“Our job description as Christians”: An interview with G. Simon Harak

By Robert Jensen

Published in Z Magazine · July, 2001

[This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Z Magazine, July/August 2001, pp. 79-82.]

In the game of political word association, “Christian” almost always conjures up “conservative” and “evangelical.” Those folks — often right-wing and fundamentalist — have been enormously successful in equating their politics with religious faith in the contemporary United States.

For the Rev. Simon Harak, faith-based politics leans in a different direction. There is a lot of compassion but little conservatism in the Christian politics of the Jesuit priest.

For example, according to Harak:
–Justice isn’t possible in corporate capitalism.
–Sexual morality has consumed too much of the church’s attention.
–People all over the world are dying so that Americans can ride around comfortably in an SUV.
–There are many different paths to God.

Harak acknowledges that such views may push him outside the political mainstream, but he contends that he’s “reading right out of the book” when it comes to Christian social teaching.

Harak was an ethics professor and part-time political activist until 1999, when he resigned his teaching position at Fairfield University to work full time with Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based group trying to pressure the U.S. government to lift the economic sanctions on Iraq. The author of Virtuous Passions: The Formation of Christian Character, Harak is at work on Vicious Passions: The Deformation of Christian Character.

In an interview, Harak talked not only about how religion has influenced his political views but about how he thinks about the connections between faith and politics.

What do you think most people think of when they hear the phrase “religion and politics”?

With all due respect to the kind of politics we see in the “700 Club,” conservative Christians may have captured the media but they haven’t cornered the market on religious morality. In the 1970s and ‘80s, conservative folks launched themselves into the national scene more prominently, and they have dominated the notion of Christian values ever since. But what the public doesn’t see in the media is all the social justice work done by progressive Catholics and Christians.

There’s a lot of talk from conservative Christians about being “biblically based.” But I can tell you that my ethics and political activism come straight from the Bible, from Jesus and the gospels. I’m taking it straight out of the book.

Where does your conception of faith and politics come from?

In the 1970s, when I entered the Jesuit order, there were a number of activists, and we would talk about Christianity and political involvement. That’s when I began to understand that nonviolence is not just in reaction — you hit me but I won’t hit you back. It’s a commitment to work for justice so that violence is no longer necessary. I began to understand Jesus in the tradition of the prophets, and I began to see that the things that the prophets insisted on — justice and liberation — are very much part of my Catholic tradition.

That has led you to be quite critical of U.S. military and economic policy. Why?

We have to start by acknowledging that we are about 5 percent of the world’s population consuming about 25 percent of the world’s resources. Do we really think people in Central America, for example, are happy to see their kids starving so we can drive SUVs? If not, then we have to ask how things got to be this way. People around the world aren’t donating these resources to us; there must be some coercion involved.

Once we begin asking those questions, we can talk about the strategies the United States uses — military force, economic coercion — to enforce that disparate structure of the allocation of goods around the world. After that, it’s hard not to become pretty radical in the quest for justice.

What is justice? How do we make it real in the world?

I would begin with community, our need for other human beings. We are bound to each other, and the question is how we work out those relationships. What are the moral, spiritual, and physical requirements for people to live in community? For me, that means following in the ways of Christ, but what that means in the concrete and how we translate that is complicated.

Is justice possible in our economic system?

Frankly, I don’t think so. You can’t love God and money. You can’t base your life on the acquisition of goods and be moral, too. You have to base your life on the fair distribution of goods, not their acquisition. The idea that everyone should have enough — and even a little bit more than enough to provide leisure and peace — that’s very important for humanity, and important in Catholic social teaching. But beyond that level, acquisition becomes evil. And this is a society based on acquisition.

Is the American devotion to so-called free market economics compatible with community?

The notion that we are all one people is part of the Catholic tradition, but I don’t think people realize how much that notion is being mediated through the market. I don’t think we’ve done enough homework on this. Most people don’t have time to look at how a market ideology is affecting us. But we need to understand just how much of the world is controlled by institutions like the International Monetary Fund, how much of the decision-making is based not on human concerns but on money.

This is a highly individualistic culture, and we have a lot of work to do on the idea that one can truly share things, and share one’s life. Unfortunately, we’re not hearing that from the pulpits as much as we need to.

Do you describe yourself as leftist?

The liberation theology movement in Latin America has affected me, as has the Catholic Worker movement here, which has elements of liberation theology — living simply, in a community that tries to help all its members and also goes beyond its boundaries. But I tend to avoid labels. I suppose there are certain positions I hold that could be labeled left, center, or right. But I hope that what I have is a consistent Christian position, what used to be called the “seamless garment.” But rather than labeling myself, I hope that if people hear me speak and like what they hear, they will say, “Gosh, is that what a Christian sounds like?”

Your work in ethics and politics doesn’t focus on sexuality or abortion, which often seem to be central concerns of the Catholic Church. Why?

This culture tends to reduce morality from a social question to a personal thing. But with the focus on sex, it’s not just personal — it’s reduced to the genitals of the person. It’s paralyzing to reduce morality to that.

I want everyone to live sexually integrated and sexually holy lives. But we have to get our priorities straight. Can we broaden our field of what counts as immoral? If someone says “She’s an immoral woman,” folks immediately think of sexual behavior. But what if we ask the question about people who have a couple of homes and a yacht, while their brothers and sisters walk the streets looking for food — is that immoral? That’s a question that rarely enters our minds.

To make this point I have asked people, ”When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima — when we caused 135,000 deaths at a non-military target — what did the U.S. Catholic bishops say?” The answer is, nothing. But what if the Enola Gay had dropped 135,000 condoms on Hiroshima? There would have a hue and cry that would not have ended to this day.

It’s easy to point our finger at sexuality. But I think it takes courage and a certain willingness to lose status, to lose worldly power, to ask other kinds of moral questions, to challenge the oppressors with the power of liberation.

How did Iraq and the lifting of the sanctions become central to you?

The short answer is Jesus. The longer answer is that my folks were born in Lebanon, but grew up in the U.S., and I’ve always been interested in the Middle East. That interest increased when I became religious; this was the place where Jesus walked around. And the commitment to nonviolence led me to be concerned. So when in 1990-91 we had the Gulf War massacre, all those concerns came together.

I had been working on nuclear war for a long time, and I saw that as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed we would find a new enemy, and sure enough it became the Arab peoples and Islam. So I’ve sort of followed U.S. officials’ demonizing of our so-called enemies, saying, “No, no, that’s not the right way to go.” Since the Gulf War, the killing hasn’t stopped, and I will be involved until they stop killing Iraqis.

When you talk about 1 million civilians dying as a result of the siege on Iraq, you have used the term evil. What do you mean by that?

As an ethicist, evil is one of those things I chew on. We also have this wonderfully rich tradition of the demonic in Christianity, of an evil being out to destroy humanity. Lucifer is the enemy of our human nature, a kind of active force that is against humanity, against human nature.

When people are so caught up in the power and the status, so blind to the killing, this is the stuff of the demonic. When you go to Iraq and see the suffering, and then come back to the United States and hear people talk about how the policy is worth the price, it’s hard to argue you are not dealing with something demonic. How could humanity not be moved by this?

I once heard a politician’s aide say, “The Iraqis have to know that if they differ with American foreign policy there are consequences.” When you get to that point, where the humanity has been occluded, it’s very helpful to have a doctrine that says there is something more than just badness going on, there’s an active force that is trying to defeat humanity.

That’s where my faith is so important. I have stood at the bed of children dying in Iraq as a direct result of our policy — by design, it’s what the sanctions are designed to do. But there is hope, in part because Jesus found a way to redeem all of that, including the people who ran away when they should have struggled and the people who perpetrated the evil.

Let’s go back to your doctrinal differences with Christian fundamentalists, who often insist that Christianity is the only way to salvation. How do you deal with that?

One of the things the Muslims say, and it’s addressed in the Koran, is that God could have made us all one community, but we are different communities so that we can vie with one another in good works. So if we want to prove, as Christians, that we have the better path to God, then how do we do that? More life, more liberation, more justice. If belief in God is justice in action, then let’s vie with one another, let’s show that we have the best way through acts of liberation and justice.

It does say in the Bible — and this is the bugaboo for those who believe exclusively in Christianity — that “no one can come to the Father except through me” from the gospel of John. But I think the way to read that is that Jesus is saying, “If you want the kind of relationship with God, which I call Father, then the only way you will get it is coming through me.” But that doesn’t mean that is the only way of relating to God, in the way Jesus did. God is so wealthy and rich in spirituality that there are thousands of ways of coming to God.

You also seem very comfortable working with secular political activists.

When I first came to New York I ran into a lot of socialists, and was impressed with their commitment to a better world. There is lots of common ground. I think what is crucially important is personal relationships. People work with you and see that you come through for them, and vice versa, and you develop respect. And then people start to ask each other, “What makes you tick?” It’s a tradition in the Christian church to establish dialogue, to find connections, to see the commonality in human aspirations.

The stereotype of a Catholic pacifist is of a quiet, humble person. Yet you can be sharp-edged and harsh in your public talks.

I tend to look at the prophets, who were pretty vocal and strategic and extraordinarily harsh sometimes. I wish I could be as authoritatively harsh as they were. Jesus took on the hypocrites and had explosions of anger and frustration at the blindness of the religious and political leaders. I’m also trying to balance that with my role as a pastor, which requires being gentle with people.

Do you find it hard to avoid being overly pious or self-righteous?

For me, in Christianity there is a transcendence that allows, in the best of things, a kind of humor, a kind of non-ultimacy about the project you are undertaking. You realize, I’m not ultimate, the project that I’m doing is important but not ultimate. There’s only one ultimate; it’s God, and I’m not it. We have to take ourselves seriously, but not ultimately seriously. That ability to take things off the ultimate pedestal gives us a sort of breathing room and even a moment of some kind of humor.

Many secular people do not see Christianity as relevant to their lives, especially their political lives. How would you argue for that relevance?

Jesus came into one of those conquered worlds dominated by the sole superpower of its time. Rome knew what you had to do to enforce empire, just as well as this American empire today knows. There were plenty of positive things about the Roman empire — good roads, consistent law — just as there are plenty of positive things about this empire. But if you step out line, you get put on the cross.

You read about the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome, but what about the people they conquered, who didn’t want to be ruled? Those are the very people to whom Jesus came, and for whom he lived and died. Remember, to be crucified, you had to be convicted of insurrection against the empire. That says a lot about our job description as Christians.