Churches Debate Globalisation: No Easy Solutions for Complex Problems

Apr 30, 2003 06:14 PM EDT

Church representatives meeting in Buenos Aires exchanged differing opinions about globalisation. Some openly condemned it, while others pointed to its positive aspects. And they said that churches sometimes tend to legitimise policies of exclusion.

Panelists and representatives from different regional contexts presented their points of view during a debate on the issue of "poverty and wealth" held on 29 April, the second day of a "Globalising the fullness of life" consultation.

Organised by the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) and co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other ecumenical organisations, the Buenos Aires consultation lasts until 1 May.

Speakers explored the issue from the perspective of Latin American indigenous people, European churches and ecumenical organisations.

Julián Guamán, an indigenous theologian from Ecuador, was critical of globalisation, describing it as an "octopus that absorbs everything".

"Among indigenous people, a poor person is someone who has no land to cultivate," said Guamán. He explained that in Ecuador, indigenous people have "small pieces of land: between 100 square meters and 13 hectares". Meanwhile, the big landowners control irrigation and the land "is burned" by the intensive use of fertilisers.

However Peter Pavlovic, a representative from the Conference of European Churches, said that the globalisation process does have some positive features for central and eastern European nations. Among its positive features, he said, are increased mobility, communication and access to democracy.

Reminding his listeners that the countries of central and eastern Europe had lived under a totalitarian regime for more than half a century, Pavlovic also recognised "a swift decline in solidarity" as being among the negative effects of globalisation.

But he recalled that the environment was not a priority during the Iron Curtain era and pointed out that today, as a result of globalisation, it was on the agenda. "There are no easy answers to such a complex issue," warned the European representative.

Bob Goudzwaard, of the Dutch Reformed Church, warned that the negative effects of globalisation also impact on developed nations, where poverty and the gap between the richest and the poorest members of society are increasing

For Goudzwaard, impoverishment and increases in wealth go hand in hand. For example, one in four children in the United States faces hunger. Using as a metaphor the way trees regulate their growth in order to survive, he called on countries central to the world economy to limit their growth.

After discussing the different presentations participants agreed that, in the face of poverty, church intervention tends to focus on giving aid and assistance. They noted, however, that "some churches have attempted to develop a concept of development for transformation in poor areas".

Some groups went beyond this to deplore the fact that, as churches, "we have played a role in the privatisation of social assistance". In some cases, churches have become "agents that legitimise policies of social exclusion, concentrating their action on mitigating rather than resolving poverty," they said.

The approximately-100 participants, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean but also from Europe, North America, Asia, Africa and the Pacific, proposed that ecumenical organisations like CLAI spread alternative, biblically founded, concepts of ownership.

Participants also encouraged Christians to participate in civil and political society at local, regional and national levels, to strengthen alternative economies based on solidarity, and to open channels so that people from the South and the North are able to exchange information and increase their mutual understanding.

The consultation is being co-sponsored by the WCC, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC).