From Globalization to Global Household
Committing the Church to a Just and Sustainable World
(A speech given by The Rev. Canon Richard W. Gillett to the luncheon of the Episcopal Network for Economic Justice at General Convention, Columbus, Ohio, June 13, 2006)
I want to begin with a quotation relevant to my topic today:
"In light of rapidly growing patterns of industrial disinvestment, we ask whether it is not time to explore alternatives to corporate and conglomerate ownership…we ask if it is not better to explore new avenues of cooperation and localism in order to avoid the destructive consequences of an economic life that places little value in community…We challenge the people in our churches, and all people of good will, to become champions of afflicted workers, and to serve as advocates for the restoration of the control of work to every American community, and indeed, to every community of the world.”
This quotation comes not from a recent anti-globalization rally, but from a Labor Day Pastoral Letter issued in 1982 by the Episcopal Urban Bishops. It was excerpted by the New York Times as an Op-Ed under the names of bishops Paul Moore and John Burt (then of New York and Ohio, respectively). Its 1982 date places it in the early years of what is generally regarded as the time when "The New Globalization" began to manifest itself -- what William Greider calls "modern capitalism driven by the imperatives of global industrial revolution."
Bishops Moore and Burt -- especially John Burt -- wrote them after a wrenching struggle right here in the state of Ohio, in Youngstown, and in other industrial states following the community devastation caused by sudden and massive plant closures across the country. It was a struggle involving many churches whose members became suddenly redundant as workers.
But this also shows that we do have voices in our Church who have great spiritual courage and can utter the prophetic word -- in this case bishops.
Now listen to these words, delivered in the year 2000, by Archbishop Ndungane of Cape Town, to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council:
We cannot allow those who wield economic power to govern on one criterion of economic profitability; we have to take responsibility for our world, for our economic system, harnessing it to serve us, rather than allowing it to enslave us.
Bold words in the prophetic tradition, in both instances. We can, on the one hand, be encouraged by them. On the other hand, there may be a part of us that observes with a sigh that nothing much has changed in the 20-plus intervening years, and that moreover the economic juggernaut continues, and if anything is worsening.
I would hope that we might hold off on the pessimism on two counts. One, I believe there is reason to be hopeful about these things, in the growing countervailing power against the global forces of economic oppression. And two, we are as Christians committed to a gospel of hope. So we must not allow ourselves the luxury of a doom and gloom attitude towards realities that appear to be -- but are not really ---inevitable.
That said, I put it to you urgently that we must understand that the issue of the globalization of the economy, the globalization of 21st century capitalism is one we can no longer afford to postpone addressing. Archbishop Ndungane focuses on the heart of the matter for Christians: "We have to take responsibility for our world.” Moreover, the social services we provide in our communities and the social justice projects we may engage in, even very sophisticated ones, are at great risk of being progressively neutralized in their effectiveness, overwhelmed by the larger economic forces that are manifestations of the global economic engine. Later in my talk I’ll give you an example of how Wal-Mart is seeking at the global level to nullify our local community activist strategies against its expansion.
I. The Global Economy
So how to describe what is happening in our globalized 21st century economy?
I go back again to Greider's definition of globalization as a simple and effective one: "Modern capitalism driven by the imperatives of global industrial revolution." There is a driven-ness about it, as we watch global corporations, banks, and governments relentlessly seek out global markets. And there is technology, ever-refining itself, from increased computer capacities, information data bases, storage and retrieval and world wide web capacities, to gigantic containerships -- just one of these ocean behemoths can now carry 7000 stacked-up containers.
Now clearly, the results of this global revolution have seen some remarkable achievements: huge advances in modern science and health, and increased communication and transportation capabilities, such as the internet, that have brought the global community closer together. Prosperity has increased for some, including in sectors of the Third World.
But the balance sheet on globalization at this juncture appears to be much more negative than positive. The upheavals of the last quarter century have resulted in more entrenched poverty at lower levels, the transfer of wealth upwards, and the privatization -- both here at home and also in other countries, chiefly the poorer ones -- of many government services. And, as we've recently begun to acknowledge as a nation -- helped by Al Gore -- severe threats to the global environment.
