Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Leonardo Boff: "Within the capitalist system, there is no salvation"

By Débora Fogliatto (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Sul21 (em português)
July 26, 2014

One of Brazil's best-known theologians, Leonardo Boff is a name currently acclaimed around the world, but he was once very marginalized within the Church in which he believes. In the 1980s, the then friar was condemned by the Catholic Church for his ideas of liberation theology, a movement which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ as a manifesto against social and economic injustice.

At 75, Boff is an award-winning intellectual, writer, and teacher who is respected in the country and whose opinion is listened to by personalities such as Pope Francis and presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. In this interview with Sul21 granted during his visit to Porto Alegre, Boff talks about current times in the Catholic Church, criticizes priests who use the gospel to justify retrogressive ideas or take money from the faithful, comments on the situation in the Middle East, abortion, violence and the global ecological and economic crisis.

The two are deeply intertwined -- as Boff explains, capitalism is founded on the exploitation of people and nature. "This system isn't good for humanity, it isn't good for the environment and could eventually lead to a social and ecological crisis with unimaginable consequences, in which millions of people could die from lack of access to water and food," says he who is a great scholar of questions related to the environment.

Sul21: In the 1980s, because of the liberation theology ideals you espoused, you were sentenced to a year of respectful silence and suffered various penalties that were eventually softened in the face of social pressure on the Catholic Church but made you leave the priesthood. Do you believe that the Church  would act the same way today?

Leonardo Boff: No. The current Pope says much more serious things than I said in my book Church: Charism and Power, which was the subject of condemnation. If he had written it, he would have been condemned. I said much softer things, but that affected the Church. I said that the Church didn't respect human rights, that it's sexist, that it has an absolutist and absolutely excessive concept of power without limits.

Times have changed and thank God we have a Pope who, for the first time in 500 years, responds to reform, responds to Luther. Luther launched what we call the Protestant Principle, which is the principle of freedom. And this Pope lives it. And he doesn't see Christianity as a bunch of truths that you adhere to, but as the living encounter with Jesus. He distinguishes between Jesus' tradition -- that set of ideals and traditions -- and the Christian religion, which is equal to any other religion. He says: "I belong to the Jesus movement", and not to the Catholic religion. Such statements are outrageous to traditional Christians, but are absolutely correct in the theological sense -- what we always said and were persecuted for.

And I'm glad that the Church is no longer a body that embarrasses us, but a body that could help humanity make the difficult crossing to a different kind of society that respects the rights of nature, of the Earth, concerned about the future of life. I myself have been in touch with the Pope and his central theme is life. Human life, that of the earth, of nature. And we have to save it, because we have all the tools to destroy it.

Sul21: Do you believe that the Catholic Church, under the guidance of Pope Francis, will effectively renounce some subjects that have been treated as taboo such as gay marriage?

Leonardo Boff: We still don't know his opinion well. He says: "Who am I to judge?". Basically, he's saying to respect people. He will let there be a big discussion in the Church on the issues of divorce and homosexuals, especially on Christian sexual morality, which is extremely strict and restricted. In some cases, it's criminal. For example, preaching in Africa that it's a sin to use condoms in places where half the population suffers from AIDS, is committing a crime against humanity. That is what Pope Benedict XVI said several times. I think Francis is more than a Pope. He's a plan for the world, a plan for the Church. He realizes that humankind is one, that it's at risk and we must unite despite our differences to overcome the crisis.

I think the greatness of this Pope won't be him defining things, but letting them be discussed. And I think he will respect people, because most aren't homosexual or homoaffective by choice. People discover they're homoaffective. And he's saying, "Walk in God. Don't feel excluded." He's saying that (homosexuals) are as much children of God as other people. So respect them. He may say "don't call it marriage, which is a canonical concept." But a responsible union that deserves the blessing of God and that has legal protection, that has its place in the Church, that they can receive the sacraments. This will surely be his path.

