World Council of Churches

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

"Spiritual reflections on trade", Atle Sommerfeldt

14 March 2006

Comments by Rogate R. Mshana,
programme executive, Economic Justice, WCC
14 March 2006

There are only a very few and rare theological or spiritual reflections on trade. It is therefore important that Atle Sommerfeldt has attempted to write such an essay. Too often theological reflections on economic systems speak at a very generalized level of analysis and hence economists fail to find practical aspects from theology that could be pragmatically applied to responding to economic challenges. This essay on Spiritual Reflections on Trade attempts to provide readers with some insights on the meaning of spirituality of involvement and a theology of involvement in economy and trade. Sommerfeldt bases this on the assertion that all humanity needs to live in dignity. Regretably, some other theological writings too remain at a generalized level.

The quest for spiritual tools required for conducting business, finance and just trade continues. Calvin, was perhaps one of the few theologians who came close to theologically reflect on the kind of interest that could be fairly charged by a merchant. Calvin was also concerned about specific living wages which were not sufficient for workers and clerics at his time.

Coming to Sommerfeldt's essay. He does make a contribution on the link between faith and economy and reminds the reader that these two aspects cannot be separated in Christianity. What is new in his essay is the contention that human rights as a paradigm can contribute to trade justice. In his words, "It (human rights) will serve as both a critical and constructive measure for all known systems and ideologies, enabling us to focus on human reality rather than ideological debate" (p.15). Caution is needed here though. Sommerfeldt seems to imply that there is something negative about engaging in an ideological debate. Webster's dictionary defines the noun "ideology" as "visionary theorizing" or of "a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture" or that it is "a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture". It also refers to "the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical programme." Such definitions give ‘ideology' a positive and visionary meaning.

But to go back to Sommerfeldt. He claims that by focusing on human reality he is being ideology free. Is not this deterministic contention in itself ideological? The question to be raised is whether it is possible or necessary to have an ideology free exegesis? Is it really possible to claim that there are theological positions not inspired by some idelogy or the other? Söderbaum put it well when he said, "each individual or actor as a political economic person is guided by her ideological orientation. An ideology or ideological orientation is often fragmentary and incomplete, but nevertheless suggests a policy and a direction."1

Is it not also true that the emergence of the human rights discourse itself (which was initially reflective of men's rights only) and the contemporary ESCRs took shape as a result of ideological debates? Ideologies are part of the shaping of the world we live in. It is therefore not possible to assume that there are any ideology free arguments. Sommerfeldt, is influenced by the pervading idelogy of his own context (even if partially). His own commitment to the poor - this too forms part of his ideological background and is reflected throughout the essay.

The essay, according to the author, "attempts to provide a broader theological basis for a spirituality of involvement." The two terms "spirituality" and "theology" are used interchangeably. "Economics" and "economy" are also used interchangeably. The words "trade" and "market" are also mentioned often without much clarity in their use. For example the term "market" to an economist is not one uniform reality - it can be a formal theory, a practical device or an ideology. There is no clarity in this essay on how it is being used. Clarity in the interpretation of some of the terms used could have been helpful for readers.

In the essay, Christian spirituality is not seen in the light of other spiritualities around the world. We cannot any longer avoid seeing spirituality without its connections with the spiritualities of other faiths when we deal with such important global topics such as economy and trade.

The author draws his insights from the bible and from writings of theologians and poets. His praxis and interpretation is based on his travel, previous and current work experience in other parts of the world from where he draws stories to support his main arguments. It is obvious that all these shape his own ideological position. The stories and experiences he relates are good but what is missing is the connection they have with the overall project of economic globalization nor does he name the main actors who steer this project. Let us now go through some of the main arguments raised in the essay, one by one.

Spirituality of involvement

As an economist, I cannot claim to be fully equipped with theological concepts to meaningfully provide a critique of the term "spirituality of involvement". However, my almost 30 years of working with churches and the ecumenical movement in the area of development has exposed me to several theological schools of thought. The author attempts to use this expression "a spirituality of involvement" as a framework of analysis. This resonates with the terms "voice" and "exit" used in political science, and this I am familiar with.