A United Nations report in the fall of last year stated: "The world is more polarized today, with persistent and deepening inequality, than it was ten years ago". In the U.S. the poverty rate was up in 2004 despite a growing economy. For the 5th straight year last year, poverty incomes failed to rise. Moreover, the pressure on the middle class in our country is well known: large layoffs continue, health care costs are rising rapidly; and pensions for working people are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. All this, hand in hand with a resurgence of racism.
This much you know, and more.
Here in the hotels we are staying in for this convention, the housekeepers, dishwashers, cooks, servers, bellhops and others are all non-union, and for the most part are making far below a living wage, if a UNITE HERE (the hotel workers union) national survey is correct. (See the statement on this subject just issued by the three recipients of the Hugh White worker justice award given by ENEJ. [Note: this statement has become the core of a resolution on the subject of hotel workers]
At the global financial level it is breathtaking to learn how much power and wealth are accruing to corporations, banks, and financial institutions. The big banks and others speculate on the world currency exchange markets as if they were a Las Vegas casino.
If you have a Citibank credit card or a home loan out to Citicorp, you might be interested to know that the parent, Citigroup, (the world's largest bank) on August 2, 2004, played the roulette table, so to speak, and in 2 minutes sold 11 billion (that's with a b) euros on the world currency market. Knowing that that amount by itself was enough to instantly depress the market, it turned around and bought them back at the depressed price, swiftly making 15 million euros on the transaction. May we be permitted to ask the question: How do such transactions, and many more like it that go on every day, create jobs, or address global poverty? What entity is regulating these transactions?
And here's the Wal-Mart example I promised you a few minutes ago, to illustrate how global corporate and political deals can negate even good justice strategies we plan at local levels. Wal-Mart and its fellow global retail giants are getting together to propose a regulation that would, if approved, authorize the World Trade Organization to reach down to our current city or state land use "big box" ordinances, and prevent us, the citizenry, from enacting limits on the size of such big box superstores -- as we have done in Los Angeles. They could possibly achieve this because the WTO (to which the U.S. belongs) already can exercise the power to override any member country's objections, and put in place rules that presumably benefit "free trade". We agreed to this rule when we became a member country of the WTO. In other words, individual member countries must abide by rules enacted by that body, thus overruling national, state, or local laws or ordinances.
II. The role of the church in issues of globalization and economics.
So much for a glimpse at some of the major aspects of globalization. How can our Christian social tradition be relevant to this?
Ten years ago, retiring from the parish ministry at the age of 65 after a wonderful, incredible, marvelous ministry of activism in economic justice, in Puerto Rico, England, and Los Angeles, I found myself wanting to go back and read church history to see where the Christian tradition of social justice went after the bible's witness. I found that our 2000 year history is replete with examples both theological, and in practical activism, of the witness of the church to the divine activity in every sphere, including economics. And that this treasure trove is one of the best-kept secrets in Christianity!
For example, just 100 plus years back there was remarkable witness by bishops, priests, laymen and women, to protest the extreme injustices perpetrated in the closing decades of the 19th century, upon the industrial immigrant working classes at the hands of the newly wealthy industrial magnates. But did you know about Vida Scudder, a Wellesley College professor of English, who became a militant pro-union activist on the picket lines in Boston? She also founded the Church League for Industrial Democracy. Then there was the Church Association for the Advancement of Labor, founded about 1890, whose membership included 40 Episcopal bishops. And in 1891, Trinity Church Wall Street celebrated Labor Day Sunday (along with many other churches in New York City) by inviting the Knights of Labor, who carried red flags in the procession!
Earlier, right here in the City of Columbus in 1886, The Rev. Washington Gladden, a Congregational minister, was awakening along with others to the exploitation and suffering of his own worker-parishioners in the coal mines. In a Sunday sermon, he challenged his parishioners with this thought; "The labor of the nation is the life of the nation. Is that a commodity to be bought in the cheapest markets and sold in the dearest ?" Or is it OK to create "disposable people" when they are no longer useful to "the economy"?
