From Jubilee to the World Bank

For the next few weeks posts to this blog will be chapters of my upcoming book, From Jubilee to the World Bank: Economic Globalization for Faith-based Activists. Please feel free to send me feedback.

Stan Duncan


This book is essentially about three things: economic globalization, the international debt crisis, and faith. By “faith,” more specifically I mean possible responses of the faith communities to the first two topics. It is intended as a helpful handbook of concepts and histories about some of the major international economic justice issues of our time, and faith-full ways that we can be involved, become activists, and make a difference.

Is this a “Religious Book”?

In spite of the occasional use of economic jargon, especially in the first section, this is still a fundamentally religious book. Most of the chapters were written originally for local church congregations and not for people with previous in depth knowledge of economics.

However, there is more to writing from a religious perspective than including Bible studies and sermon notes. The Bible is enormously complex and how one understands its origins and meaning has much to do with how it can help us in our contemporary moral, ethical, and political decision making.

There are two types of writings in the Bible that may be of most help to us as interpreters of contemporary issues. The first are parallels and the second are principles, and they should be distinguished. Parallels are stories (historical or in parables) of hunger, or poverty or oppression which, however roughly, parallel conditions in our world today. Examples would be stories of the rise of poverty and social unrest in ancient Israel that grew as its own involvement in international trade grew. We could ask then, what did the Prophets say about that? How did the oppressed and those who aligned themselves with the oppressed respond to it? The answers to those questions can be helpful in understanding and critiquing current situations. Principles, on the other hand, are broader, more general interpretive teachings or paradigmatic stories that give us guidance in a larger sense. A frequently used example is the story of God through Moses liberating the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. A principle based on that story is that since God freed us, it is therefore our duty and responsibility to free others. This thread is found throughout the Bible, especially in Exodus and Deuteronomy and the teachings and parables of Jesus, and has had a profound influence on liberation movements all over the world.

So, while it is true that the Bible will be of little help if we are trying to decide how high to set the Federal Reserve overnight discount rates or whether there should be a tax on currency exchange rates, it can and should give us guidance on a larger perspective we as people of faith should have when making those decisions ourselves. If we believe, as the Bible seems to believe, that God has a special interest in the poor, the weak, and the oppressed, then the first questions people of the Bible should be asking themselves are: how many marginalized and weak people will be hurt or helped by this or that policy? How many wealthy and powerful will it help? If the policy is designed to bail out banks, for example, by cutting price supports for third world farmers, then it is probably a policy that stands outside of our biblical and faith tradition.

Why This Book Now?

At the time this book was being written, the US was rapidly sliding into a deep recession that lasted for months and its after-effects for years. One thing that was different in this recession from many others in the past was the intense interconnectedness of our global economies. That means that today, when the US sinks the rest of the world sinks with it. Our problems and mistakes will be carved on the foreheads of suffering children in hundreds of countries, and decisions that leaders of their countries make will impact whether we fall as a nation or just stumble temporarily. We are all related. The saying that when a butterfly bats its wings in Taiwan a monsoon is caused in Brazil, has never been more true. Today we might change the saying slightly to say that if brokers on Wall Street make gambles on commodity futures, cotton farmers in Bangladesh starve. They speculate on the future price of commodities taking them off the market, which drives up the price (called “forward-pricing”) making them pinch for the rich and unavailable to the poor. Similarly, when China eats more meat, poor city dwellers go hungry. That is, the recent growth in the standards of living in China meant more people wanting to imitate the rich and eat beef (the food of the rich) and beef takes two hundred pounds of grain to feed a cow for every one hundred-seventy-five pounds of meat. So, the more meat China eats, the less grain there is on the market. The less grain on the market, the higher its price. The higher its price means the higher the level of hunger in the world. This complex web of interlocking economic, political, and ideological forces means that more than at any other time in our history we are all winning or losing together.

One of the difficulties with the connections between these cause and effect linkages is that people who are affected by them seldom see them. During the nineties and early years of this decade, for example, small coffee farmers in the Alto Occidente region of Colombia experienced a rapid decline in profits, which drove thousands of them from their homes and farms and into the harsh ghettos surrounding Bogotá looking for work. For the most part they had no way of knowing that much of their catastrophe was caused by decisions made by bureaucrats in international banks and multilateral financial institutions thousands of miles away who promoted far too many loans for coffee production, and which eventually drove down profits for individual farmers everywhere.

More recently, during the global food crisis, how many of the tens of thousands of people who protested the soaring prices realized that at least one of the causes of their misery was geopolitical and ideological? During demonstrations in Haiti in March, 2008, five people died (including a UN staff member), the government fell, the prime minister was ousted, the World Bank rushed in with loans for more food, and the World Food Programme called for international aid. There are a number of reasons for the increases, but one of them began a decade ago when the US pressured Haiti to drop its tariffs on imports, such as rice, in order to allow in subsidized US rice, which then destroyed Haiti’s rice farmers, and forced Haitian consumers to become dependent upon imported rice. Then, in 2007, the price of US rice went up to triple digit highs, and people in Haiti began to experience absolute starvation for the first time in decades. How many hungry people in Haiti can connect the dots to see how their individual story fits into the global story?

