The Common Good
November-December 2003

False Gods and the Power of Love

by Bill Wylie-Kellermann | November-December 2003

Corporate dominance of world affairs seems almost god-like.

When Walter Wink was writing Engaging the Powers, the practical magnum opus of his book series on the biblical concept of principalities and powers, he stumbled over economics. One long chapter turned into two and then was withdrawn altogether over doubts that he'd sufficiently treated the mushrooming complexity of the commercial powers. Ironically, nowhere is the "domination system" that Wink identified in his series more prominent or pertinent than in corporate globalization.

Globalization, broadly, is a moving theological target: a historic configuration of economic, technological, political, corporate, ideological, cultural, even religious powers in processes of competition and collusion, whose outcome is far from certain. "And don't speak too soon," Bob Dylan once sang, "for the wheel's still in spin." Still, we best look this thing biblically and theologically in the face.

To the bewilderment of our churches and communities, urban neighborhoods are being altered beneath our feet—by globalization, above all by its corporate form. Family farms, campos, and swaths of countryside are being seized and decimated. Local cultures and political economies are being strip-mined, pre-empted, or in some cases flat-out destroyed. Creation is being assaulted and despoiled. Even the terrorism that so exercises the American consciousness is a fact of globalization. Its emblem, the 9-11 tower collapse, was reputedly set in motion by an expansive religious and ideological network that turned the vehicles of global transport against the central symbols of worldwide economic and military power.

In Walter Wink's biblical analysis, as in William Stringfellow's theology (which was foundational both for Wink and in the formation of Sojourners), the powers are seen to be creatures, at once material and spiritual (Colossians 1:15f.), with a life and integrity of their own, fashioned to serve humanity (Genesis 1), and subject to the judgment of God. The issue of that judgment is each power's particular vocation to praise God in serving human life. But in the ubiquity of the Fall, confused by human idolatry, and subject to anxiety about their own survival, those vocations become distorted and inverted: The powers, instead, imagine they are gods and enslave human life. They slip the grip of human accountability and service to creation. Instead of "holding together in Christ," they coalesce into a system of domination. They serve Death.

History as parable. In the 1700s, given three-continent slaving operations and royally chartered corporations like the East India and the Hudson Bay Companies that were specifically designed for colonial extraction, the new Americans had good reason to be wary of these "creatures" (corporations) and set out to keep them on a short lease. Initially, only state legislatures could charter corporations, with the charter specifying a narrow and discrete purpose that would contribute to the common good. Each charter had to be renewed annually, subject to public debate about its fulfillment of this purpose. (Notice the relation of this purpose to the theological matter of vocation.) Charters had a 20-to-50 year limit and could be revoked at any time (their finitude was named and underscored). Owners were held responsible for injuries. Corporations were forbidden from owning other corporations or from participating in political life in any way, including financial contributions (already then an obvious conflict of interest). The amount of capital they could amass was strictly limited, and shareholders were required to be local residents. We've come a long way, no?

For a century these restrictions were the subject of legal battles. Then, during the Civil War, corporations proliferated in providing munitions, supplies, and food for the military. Following the war, the constraints against corporations were virtually unwritten at their own behest through court rulings and legislative action. Soon corporate charters were issued in perpetuity (now there's a theological shift); owners and managers were relieved of their accountability. A watershed 1886 Supreme Court ruling, truly incoherent and without argument, applied the 14th Amendment (written, so goes a bitter irony, to guarantee the rights of former slaves) to corporations, granting them status as "persons" before the law. In a single blow this struck down scores of local, state, and federal laws designed to hold them in their place or protect human communities from their abuse, vastly expanding the realm of corporate freedom.

A theological aside: The "personhood" of corporations would seem to comport strikingly with their creaturely status before God. But to grant them "equality" with human beings while simultaneously advancing their scope, scale, and freedom—not to mention supplying them in perpetuity the delusion of eternal life—is a theological confusion fraught with dire spiritual and political consequences we have only begun to reap. In this parable of the Fall, the corporate powers are well on their way to imagining they are gods and enslaving human life.

At times human communities have attempted to rein them back in. The rise of organized labor as a countervailing force on the side of workers furnishes one example, though even that the corporations sought to co-opt into a compromise arrangement that they abandoned once it became inconvenient. Another example, anti-trust legislation, attempted to break up monopolies and regulate capital consolidation, but enjoyed temporary success at best.

Slipping the grip of human accountability. Fast-forward to the present moment. For a decade or more, half of the world's largest economies have been global corporations. The trend is not slowing. In that same period, the corporate powers have been less concerned with altering local and state legislation than with drafting a whole new body of international law. Under the rubric of NAFTA and GATT and finally with the 1995 creation of the World Trade Organization, a global superstructure is forming to serve their interests. Through closed-door panels that negotiate down "trade barriers" and so manage the global markets, the corporations have engineered a means to pre-empt, obviate, and abolish not only local legislation and regulation, but state and national law as well. They place themselves, or their "rights," above the law as it were, but mainly above accountability to human communities. (It's only a short theological hop, perhaps one and the same, to presuming as well their exemption from the judgment of God.)

For this reason among others, corporate globalization is a systematic assault on community, indeed on faith and politics. For their money and by their lights, the corporations see the market itself as the last vestige of accountability, be it the stock-invested "owners" or consumers themselves. So goes their vision and plan for democracy: one dollar, one vote.

The pre-eminent power? Thirty years ago William Stringfellow wrote that the power-wielding apparatus of the state was the pre-eminent principality. He was right, certainly in that moment. Among the de facto hierarchy of powers, the state still holds an archetypal pre-eminence, in part because its authority—in taxing, policing, imprisoning, or war-making—is most explicitly the power of death.

Corporate security forces are not yet private armies (though that day may come—glimpse the oil companies' employ of paramilitary forces in Colombia or Nigeria). But given the overbalancing scale of corporate economies and the way they more and more direct state power, we may find ourselves at a historic, even theological, watershed. It is a shifting point where, for example, debtor nations—under the structural readjustment pressures of the World Bank and the IMF—are essentially being forced to abdicate not only their sovereignty but their vocational responsibility for the common good, privatizing services and resources, eliminating protective regulations, cutting government programs for education and the poor, opening markets to predatory global powers. Downsizing government in every way except militarily. Hell (I use the theological expletive advisedly), the so-called industrial powers are doing the same thing, only willingly.

Most striking currently is the revised role of American empire. At the very moment that the global corporations are drafting a new body of international law to secure their virtual deification (or "apotheosis," in theological language), U.S. pre-emptive war (along with its systematic withdrawal from treaty after treaty) is shredding a previously longstanding body of international law regulating nation-states.

The "National Security Strategy" of the current U.S. regime is much discussed, particularly this policy of unilateral pre-emptive war called the Bush doctrine (to use a term hinting at theology). What seems less noticed is the fusion of that imperial policy with the agenda of the global corporations, specifically these very same articles of faith: privatization, deregulation, free markets, and political downsizing. Iraq is to be the proof of the pudding: If petrodollars render a national economy impervious to structural adjustment, and a decade of sanctions can't bring its dictator down, can the extraction be simply imposed by military power?

The Strategy document spends a full chapter on the administration's commitment to "ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade": the power of death and the power of mammon made one. Wendell Berry argues in "A Citizen's Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States of America," an essay first published in Orion magazine, that this fusion is an absurd and unworkable contradiction. "How nations, let alone regions and communities, are to shape and protect themselves within this ‘global economy' is far from clear," he writes. "Nor is it clear how the global economy can hope to survive the wars of nations." Like nothing else it epitomizes the odd mix of collusion and competition that Stringfellow called the "realm of chaos" in which the fallen powers abide.

One key question of theological ethics and practice in the present moment concerns whether Christians should be siding with the nations as a countervailing force to constrain the global corporations or whether place-based local resistance and spiritually grounded community alternatives are actually more effective.

An ethic of un-finite growth. When Stringfellow pulled together his most lucid statement on the principalities 30 years ago, he identified the powers as dominated by an "ethic of survival"—one rooted in anxiety about their own finitude and death. This ethic, essentially an idolatry that denies the mortal creatureliness of the principalities, is the mechanism by which their vocations to praise God and serve human life are supplanted and lost. It is emblematic of the Fall.

In the present configuration, however, one notices an ethic not merely of survival but of infinite growth. Insofar as the global corporations are predatory of one another, survival is an issue, but more often predation and merger are indistinguishable, and both are driven by growth. Growth also supplants vocation, only more so. Human beings, their jobs, and communities are swept aside and shed as so much surplus baggage in the process. Expansion of capital, expansion of markets, expansion of market share are endless and in principle eternal. In a living organism (which is precisely what these powers are!) uncontrolled growth would be called a cancer. It would be named as a form of death. Indeed.

If there is an idol behind the idols of corporate globalization, it is Mammon. Here is the spirituality that drives the logic of growth. Capital consolidates. Money begets money. The rich get richer. The bottom line is acquisitive. Name it as you like. As gift has given way to exchange, now exchange gives way to expansion. And because money has this numinosity—this almost sacred or spiritual nature—because it is the realm of the "holy" in this global culture, growth is somehow mysteriously beyond question. It goes without saying. It possesses an ontological birthright. It simply is.

The spirituality of resistance. Love hopes all things (and casts out fear). This is to say that the tactical question already mentioned is inseparable from the spiritual resources of faith community. Mammon's grip will not be broken merely by dismantling and restructuring. Corporate powers in their fallenness have an invisible spiritual dimension that can only be met with the weapons of the spirit. David Korten, an economist and global analyst not widely known for his mysticism, writes:

It is well demonstrated that people who experience an abundance of love in their lives rarely seek solace in compulsive, exclusionary personal acquisition. In contrast, no extreme of material indulgence can ever be "enough" for the emotionally deprived as all the riches of the material world become insufficient to support the demands placed on them. Thus, a world starved of love becomes a world of material scarcity. In contrast, a world with abundant love is also a world of material abundance.

If theological ethics in the present moment is required to be richly diverse and, as Stringfellow put it, improvisational, it will nonetheless consistently entail the renewal of our humanity and building up of community in love. In everything we do. Whether we are recovering spiritually from the most recent war, or resisting the manipulated fears of terrorist attack, or suffering the temptations of consumer culture, or summoning the resources to confront the corporate powers, we need to attend together constantly to our hearts and our humanity. We need to make prayers and music and poetry. And in so doing, remember that we are beloved.

Love can neither be individualized nor commodified (though Lord knows the powers and the market mightily try). It is always embodied in a beloved community. All that we do in response to corporate globalization should be one with building community, be it protest and organizing or local development.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, a recent struggle at a corporate warehouse threatened to divide workers on racial lines. But local pastors understood that this was not just a labor dispute but a community struggle, and they named it so. Their direct action and local boycotting was more than just labor solidarity, it was the opportunity to nurture the beloved community. Their successful campaign (which in fact yielded a union contract) is being commended as an important model to the labor movement, whose traditional shop-floor, place-based organizing has been so undercut by globalization.

If the corporate powers are to be confronted and rebuked, if they are to be summoned to accountability and called to the renewal of their own vocations to serve human life, it will only be by those on the way to beloved community.

The churches, at least ones rooted in scripture, know a thing or two about this. For us, love is a gift of the one who has entered history and our hearts, changing everything. The incarnation is itself the renewal of our humanity, and the ground of our hope as well.

Specifically, the incarnation means that God has entered into human history and community. Invisible as a back-alley birth or a backwater resurrection, love is at work, hidden in the depths of history, breaking in to break out. Things are way more dynamic and alive than the powers calculate. Their self-constructed claim to be in control is actually self-deceived. Their new configuration, this apotheosis of domination, is already crumbling at the base. The sand shifts beneath its foundation. Love will out.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann was a Sojourners contributing editor and director of graduate studies for SCUPE in Chicago when this article appeared.

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