World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Another world is possible. A spirituality of resistance

01 January 2004

The World Council of Churches at the third World Social Forum

The history of a good idea

The World Social Forum began as one man's dream. In February 2000 Oded Grajew, a member of the Brazilian Entrepreneurs Association for Citizenship, thought of the idea and shared it some friends and Brazilian organizations committed to transforming society. The aim was to carry out affirmative action. There were already many initiatives "opposed" to neoliberalism but Grajew and his friends wanted to add a positive perspective. "It is hard to always be ‘opposed', there is also a need for positive goals and incentives," they said.

This positive, purposeful dimension was reflected in the excellent motto: Another World is Possible, around which three world meetings have been held. The first took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil January 25 - 30, 2001. The date was chosen to coincide with the World Economic Forum. The aim was to symbolically juxtapose the new initiative and the other meeting where the elite of corporate world capitalism came together in a small luxurious ski resort in Switzerland to discuss the theory and practice of neoliberal globalization.

From the outset, the Forum did not seek to be deliberative. "We do not want to waste time discussing commas in a final report," the organizers said. Nor did the Forum aim to be a congress, a summit or a conference. Rather, it is an open space to exchange experiences, to think and discuss alternatives for the dominant neoliberal model. Or, as one person said it is a "laboratory of ideas." The political and strategic leadership is carried out by an International Council that includes more than 70 organizations and networks from different countries while an Organizing Committee, made up of eight Brazilian organizations, acts as secretariat.

Around 15,000 people participated in the first meeting in 2001, some 75,000 in the second in 2002 and approximately 100,000 in the third meeting that took place this year. In all three cases, the meetings have been held in Porto Alegre. Meanwhile, other Forums have taken place in other countries and at a regional level. Among these, the Asian Social Forum, which took place in Hyderabad, India from January 2-7 brought together more than 14,000 participants, the majority from the host country and another 41 countries.

"The churches' place is at the World Social Forum" said Geneviève Jacques, director of Programmes of the World Council of Churches (WCC), unable to hide her enthusiasm created by "the incredible energy, full of hope and joy" experienced at Porto Alegre. Jacques headed a WCC delegation that attended the Forum in order to highlight the contribution the churches are making to the social movement and to emphasize the "spirituality of resistance".

Jacques' enthusiasm is justified. Porto Alegre, a southern Brazilian city of 1.3 million, has just witnessed the third edition of an event which, under the inspiring slogan, Another world is possible, has turned into one of the most significant manifestations of the broad social movement that, in all four corners of the world, is seeking to create alternatives to the current neoliberal model of globalization.

From January 23 to 28, about 100 thousand participants from over 150 countries - more than 20 thousand registered delegates from more than five thousand social organizations, plus activists, observers and press - met to share and discuss visions, values, experiences and proposals to build an alternative world order; an order different from the one self-servingly designed by the large multinational corporations and by the governments and international institutions which serve those corporations' interests.

Participants could choose between eleven conferences, thirty panels, over fifty personal testimonies, four roundtables for controversial debate and a host of cultural events. At the same time, more than 1,200 workshops and seminars held by the organisations present covered the whole spectrum of social resistance to corporate, capitalist globalization.

A spirituality of resistance

Why did the World Council of Churches choose this theme as a focal point for its contribution to the World Social Forum? Rogate Mshana, responsible for the WCC's Economic Justice programme, put it in this way : "We are witnessing the development of a spirituality that supports the powers responsible for the current unjust and unsustainable process of corporate globalization. For that reason, we need to recover the long tradition of a Christian spirituality that is critical of power. It is a spirituality which has given those without power the strength and courage to oppose those who abuse it".

Struggling against intolerance is, according to Geneviève Jacques, a way of resisting the model of globalization. Jacques upheld this position in a statement at the panel on "Fighting intolerance: respect for diversity", one of the events on the ‘official' programme of the Forum. According to Jacques, intolerance is a reaction sparked in people and communities whose identities are being undermined by globalization's "illusion of universality", which crushes underlying cultural foundations.