Sul21: And with these positions of Pope Francis, do you think the Catholic Church might be able to regain believers in the face of the advance of the evangelical churches?

Leonardo Boff: This Pope isn't a proselytizer and he says clearly that the gospel should attract because of its beauty, its humanitarian content. He isn't interested in increasing the number of Christians, in making them come back. He's interested in people, in their confessional situations, making themselves available at the service of humanity, the good things humanity needs.

It's what we call "ecumenism of mission." We are divided. It's a historical fact, but it's not a painful division. Because each has his own hole, prophets and teachers. But how we acknowledge our differences together and how together we support the landless, the homeless, the marginalized, the prostitutes. This service we can do together.

Sul21: Many people use religion to justify conservative, sexist and homophobic opinions. What's your opinion on these positions?

Leonardo Boff: There's the specific example of abortion in the last election. That mobilized the churches, they even went to the Pope, they put pressure on the faithful. I think it's a false use of religion. Religion wasn't made for that. And everyone should recognize -- and they're forced to recognize it by the Constitution -- that the country is secular. So those people are sinning against the basic principle of democracy; they aren't democratic. They can have their own opinion but they can't impose it.

Their position is very facile; it's saving the baby. And after it's saved, it's in the street, abandoned, hungry, and dying. And they have no compassion for the over 100,000 women who die each year because of botched abortions. They're people who are sinning against democracy and against humanity, humanitarianism. No one is in favor of abortion as such. The women who get abortions didn't ask for that. But many times they're going through such delicate situations that they need to make that decision.

What I advise is what many countries have done, including Spain and Italy, which are Christian to the max and allow abortion, asking that there be a monitoring group that would talk with the woman and explain to her what it means. And leave the decision to her. If she decides to, we'll respect the decision. But she's doing it consciously. I think that would be democratic and it would be responsible within the faith. You're not renouncing your faith but respecting conscience which is the ultimate body that answers to God.

Sul21: Some churches here charge a tithe to the faithful. They often say that it's to give thanks to God that people have to pay the churches. What's your opinion and how does liberation theology view this practice?

Leonardo Boff: They're the so-called "prosperity gospel" churches. They say you give and God pays you back. I think it's an abuse because religion wasn't made to make money. It was made to tend to the spiritual side of human beings and give a horizon of hope. Now when the church turns religion into economic power, like the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, which in Belo Horizonte has a shopping mall on the side, called "the other temple", which is the temple of consumerism, and after worship, people are instructed to shop, for me it's a perversion of religion. I also think that it's against the Constitution to use religion for ends that aren't in its nature. I fight that; I'm absolutely against it. Because that's deceiving people; it's distorting and tossing away the spiritual character of religion. Religion has to work for spiritual, not material capital.

Sul21: What about this violent crisis between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in which the State of Israel has already killed hundreds of people? How do you think the rest of the world should act on this? Could the Pope be someone to mediate the conflict?

Leonardo Boff: This pope is absolutely contemporary and necessary. I think he's the only world leader who is listened to and eventually could mediate this war of criminal massacre that Israel is carrying out against Gaza.

And I think much of the blame rests with Obama, who is a criminal. Because no drone (unmanned aircraft) attack could be done without his personal license. They are using all sorts of weapons of destruction. They've closed Gaza complete, it has been turned into a concentration camp, and they will destroy it. So you have a country that was the victim of Nazism and uses Nazi methods to create victims. This is the great contradiction.

And the United States supports them -- Obama and all the presidents are victims of the great Jewish lobby that has two branches: the branch of the big banks and the media branch. They have enormous power over the presidents who don't want to alienate them and follow whatever these radical extremist Jews united with the Christian religious Right say. This is combined with a president like Obama who hasn't the least bit of humanitarian feeling, the compassion to say "stop the slaughter."

Sul21: What's your assessment of the current race for the presidency of the Republic?

Leonardo Boff: We note that it's a contest of power interests. They aren't discussing plans for Brazil, they're arguing over power. Which I find unfortunate because it's not enough to have power; power is a means. I see that there are two visions of the future. One is more progressive, which is held by the current government. And I support it to win. But winning to move forward, not to reproduce the agenda. It achieved an agenda, which is the first step, of including millions of people who now have the right to basic consumption, to food, to have a refrigerator, a house, light. This is the right of every citizen. I think the government has fulfilled this step well. But now comes a new stage, because human beings are not hungry just for bread. They hunger for schools, beauty, leisure, participation in social life, public spaces.

And there are those who want to impose what is being imposed and isn't working in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, which is the most radical neoliberalism. Which is in fact austerity. It's tightening wages, increasing the primary surplus, which is the dough that's paid to the rentiers. There is the vision of the future Brazil wants to embody in this kind of globalization that is good for capital, because the capitalists have never enriched themselves so much. So much so that in the United States 1% have the same as 99% of the population, while in Brazil 5,000 families control the equivalent of 43% of the GDP. They are the big name families, who live off speculative capital.

I think we have to win this, because it's not good for the people. Even with all the flaws and ethics violations that happened, mistakes that the PT committed, even so their plan is the one best suited for carrying out advancement. Now if you're winning to move forward, because if it's just to do the same thing, it's all the same if the other wins.

Sul21: You mentioned the economic crisis that Greece, Spain, and the European countries that follow neoliberalism are going through. Are there ways to reverse the crisis?

Leonardo Boff: Europe is so weakened and ashamed that it no longer enjoys life. What I hear most at every lecture when I'm in Europe is people begging me "please, give me hope." When people lose hope, they lose the meaning of life. This happens because they've achieved all they wanted, dominated the world, exploited nature as they wanted, attained a well-being that has never happened in history and now they realize that they're unhappy. Because human beings have other hungers. Hunger to love and be loved, to understand each other, coexist, respect nature.

And all this was put aside. Only the GDP counts. But everything that gives human meaning isn't included in the GDP: love, solidarity, poetry, art, mysticism, wisdom. That's what makes us human and happy. And this perspective in which only material goods count may lead humanity to a great tragedy. Within the capitalist system, there is no salvation. For two reasons. First, because we've reached the Earth's limits. It's a small planet, with mostly non-renewable resources. The system has difficulty reproducing itself, because there's nothing more to exploit. And secondly, because the poor, who before the crisis were 860 million, have jumped, according to the FAO, to 1.2 billion.

So this system isn't good for humanity, it's not good for the environment, and it may eventually lead to a social and ecological crisis with unimaginable consequences, in which millions of people could die from lack of access to water and food. This system -- completely perversely to me -- has turned everything into a commodity. From a society with a market to a market society, turning food into a commodity. The poor don't have money to pay, so they starve and die.

Sul21: Are you also worried about the advance of the extreme Right in Europe?

Leonardo Boff: It's the normal reaction when there's a major crisis that some postulate radical solutions. In the case of Europe, it's xenophobia. But they're all countries that have a problem of negative population growth. Germany has had to bring in 300,000 people per year to maintain the minimum population growth, and in France the situation is similar. So they're in great difficulty, because they need them but they want to drive them out. But there is the risk that there might be a process like the one that generated the Second World War, which was the result of the 1929 crisis that was never resolved, until the Right created Nazi fascism. But the world is different today; it's globalized. You can't solve the problem of one country without being linked to others.

Sul21: Do the Latin American governments offer an alternative to this European model that's in crisis?

Leonardo Boff: Many, like (Portuguese sociologist) Boaventura de Sousa Santos, think that in Latin America there's a set of values lived by the indigenous cultures that can help humanity out of the crisis. Especially with the central feature of right living, which means having a different relationship with nature, seeing the Earth as mother, that gives us everything we need or that we can complete through work. And they invented communitarian democracy, which doesn't exist in the world, it's a Latin American invention, in which groups get together and decide what is best for them, and the country is made up of networks of community democracy groups. This new relationship with nature and the world is what we need to develop to have a relationship that isn't destructive and can make humanity survive.

