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Brazilian Dialogue

February 4

Recently the CBC morning show's "good question" was this: "I am a Grade 11 social studies teacher and I and my students would like to know the origin and meaning of the term Third World, and are there other such terms?

The short answer might be as follows: Third World represents un- or underdeveloped countries. The First World is the G7, Canada, the US, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy. A few smaller but "developed" economies as well.

The "second world" was the former USSR and its satellite and client states. In 1998 Russia was granted full participation in summit talks, making the G7 now the G8.

The longer answer to the question is much more interesting. What does "developed" mean, for starters. Economically? Millionaires among us are a dime a dozen and only "billionaire" now impresses.

Even middle class people in the First World have what is called a high standard of living. What does that mean? More vehicles per family than the household has numbers. Even more homes (summer residences, winter condos, cottages by the lake, campers, mobile homes) than the family has numbers.

And what does Third World mean at ground zero? It means expelled from the land, without income, illiterate, scrounging all day so one can eat something before falling asleep, seeing one's kids cut adrift, no job, no hope, a shack squished among the thousands of others in a slum, all in a state of permanent miseria.

In a recent Brazilian Dialogue I tried to convey the teaching of the early church fathers on the concept "a community of goods." St. John Chrysostom's teaching is particularly arresting. Christians must distance themselves from so unjust a system of governance, he tells us. But more than that, Christians must try to transform such unjust systems.

Many 16th century bishops in Latin America, following the lead of Bartolome de las Casas and his fellow Dominican friars, tried hard to overthrow the large landholdings and enslavement that came in the wake of "the conquest."

They fired letter after letter to "their Catholic majesties." In vain. They made the long boat trips to tell their stories. In vain. Yes, occasionally laws to protect the Indians were passed, but always the powerful held ground and didn't give an inch. Thus was their criminality sanctioned to become today that sanctified concept, "private property."

The many Latin American bishops wanting justice for Indigenous races were eager to go to the Council of Trent to debate the question "Could titles to land taken by force from Indigenous peoples be considered valid?"

The Emperor Charles V did not permit a single Latin American bishop to go to the Council in the 25 years of its deliberations! How different might have been the history of these lands and the history of the church had this question of land been debated there. But it wasn't and "to the victor belong the spoils" was the foundation of all empire building in Africa, Asia, the Americas, all through these "enlightened" centuries. And it's still the reigning philosophy today. We may scoff at the idea of a "community of goods" but the planet itself along with the impoverished half of humanity is groaning from the wounds our exploitation and avarice are inflicting on it.

Las Casas wrote, "We Spaniards have sacrificed more (people) on the altars of our beloved and adored goddess, Avarice, in any one year than the Indians sacrificed to their gods in a hundred years." Fast forward that remark 500 years, because we are still doing it.

Al Gerwing