So all this witnessing and much more gained momentum and by the beginning of the 20th century swelled into what is known as the Social Gospel movement: a great moral force for good in American history, and one in which the Episcopal Church was deeply involved.
Going back into church history, there's much more. Building upon the witness of the Acts of the Apostles, early patriarchs like St. Basil and St. Ambrose were outspoken in championing justice for those oppressed by the wealthy. There is Thomas Aquinas, with his advocacy of the "just price", and his condemnation of usury -- now there's a prohibition that we could revive, in our era of obscene credit card interest and huge debts! And there is Francis of Assisi and those in the other mendicant monastic orders who challenged the medieval church with a warning about the evils of the coming "money economy".
In sum: history is important! -- especially our own history.
III Globalization and theology
So can we take the realities of our 21st century global economy and our rich church history and begin to frame some theological issues with which to address globalization? It would seem a daunting challenge. How can we even begin to get hold of such a complex and all-penetrating phenomenon, especially one whose heart is the realm of economics?
Well, the word economy is itself a good place to start theologizing. Permit me to quote somewhat extensively from my book:
It is understood by everyone that when we speak of the economy today we are dealing with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services of a nation, a region or city, or the globe.
"But the word economy did not always have this particular use.
Its current definition has been strongly shaped by the evolution of
capitalism in the eighteenth century with the publication of Adam
Smith's The Wealth of Nations and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The Greek root of the word is oikonomia, itself a composite
of two other Greek words: oikos, house, and nomos, from the Greek
nemein, to manage or control. Thus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition of economy is ‘The art or science of
managing a household.' That definition begins to demystify the word.
Thus, the idea of the GLOBAL HOUSEHOLD.
And imagine this: prior to the eighteenth century, the word also
had a theological meaning: ‘The method of the divine government
of the world.' So these root meanings suggest a much more compre-
hensive understanding of what we are about when we address the
issue of global economic justice. To speak about the economy in this
way means to think about the global household: the well-being of the
whole human community. It is to understand that a truly globalizing
economy should not be thought of as an end in itself, but rather as
a means to ensure that all members of this household are included
under one roof, able to share equitably in the fruits and labor of
What we have instead is currently the "gated compound" of global capitalism, with the beggar Lazarus of St. Luke's gospel outside the gate. We need as Christians to embrace The Global Household -- one that gathers in all sorts and conditions of men and women from every corner of the world, every station of life, and every sphere of human activity, including our political, cultural, and economic life. This is the biblical vision of "a world made new".
Such a perspective enables us as Christians to subject all economic systems to moral scrutiny -- especially the capitalist system in these times, but also the various socialist systems past and present as well as any economic system, either a combination of the two, or something else that may emerge. I think this helps us understand that the economic system is the servant, not the master, of the Household, and that the economic and religious visions of a truly global household can be linked.
That, I think, is a major part of our theological challenge. And I think it is not so difficult if we get our concepts right.
IV Responses to the global economy
So what have been some responses to the injustices of the global economy?
Sometime in the 1990s -- before 50,000 protesters from around the world filled the streets of Seattle in 1999 to protest the deliberations of the World Trade Organization -- a new connectedness of people began to appear across the globe. Using the internet widely, it was a highly diverse connectedness, local as well as global, comprised of nonprofit organizations, farmers' coops, peasant and worker organizations, organized labor, peace and environmental groups, and also grassroots religious groups. It is called "global civil society". It is truly global, and it is now a huge, if highly diverse, force outside both government and corporate spheres -- a proven force to reckon with.
But the global protests like Seattle and those in subsequent years are only one manifestation of popular response, and are probably not the most important. What else is going on?