The term, "voice" involves actions that are aimed at providing critique and alternative ways that can be followed to correct an oppressive and exploitative system. People like the theologian Bonhöffer or liberation fighters like Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King or the Aymara peoples of the Cochabamba movement in Bolivia fighting against the privatization of water and many other similar people and movements fall into such a category. All of them were or are raising their voices to change oppressive systems which they are critical of. This could be termed "a spirituality of resistance", which we have used more recently in the World Council of Churches.2

Then there are others who raise their voice but not for fundamental change. These would prefer cosmetic changes only in order to avoid rocking the boat. They could be practicing a "spirituality of comfort." The third group would be those who raise their voice in support of the system because they benefit from it and fear that changes will undermine their positions of power, privilleges and wealth. This could be called "conforming spirituality".

The term "exit" refers simply to the process of avoiding controversy, confrontation, conflictual methods and hence groups that fall in this category are supposed to be neutral and unconcerned with what is going on. Within this category, we have cynics and people who were silenced by the system through punishments or persecution in the past or just ignorant of what is going on. Silence and what we call in law "omission" are their tools of response. The latter group tend to separate their spirituality from the political processes. This could be called a "spirituality of harmony".

Those who support the system under "voice" and those who are apathetic under "exit" could be both regarded as practicing a "spirituality of cynicism". The latter is the kind of spirituality which numbs participants and makes them insensitive to pain and suffering of others on the one hand or on the other hand allows those who suffer, to get used to the suffering while waiting for a kingdom to come where all suffering will be no more. All these categories can be substantiated by theological claims resulting in conflicting Christian spiritualities in the ecumenical movement.

The author's term "spirituality of involvement" must, therefore, respond to the question as to what type of the above mentioned forms of involvement should be encouraged and promoted by the churches. He contends that, "this involvement may include both temporary withdrawal and points of rejection, but the overall strategy is of involvement in the actual struggles with the aim of changing the actors in their different arenas and formations for the better to provide for all God's people, and especially the poor." (pg.13). I think what comes out confused here is the issue of tactics. The use of terms rejection, withdrawal and involvement are generalizations here. Most people are involved in a system in one way or another, the issue that should compel us, as Christians, is whether that involvement results in justice or not.

I agree with and reaffirm the assertion made by the author when he writes that, "The core of God is love and God's involvement in human history can be described as a continuous struggle against the forces of evil and destruction, in favour of love and life." (Pg.8). To legitimise being part of God's struggle the author cites Jesus in Mt.25 - if you identify with those who are hungry, thirsty, in prison and a stranger to your community, then you are serving God and are part of God's struggle. This statement resonates with an assertion underlined by the ecumenical movement as God's (and therefore the churches) preferential option for the poor. The author clearly, differentiates this type of involvement from other types of involvement which are not part of God's struggle.

The AGAPE process as a contribution to the ecumenical journey

The ecumenical movement has already committed itself to engage in that journey. But, perhaps, looking around at the suffering and exclusion in the world, our question for today should be - why is this journey so slow? And, why do some call this journey an ideological journey when it becomes part of the AGAPE process? The AGAPE background document states, "we are called to be with the suffering people and groaning creation in solidarity with those who are building alternative communities of life. The locus of the churches is where God is working, Christ is suffering and the Spirit is caring for life and resisting destructive principalities and powers." AGAPE calls on us to opt for costly descipleship as one of the actions. So what we need to know is that while there are fundamental agreements on God's struggle, there are fundamental differences among churches and many ecumenical organizations as to the type of spiritual involvement proposed by the author.

At the general level, the author correctly outlines the challenge thus, "The challenge is to transform those experiences into an equally deep involvement at a national and global level. A local church as a community that withdraws from the arenas in which decisions are made and rejects encounters with local authorities is a non-starter in its community. This must be our guiding principle also at a national or global level. (pg.13). While I agree with this contention, the question that needs to be raised is what kind of encounter with local authorities need we engage in? The questions to be addressed in any encounter with local authorities needs to focus on how we as churches and the ecumenical movement will deal with the current trade system that drains resources from the poor to the rich and destroys the environment.

