Seattle: Changing the Rules

From the pulpit, I looked out over the standing room only crowd and could feel the electric excitement in Seattle’s St. James Cathedral. It was Sunday night, just before the week of scheduled protests that would rock the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting and the world. We were all gathered for a religious service organized by Jubilee 2000, the grassroots campaign to cancel the debt of the world’s poorest countries. Just before I preached, a text was read from Leviticus 25, which proclaims the biblical jubilee—a periodic economic redistribution in which slaves are set free, land is returned, and debts are forgiven. Jubilee is a call for a regular "leveling" of things, given the human tendency toward over-accumulation by some while others lose ground. The Bible doesn’t propose any blueprint for an economic system, but rather insists that all human economic arrangements be subject to the demands of God’s justice, that great gaps be avoided or rectified, and the poor are not left behind. As I listened to the prophetic scripture being read, I marveled at how it was being used that night—as a relevant contribution to a public discussion on the rules of global trade!

However, the official discussion planned in Seattle was never meant to be public. A quiet and private WTO meeting of a very elite group had been scheduled to determine the rules of the global economy. But the events of the next several days would shout a message heard around the globe—that the talk about how to conduct international trade would no longer be a private conversation. Instead of a small, behind-the-scenes meeting to determine the rules of global trade, a very noisy public debate ensued, asking who makes those rules, who benefits, and who suffers.

In my sermon in the cathedral, I said there were lessons we can learn from biblical archeology, of all things. When the archeologists dig down into the ruins of ancient Israel, they find periods of time when the houses were more or less the same size, and the artifacts of life show a relative equality in the people’s standard of living. During those periods the prophets were silent. They literally had nothing to say. No Isaiah, Amos, or Jeremiah could be heard. But digging into the ruins of other periods revealed the remains of very large houses and tiny hovels, with the instruments of life suggesting great disparities of wealth between the people. Strikingly, it is during those periods that the prophets came to life, proclaiming the judgment and justice of God and calling the people to repentance. The prophets of Yahweh made clear that God would not endure such great and outrageous gaps between his people.

The only difference, I said, between those biblical periods and ours was that the inequities that prompted the prophets to speak would pale in significance to the divisions between rich and poor that we accept as normal today. The 1998 U.N. Development Program report said that the world’s three richest families now have more wealth than the world’s 48 poorest countries. Disney CEO Michael Eisner makes $97,000 per hour, while the workers that make Disney toys and clothes in Haiti earn 28 cents.

I normally end that sermon illustration with a question, "Where are the prophets today?" When I asked that question in the Seattle cathedral, I felt an answer rising up from the people. So I just whispered a response, "I think they might be here." At that, the cathedral congregation erupted. "We’re here!" cried 1,200 people. It was already clear that something was happening that week in Seattle. People came uninvited to the WTO meeting to ask the prophets’ questions.

The issue in Seattle was not whether there should be global trade. There is and there will be. The question is what will be the rules of trade. There are and will be rules, and somebody will make them. Who will profit from those rules and who will be left behind? The street prophets in Seattle said that the rules should protect the lives of workers, the environment, and human rights. Right now, the definition of "free trade" preferred by the world’s largest corporations pays little or no attention to worker rights, environmental threats, and political oppression. Within countries, there are rules that companies must abide by. In the United States you can’t legally pour sewage into rivers, foul the air, or produce your goods in exploitative and unsafe sweatshops. There are rules. How do we construct fair rules for a global economy?

The real story in Seattle was not the violence of a small group of demonstrators nor was it the misbehavior of the police against the vast majority of the demonstrators who were nonviolent. Those issues became the media focus and a distraction from the real issue—that from now on, the rules of the global economy will be a public discussion.

Jubilee 2000, in particular, has been enormously successful in moving the world toward a cancellation of the poorest nation’s crushing debts by the end of the year 2000. In Britain, where the movement began, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and Prime Minister Tony Blair have already announced their goal to end the debt of the world’s poorest countries by the end of the year 2000, and are calling upon other nations to follow suit. President Bill Clinton has also announced his desire to cancel the debt owed to the United States, and bipartisan support is growing in Congress. The G-7 countries at their latest meeting began to take some positive steps toward debt relief. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are seriously exploring how the crushing debt of the world’s most impoverished nations might indeed be cancelled and the money saved used most directly to reduce poverty in those countries.

It is simply extraordinary that the biblical principles of the jubilee are now part of the international economic discussion. World Bank President James Wolfensohn and the leaders of the IMF now know what Leviticus 25 says! They have been discussing the implications of such biblical texts with religious leaders, and they must cope with an international grassroots campaign that has enlisted supporters from U2’s Bono to the pope. Does anybody really think that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair would be calling for debt cancellation without such international pressure from a movement that began with religious imperatives? While there is much left to do to definitively cancel that debt, an enormous amount of progress has been made.

Faith at HUD

In another sign of the times, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo convened a forum in November on "The Role of Faith and Justice in Public Policy." The HUD cafeteria was packed as Sojourners board chair Yvonne Delk, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, former Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver of Kansas City, and I addressed the crowd.

I told the story of the woman Sojourners assistant editor Rose Berger recently met at a local Burger King. I call her "Burger King Mom," as she has become an icon for me of the new face of poverty in American today. Rose was in the fast-food place eating french fries and writing in her journal when she noticed that the woman at the drive-through window kept running back and forth to a table in the corner where three young children were sitting. Soon Rose realized that these were the woman’s children, and that she was trying to look after them and help them with their homework at 4 p.m. at the Burger King.

The saddest thing is that this woman is now put forward as the success story of welfare reform. Sure, she’s working now, but she is likely poorer than before when she was on welfare. Like many single mothers who can’t get more than entry-level jobs, she has to make choices between rent, winter boots, and taking her kids to the doctor. Yet she’s working hard and full time, "playing by the rules" as people say. Here’s a soundbite that will work—"People who work hard and full time shouldn’t be poor." Most Americans would agree with that, and I find they do, across the political spectrum. What the churches must do is to put Burger King Mom’s face and family before the American people. That indeed is the challenge Call to Renewal has taken on for this election year—to put poor people and their poverty on the election agenda.

Joe Hacala—an old friend and Jesuit priest who has helped establish HUD’s Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships—organized the forum. He believes that the religious community now has the best opportunity in years to put poverty on the national political agenda. But that will require changing the direction of public discussion as Jubilee 2000 and the Seattle events have begun to do. I preached that night at HUD and said that we won’t change things by just appealing to politicians who keep their wet fingers in the wind; we have to change the wind.

Andrew Cuomo is a Catholic, and he appealed to Catholic social teaching that night. But he also appealed to the religious community to change the political will of the country, the atmosphere of the debate, the public momentum around the issue of poverty.

I believe that is our job as people of faith. When you begin to change the wind, the advocacy of particular measures that will make a real difference becomes much more possible. The Jubilee 2000 campaign teaches us that. Joe tells me that Secretary Cuomo now talks about "changing the wind" on the inside of HUD. That’s good, because both inside and outside of government, it’s time for a change.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Seattle: Changing the Rules"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines