A week from now the World Cup competition will be coming to a close in the host nation of Qatar – an event which has given pleasure to football fans everywhere.
It is inevitable that events of this scale lead to controversy, this time about issues off the field, including conditions for migrant workers engaged on World Cup-related projects where many lost their lives. There were cultural issues too, such as gay rights. The criticisms provoked a sharp response from the Fifa president Gianni Infantino, who accused the West, where most of the criticism came from, of hypocrisy: “We have been taught many lessons from Europeans and the Western world,” he said. “I am European. For what we have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologising for the next 3,000 years before giving moral lessons”.
There is an issue about Europe’s colonial past but it is surely wrong to suggest that we should remain silent where people today are being denied basic rights because of what our ancestors did a century ago and more. Perhaps the more important question for all of us should be about the now. Measured against human rights, as understood by the French philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet, there is plenty to work on: “Either no member of the human race has any natural rights, or they all have the same; and anyone who votes against the rights of another, of whatever religion, colour, or sex, has from that moment denied his own.” Remarkable for the 18th century.
Those who live under democratic systems of government have much to appreciate while accepting that, as Winston Churchill acknowledged, they are not perfect: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
Therefore, we ought not try to equate any human value or governance system with the demands of the Christian gospel. The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains why: “The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organisation, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” And tomorrow’s readings make that very clear: Mary sings Magnificat – a revolutionary song that upends social arrangements: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Psalm 146 speaks of a God committed to justice for the exploited, the orphan and the widow, the hungry and downtrodden. The gospel has a similar theme in the message Jesus sends to John the Baptist: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
This core Christian message, this social gospel, takes precedence above all our religious traditions and structures and without it they are meaningless for it lays bare the injustice endured day by day by the weak and vulnerable, many of them living in what we might consider wealthy nations.
Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian theologian and philosopher, stresses the importance of making that connection between spirituality and social justice. “Today social justice represents one of the most serious challenges to the conscience of the world. The abyss between those who are within the world ‘order’ and those who are excluded is widening day by day. The use of leading-edge technologies has made it possible to accumulate wealth in a way that is fantastic but perverse because it is unjustly distributed. Twenty per cent of humankind control eighty per cent of all means of life. That fact creates a dangerous imbalance in the movement of history.” And that is true for everyone, everywhere, including Qatar and Dublin.