Seldom do they see the connections between their small stories of poverty and the much larger stories of greed and finance. “Hardly anyone tells them that they are victims of a whole interconnected system extending all over the globe and varying only in degree,” says German biblical scholar Ulrich Duchrow. Because “If they heard, they might join forces!”[i] With the possibility of a looming global famine, one that touches the developed world as well as the undeveloped, we may for the first time in history be witnessing a time in which the poor and hungry do in fact begin to join forces.

People of faith need to work harder at making these connections and helping our churches learn them. Part of what comes from a belief in the God of all creation is a commitment to push ourselves to view issues “from above” and not just “from below.” That is, we need to lift our perspectives from a “me first” level to as high as our human limitations can take it. Part of what happens when my life is intertwined with the life of the mysterious savior from Nazareth is that I am no longer concerned with solely my own life but also with the lives of the rest of the family of God.

Additionally, the church is one of the few institutions still existing that has the perspective and ability to offer a sustained moral critique of the political and market forces that are tearing us apart. Churches and other religious organizations need to help people make those connections and to face up to its own responsibility for the damage done. Perhaps we have fallen down on that task because we are too complicit in the crime. Perhaps we subconsciously feel it would hurt too much and cost too much. But it has to be done.

To be fair to our human frailties, this is an enormously difficult task. The media will not help. The politicians who set the national conversation agenda will not help. Their re-elections are financially tied the very people who wish to keep these kinds of connections a secret. Only such things as diligence, persistence, study, advocacy, and faithful commitment to see the issues from above and people from love will do it. The Holy Spirit is not on the side of oppression or starvation. The Holy Spirit is on the side of liberation, democracy, wholeness, and the abundant life.

Obviously this one book or others like it cannot do everything. But what we can do is to supply some of the background material that might help the reader understand the framework of the various global economic forces and make some of the connections between what happens “here” and what happens “there.” Plus, in the second half of this book we will offer resources for Bible study and worship, and research and advocacy for the ongoing justice life of a church and faith community. We all must start somewhere.

Is This Book Biased?

The short answer is yes. But it’s more complicated than that. First I want to say firmly that there is much about economic globalization (and globalization in general) that is positive. I believe it is beyond debate that today’s rapid, global movement of goods and services can—and in many cases does—help feed the poor, increase democracy and lower human rights abuses. One of the most accessible books that makes that case with numerous heartening and engaging stories is Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

On the other hand, I also believe that all writing is biased. Friedman’s work is biased toward globalization, just as David Korten’s When Corporations Rule the World (as one can tell from the title) is biased against it. The truth is that globalization is a mixed bag. In addition to its frequently proclaimed values, there is much about it—at least in the form that it is now evolving—that is damaging both in poor countries and in rich. For example, the present reigning model of globalization requires a constant downward pressure on wages that results both in the increased poverty of workers and the increased mobility of corporations seeking cheaper wages. This darker side of economic globalization is seldom discussed on the business pages of our local papers. Until it is forced upon them through protests or presidential primaries, our national leaders and the mainstream media rarely comment on the loss of jobs in the US, many of which are directly related to NAFTA and other trade deals. And when they do, they almost never discuss whether NAFTA has been good or bad to poor communities in Mexico or other countries that have followed the free market economic formula. Therefore, though parts of these essays may seem to over-emphasize the negative aspects of globalization, in actual fact they are an attempt to bring balance to a story that most people have been told has only a positive side.

Having said that, it is also true that not much of the following will make sense unless the reader accepts the premise that there is something fundamentally wrong with our present global economic situation, that the corporate and political powers have contorted and stacked the decks of the financial machinery that runs the earth in such a way that rewards the rich and extracts payments from the poor. I will attempt to bring together evidence as we go along that will (in my opinion) make that case, but if you begin with the belief that things are fine and getting better (and that it will get better faster if the critics will just get out of the way and let the unregulated “free” market function) then most of what appears like evidence will be nonsensical.

We also need to agree that the Bible and Christian theology still have something to say to this situation. There are a number (in fact a growing number) of people who accept that the world’s economy is dangerously skewed, but who also believe that religion is unhelpful to that issue, and may in fact be a contributor to the crisis. I don’t believe that, and this work reflects a fundamental belief that we can find tools and insights to address our present situation in the stories and theological traditions of the Bible.

It is worth noting again that there are also clear biases in the existing rules of international finance. There does exist an ideology of inequality that drives the creation of the rules and by which the international financial system itself is ruled. The wealthy have not created this system which benefits them because they are mean evil people. They’ve done so because it is human nature to look out for oneself and one’s class. It is not always evil (though, undeniably occasionally). Sometimes it is simply a blindness driven by class or race or gender. Once one has sworn allegiance to a god other than the God of all creation, then the rest is less voluntary. Worshiping gods of wealth and power and influence can become an authentic bondage, a bondage that blinds one from seeing and feeling reality and blocks that reality from surfacing in one’s consciousness.

[i] Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action. Tr. Elaine Griffiths…et al. (Utrecht: International Books: 1995), p. 12, pp. 15-16.

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