human rights violations. It accepts the arrogance and domination of some human beings over others as normal. And it accepts obedience to that Empire’s orders as necessary, or at least understandable, if we want to be assured of a ‘good life’, ‘success’, and ‘security’, the ultimate ‘saving’ benefits.

In short, we are dehumanised by our selfishness, and our heartlessness towards the dramatic facts of cruel poverty, AIDs, exclusion and discrimination. We are dehumanised by our contempt for poor and indigenous people, and for our mother Earth.

We regard this dehumanisation as quite natural and something we can do nothing about, because that is the way things are. We don’t notice much since, unlike physical evils that lead to physical death, spiritual woes are not so easily reckoned. But they are extremely harmful.

Ignoring human dignity

The first dehumanising aspect of some attempts to eliminate poverty is the way human dignity is ignored, almost on principle, as if that dignity had nothing to do with the matter. Or accepting that any means of alleviating poverty will do. That way of thinking is not only unethical, but also dehumanising, because we are not talking about wild animals but human beings.

It is also dehumanising to accept so readily in practice, even if not in theory, the slow rate of progress in overcoming poverty and the targets countries set for themselves. From the viewpoint of abundance, the rate of progress may seem relatively human and quick, but from the viewpoint of poverty – and decency – it is inhumanly slow, and in some cases, as in some sub-Saharan countries, there has even been a postponement of the dates set. Development specialists have said that the millennium goals are flawed and will do little to diminish poverty. ‘Reducing by half the number of people suffering from hunger will take 145 years, and not be achieved by 2015, as 189 heads of state had guaranteed.’

It is also dehumanising that in the search for solutions, ethics is sidelined. Abolishing hunger requires technological know-how and strategies and a good dose of political pragmatism. But ignoring ethics does matter. It matters for reasons of effectiveness: a top FAO official stated that ‘solving the problem of hunger today is not basically an economic or political problem; it is an ethical problem.’ And it matters on principle. If we can dispense with ethics to solve human problems, it means that efficiency and ethics can be divorced without damage to humanity. The ancient ideal, at least aspiration, of marrying virtue and happiness vanishes. All that remains is pragmatism with its strong brutalising potential.

And the same can be said for the language which is often used about human problems like hunger: political will is needed. Firstly, that means recognising that the political will is just not there, since hunger continues. And secondly, since political will is merely human will, the language of politics is being used as a cover-up. If there is no political will, that simply means that there is no effective human will to eliminate hunger. Confronted with the scandal of a hungry world, the term ‘political’ will is less shaming. It is used because it is less blatant than ‘human’ will, which asks us straight out: do we human beings want to eliminate hunger? We can debate the politics of this in order to seek a cop-out, and that is why the term is preferred. There can be no cop-out when we speak of the human will to eliminate hunger.

Let’s leave it there. Jean Ziegler says: ‘A child who dies of hunger is murdered.’ Those words bring Ivan Karamazov to mind. Karamazov’s anger when children were torn apart by dogs by order of a landlord, who was a former soldier, found no consolation in the thought that those children might go to a place where they would become at one with a universal harmony. ‘If they invite me to that heaven, I’ll refuse to go.’

Jon Sobrino S.J., a Basque from Spain, is a liberation theologian teaching for many years in the Central American University in San Salvador. He has published many books.


1. On 16 November 1989, Jon Sobrino’s colleagues at the Central American University in San Salvador, the University Rector Ignacio Ellacuría SJ, five other Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter, were murdered by a Death Squad. Jon Sobrino escaped because he was speaking abroad.

2. In: I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).

3. J. Ziegler is UN Special Advisor on the Right to Food.

4. L. de Sebastián, Problemas de la globalización, Barcelona, 2005, p. 4.

This article is an extract from Jon Sobrino’s book 'The Eye of the Needle', translated by Dinah Livingstone to be published by Darton, Longman and Todd (London) on 21 May 2008 at £9.95.

As Sofia is not an academic journal, endnotes have been kept to a minimum but a fully referenced version of this article is available. The book also has ample references.

In 2006 Sobrino’s two major works on christology, 'Christ the Liberator' and 'Jesus the Liberator', were censured by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Inquisition).

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