Jacques challenged the audience to go "further than tolerance" and strive for a "pluralist vision of coexistence and solidarity" that affirms the "dignity of difference". Pluralism does not consist in covering up differences but in promoting a "meeting of commitments". To this end, it is necessary to create "opportunities for dialogue and mutual trust", like the Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010) sponsored by the WCC. Through this initiative the churches are called on to create a "life-promoting dialogue" between different religions to promote mutual understanding and to combine efforts in a common struggle for justice and human rights.

A new Tower of Babel

Criticism of neoliberal globalization cannot only be economic; it must also be theological. Theological analysis formed part of two workshops in which the WCC covered the theme of alternatives to economic globalization. "We have seen that the neoliberal paradigm is a new Tower of Babel, an arrogant project that aims to impose a uniformity that is contrary to God's will for a kingdom that respects diversity", stated Mshana. "The churches have a great opportunity here for prophetic condemnation and education."

Participants at the workshops agreed that in matters such as access to clean water, "when it comes to choosing between the technical or the ethical approach, between the market or human rights, priority must go to the latter", Mshana stated. The churches can therefore make a valuable contribution: "The churches must work very hard to bring pressure to bear on the international financial institutions not just to go along with the market solution".

The workshops also tackled the subjects of world trade, the international financial system and debt, all of which, in their present form, are harmful to the poor. With regard to trade, participants gave their backing to campaigns for fair trade like the Trade for people, not people for trade campaign sponsored by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.

As for the international financial system - "a lottery whose winnings flow from the South to the North", according to Mshana's definition - the general consensus was that it needed to be reformed. Mechanisms need to be put in place to limit the arbitrary movement of speculative capital and make sure that the capital invested in poor countries actually stays there and is used for development.

As far as the new methods of debt cancellation are concerned, "these are inadequate and do not solve the problem", Mshana explained. "What is needed is total cancellation and the introduction of a whole new system". One striking proposal was for an International Court under the aegis of the United Nations to judge the legitimacy of debts, taking into acount the joint responsibility of debtors and creditors.

Of course we can change the world!

Concern at the manner in which globalization is affecting young people and the ways in which they are combating it was expressed in another one of the workshops organized by the WCC, with young speakers from both hemispheres.

Arnhild Helgesen, who belongs to the organization Changemakers, explained how young Norwegians felt affected even if they did not suffer directly from the ‘dark side' of globalization. "We know that the coffee we drink and the bananas we eat are produced by peasant farmers struggling hard to survive, yet our government refuses to cancel the debts of poor countries", he stated. Changemakers - whose slogan is Of course we can change the world! - are therefore carrying out campaigns to heighten individual awareness of responsibility and bring pressure to bear on governments.

Mariana Berger, from the Uruguayan Student Christian Movement, described how her country had ceased to be "a fairly integrated society with a large middle class and advanced social legislation" and had turned into "a country with a growing class divide, high unemployment, no job security, from which fifty people migrate every day". For Mariana, who works to help children in marginalized communities, this change is the result of economic globalization and indebtedness. "We countries on the periphery suffer from economic and cultural colonization", she said.

One of the workshop's conclusions highlighted the need not to lose sight of the two-fold dimension of Christian spirituality. The "vertical" dimension of the individual's relation to God cannot be separated from the "horizontal" dimension of our relation with the community and society. Another conclusion stressed the need to create and strengthen links between young people in the North and the South to learn about each other's needs and share ideas and initiatives.

"The workshop enabled us to learn from one another, make contacts and establish links which will strengthen and unite us more closely in our work", said Freddy Knutsen, programme executive for Youth, WCC.

Next year in India

The fourth World Social Forum will take place next year in India, as decided by its International Council, a body made up of more than seventy organizations and networks from various countries which defines the political guide-lines and lends strategic direction to the Forum as a process. This decision seeks to facilitate the participation of Asian and African social organizations, whose presence in Porto Alegre was curtailed because it was just too far away.

What role will the WCC play in this new edition? "We heard many calls for the WCC to increase its participation in the Forum in the future, possibly as part of the International Council", Jacques explained. She felt these calls were perfectly logical. "We don't need to invent anything new, we only need to articulate the voice of the churches effectively. They are already on the frontline, on the side of the poor and excluded, taking part in the movements for change".