The Common Good
May 2004

Pray Globally, Act Locally

by Vinoth Ramachandra | May 2004

The gospel provides an antidote to the abuses of the global economy and invites us to act for justice wherever - and whoever - we are.

Feature - Vinoth

Neither technology nor global capitalism is the world’s savior. It is only God in Christ who is the redeemer of the world.

This redemption was prefigured and typified in the liberation of ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt and their settlement in the land of promise. The covenant law enshrines strict controls on economic debt, rates of interest, and the measures creditors can take to recover their loans (Deuteronomy 15:1-10; 24:6-22). In the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 25, after every seven sabbatical years all slaves were to be released, the debts of the poor cancelled, and the land left fallow and returned to the original distribution among families and clans.

It is surely significant that the Levitical Jubilee was to be proclaimed in Israel on the Day of Atonement. Forgiveness for the nation implied not only her restoration to covenant relationship with God but also the restoration to the community of all who had been estranged. The righting of relationships in the whole community was inseparable from the experience of forgiveness from God.

Sensitivity to the burden of debt no doubt reflected the experience of Israel as a people in Egypt prior to their liberation by Yahweh. In a time of severe famine, all those living in Egypt came to Joseph, saying: "Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh" (Genesis 47:18-19). Debt enslaves, and the enslavement is bequeathed to future generations.

The redemption that the gospel brings is thus contradicted by a global economy that promotes individual and national indebtedness. Responsible lending can help people escape from poverty, as in foreign direct investment and micro-credit schemes, provided the terms are fair and the interests of both debtor and creditor are safeguarded legally. But in a debt-based global economy, lending is often irresponsible. Rich nations pressure poor ones into selling their rights to their "commons," such as water, as partial repayment of national debts. (Would this be a contemporary equivalent of the taking of a poor man’s millstone as security for a debt, as in Deuteronomy 24:6?) Moreover, many Third World governments are run by incompetent and corrupt politicians who are willing to sell off their nation’s natural inheritance in exchange for massive armies and wasteful, grandiose development "projects." Thereby whole generations live under the shadow of crippling debts that require extraordinary and sustained levels of economic growth to offset.

The IMF and the World Bank are the favorite scapegoats for national ills and the target of left-wing critics of globalization. But dependence on such institutions is more often the result of poor strategic planning and fiscal management than it is a global conspiracy. States that run up large foreign debts lose control over their macro-economic policy. We are now so accustomed to government deficits that we take it as normal that governments owe hundreds of billions of dollars in debt to people outside the country. But if you put yourself in massive debt to others, you lose some control over your life.

Therefore, the recovery of politics is central to any Christian attempt to "redeem" the global economy and the processes of globalization. The lack of political will on the part of wealthy nations to reform global financial institutions and to reshape the global economy so that the benefits of globalization are more equitably distributed can only be countered by a transnational mobilization of grassroots movements from below. Theologians, economists, businesspeople, journalists, artists, lawyers, and social activists need to come together with the poor to claim the rights of the marginalized and the vulnerable.

The Body of Christ
Central to the recovery of our political imagination as Christians is the rediscovery of the doctrine of the church as the body of Christ, long neglected by evangelical Christians. This neglect has undermined our corporate witness.

The borders that once seemed so solidly to define the territorial nation-state—borders that marked out a "private" from a "public" realm and consigned the church to the former, borders that sharply divided domestic policy from foreign policy and fellow-citizens from strangers—now appear quite porous. Globalism has become a master-narrative that, far from subverting the nation-state project, actually extends its subsumption of the local under the universal. It juxtaposes people from all over the world in the same space-time.

At the same time, the illusion is fostered that the world’s people are different from each other, but merely different. Serious engagement with the genuinely other is sidestepped. Just as the nation-state freed the market from the disruptions of local cultural practices and related individuals to other individuals on the basis of standardized legal and monetary systems, so globalism frees commerce from the nation-state, which is simply one more local attachment hindering the universal flow of capital.

