Reflections on Global Problems and Change

As part of the Global Problems and Change course, we have to reflect on the course readings for each section.  Here’s part 1:

Globalization is nothing new.  As Karl Marx once said, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great historic world facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  But despite all of the excitement about globalization in all of its glory, we don’t realize how little it differs from what Marx himself was describing in his Communist Manifesto: replace “bourgeoisie” with “global capital” and it offers a fairly accurate picture of today.  Of course, the people who ran with Marx’s teachings on communism didn’t fare too well either; I recently read an interview in which Fidel Castro said, in a rather offhand manner, that Cuba’s communist organization doesn’t even work in Cuba anymore.  But communism is another matter.  The point here is that there is nothing new under the sun, not even globalization.  What’s different in globalization is that our technology allows the new bourgeoisie to dominate the rest of the world at unprecedented rates and to unprecedented degrees.

One of the shocking things about the way that globalization allows the rich to dominate the poor is the sheer number of ways that we (being the rich West) benefit from it.  We not only benefit from our domination of the poor, but we actually benefit from their poverty.  In international trade, for example, nations make trade agreements that play to their strengths: poor countries are counselled to maximize their market of cheap labour.  That is to say, poor countries are given incentives by the international market to keep their people poor, because if their people get a fair wage and rise up out of poverty, Nike will move its sweatshops to a poorer country that demands less, in order to keep their costs down and maximize profits for their Western shareholders.  But that’s only the most direct way in which we benefit from the rest of the world being poor.  A less obvious benefit is that it gives us a reason to be charitable: if coffee growers in Central America weren’t so poor, I wouldn’t feel so darn good about buying a “fairly-traded” coffee from Starbucks.  So whether I buy an ultra-cheap coffee from Tim Horton’s, or an ultra-expensive coffee from Starbucks so I can feel good about myself, both of these options are made possible because the people who grow that coffee are in horrible poverty.  Coffee is never just coffee (and it’s bad for you besides, but that’s another post ;).

So what can we do about it?  Do social movements ever really work?  Thousands of people around the world protested the war in Iraq, but it went ahead anyway.  For that matter, thousands of people around the world protested the war in Vietnam, and we still not only had that war continue for far too long, but we had a war in Iraq in the first place.  Has the long history of anti-war activism had any affect on the way we think about war?  Activism does have an affect, but never the affect that activists want.  Social movements draw attention to issues that ultimately requires that leaders and policy-makers think things through more carefully; over time, this becomes change.  The move of a few inches on an issue today can mean a few metres the next time the issue comes up.  Most activists want more radical change, seeking to move the issue a mile down the road, and see their movement of a few inches as a failure.  In the long term, it might not move as far as they want, but it might move even farther.  Also, it might end up moving in a completely different direction.  But whether or not it works out the way we want it to, our actions really do have an effect.

One action that draws attention to an issue is Non-violent Direct Action, or protesting.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a champion of activism that challenged the authorities, the status quo, and individuals’ consciences.  He pointed out that when something is wrong, many times people will let it continue because change is messy and difficult, and those who have the power to change often fail to notice a tension that sits just beneath the surface of society.  We don’t like protests because we think that they create tension; King says that they simply reveal the tension that already exists underneath, and call our attention to social realities that we don’t want to face.  There exists a noble history of non-violent direct action, stretching back through MLK, Ghandi, and even Jesus himself, and even to other Jewish rebels in his day and before.  Sometimes it works: though King never saw it, it wasn’t too long after his death that segregation ended.  Sometimes it doesn’t: the Macabbean rebels were slaughtered by the Greeks, and eventually only won their freedom through force of arms.  Other times, the answer is less clear: Jesus challenged the authority of the Temple, the King, and even Caesar himself, and to their eyes he lost, killed as a rebel.  We know, however, that Jesus was also challenging the authority of sin and death, and his death on the cross was not his defeat at the hands of the Romans or the Jews, but it was his victory over death itself – and act that also had profound effects on the way that the Roman and Jewish authorities held power over the common people.  Looking to the cross, people once dominated by Jewish Law and Roman law lived free.  Had Jesus used violence in his rebellion against the authorities, his death would have been just and changed little or nothing.  It was not Nelson Mandela’s bombings that launched a movement to end the aparthied system of South Africa, it was his unjust prison sentence.  Because what we really do when we protest is point to injustice.  When our nonviolent protests cost us dearly, we point to Christ.  And when Christ is revealed in a situation, injustice is revealed in all of its hideous opposition to Christ, and becomes indefensible – and people change.

