Pope Francis issued a stark message at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Monday, urging world leaders to fight poverty and pursue social justice.
“We cannot remain silent in the face of the suffering of millions of people whose dignity is wounded,” the pope said in a prepared statement, “nor can we continue to move forward as if the spread of poverty and injustice has no cause.”
But, one might ask, what is the cause?
For most people this is a challenging question to answer. The one constant throughout human history, after all, has been the presence of want and suffering.
The answer poses less difficulty for the pope, who suggested human suffering and injustice stem from “private interests and an ambition for profit at all costs.”
Such an answer likely pleased Davos attendees and Sir Elton John, who was delivering his own remarks on global inequality as Cardinal Peter Turkson was reading the pope’s.
But most informed people, I suspect, find such rhetoric unsatisfying, false (global poverty is retracting, not spreading), and possibly even banal.
Imagine that instead of a global gathering of elites and celebrities, the World Economic Forum tried to see the challenges facing the world through the lens of faith and the Judeo-Christian ethic.
One is tempted to accuse Elton John of hypocrisy – his net worth is reportedly $500 million – or ask the pope a few pointed questions about the nature of wealth creation. But we would be ill-served by yet another “Pope Francis Doesn’t Get Economics” essay or another article on celebrity hypocrisy.
Imagine that instead of a global gathering of elites and celebrities, the World Economic Forum tried to see the challenges facing the world through the lens of faith and the Judeo-Christian ethic that has guided the West to its current status of wealth and power. What might a Christian Davos look like? Would such an event even be possible?
We might begin by determining what a Christian Davos would not look like.
For starters, a Christian Davos would not be in Davos, an opulent city in the Swiss Alps notable for posh hotels and ski resorts. It probably wouldn’t be in Europe at all.
A Christian Davos would be one of the least ideologically homogenous places on earth. Participants would not be concerned with grand speeches, television cameras, and live-streaming.
A Christian Davos probably wouldn’t consist of the world’s crème de la crème: politicians, activists, governments, NGOs, corporate leaders, and famous artists.
My idealized – candidly, perhaps romanticized – conception of a Christian Davos would take place in Calcutta, Nairobi, or a remote and anonymous desert. It would be loosely organized, spartan, and notable for its lack of any clear hierarchy. It would consist of Christians of all denominations across the world gathering to freely worship, and fellowship, before they attempted to engage one another over the most pressing concerns facing the planet.
If this sounds a bit maudlin and quite impractical, there’s a reason for that: It is.
A massive, free-wheeling gathering of Christian equals – popes, priests, and paupers – sounds wonderful, but it’s a vision that runs counter to our species’ fundamental nature and need for structure, order, and hierarchy.
Aristotle observed that humans are not just social creatures; they are, by nature, political creatures.
“It is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle wrote in Politics. “And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it.”
For this reason, my Christian Davos probably couldn’t exist, at least not for long. If such an event were organized, it likely would quickly become scripted, synthetic, lifeless. Disagreement would ensue over the topics slated for discussion. Someone would suggest Sao Paulo or Zurich as a more appropriate location. Arguments would erupt about who approved one presenter’s allotted speaking time. This would be quite natural.
Christianity, at its core, is the opposite of power.
Humans yearn for order, hierarchy, and structure. Politics (and occasionally violence) is the means we use to achieve it. Christians, historically speaking, have proven little different in this regard, from the First Council of Nicaea to the Council of Trent, from the Great Schism to the Reformation and beyond. Again, this is quite natural. This is how hierarchical systems – nation-states, feudal lords, emperors, republics, etc. – have achieved most human progress throughout history.
What’s exceptional about Christianity, however, is that arguably its most extensive progress was made before Christians had achieved political power and before Christians were organized. This fact is astonishing, and there is perhaps a lesson here.
World leaders and influencers annually descend on Davos to solve the world’s problems, but the Book of Genesis suggests humans should be wary of those who would build Babel anew, an idea confirmed by modern history, particularly the twentieth century.
“Idealism,” Aldous Huxley said, “is the noble toga that political gentlemen drape over their will to power.”
Christianity, at its core, is the opposite of power. And, paradoxically, Christianity has proven most powerful when Christians are weak. This is why a Christian Davos makes little sense, or, rather, why it would probably be ineffective.
Many intellectually stimulating topics can be imagined at such a summit: reducing world hunger; recent successes of microfinancing in developing nations; the sanctity of life; human dignity; artificial intelligence in Christian bioethics; the role of the nuclear family in the twenty-first century. (Fact: Not a single presentation at Davos was dedicated entirely to the health of marriage or the family.)
These topics are important and worthy of discussion. But do Christians really need a grand summit to discuss them? And would such a summit actually achieve anything?
If Christians were to gather at a world summit to discuss pressing issues, that would be fine, of course.
But wherever Christians of all denominations gather, and whatever topics they choose to discuss, they would be remiss to lose sight of one topic: How do Christians continue to spread the faith that made the West’s abundance possible and answer the unique calling they share?
“Come, follow Me,” a Carpenter from Nazareth once said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
(Photo credit: Ministério da Indústria, Comércio Exterior e Serviços, Brazil. This photo has been transformed. CC BY-SA 2.0.)