The Common Good
May-June 1997

All Economics Is Local

by Joe Nangle | May-June 1997

Ecumenism will happen not so much as a result of doctrinal discussions, but through real-life activities on behalf of a suffering world.

Insights about community come from unexpected places. For example, in recent years coalition work on the negative impact of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (WB/IMF) has given rise to reflections on God’s call to community living.

A faith-based group centered in Washington, D.C., with connections across the country, has challenged the WB/IMF for several years on their half-century of largely ineffective lending practices toward poor nations. Known popularly as the Religious Working Group, this interdenominational gathering has acquired increasing expertise in the arcane and complex world of international borrowing and lending.

They have mastered concepts such as "multilateral and bilateral debts," "preferred creditor status," "structural adjustment programs," and many more. They continually discuss effective approaches to the staffers and directors at the international lending institutions, and assess the strategies employed after each meeting with those policy makers.

Each fall, on the occasion of the annual gathering of WB/IMF operatives from around the world, the Working Group holds a prayer service to ask divine guidance for themselves and these institutions in the all-important work of global development and justice. On Good Friday each year, they conduct a public Way of the Cross through the streets of Washington, D.C., stopping at the centers of economic power where decisions taken often result in Jesus being crucified again.

Predictably, a strengthening of ecumenical and community bonds has resulted from the countless hours that these Christians from various traditions have spent together. What is common in their theologies and ethical convictions has become so much more relevant than what divides the members of the Working Group.

The experience of this effective group of Christians proves the oft-cited point that ecumenism will happen not so much as a result of doctrinal discussions, but through real-life activities on behalf of a suffering world. Eucharist would seem much more appropriate for RWG members after a tough session at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund than among a group of religious experts discussing transubstantiation.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING that the Religious Working Group has distilled its experience into a set of principles that guide their work. But it is curious at first blush that the group’s work on this most global of issues—world debt—has led them to formulate a principle regarding community: "God intends all people to live in covenant community according to the norms of love and justice."

However, when one reads the rationale for this statement, the direct connection between international indebtedness and grass-roots communities becomes apparent. How can people live together peacefully when they cannot meet their families’ needs, share life as peers, enjoy a measure of personal dignity? Unemployment, decreasing wages, deteriorating working conditions, and environmental damage—direct results of IMF structural adjustment programs in debtor countries—undermine communal living at the most basic level. To paraphrase what is said about politics: All economics is local.

What this Christian community, the Religious Working Group, has demonstrated is something highlighted in a new book on Mark’s gospel. In Say to This Mountain, by Ched Myers and others (Orbis Books, 1996), the authors (myself included) apply Jesus’ promise about the possibility of moving mountains precisely to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Despite the enormous power and influence of these institutions since World War II, the mountain will be moved—in this case is being moved—when committed people, acting today in community, decide that "50 years is enough."

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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