Acton Commentary

Ecumenical Economics: Confessing against the Empire


For More Information:

“That All may have Life in Fullness” WARC 24th general council
Accra, Ghana, July 30 - August 13, 2004

“Covenanting for justice in the economy and the earth”
Report of the taskforce to the 24th general council

“The time has come”
South-north member churches forum
London Colney, UK, February 8-11, 2004

“Faith stance on the global crisis of life”
South-south member church forum
Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 23-26, 2003

“New Poll Finds Africans Favorable Toward Globalization, But Think Rich Countries are Not Treating Them Fairly,”
GlobeScan, June 16, 2004

Conservative Protestants are wary of ecumenical organizations because these groups are so often predisposed toward radicalism and extremism. This disposition may strike some as odd, given that ecumenical bodies are forever issuing blanket affirmations and urgent appeals for theunity of the faith. But Protestants suspicious about the ecumenists will have plenty to worry them later this week when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, an umbrella group based in Geneva, takes up the issue of economics and global trade.

For almost a decade, the Alliance has been working toward a declaration of status confessionis — a binding matter of Christian necessity — regarding the globalization of the world economy. What, exactly, is about to bring the church to its knees in repentance?Mainly, what the ecumenists call “neoliberal capitalism” and its usefulness as a tool of “empire.” You can imagine where this is going. An Alliance task force charged with preparing the Reformed churches for their confession on economics declares that this empire is enforcing “the current trend of militarism as a global war strategy in order to secure markets and imposes destructive macroeconomic policies on entire countries to serve the ends of the market.” It ultimately identifies this empire with the United States and its “war on terror” (quotation marks courtesy of the task force).

In accord with its task force recommendation, the Alliance is likely to declare a status confessionis on economics and globalization at its next general council, which convenes in Accra, Ghana, on July 30. It has been working in concert with two other like minded groups — the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation. For Reformed Christians, the ecumenical declaration will also offer guidance, of sorts. The Alliance globalization task force is already promoting “global civil movements,” such as the ones responsible for the Seattle riots against the World Trade Organization in 1999. It might be amusing to picture church ladies and ministers running amok with grungy Seattle anarchists, but the effects of this throwback activism will have serious and real consequences for believers.

The Alliance claims to represent 200 member denominations in 107 countries, representing upwards of 75 million Reformed Christians worldwide. In the United States, its affiliates include the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and the United Church of Christ. If, as expected, the ecumenists in Ghana issue their jeremiad against free market economics, the statement will unfortunately be embraced by many clergy. Some of these clergy have, to put it charitably, an imperfect understanding of economic globalization. Paradoxically, although the status confessionis will likely be endorsed by a great number of American clergy, it will be ignored or rejected in the developing world by ministers who see free market economics as the only way to overthrow their local kleptocracies and wean their nations from foreign aid.

A Vast Neoliberal Conspiracy?

Of course, the Alliance's confession on globalization will come wrapped in language that expresses exquisite concern for the poor. But the ecumenists who have cooked this thing up understand neither the causes of poverty nor its solutions. Besides poverty,the Alliance task force on economics blames neoliberal capitalism for nearly every ill on God's green earth: disease, hunger, crime, violence, and pollution.

Many Reformed Christians will also be surprised to learn — again from the Alliance — that free market economics is behind the global spread of HIV/AIDS. The proceedings of its Buenos Aires conference last year observe that “economic globalization has created job loss and grinding poverty, an unprecedented rise in crime and violence, ecological degradation, and the spread of HIV/Aids.”

Just how does a system of economic exchange “cause” the spread of HIV? The only evidence offered by the ecumenists from Geneva is that “the effects of the free market system on the HIV/Aids pandemic are evident in the management and treatment of the disease. The policies and practices of transnational pharmaceutical companies have privileged profits over the health of people, and the high cost of HIV/Aids drugs and trade agreements exclude the poor from the effective treatment and prevention from infection.”

Never mind that the dynamics of the free market system encouraged the development of these drugs — and their global distribution — in the first place. Or that drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS do not function to prevent but rather to treat infection. Or that the disease is preventable not by a pharmaceutical product but by a moral decision on the part of most who contract or spread the disease. How very odd that religious leaders and theologically-informed people choose to demonstrate their ignorance of economics and at the same time blind themselves to the larger moral issue.

Africans for 'Empire'

The Reformed Alliance rightly notes that the poor are due “humanity, dignity and the autonomy with which God has endowed every person, every community and every culture.” And the poor are demonstrating — in a dignified and highly autonomous fashion — a growing preference for “neoliberal capitalism.” A new Globe Scan poll of more than 7,500 Africans, sponsored by the World Bank and the Royal African Society, shows that “two out of three Africans have a positive view of the effect of globalization on their lives.” Nearly three in four favors “large foreign companies coming into their country and setting up operations there.”

In its fulminations against rich neoliberals, the Reformed Alliance largely skips over the importance and scope of corruption in the developing world, other than to blame capitalism for the existence of corrupt governments. But in the Globe Scan poll, only 40percent of Africans say that levels of corruption have diminished in their nation during the previous year. Sadly, corruption is not unique to free market economies. But what kind of economic system is better at discouraging corruption? One could easily argue that governments with central planning ambitions are much more easily corruptible than systems that spread economic and coercive power over diverse institutions. Any Nigerian who has lived under the combination of government ownership of oil and epidemic levels of corruption could have clued the Alliance in on this point.

The existence of corruption in both public and private spheres, in both socialist and capitalist economies, does nothing but underscore the importance of pursuing economic activity within a sound framework of moral and theological principles. This should come as no surprise to Reformed Christians whose theology views humanity as fallen and corrupted. Reformed theology, in fact, argues for a prophetic role for church leaders who can speak intelligently about economic and political systems while keeping one eye open for the corruption that lurks at their door.

This reality has made no impression on the ecumenists, who see all ills in the free market and posit a fuzzy “economy of community” or “God's economy” in its place. “We are convinced that the neoliberal model cannot be transformed or adjusted,” they say. “It has inherent contradictions and has failed again and again to lift the countries, peoples and natural environment of the (southern Hemisphere) toward life. We are united in rejection of this model.”

The Reformed Alliance task force, in its quest for a Church-wide confession against globalization, has repeated and compounded an error that is as old as Marx himself. Despite the failure of communism, despite the loss of millions of lives under despots enriching themselves via centrally planned economies, despite the collapse of a Liberation Theology neither theologically informed nor liberating, those agitating against “neoliberal capitalism” within the World Alliance of Reformed Churches want to lead the poor to back down this road again. The ecumenists behind this tragically misguided status confessionis are economically ignorant and historically uninformed. Their utopian vision of“communities” solving problems at the local level is just a cover for a return to central planning, economic enslavement, and corruption.

While in Ghana, the delegates to the Alliance conference should take a closer look at the implications of their campaign to overthrow the “empire.” They might also spend some time with those Africans whose dearest hope is to join it.