First, there have been coordinated local responses by the religious community to the manifestations at local level of new global economic forces. They have involved standing up together to rebuild a community, to reclaim power, and to strengthen the voice and actions of workers. Also, churches are beginning to sponsor conferences on economic globalization, such as a major conference just last month at All Saints Pasadena featuring authors David Korten and Frances Moore Lappe.
Second, as you know, there are geographically broader campaigns, but with specific focuses, such as the anti-sweatshop campaigns going on for several years now, Fair Trade campaigns for coffee and other commodities (do you drink Bishop's Blend, the Fair Trade coffee sold by ERD?), and most recently, the Killer Coke campaign to protest the policies of Coca Cola both in India and in Colombia. And I count living wage campaigns as legitimately addressing the globalizing forces of the new economy.
And at higher levels there have been astounding victories, such as the meeting in Cancun of the World Trade Organization in 2003, where a coalition of 20 developing countries successfully protesting agricultural policy almost resulted in the collapse of the WTO itself. And although CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement squeaked through the U.S. Congress at the last moment in 2005, the resistance has still been such that its implementation is currently on hold. All these have had religious participation at one level or another.
But at lower levels -- for example at the parish level, church involvement in issues of globalization has been virtually nil.
Notwithstanding this, an increasing number of observers, including but not limited to economists, say that perhaps in these very years we are at a turning point -- that the original momentum and the glib promises of globalization so heartily embraced a dozen years or so ago as the inevitable future now that communism is gone, are in a stall. J.R. Saul, a prominent Canadian writer, in an impressive book published late last year, says globalization has had "some remarkable successes, some disturbing failures, and a collection of what might best be called running sores." He believes we are in a pause, a moment of opportunity -- what I think the New Testament would call a kairos.
V Some challenges to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion
As I wrap up, I want to give you a random short list of myths to explode as we acquire greater understanding of the globalization issue:
1. The first and biggest myth is that the free market is the "natural state of things", proven now that communism and socialism have faded into history.
2. If the gross national product (GNP) is growing, prosperity is increasing
3. If there is more "free trade", prosperity will increase
4. People who are on welfare are mainly those not working
5. The essence of democracy is voting in elections
6. If we could just get a "fixer", a leader to lead and inspire us (in the church or in the government), our problems would be solved.
Finally, these challenges to the Episcopal Church:
1. Get the House of Bishops to build on their excellent statement on globalization in 2001 and issue a new one.
2. Get our bishops to sponsor conferences for our clergy and laity that address directly the theological and social issues of the economy and globalization.
3. At parish level, start preaching on economics, theology, and global justice, and get involved locally in the issues.
4. Create a new national staff position on globalization and the economy under the direction of the Presiding Bishop
5. Push the Episcopal Relief and Development Office to be more boldly adversarial in its development work, in support of community and labor organizations that challenge the prevailing economic and political powers
6. Widen the support and effectiveness even more, of the Episcopal Public Policy Network. Its crucial work should be applauded.
And one challenge to the Anglican Communion: Create a permanent staff officer for globalization. Astonishingly there is currently none, in contrast to several other national and international church bodies.
In my book The New Globalization I try to lay out these thoughts I've shared with you from my perspective as an activist, as a reader of church history, and as an inveterate news junkie and follower of the global economy and its consequences.
Underlying all of this is my strong belief in the principle of the Incarnation: that the risen Christ is already out there in the world, in every corner of it -- especially in the forgotten corners of our cities and rural communities, and those of the world. Where the African farmer is, who wants to sell his cotton crop on the global market but cannot, or the AIDS worker there who yearns to see generic drugs available to her community, to the worker in a chicken processing plant in Arkansas who wants only dignity, respect, and a living wage in order to live decently like the rest of us, and raise a loving family.
One hundred years ago the churches in this country finally awakened from their denial and their lethargy and responded to the injustices of their day. The Social Gospel movement was the result. Now it is time, and past time, to help create a new earth community; a new global household! Is the Episcopal Church up to this?
Canon Gillett is the author of The New Globalization: Reclaiming the Lost Ground of our Christian Social Tradition [Pilgrim Press, 2005]