This is illustrated by the mushrooming of "call centers" in Indian cities. Young, educated Indians provide telephone services for the Western customers of transnational corporations. They learn to speak in British and American accents when answering calls from clients in these countries inquiring about a credit balance, an airline schedule, or a malfunctioning dishwasher. Those acting as medical secretaries for U.S. hospitals watch TV shows such as ER for knowledge of American hospital culture. Indian names are Anglicized when on call: Arvind becomes Andy, Sushila answers to Suzie, and so on. In this way, educated Indian men and women are de-cultured so as to find employment in the global economy at a fraction of the income of their counterparts in Western countries.

Thus the globalization master narrative represents, as theologian William Cavanaugh writes, a false universalism, a "simulacrum" (or counterfeit image) of the catholicity of the Christian church. Unlike the latter, it sets diverse localities in competition with one another. Nations may exploit their local distinctives (weak labor unions, good infrastructure, lax tax regime, etc.) to attract foreign capital and to find niche markets, but these all serve the logic of accumulation.

The commodification of culture and place is modeled on those localities that have been successful in attracting development. Moreover, the local and particular are prized only because of their novelty. Novelty wears off, and particulars become interchangeable; desire itself becomes the object of desire. "Local attachments are loosed by the centrifuge of ephemeral desire, which is fuelled by global capitalism’s ever accelerating need for growth....Disposability, not simply of goods but of relationships and particular attachments of any kind, is the hallmark of consumption in the new economy," writes Cavanaugh.

BY CONTRAST THE church as the body of Christ manifests a true globalism that is not merely empirical but organic. Through the incarnation (itself a unique, local embodiment of the global presence of the triune God) and the atoning death of Christ, we are united not just to God as the center but to one another. The dividing walls of gender, ethnicity, age, economic class, and social status are all broken down (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:14-22). As Cavanaugh observes, "This is no liberal body, in which the center seeks to maintain the independence of individuals from each other, nor a fascist body, which seeks to bind individuals to each other through the center. Christ is indeed the head of the body, but the members do not relate to one another through the head alone, for Christ himself is found not only in the center but at the margins of the body, radically identified with the ‘least of my brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 25:45), with whom all the members suffer and rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26)." This new global family takes precedence over my biological, ethnic, and national loyalties.

Thus the counter-narrative of the gospel collapses spatial (and temporal, see Hebrews 12:1, 22-24) barriers, but in a manner very different from globalizing capitalism. The church is an anticipation of the eschatological humanity where we are not simply juxtaposed as competing individuals and groups, but identified with one another. In the body of Christ, as Paul says, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

This entails showing greater honor and care for the weakest member, who is identified with oneself. At the same time, the other is not merely different but wholly other, for Christ himself identifies with the suffering members (Colossians 1:24) while nevertheless remaining other to the church. Also, we engage with each other through our ethnic/cultural heritages, not by abandoning them for some mythical "global culture." Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we enact a counter-narrative of globalization that builds the global body of Christ in every local assembly. It is the whole Christ, not some part of him, that is given to us in every local gathering that meets in his name (Matthew 18:20).

For Christians to practice this counter-narrative of globalization would involve a break with the nationalist allegiances that have come to define us in our respective nation-states. On every issue, we ask not "Is this good for America?" or "Does this serve Indian interests?" (such language masks the real differences within these states, as if "America" or "India" were monolithic entities), but "How does this promote or hinder the cause of Christ’s kingdom which is taking shape among the weak, the voiceless, and the excluded around the world?"

Moreover, if the church is truly the global body of Christ, and the body of Christ is qualitatively present in every local assembly, the way we become truly global Christians is not by detaching ourselves from local commitments in favor of a globe-trotting lifestyle (or spending more time on the Internet!), but rather by seriously engaging with the local as members of a global community that has re-defined our identities.

Vinoth Ramachandra, the co-author of The Message of Mission (InterVarsity, 2003), lived in Sri Lanka and was secretary for dialogue and social engagement (Asia) for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students when this article appeared. This article and "Worldwide Inc." (which appeared in our April 2004 issue) are excerpted from his presentation at the Micah Network International Consultation held in Mexico in September 2003.

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