Churches around the world deal with economics and the principal powers of economic life in a variety of ways depending on the type of spiritualities mentioned above. This is our main challenge in the ecumenical movement. Churches and the ecumenical family tends to meet in the struggle for economic justice with contradicting and sometimes opposing methods - as can be seen in some of the stated objections to the AGAPE text. Should these approaches be complementary and if so how? How can this issue be resolved? Sam Kobia in his report to the assembly attempts to respond to similar questions when he stated, " When there are such enormous inequalities and unequal access to different means of power, it counts in what part of the world one lives. Our churches and the stance they take on matters of economic justice and many other ethical challenges often reflects the realities surrounding them and impacting on the lives of their members. Some churches tend to see the present phase of globalization as the continuation of 500 years of oppression through colonialism and chaging empires. Others emphasize change and discontinuity based on their experience of the rapidly changing political landscape. These different perspectives cannot be easily reconciled. We need to continue wrestling with these tensions because they help us to see realities surrounding us more clearly and identify the different entry points for both, advocacy and dialogue."3

The theology of involvement

Following the critique on the spirituality of involvement , it is equally important to realize that different churches are guided by different theologies depending on the kind of involvement they choose but more importantly based on their social location. A theology of prosperity that is becoming frighteningly popular, particularly among the poor and the noveau riche, will certainly underline the importance of wealth and the charity approach when responding to the issue of poverty. Rarely will such a theology involve a critical reflection on the link between poverty and wealth. But, here I would like to focus attention on another form of theology - ie a theology of cynicism because it relates to how a community could respond to an economic context.

A theology of cynicism tends to nurture the habitual perversion or leading a person or mind astray from right opinion or conduct of how reality is perceived. Let me go at length to unpack the latter. Cynicism is particularly evident among journalists, business and industrial managers, politicians and members of the branches of military and secret services. Cynicism comprises both the pretence of truth and the transformation of truth into entertainment. As consumers of the media many of us share this cynicism and fail to see how the relation of news to truth is manipulated. For instance, managers and industrialists are much better aware than others of the ecological and medical risks of their products but allow themselves to be dictated not only by increased production targets, profit goals and fears of losing out market shares to competitors, but also by concern for the erosion of their personal prestige.

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, a German theologian, has reflected on this subject theologically.4 His point is not to level a moral charge of cynicism against business people. However, he observes that cynicism is at the heart of an economy where a conflict with ecology is built into the very structure of contemporary economies. Anybody who claims to be able to, in the setting and under the pressures of the market economy, to do something fundamental to enhance the vitality of our earth's ecosystems is deluding himself or herself and us, Müller-Fahrenholz claims. He contends that structural cynicism results from the massive denial of ethical contradictions in a world economy that devotes ever more resources to more extravagant consumption by an ever smaller section of the world's population. It thus condemns an increasingly greater part of humankind and ever larger expanses of nature to increasingly less curable improvement. A theology of cynicism will tend to nurture this phenomenon, it leads to numbness of people and communities when they are fed with advertisements based on half truths. Cynicism is a perversion of power. It is a socially manifested form of psychic numbing that is rooted in a system, not in individuals. It is a widespread phenomenon especially in so called centers of power. Such cynicism is not a problem of the poor but of rich people. It does not beset people who lack power but those who have too much power.

The media, the economy and the secret services show that a cynical reaction is almost inevitable when there is excessive news, money and power. A permanent confrontation with ethical dilemmas leads to apathy and indifference, where as power seems desirable. Today we are called to address the theology of cynicism that has resulted in numbness, inability and unwillingness to feel the pathos, the suffering and pain of humanity. The plight of the poor in the world and the environmental destruction persist because the powerful suffer from a lack of compassion and grace and that makes them inhuman and sometimes monstrous. This is precisely where churches need to respond but tend to shy away from. The church lacks a theology that addresses the spirituality of the rich. The problem today is not really poverty and lack of growth to solve it, it is lack of love and the ex-ante distribution of wealth.

We have enough global statistics that show that today the scandal is the increasing, relative and absolute poverty, inequality and ecological destruction. This information is enough to appeal for drastic actions from powerful actors in the global economy. But, what has been made available to the world, particulalry to the poor, are minimal targets called Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) which in themselves are not going to be met in any measure. There has been an increasing pretence that something is being done for the poor by designing, promoting and minimally implementing the MDGs. Just as many believed in the SAPs and demanded their promotion, but then had to acknowledge their dismal failure, history will once again belie the claim that the MDGs are there to reduce the scandal of poverty and inequality in our world. They will fail because they are supposed to operate and be succesful within the frame of an inherently unequal neo-liberal market paradigm of increasing growth without efforts for the ex-ante distribution of its fruits.

The author of this essay hints that "the way forward is not limitless-self interest and life behind closed doors, but rather a holistic approach that forces all to relate both to others and to a set of norms and regulations that transcends the particular individual or a group in an open society." He continues, "On the other hand, it is not possible to say that self- interest in itself is evil. Economy is also about securing one's own interests….. The challenge lies in discovering the potential benefits of self-interest for one's neighbour." (p.16). The question to be raised here is how can this general statement be translated into reality in a world that believes in fierce competition in trade and finance and where self interest has become the norm?

Sommerfeldt goes on to claim as mentioned earlier that, "the human rights paradigm offers such a set of rules and basis of regulations." A Christian is called by St. Paul to recognize that the highest commandment of Jesus is love - AGAPE love. (I Cor. 13). We are also callled to go beyond a belief in law as in Romans 4, " For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all its descendants…" I believe that reducing the love of Jesus to the human rights discourse reduses our commitments and actions to judicial processes. Should the churches follow the UN human rights approach, as proposed by the author, simply because it is the best we have at present, at least theoretically? Or should the churches follow the more difficult and challenging biblical AGAPE mandate which goes beyond limited judicial approaches such as the human rights framework?

The main global actors have not done anything to ensure that the ECSRs will be effective or long term in their manifestation. The safeguarding of the environment is not seen as part of the rights approach. The churches' concern is on both social and ecological justice, elements not fully addressed by the human rights discourse. These questions need to be resolved. It is here that the author's use of the term "church" needs explaining so as to discover a pragmatic way as to how the churches can contextually respond to God's invitation to us to be in the struggle. The only time Jesus appeals to the law is when he wanted to draw attention to the hardness of the hearts of the people around him. AGAPE as given to humanity by Jesus goes far beyond human made human rights. I contend that this wider vision of Jesus's compassionate love was and should continue to be the unique contribution of the churches to promote economic justice in the world.

Today we have evidence of communities being sued by companies for violating company rights. Companies have now outlined their rights as human beings would. While we can recognize the pragmatic approach to discover how to use human rights to advance the needs of people in poverty, we have also found how difficult it is to convince the rich that the rights of people in poverty need to take precedence.

Let me give an example here. Under the banner of the Jubilee 2000 movement, the issue taken up was regarding the cancelation of illegitimate debts. Some claim, even today, that the money was borrowed (even if illegally) and that the creditors have the right to claim it back. Economists contend that it is a moral hazard not to pay one's debts. What is lacking in this debate is a globally acceptable code of compassion and kindness beyond the judicial norms of human rights. UNCTAD recognised this when they invited WCC to give the keynote address at a inter-governmental meeting of government functionaries dealing with the technical aspects of debt - they wanted an ethical and moral voice, as technical solutions have not been successful. Churches are called to help the world come up with such a code, over and above the present rights based approach.

Advocating for these sets of ethical norms and regulations is fine but even if some efforts are made towards this end, they are soon manipulated by companies because of cynicism - making the task even more difficult. The UN Compact for example encouraged companies to voluntarily abide by human rights and other values. All moves to promote corporate responsibility have been mere tokens to social justice. Some companies have merely used the Compact to promote their own credibility and business interests under the UN banner.

What can we do now? Let us first look at the way the author outlines the arenas for economic justice.

Societal Formations and Institutions

The author identifies three formations involved in the process to meet material needs: the state and government, business and market and civil society. Caution is needed in quickly seeing these as equally charged to do this task. The author does not give a rationale for his choice. These seem to be theoretical constructs drawn from political science. They might apply very well in industrial societies but seldom in societies with different values and ways of self organization. The way Indigenous People's Societies are organized do not reflect the notions outlined by the author. The constructs of state, civil society and business are notions superimposed on others as the best way society can be organised. The more they look like western institutions, the better. If they fail one speaks about failed states, non-functioning civil society, market and business. Sommerfeldt notes that there are communities functioning without links to the monetary economy, yet this part of the economy is sometimes major in many parts of Africa and Asia.

This part of the essay is weak in terms of analysis. Even in industrial societies, there are times when business is considered to be part of the civil society. This reminds me of two experiences. The former leader of Czech Republic, President Havel had invited a panel of speakers to discuss the question of Foreign Debt. Representative speakers included the World Bank, the IMF, the Jubilee 2000 campaign, NGOs and business. Each of the panelists represented their point of view. George Soros5 who represented the business community in the area of finance claimed, to the surprise of the others, that he was part of the civil society like the NGOs and the Jubilee 2000 movement! Again in a meeting of the UNCTAD in Geneva, where organizations from civil society met to review with the governments the Doha WTO round on development, the European Association for private enterprises claimed that they were part of civil society. So the divisions Sommerfeldt makes are not so clear. There is really no ground to indicate that these are solid formations that could be applied in all contexts for social change. In some poor countries, there are other forms of social organization such as social movements, pastoralists, peasant communities and the so called ‘informal'sector which do not show the demarcation between market and the so called civil society. Civil society and business tends to be mixed in many countries of the South. States of poor nations are also not fully autonomous as far as economy is concerned.

