Globalization: Path to salvation? Or destruction?
Written by Douglas Todd
March 2002

Two prominent religious thinkers clashed over whether globalization has the planet on the path to salvation or destruction. The disagreement came during a Society of Christian Ethics conference Jan. 12-13 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary ethics professor Max Stackhouse, editor of a three-book series titled "God and Globalization," said globalization is largely a positive force that will unify the world and elevate millions of people into the middle class.

But School of Theology at Claremont (Calif.) theologian John Cobb, co-author of the best-selling book "For the Common Good," said economic globalization is an ideology that is weakening nation states and making people and Earth subservient to transnational corporations.

Stackhouse and Cobb arguably rank as North America's two top Christian specialists on the ethics of globalization. The topic was the subject of numerous scholarly debates, books and papers at the annual gathering of the 1,000-member Society of Christian Ethics.

Enlarges the middle class

Stackhouse said globalization is enhancing democracy, challenging authoritarian rulers and creating more middle-class people in countries such as India and China.

Globalization represents an "epochal shift" in world history, Stackhouse said. Airplanes, telephones, computers, nuclear power and economics are bringing the globe's people together, and creating international organizations such as the United Nations, in a way never seen before.

Christianity has been a powerful force behind globalization, Stackhouse said, because of its missionary zeal and its belief that technology should be used to improve the lot of humanity.

And, because of modern Christianity's basic tolerance for other religions and ideas, Stackhouse believes it would be most beneficial if Christianity rose to the top in a globalized world.

"Christianity is the best bet we have," Stackhouse said, adding he was making the claim with some humility.

Wealth is primary

While Stackhouse generally celebrated the advance of globalization, Cobb said he was "shocked and appalled" by how it is rapidly relegating people and nature to the service of wealth.

"I take the biblical approach: 'You cannot serve both God and mammon,'" Cobb said.

Stackhouse looks forward to nation states having less power in a globalized world, Cobb said national politicians are necessary to make sure all people receive the benefits of a society, not just the lucky few who gain from a globalized marketplace.

Since the 1980s, Cobb said, millions of people in Mexico, for instance, have gone backwards in their quality of living. They've seen their wages lowered and benefits reduced as their national government has given up economic sovereignty in a desperate bid to attract aid and investment from the United States and elsewhere.

Just as worrisome, said Cobb, is how corporations' global push for relentless economic growth is threatening to destroy the planet's environment. "It's making the possibility of a sustainable world more and more difficult." There are others that share this view.

Spread inequity

"The present usage of the term 'globalization' refers to a form of economic globalization," says James Vijayakumar, area executive for Southern Asia in the UCC's Wider Church Ministries. "It spreads its operations to every nook and corner of the world, not to reach out to the poor and the less privileged, but to exploit their labor and the raw materials at rates as cheap as possible so as to maximize the profit of the strong.

"It has set out to eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor," says Vijayakumar. "For instance, in India, the basic life-saving medicines that were easily affordable for the poor have become prohibitively expensive in the last few years, hitting hard the poor."

"Globalization," he concludes, "spreads inequality, injustice, inequitable accumulation of wealth, monopoly, waste of scarce resources and unfair terms of trade...it solely hinges on profit maximization, fast mobility of financial capital and concentration of economic power."

Foregone conclusion

For others, the debate about globalization is a worthy one, but perhaps a foregone conclusion.

"Both Max Stackhouse and John Cobb are gifted thinkers," says the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President. "Their debate reflects the kind of theological dialogue the church needs to encourage if we are to faithfully respond to the challenge of globalization.

"In a sense, however," he says, "arguing the inherent merits and dangers of globalization may obscure the fact that globalization is here to stay whether we like it or not."

The moral voice of the church needs to be exercised not to encourage or discourage globalization, says Thomas, but to "help shape its character and impact. Chief among our concerns ought to be the impact of globalization on the poor, protection of the environment and the preservation of cultural and religious diversity."

United Church News staff writer Jimi Izrael contributed to this story.

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