Is Globalization Christian?
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. —1 Timothy 6:10, NIV
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. —Adam Smith
I'm not in it for the money. —Commonly overheard saying in Silicon Valley
Last year in his Human Follies column for New York Press, Rutgers anthropologist Lionel Tiger remarked on the tragic deaths of missionary Roni Bowers and her baby daughter Charity over the skies of Peru. With many others, Tiger raised the question of why the Peruvian drug interdiction plane felt it necessary to open fire on a planeload of teetotalers. Had he stopped there, the column would have been a well-crafted if readily forgettable effort. But after the pro forma lament of pointless death, Tiger segued into an anti-missionary polemic. He railed against the "extraordinary vanity and presumption. … of missionaries" who "disrupt the most fundamental ideals and values of the people on whom they inflict themselves." These "frank imperialists," he said, "enjoy a fuzzy kind of permission to conduct a kind of business that is largely impossible in other less ethereal spheres of life."1
A torrent of outrage, from all around the world, rose in response. Linked to by hundreds of websites, including the vaunted Arts & Letters Daily, a column in a free Manhattan weekly that might have drawn a few angry letters instead drew buckets full. Some of the reported postmarks: Birmingham, AL, Fremont, CA, Edgewood, KY, Toronto, Johannesburg, and Papua New Guinea. Is this the sort of thing people have in mind when they talk about "globilization"?
Well, yes and no. In the prologue to Globalization and the Kingdom of God, Duke University's James Skillen explains that globalization is "the growing interdependence of people throughout the world." This interdependence, he suggests, is so loaded with importance that it may shift our very "perspective on the meaning of life": what we are witnessing is nothing less than the creation of a "single global village." Skillen summarizes Dutch professor Bob Goudzwaard's delivery of the 1999 annual Abraham Kupyer lecture thus:
The burden of [Goudzwaard's lecture] is to shed light on the religiously deep wellspring of contemporary economic globalization. … [H]e arrives at the deepest level, where he sees people—especially westerners—hypnotized by acquisitiveness and competition, fearful of falling behind or not getting ahead fast enough, acting like children who believe there is no other way to "make progress," even though poverty and environmental degradation grow worse rather than better.
It is by now a strikingly familiar picture. It's globalization in this sense that Seattle anarchists saw reflected in the Starbucks windows they smashed during the World Trade Organization riots in 2000. And it is a perspective on globalization also shared by many prominent Christians, including the pope. In 1999, John Paul II publicly wrung his hands over the way things are going:
If globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative. … More and more in many countries [and] in America a system known as neo-liberalism prevails; based on a purely economic concept of man, this system considers profit and the laws of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and people.
I speculate, but this may have been the notion in the back of theologian Massimo Salani's mind when he complained in an article in the Italian magazine Avvenire that McDonald's was a Protestant institution that is hostile to community bonds.
Statements like these infuriate John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, editors of London's classical liberal weekly newsmagazine, The Economist. In A Future Perfect, they jointly find the pope's remarks, if not hypocritical, then at least bizarre. Here, they write, we have "one of the men who has most turbocharged the pace of globalization" by helping to remove the "greatest barrier to the universal role of market capitalism," and yet:
[A]s the 1990s wore on, the pope became increasingly uneasy about what he had wrought. As he contemplated the spread of sin, selfishness, and inequality, he worried that "unbridled capitalism" was little improvement on "savage Marxism.". … Globalism began to assume the same role in his life that communism once had.
In response, the pontiff might cite Peter Jay's The Wealth of Man, which—among other unsavory aspects of global capitalism—chronicles Russia's disastrous transition from communism. Where the government would not allow enough latitude for regular markets to function, the black market and organized crime arose, inspiring lawlessness and murder. Vodka, which the communists had supplied in enough quantity to keep the population sedated, now became more affordable in greater quantity, and Russian men promptly began drinking themselves to death. Through rigged auctions, valuable state properties were sold for rubles on the dollar and then resold, the wealth being funneled into foreign bank accounts; they wisely didn't trust their own crony-ridden financial institutions.
Most of the former Soviet Bloc nations haven't fared much better. Micklethwait and Wooldridge tell of one former satellite dumping raw sewage into the river that it and a neighbor satellite jointly share in a tiff over non-payment for sanitary water. Africa continues to be a war- torn wreck. Asia, though it evidenced—and continues to show—real progress, nearly dragged the whole world into a financial pit in 1998 following the unexpected devaluation of Indonesia's currency, the rupiah. And while vast wealth has accumulated in places such as America, the distribution of said wealth is seriously skewed. Maybe the Seattle rioters had a point. Maybe we should turn to a more heavy-handed but survivable governance and relegate globalization, with communism, to the dustheap of history.
Not so fast, say our classical liberals. The thesis of A Future Perfect is that globalization, on the whole, is tugging us in the right direction and hence needs to be "not only. … understood but. … defended stoutly." With characteristically witty Oxbridge prose and a raft of subtitles, they set out to do just that: explain and defend globalization against its enemies and, more important, its erstwhile friends. Globalization, they argue, has been badly (and under-) sold by free-market types, American enthusiasts, and center-left politicians the world over. Nearly every camp has giddily embraced one or more of the refutable myths about what they call "a process rather than a fact."
Micklethwait and Wooldridge attempt to hack through the hyperbole that surrounds the issue. Yes, they admit, globalization has been driven by "the gradual decision by politicians to step out of the way since the end of the Second World War," but that hardly amounts to a laissez-faire regime: control could be, and historically has been, reinstated quickly. Contrary to the wishes of anarchists and utopian libertarians, the nation state is not about to wither away anytime soon. Yes, it does create losers, but if this sometimes "savage process" is allowed to run its course, the number of winners end up "far outnumber[ing]" those it shortchanges. Too often, globalization has been held accounatable for social ills that are in fact directly traceable to suffocatingly corrupt local governments, which often seek to deflect blame by foisting it off on a foreign force.
Clearly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge say, the critics of globalization have not done their homework. Consider cell phones. Before September 11 they were widely cited as symbolic of the excesses of globalization—"leashes" in Dilbert-speak, or another example of Much Too Much Information. A recent movement to ban them from being used by commuters saw some success in New York State. Similar regulations would have been adopted by other localities by now, were it not for the events of September 11, which so graphically demonstrated the benefits of this technology.
And where is the mobile-phone market growing most rapidly? In the developing world, in places like Afghanistan, where such technology has meant the difference between being connected to the world and being cut off. The authors note that the average wait for a fixed line in Russia is ten years. In only five months, Lucent was able, by installing several handfuls of base stations in the most remote regions of Argentina, to bring telephone service to half a million previously unserviced people. Bangladesh, whose person-to-phone ratio was 275-to-1, has had over 300 villages outfitted with phones. "For Bangladeshi farmers," Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, "the phones provide liberation from middlemen. Rather than having to accept a broker's price, Bangladeshi farmers. … find out the fair value of their rice and vegetables" and avoid getting gouged in the process. A Future Perfect is chock-a-block with examples like this one, graphically making the point that globalization is, at bottom, about giving people more options.
But both A Future Perfect and The Wealth of Man end on a somber note.
The Economist editors confess that "the devil has all the best tunes." That is, the benefits of globalization are so spread out and the victims so concentrated, there's a real and present danger that the Chicken Littles will drag the sky down on the rest of us. One would be tempted to dismiss such concerns, but it has happened before. The 1800s, seen by Micklethwait and Wooldridge as a wellspring of globalization, gave way to the intense nationalistic movements of the nineteenth century and the bloody twentieth. Success begot national pride and envy, which begot petty conflicts that snowballed. In a sense, then, globalization creates its own counterreaction. In the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers, many speculated that that counterreaction was precisely what was occurring.
Taking the long view of economic history, Peter Jay pegs the current situation as step two of a waltz motif: economic success creates envy and draws predators. In the next step, either a compromise is reached whereby most of the wealthy party's money is protected with enough going to the rest of society to smooth things over or the whole enterprise breaks down. He worries that in this new, well-connected world, "the South" —that is, the poor nations mostly of Africa, South America, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe—might follow the lead of the Seattle/Genoa anarchists and gang up on "the North"—the wealthy nations—cramming a version of global governance down the North's throat that effectively shuts down a process that began with the industrial revolution: "a truly Malthusian denouement." Lest we doubt that could happen, Jay reminds us that "even in the United States primitive superstitions and ethical blindness can afflict broad swaths of an immensely affluent and educated society, not least constraining the nation's lawmakers to adopt barbaric postures."
For all their skepticism, Christians have generally been more nuanced in their assessment of globalization and its prospects. Goudzwaard explicitly condemns the "many who condemn globalization as a demonic endeavor leading people to the abyss and thereby [finding] an alibi to excuse themselves from any responsibility." He adds that "those who stand in Calvin's line may not adopt this attitude" [italics added]. "Long before the present process of technological and economic globalization began, God's message of global Good News went forth and began its work. The idea of globalization, therefore, is not foreign to the Bible."
Indeed, it's a bit of a puzzle for Jay, who takes a very secular, avowedly Darwinian approach to his discipline, to answer many of the whys and wherefores of economic history. Specifically, why did the (at least nominally) Christian West—whose economic thinking Jay surprisingly spurns in favor of Islam—accomplish the following: 1) discover the New World; 2) spark the industrial revolution; 3) become the chief (but far from only) beneficiary of globalization? China, Jay notes, was at one time far ahead of the West in many respects—including seafaring—but then retracted. Islamic science and intellectual culture generally, once superior to that of Europe, ran aground.
Was it just random chance that the West took the lead? Or is it possible that, however perverted it sometimes became, the missionary impulse—which Christians trace back to a commandment explicitly given by Jesus—played a part in this outcome? China, remember, faced no internal contradiction by contracting. The Chinese found much of the world backward and boring, and the emperor had no "great commission" to uphold. To this day, Christian missionaries continue to take the gospel to such "backward" people, often introducing technology and raising their standard of living in the process. As for Islam, missiologist Andrew Walls has shown how the "translatability" of the gospel and the "cross-cultural diffusion" of Christianity contrast with the dynamics of Islamic expansion.
Granted, it is important not to minimize the reality of greed as a motivating factor. But it is at least a plausible hypothesis that Christianity's missionary instincts helped prepare the soil from whence globalization eventually sprang.
Shifting from the roots of globalization to the present realities, Anna Peterson, Manuel Vasquez, and Phillip Williams, the editors of Christianity, Social Change, and Globalization in the Americas, look at how Protestants and Catholics in Central and South America navigate a world influenced by globalization. They find that, contrary to some people's fears, globalization has not meant secularization: "religion is changing but not disappearing." In fact, "if anything, religion has become more central to struggles around collective and individual identity and to the rearticulation of damaged civil societies."
They find that Christians of all stripes from El Salvador to Peru have begun to concentrate less on the government's ability to provide social justice and more on how individuals can help one another escape from poverty and vice and reach toward prosperity and salvation. The emergence of Protestantism as a competing option has led even progressive Catholics to "embrace pastoral approaches" that focus more on exhorting people to assume individual responsibility for their actions, not only for their own sake but for the common good. And "the increasing circulation of goods, capital, people, and ideas" has encouraged churches to become "critical resource centers" for both financial and spiritual assistance. Protestant and Catholic alike, churches have begun to learn from one another's successes and failures—in everything from worship style to outreach. Again, I speculate, but it's likely Micklethwait and Wooldridge would call that globalization in action.
1. Lionel Tiger, "Missionary Come Home." New York Press, Volume 14, Issue 20 (2001). A response to Tiger by this author with respect to the question of pluralism can be found at www.spintechmag.com/2001/ jl080101.htm.
Jeremy Lott is senior editor of Spintech magazine and a student at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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