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Balasuriya: Restitution for colonial era is due

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Mahatma Gandhi, with no weapon but truth, brought England’s Indian Empire crashing down. Another man of peace, from a small island off the coast of India, is now committed to an even more ambitious task. He would restore what he sees as the equilibrium upset by Western Europe when it set out 500 years ago to conquer the planet.

As if that were not enough, he wants the Christian churches to recognize that as legitimators and beneficiaries of those wars of conquest, they are obligated in justice to return the unjustly acquired benefits.

Wait a minute. Didn’t the colonial era end shortly after World War II? Hasn’t the number of sovereign nations more than doubled in 50 years to 185?

Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya doesn’t think it’s that simple, and he’s someone not to be taken lightly. Excommunicated last year by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which didn’t like the emphasis in his theological writings on the truth to be found in non-Christian religions, he was rehabilitated -- without repudiating any of his teachings -- with a speed untypical of Rome. (See bottom of page for links to NCR coverage of Tissa's case.)

The Asian theologians and church historians he brought together last April at the Centre for Society and Religion in Colombo, Sri Lanka, decided to make their own contribution to Jubilee 2000, the observance proposed by Pope John Paul II to commemorate the second millennium of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In their Colombo Statement they insist that, given the reality of the enormous and growing gap between the wealthy minority and the impoverished majority of humans, triumphal celebrations would be inappropriate. Instead, they call for an emphasis on building a world order based on justice, equity and sustainability.

The principal cause of the present world disequilibrium, they say, was the expansion of Western Europe that started in 1492, an expansion based on “violence, theft, seizure of land, murder, slavery, genocide and untruth.” The Christian churches have to recognize their role in this process. They legitimized it. They benefited from it.

Political decolonization has not halted the process. The West, by its military, economic, social and cultural power, continues to siphon off the wealth of the Third World. Globalization, defined as the transnationalization of capital and production, and the standardization and homogenization of consumer tastes, is the method. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are the main weapons.

‘Imperialism by computer’

Assisting them are Most Favored Nation (MFN) clauses, Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This, Balasuriya insists, is “imperialism by computer.”

The Colombo Statement identified financial capital, today “dangerously separated from the real world,” as an integral part of this process. In consequence, the statement supports the principle of the Tobin tax (named for Yale professor James Tobin), a proposed international tax of 0.5 percent on international currency transactions. Currency speculation, which is blamed for recent crises in East Asia, amounts to about $600 trillion annually. The $3 trillion revenue such a tax would produce, the equivalent of some 60 percent of the gross national product of all the countries of the Third World, would suffice not only to write off the debt of these countries, but to compensate former colonies for the losses they have suffered and create a fund for social investment in poor countries.

The Colombo Centre has already begun studies to determine what compensation is owed to former colonies. Jesuit Fr. Brian MacGarry, an Irish priest in Zimbabwe, has calculated the cost of exploitation of Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) by Britain in the century between 1896 and 1996 at $38 billion. This is more than nine times Zimbabwe’s external debt.

“How can we communicate this?” Balasuriya asked when he came to the United States in October to promote the Colombo proposal for Jubilee 2000. He spoke at the Call to Action meeting in Milwaukee (NCR, Nov. 13).

The celebrity resulting from his brief excommunication now assures him a hearing wherever he goes. “How can we tell the American people that they are living on a system that is unjust, that is built on violence, that is maintained by violence, that continues in violence, that continues to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor?” he asked.

The challenge of Jubilee

For the Christian churches, Balasuriya said, this understanding of Jubilee -- a time when debts are forgiven -- is similarly challenging. “How do we tell that to the church also?” he asked.

“The church was for a long time intolerant of other faiths. Many popes encouraged colonial expansion. Go and conquer, they said. Take their land. Enslave them. ‘By the apostolic authority,’ Pope Nicholas V wrote to King Alfonso [of Portugal], ‘we grant you the full and free faculty to capture and subjugate Saracens and pagans and other unbelievers, to invade and conquer their kingdoms, to seize any goods whatsoever, to reduce to slavery their inhabitants.’

“So we have to think on this. What happened really to the church?” Balasuriya asked. “How is it possible that the greatest plunder, robbery, rape, genocide, land grab of human history was thus approved by the disciples of Jesus, by those who claimed to teach morality to the whole world and that without error? What happened to Christianity during this period? Did the church go wrong?

“We Catholics have a good theology, but insufficient. We have not been conscious, have not adequately taken a position against the main evils of human history. And that is partly because of a bad theology concerning God, concerning Jesus Christ, concerning human nature, concerning mission, concerning man and woman” the Sri Lankan theologian said. “So we have a double task: to change the world system, and to change the theological, pastoral spirituality of the church.

“How are bishops’ conferences dealing with this problem? The Dutch bishops, for example, are very radical but have they dealt with Phillips and Shell? Or the British bishops with Unilever and Lipton?” he said, naming four of the conglomerates making big profits in overseas ventures. The bishops, he said, “deal with many problems of personal morality. But there is no study of companies, of compensation, of the amount of robbery in trade that has gone on and is still continuing. While we are grateful for the [bishops’] work on the Third World debt, we want much more on the debt of the colonizers to the colonized, of the affluent to the poor.”

To promote this work the Colombo Centre is sending questionnaires to 4,000 universities around the world, to 500 seminaries, to all religious orders and congregations, to all Justice and Peace Commissions, and to major publishers. How do you deal with history, they ask. How do you explain what happened? How do you teach moral theology? How do you train seminarians, priests, religious, lay leaders, parish organizations to deal with these issues? Are they being dealt with by bishops’ conferences?

Does the history you teach include a critical examination of the activity of Christian powers in your country or by your country elsewhere? Do you compare colonial economic relations and those imposed today by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization? Do the textbooks examine the values and presuppositions of the colonizers (racism, sexism, patriarchy, religious superiority of Christianity) internalized by the colonized? What books and other resources do you use to help people understand and reflect on these issues? How will your community celebrate Jubilee 2000?

Precedents exist

Contemporary precedents exist for international restitution for perceived wrongs. A private foundation backed by the Japanese government has made payments since 1996 to the South Korean women used by Japanese soldiers during World War II for sexual gratification. Swiss banks have returned to the heirs of their lawful owners money seized by the Nazis. Should the United States, Balasuriya asks, not pay Ghana and Nigeria for the slaves who helped to create the U.S. economy?

It is not his purpose, Balasuriya insisted, to lay a guilt trip on the beneficiaries of Western expansion. “I am not speaking of guilt for the past but of responsibility for the present. We are faced with a reality. It happened. You are not guilty of that. You cannot change it. But if you are benefiting from it and you are a democracy, then you have some responsibility for its consequences.

“Our aim, as we move toward Jubilee 2000,” Balasuriya said, “is to create consciousness of the continuing impact of colonialism and neocolonialism, namely, globalization, from the point of view of the victims, and to urge you to take action to end neocolonialism.

“It is also necessary to critique our theology of the last 500 years that has mostly cooperated with colonial exploitation and begin to develop a theology that will challenge us to make our world a more just and decent place for the 21st century.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999

NCR articles and analysis on Tissa Balasuriya's restoration from excommunication: