The Other Jew at The Vatican

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Bernie Sanders’ acceptance of an inviation to speak at the Vatican drew a lot of attention this week.  J.J. Goldberg speculated in the Forward about Sander’s embodiment of the Jewish social justice tradition and the Vatican’s recognition of such implied in the invitation. Sanders was quoted in the NY Times saying that he thought Francis has played “an extraordinary role, and with great courage” in getting the world to think more about the “moral economy and how we have to deal with economic and environmental and social injustice.”  Sanders continued: “I would just be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I rejected this opportunity, so I’m delighted to be going.”

The Hill cited the perplexity many observers felt over Sanders’ decision to leave the campaign trail for the trip just days before the New York primary. But the trip is actually pure Sanders- he has chosen the sheer beauty and idealism of the trip over staying in NY to drum up support for his candidacy. And alright, alright, maybe he’s canny- after all, is there a better imprimatur on Sanders status as a real global force than an invitation to the Vatican?  Sanders’ main vulnerability is the perception that he is an ungrounded idealist. The more official affirmation he gets, the better. Nevertheless the trip does seem a gamble, at least as far as the NY primary goes.

Gathering less attention is the other Jew at the conference: Jeffrey Sachs. Economist Sachs is scheduled to give the keynote address, examining changes in the global economy since the writing of Centesimus Annus, and thus visioning how John Paul’s 1991 papal encyclical letter on the economy and worker’s rights can be applied now.

Sachs is a powerhouse.  Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, he is widely considered one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. Sachs is is special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals, a position he also held under Kofi Annan. He is director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and a member of the International Advisory Council of the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE). Sachs has authored three New York Times bestsellers: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). He was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2004 and 2005, and was awarded the Blue Planet Prize in 2015 for his contributions to solving global environmental problems.  He is a heavyweight. And he’s on Team Sanders, acting as foreign policy advisor. When Paul Krugman , who has been consistently critical of Sanders, published a harsh piece in the NY Times last week, Sachs tweeted, “It’s incredible that a silly rant like this passes for commentary at the NYT.” Sachs’ pitch for Sanders before the upcoming primary: “We have a real chance for a President with great values, honesty, decency, experience & vision. @SenSanders for the NY Primary on April 19!”

Goldberg is right to argue that Sanders and Sachs represent a particular strain of Jewish values concerned more than anything with the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and critical of militarism and kings. That tradition is the prophetic tradition, as I’ve argued elsewhere.