Hard Hitting Panel Discussion Critiques World Economic System


Can the market sow peace and security? Or does our worldwide economic system inevitably exclude the poor and have nots? These were the two crucial questions posed to a panel during a hard-hitting plenary session, talk-show style, on May 21. “Peace in the Marketplace” was the theme for the day at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC).

Jamaican talk show host Garnett Roper, who also is a theologian and president of Jamaica Theological Seminary, facilitated the panel. Panelists were Omega Bula, executive minister for Global Justice and Economic Relations for the United Church of Canada; Emmanuel Clapsis, an Orthodox theologian on the IEPC planning committee; Roderick Hewitt, a minister of the United Church in Jamaica and a lecturer at the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa; and Bishop Valentine Mokiwa of Tanzania, president of the All Africa Conference of Churches.

“Where labor and capital meet, that is increasingly a blunt instrument,” Roper stated, as he began the session. “We are concerned that human dignity…become a measure of whether the market really works.”

In addition to offering stories from their own situations and critique of the current economic system, Roper asked the panelists to talk about what the church can do in response. As a negative example, he talked about a church that leased space when the largest mall in the world opened in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The church encouraged worshipers to come dressed to shop, he said. “Malleluia!” he exclaimed, his one-word description of the problem getting a laugh from the crowd. “It wasn’t so much that the church was in the mall, but the mall was in the church,” he explained.

In Tanzania, the mining industry and the social situation it is producing for the country provides a microcosm of the world economic problem. Mokiwa related how the churches have begun investigating what the mining industry is doing to communities in the area. It is a “situation where people are dying,” he said. The people around the mines are suffering from increasing poverty, lack of health care, and illness caused by pollution. Cyanide is used in the mining process, and it also produces air pollution. Animals are dying as well, he said.

In a personal visit to the area, Mokiwa saw striking differences between living standards. Company people living within the gates of the mining compounds have living standards equivalent to those of the United States, compared to people living in shacks outside the walls.

Mining companies are in Tanzania “to make 100 percent profit,” he said. Some $2.5 billion in gold has been exported from Tanzania, he said, while the country has received just millions from the industry.

The current market is “based on domination and exploitation and appropriation of peoples’ lives and livelihoods,” which is by nature violent, said Bula, as the other panelists offered critical analysis of the worldwide market economy. One of the contributing factors, she said, is that the world has been pulled into only one model of how economies should work, and other alternative models are not given space or opportunity to be lived out. Another contributing factor is that in the current world economic system, corporations are free to go anywhere and do anything, meaning that in many countries national resources are free for the taking.

Human solidarity needs to be an increasing element in the church, said Clapsis, who offered a theological foundation for the discussion. In a situation in which those in power are “trying to secure their position through structural violence” the church needs to influence those doing economic policy, and work with civil society to change the system, all the while expressing compassion and care for those affected by it.

Another critical thing for Christians to remember, he added, is that the inequities of economics affect people in rich countries as well as in poor countries, giving the example of unemployment in the United States and Europe. “We are searching for a new economic system” that will share resources in a more equitable manner, he said, emphasizing that the current system is unsustainable.

Hewitt’s critique acknowledged the complicity of the church in the market, and in globalization. “Our hands are not clean,” he said. “The church is also a partner in the globalization project…. Soul searching is required.”

The church has given and continues to give theological credence to those in power, such as when it justified slavery in the past, and in the present when it tells the poor to wait for their reward in heaven–what Hewitt called “rogue teachings…. The church has become part of the financial crisis.”

“Perhaps one of the first things we need to do is get down on our knees and do some confessing,” Hewitt said.

Bula added her concern about church pension plans and investments being dependent on the market, and contributing to the suffering caused through the worldwide economy.

But the panel’s critique was not all negative.

Clapsis emphasized that the church is able to work on economic problems and gain success on what he called a “micro” level–as opposed to the “macro” level at which he said “the forces are brutal. They don’t have a human face.” But at the micro level “the church can do a lot,” for example by humanizing relationships, advocating solidarity, and learning from the poor.

Bula, in a closing question and answer time, asked the church to remember the power of women and what they can do. “We are the majority of the church. We move the church…. We are the center of the church,” she said. “We need to push the church to acknowledge that economic justice is a matter of faith, and we need to repent of our sin.”

Hewitt characterized this convocation as a “kairos opportunity…for us to make a bold statement” about globalization and greed. “To deal with the ‘big M Market’,” he said, “the church may need to learn again martyrdom. You cannot touch this market unless you are prepared to die…. Are we prepared to face the cost, to face up to these awesome issues?” he asked. “Is the World Council of Churches prepared to die to itself? …Is my church prepared?”

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is news director for the Church of the Brethren. More reports, interviews, and journals are planned from the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Jamaica, through May 25 as Internet access allows. A photo album is being started at http://support.brethren.org/site/PhotoAlbumUser?view=UserAlbum&AlbumID=14337 . Peace witness staff Jordan Blevins has started blogging from the convocation, go the Brethren Blog at http://blog.brethren.org/. Find webcasts provided by the WCC at www.overcomingviolence.org.