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  • The Suffering of Economic Injustice:A Christian Perspective
  • Ulrich Duchrow

Together we are facing a global kairos of humanity because these years are decisive for whether our civilization will irreversibly continue to produce death or whether we find a way out toward a life-enhancing new culture. So let me try to make a humble contribution to our common search for liberation from suffering toward life through justice.

suffering caused by economic injustice in the axial age and in the capitalist civilization of modernity

We do not need to spend much time on describing the sufferings caused by economic injustice. They cry to high heaven every day. Jean Ziegler, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaks of more than 60 million people dying of hunger and its consequences every year, especially children, although there is more than enough to feed them. That is an annual World War II against the poor. He continues to say: “A child that dies of hunger is murdered.” He calls this a daily crime against humanity.1 Others call it structural genocide.2 All these victims are human beings with a human face, according to biblical tradition created in the image of God. So we are talking about murdering living images of God, about blasphemy.

Also, the blue planet Earth’s suffering is growing dramatically. The extinction of species is accelerating, desertification is expanding, the poisoning of water and soil is increasing, and climate change is producing irreversible effects like lifting the sea level, devouring islands in the Pacific and growing parts of Bangladesh, creating weather disasters everywhere, and possibly increasing temperature in parts of Africa by ten degrees. We all know this, but so far we have not been able to make the necessary changes in global economics and politics to stop or at least slow it.

Often forgotten are the psychological and spiritual sufferings and diseases of a growing number of people. In India an average of more than fifty farmers, driven into debt beyond their means, commit suicide daily out of despair.3 Workers suffer increasing stress and anxiety, and middle-class people fall into depression, projected to be the second most common illness in 2020, according the World Health Organization. So what are the roots of all of this? [End Page 27]

My thesis is that what we are experiencing now started nearly three thousand years ago within what is called the Axial Age, beginning in the eighth century bce, in the whole of Eurasia from Greece to China. At that time a new economy started to appear in daily life, built on money and private property. It had tremendous social as well as psychological and spiritual effects. To analyze what happened then helps us understand what is happening today. Looking at the responses to this development by the different faiths and philosophies in Israel/Judah, India, China, and Greece may also help us to better understand the tasks and possibilities of engaged Buddhists and liberation theologians in our age.

The philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age.”4 According to him, the experience of violent crises between 800 and 200 bce might have prompted the parallel efforts of the prophets, the Buddha, Confucius, Daoism, and Greek philosophy to find new foundations for living together. He characterized the new approach as intellectual and spiritual (geistig), looking only marginally at the economic and political context. Recently Karen Armstrong and, based on her findings, Jeremy Rifkin took up this theory, looking particularly at war and violence as causes for the responses within the different cultures.5 Also José María Vigil, who is present here, has just published a chapter in his book on Theology of Axiality and Axial Theology.6 As far as the sociohistoric context of the Axial Age is concerned my thesis comes nearest to what David Graeber has worked out in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years,7 although he is not very interested in the religious responses. Combining his insights with my own research,8 let me summarize how the new economy affects ancient societies.

Money as unit of account was used in the palaces and temples of Mesopotamia as early...