There's a revisiting of native cultures because they still respect nature; they don't accumulate. They're values already being lived out by the Andean cultures, which had always been despised but which are studied today by great scientists and sociologists who realize that there are principles there that can save us. Instead of talking about sustainability, respect the rhythms of nature. Instead of talking about GDP and growth, ensure the physical and chemical basis that sustains life. Because without it life will wither away. And instead of growth, redistribution. There is so much accumulated wealth that if there were a 0.1% tax on the capital that's rolling around the stock markets, that's in speculation, it would yield such a large fund that it would give humankind enough to end hunger and guarantee housing. Because the productive capital is $60 trillion, while the speculative is $600 trillion. So it's a completely irrational economy, inimical to life and nature. And it has no future; it's heading towards death. Either it will lead us all to death, or they themselves will sink.

Sul21: And what's Brazil's role in the ecological sphere? Have the governments been able to deal with environmental issues?

Leonardo Boff: Brazil is the most environmentally well-endowed part of the planet. It has the largest tropical forests, the greatest amount of water, the highest percentage of arable land on the planet. But it's unaware of its wealth. And public policy has no strategy for how to deal with the Amazon, deal with the various ecosystems. It's always based on production. So they're expanding into the Amazon rainforest and deforestating it to have soybeans and cattle.

And the Ministry of the Environment is one of the weakest, as well as the Human Rights one. That means life doesn't count; the economy counts. I think this is unfortunate. And this criticism must be made by citizens. Saying that we support a government project, but that we disagree about this. Because it's ignorance, irresponsibility, government stupidity. Much of the future of humanity passes through us, especially drinking water, which may possibly be the most serious crisis, even more than global warming. And Brazil has the capacity to be a table set for the whole world and provide drinking water for the whole world. I think we're not aware of our responsibility. The rulers are still victims of an economistic viewpoint; they obey the rules of macroeconomics. Our relationship with nature isn't cooperative, it's exploitative.

Sul21: How can Brazil deal with the serious problem of urban violence?

Leonardo Boff: The problem that needs to be thought about is that now 63% of humanity lives in cities -- 85% in Brazil. We can no longer think only of agrarian reform, we have to think about how people will live. In Brazil, we're experiencing the shame that all cities have a modern core surrounded by an island of poverty and misery that is the slums. This is an unsolved problem and, for me, a key one in the campaign: how to deal with the 85% who live in cities, who have now lost the rural tradition -- planting and living off of nature -- but who have not assimilated into urban culture. So they're lost. Hence the increase in crime. And many say that society has a social pact governing the behavior of citizens. That is, "you excluded us so we're not obliged to accept your laws. We will create our own." The militias in Rio created parallel state functions, they created their organization and distribution, and the government is powerless. And the UPPs aren't the solution, because it creates islands and the drugs remain on the margins. The problem isn't the police; it's the kind of society we've created, mounted on top of colonialism, slavery and ethnocide of the indigenous. We don't "have violence" in Brazil. We are sitting on top of structures of violence. It's a permanent state of violence.

Sul21: And how can the country escape this?

Leonardo Boff: What it's already started to do -- stop making rich policies for the rich and poor ones for the poor and make policies of integration, inclusion, starting with education. For where there's education, people are empowered to defend themselves, find new ways of survival. A country that doesn't invest in education and health care has ignorant and sick people. And these people have no way of making a quality leap. For me, this is the great challenge and it should be discussed in the campaigns, not the parties. Challenge everyone: "How are we going to get out of this?" Because it tends to get worse and worse. That would be worthy, ethical politics where the common good would be at the center and they would join forces, alliances of people who propose to change the structures that sustain an unjust state, which has the second most inequality in the world. Inequality means injustice, which is a mortal social structural sin. And that isn't discussed.

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