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Global capitalism a new challenge to theologians


From the late 1960s to the end of the 1980s, Latin American Liberation theology enunciated a comprehensive vision of Christian theology based on the biblical prophetic tradition and an understanding of redemption centered on social justice. Its watchword was the “preferential option for the poor.” This was understood, first of all, as God’s preferential option, which Christians should follow by converting their own lives to solidarity with the poor, together with a disaffiliation from and critique of the systems that made people poor.

In the late 1980s and 1990s Latin American liberation theology was subjected to several criticisms, both by those sympathetic to its basic point of view and those who were not. Among the sympathetic it drew fire from religious leaders of the other Third World regions, Asia and Africa, that saw it as too narrowly focused on economic patterns of wealth and poverty, with insufficient attention to issues of cultural and religious discrimination.

These groups began to develop what they saw as a fuller liberation theology suitable to their own histories. Liberation theology was also criticized by women, indigenous peoples and blacks for being too male and European. These groups began developing theological reflection from their contexts. Environmentalists also complained about the lack of attention to ecological issues. Some liberation theologians, such as Leonardo Boff, sought to incorporate these additional perspectives in his writings. All these developments enriched liberation theology with fuller and more diverse perspectives.

However, other critics favoring more traditional power hierarchies in the church and society attacked liberation theology as “horizontalism,” as failing to observe the separation of transcendent heavenly matters from earthly ones. Some called it “Marxist,” as if this label would automatically refute it for those socialized to be phobic toward anything called “Marxist.” In 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, these critics were quick to declare that liberation theology was “over,” a passing aberration whose day was done with the end of the communist option.

Liberation theology was seen as having doomed itself by pinning its hopes on a socialist-type of revolution. As socialism was now discredited as a viable option, so was liberation theology. The fall of the Soviet Union was seen as the triumph of the American capitalist system of global development as the only viable economic order. Liberation theology was declared to have lost any credible vision of an alternative, more just economic system.

However, in a short 10 years these claims of indisputable “victory” are being challenged by new waves of critics of American-sponsored global capitalism. These new critics transcend the old divisions of capitalists and socialists, First and Third Worlds. They include union and workers organizations, environmentalists, feminists, indigenous peoples and health workers with particular concerns about global pandemics, such as AIDs. They come from movements North and South, East and West. They are forming loose coalitions across many social contexts. They are united in seeing the global system of corporate power, backed by the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization) and American military supremacy, as shaping a new stage of world empire that is impoverishing the majority of humans and the earth, while enriching a small elite of superrich.

A group of powerful theoreticians has developed a trenchant criticism of the corporate world and the Bretton Woods institutions. They are also beginning to shape a new vision of an alternative global society. These critics include David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World (1995) and The Post-Corporate World (1999); Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution (1991) and Biopiracy (1997); and Philippine economist Walden Bello, author of Dark Victory (1994) and The Future in Balance (2001). These authors and many others have joined together in the International Forum on Globalization. Their recent publication, Alternatives to Economic Globalization (2002), introduces the main lines of the criticism and new vision that is emerging from this international network.

A major principle of this vision of an alternative society is one that should be familiar to Catholics: subsidiarity. They argue for a reversal of the trends that are concentrating economic power in a few super-corporations, such as Monsanto, with a vertical integration of all the stages of production and distribution of products. This corporate integration has resulted in just five firms controlling 50 percent of the global market. Far from being efficient, this corporate system drives out all local competition by high subsidies and discriminatory rules of the World Trade Association that are biased in their favor.

They are creating unemployment, hunger, poverty and devastation of the earth through much of the world. They need to be replaced by a process that breaks up such large corporations and favors locally owned farms and businesses that are responsible to the communities in which they are based.

Societies need to be redesigned to integrate housing, work and markets with locally produced products, eliminating the long transportation chains that presently are a major source of expense and pollution. Dependency on petroleum needs to be phased out for renewable energy, such as hydrogen, solar, wind and biomass. Manufacturing industries should be both local and clustered together so that the waste products of one can be used as fertilizer, fuel and raw material for others. The goal is zero waste through recycling. Farms, also favoring local production, need to adopt organic methods that compost waste as fertilizers, eliminating toxic fertilizers and pesticides. These methods have been tested in many communities and proved highly effective.

The International Forum on Globalization believes that the Bretton Woods Institutions have proved that their policies are disastrous and their bias toward the super rich can’t be reformed. They should be phased out and replaced by strengthened health, world trade and labor organizations under the United Nations that will favor a more democratic balance between North and South. A U.N. International Insolvency Court should be established to arbitrate the retirement of the devastating debts incurred by Third World nations under World Bank corporate promotion and structural adjustment policies.

A vision of a possible alternative world to the present destructive system is beginning to emerge. Farmers, workers, environmentalists and many others are mobilizing to oppose the present system for one more accountable to the majority of people.

Christian theologians and churches need to be part of this criticism and struggle. A new liberation theology needs to emerge to articulate this alternative vision within the framework of hope for a redeemed creation.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003