Christ was not just a spiritual teacher, he was also a social activist.  His actions and his teachings change people’s lives, and he left behind a living monument to changed lives, his Church.  Christian Smith pointed out in an essay that religious institutions are ideally formed for social activism, already possessing all of the structures and motivating factors that drive social movements.  What he spent several pages expounding seemed self-evident to me.  Of course the Church is ideal for launching social movements: it IS a social movement!  Christ is alive in his people, and where Christ goes, people change.  The Church is a society that lives in light of the reality of Jesus Christ; we live in a different narrative than the rest of the world, and we make a point of telling others about it.  It’s who we are, and what we do. 

In his speech to a graduating class at Knox College in Toronto, award-winning journalist Brian Stewart told story after story that proved his main point, that everywhere he’s been to report on human suffering and get the word out, the Church is already there.  Whether that means that Christians were the first to respond to human need, or that Christians were already there responding to human need long before the catastrophe occurred, Christians are always ahead of the story.  “Even here,” in the worst of places, in the most crowded places, in the most remote places, Christians are caring for people and pointing to Christ.

That’s not to say that the Church is perfect, or that Christians don’t have our own problems.  For every Christian on the front lines, ahead of the story, there are dozens, or hundreds, warming pews and doing nothing.  In my previous post I talked about a false dichotomy that we’ve created between the spiritual and the physical/social, and how many Evangelical Christians are more concerned about preaching to people than they are about feeding them.  Our view of this world is that it is secular, fallen, and destined for the fire; only souls will make it to the new world, we say, so if a person has a choice between physical salvation and spiritual salvation, spiritual is obviously better.  This butchered view of scripture cuts a ragged gap through the middle not only of doctrine but of the Church, and we are torn between believing and following, when Jesus required both.  If the few Christians who are mobilized today were joined by the rest of us who have remained in compliance with the powers that be, there would be no place on earth that we could not say “Even here” and have it refer not just to a few people caring for the many, but refer to systemic change that gets to the roots of evil rather than simply hacking at the leaves and treating the symptoms.  “Even here” would mean not just a few changed lives in the midst of injustice and bondage, but justice and freedom.  Wherever we go, we would see justice and mercy, and say “wow, Even Here.”

Maybe I’m naive and ambitious, but I’ve heard more than once about how the social power of the Church is far less than our numbers should suggest.  We, especially we in the West, who benefit from the systemic evils of our society, have complied with the powers and principalities that hold our world in bondage.  We make token gestures, buying Starbucks coffee rather than Tim’s, buying Tom’s shoes so that they’ll send one pair to Africa in our name, all the while funnelling our “charity” through the system that caused the poverty we’re acting against in the first place, the market.  It is said that you cannot solve a problem by thinking on the same level that created it, but we give and take away with the same hand.  We point to the one who brings change, and even quote his teachings to those in bondage, yet fail to do anything about that bondage ourselves.  We are worse than the scribes and pharisees, white-washed tombs (with corporate logos) full of dead men’s bones, travelling thousands of miles to make a convert and then making him ten times the son of Satan as we are because we’re in compliance with a system that steals, dominates, and kills.  Isaiah 58:1-10 describes us perfectly here in North America: eager to worship, but continuing to support systemic injustice without even thinking.

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