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  • The Suffering of Economic Injustice:A Response to Ulrich Duchrow and David Loy
  • Joerg Rieger

That economic injustice is one of the central topics of our time is hard to dispute. Even those who seek to avoid the topic cannot escape the numbers and the stories of gross economic disparity. It affects life everywhere, as—using the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement—economic injustice pits the 99 percent against the 1 percent even in the United States. More and more of us are not benefitting from capitalism anymore.

Ulrich Duchrow’s presentation puts matters in stark relief when he reminds us that 60 million people are dying of hunger and its consequences every year. If we do the math based on this one number, this amounts to one Holocaust every two months. Nevertheless, even this large number shows only a tiny tip of the iceberg, as it does not include the countless millions who die from the consequences of malnourishment, from lack of resources like clean drinking water, employment opportunities, health care, and many other problems. In the United States alone, forty-five thousand people die annually simply because of the lack of affordable health care.1

When we are dealing with economic injustice, we are dealing with what ultimately amounts to a matter of life and death. Here, all religion necessarily becomes engaged religion in one way or another: In the struggle between life and death caused by economic injustice, religion has the option of placing itself on the side of life. If it does not place itself on the side of life, I suspect that it places itself on the side of death by default. Neutral ground does not seem to exist here.

Nevertheless, let us not forget that the topic of economic injustice is not just a matter of those who suffer from economic injustice; it is also a matter of those who impose the suffering of economic injustice on others. While people of religion often address the former topic, they often remain silent on the latter. Kwok Pui-lan and I have tried to deal with this problem in our recent book Occupy Religion.2 When we talk about economic injustice and the 99 percent, we must also talk about the 1 percent. I will return to this topic shortly.

What I have presented so far amounts to a fairly dualistic picture. Given the current economic status quo, this dualism appears to be something that we have to contend [End Page 51] with, whether we like dualisms or not: As people are dying and lives are being destroyed, economic injustice confronts us with matters of life and death. While the dualisms of economic injustice are nothing to be celebrated, it may be necessary to fight back. It is significant to hear David Loy, who has consistently fought against dualisms in his work, admit that “there’s also a beneficial side” to dualism, for instance when Amos castigates those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” and “crush the needy” (Amos 2:7, 4:1). Loy further understands that our societies may be “becoming more unjust.” I wonder what would happen, though, if Loy were to take a closer look at what this injustice looks like and if he were to take into consideration actual people whose lives are being destroyed by it. What might this mean for his understanding of the Buddhist concept of dukkha (suffering)?

Loy understands social justice as distributive justice, referring the Hebrew prophets’ frustration that the rich have so much and the poor have so little. While he does not dismiss this discourse of justice, he seeks to shift gears as a Buddhist, arguing that economic suffering (dukkha) is based on “our delusive sense of self.” This shift leads me to wonder who is included in this use of the first person plural; whose “delusive sense of self” is Loy talking about? At first sight it looks as if he refers to all of us, claiming that all human beings equally share in this delusion that causes suffering. Let me suggest, however, that we take a closer look and investigate more carefully whose delusive...