Corporate Greed, Meet Coconut Theology

By Stephen Boykewich 11-11-2011
Coconut vessels. Images via Wylio.
Coconut vessels. Images via Wylio.

It's a clear sign something's wrong when talks on "free trade" turn an island paradise into an armed camp.

Hawaii is on lockdown this week while the U.S. tries to hammer out a regional trade agreement that's being called "NAFTA for the Pacific." While some mean this as a compliment, Hawaii's faith and labor leaders are lifting their voices against an agreement they believe will put profits for banks and corporations above workers' rights, indigenous culture, and local communities. Those leaders are drawing on the Pacific region's indigenous "Coconut Theology" to provide an alternative vision of the common good.

"Coconut Theology came out of our contextual understanding of the Gospel in the Pacific," said Rev. Piula Alailima, pastor of Wesley Methodist Church in Honolulu and a core leader in the community organizing group Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE). "When we break the body of the coconut and partake of the juice, it's a symbol of the body and blood of Christ, of sacrifice, of community and the common good."

By contrast, trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA have eroded the common good by undermining workers' rights, environmental protections, and indigenous communities, said FACE director Drew Astolfi. There's every indication that the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently under discussion — the first trade agreement initiated by President Obama will do the same.

"These agreements are driven by an international clique of investors who don't care where their profits are coming from," Astolfi said. "There's no moral order they're responding to, no national interest. There's nothing they're serving that's larger than themselves."

Hundreds of members of FACE and Interfaith Alliance held a prayer service in Honolulu this week to raise their voices against the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which is being discussed at the annual conference of the 21-country Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

"Everything we know about faith and indigenous culture reminds us that community is important, that we're connected to the earth and each other," said Dr. John Heidel, president of Interfaith Alliance Hawaii. "In all these discussions on free trade agreements, those concerns are left out."

After a beachfront ceremony, the group held a candlelight vigil at the nearby Hyatt Hotel, which is owned by Goldman Sachsthe ultimate icon of the amoral profit-seeking that has devastated the American economy.

"If you look at what's driving the U.S. to enact these trade agreements, it's a purely banker-led and corporate-led version of globalization," said Eric Gill, financial secretary-treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 5, who spoke at the service. "Goldman Sachs is the biggest and baddest of the bunch." 

Since Goldman Sachs purchased the hotel, Gill said, it has squeezed workers to maximize profits. "This is their way of making risky investments without risk, just as they did with the bank bailout: make somebody else pay."

FACE's Astolfi said that the prayer service was a way to "draw together the threads that stand against corporate globalism and represent a culture of life." That includes religious traditions the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and Hindu faiths were represented at the event — as well as organized labor and indigenous movements.

Members of FACE and Interfaith Alliance also say they've been buoyed by the Occupy movements, which have moved inequality and corporate greed to the center of national debate. 

"Our own traditions and histories remind us that we people of faith have been involved in all the great social justice issues of our own national histories, and of world history." said Rev. Samuel Domingo, pastor of Keolumana United Methodist Church of Honolulu. "We are called more than ever for times such as this."

Stephen Boykewich is a freelance writer and principal of Prescient Media.

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