Many of the smaller countries are without economic power or economic autonomy as their policies are determined solely by powerful economic actors such as the World Bank/IMF, TNCs as well as rich countries. The role of a church in such states will certainly be different from a church in states which are considered to be developed with a a seemingly functioning distinctive business and an organized civil society. The media also is one of those powerful societal formations in the world today that needs to be addressed. It is responsible for propagating cynicism and the church has a role to play here as well. Caution should therefore be used in the way these formations are used. More clarity is needed here.

Spiritual reflections on Trade

This section on trade raises important issues showing that as a device trade can benefit all if no injustice is involved. What is lacking however is clarity on how injustice can be overcome through trade on the one hand and how trade can safeguard the environment on the other. Let me explain my point in simple terms: trade is an exchange of goods and services across borders while domestic markets involve exchange of goods and services within a community or a nation. The distinction is not strict, however. In all cases there is a question of establishing trust and a just relationship between sellers and buyers. This relationship between sellers and buyers could be abused either through the exchange of goods that are ethically and morally unacceptable in transactions. Some examples of this: in the marketting of human beings during slave trade; trafficking of women and children; or tricks of using subsidies, tariffs, under-invoicing and over-invoicing by TNCs in investments. In many cases it is the rich who determine the prices for commodities from poor countries.

The author deals with a reflection of such abuse by citing relevant scriptures from the bible such as from the prophets Ezekiel and Amos, and also from theologians such as Martin Luther. The author also clearly demonstrates how poor countries are propelled by the power of TNCs to make their countries as saleable as possible for investors - a process that results in poor working conditions for workers and disregard of environmental standards. I also agree that growth by trade has not translated itself into eradicating poverty . Even the author acknowledges that, "the gap between the rich and the poor has only grown in the course of the last 30 years."

The section concludes well when Sommerfeldt writes that, "an important part of the strategy for change is the preparation of alternate means by which we take action. By creating opportunities to carry out deeds that promote justice and human dignity, we create change. We refuse to accept the current state of affairs, and at the same time demonstrate a new way forward. World trade regulations are today largely determined by rich and powerful countries. We must work to ensure that Norway stands together with the worlds poorest countries to stake out a new course."

The only critique I have in this section is the author's failure to realize that the struggle is not fundamentally to have a fair trade system that will help people in poverty. What we are dealing with today is that the whole humanity is in danger if the rich and powerful countries continue to be cynical, while cherishing their own short term gains. This problem has to be tackled both in the north and in the south. Projects of financial support given to the South will not solve this fundamental problem. Economy is about production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that have multiple and functional uses. This system is based on the Anglo-Saxon model sold as the liberal paradigm to the whole world.

The devastating result of this model of growth is what we are all worried about-injustice, poverty and environmental destruction. Most western societies thrived and blossomed into the so called "First World" because of a history of slavery, colonialism and today's neo-economic colonialism. Their methods of wealth creation were mainly based on economic injustice. The main actors who continue to believe that this system will bring justice for all must reconsider this cynicism. This is for me where the genuine struggle as well as debate lies. I would like to see strategies by the churches in rich countries to work out a ministry to the rich while searching for alternatives to the current system. The problem is wealth not poverty.

Therefore trade alone without these other interventions in society can neither distribute resources around the world equitably nor save the environment. Other mechanisms are needed and the current trade organization- the WTO is not able to address these larger questions. Such distributive mechanisms should not be based on either centralized economies nor neo-liberal market systems but must seek to encompass participation of all people. I therefore agree with the author that, "an important strategy for change would therefore be the improvement of global rules in the WTO and the establishment of a legal structure with the authority to evaluate the effects of trade and the behaviour of actors within trade." (p.40). More importantly, I would add, is also to ensure that there is improvement in internal transparency and participation in the World Trade Organization. It should not be driven by the agenda of corporations hiding behind the rich countries. What is needed is a just participatory multilateral trade organisation that is transparent and includes peoples organizations and not only governments. But then, all this will work only when we recognise our calling as Christians and churches to work for a vision of AGAPE love as our guiding principle.