Responses to the ecological, economic and social consequences
23-29 June 2001, Budapest, Hungary

A consultation of churches in Central and Eastern Europe and ecumenical partners sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the European Area Committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (EAC)

Concept Paper for the Budapest Consultation

Taking a closer look at the present situation

More than a decade after the dramatic political changes in Central and Eastern Europe the time has come to take a closer look at what is really going on in the various countries of the region. What especially is happening to ordinary people; what is built up or ruined in their lives by economy and policy?

Opinions differ about those questions; not only between 'the winners' and 'the losers', but also from country to country. We cannot speak here about a homogeneous group of countries: they differ in cultural traditions, historical experiences and also in their previous economic development. Some general facts, however, cannot be denied: "In 1989 about 14 million people in the former Communistic bloc lived on less than four dollar a day. By the mid-1990's that number had risen to about 147 million" (UNDP report 1999). This indicates a sharp (tenfold) growth of the level of poverty, which in most countries goes alongside with high levels of unemployment.

Some countries (especially Russia) are also confronted with a decline of life-expectancy and a remarkable rise of suicide rates and criminality. Feelings of insecurity about the future are growing in the hearts of many people; even to such an extent that these feelings can no longer be seen or explained as the unavoidable consequence of more personal economic and political liberty. More than two thirds of the Polish farmers (1.4 million of a total of 2 millions) live under the threat of losing their livelihood, especially at the moment when Poland joins the European Union.

Churches are supposed to live among the people and near to the people. So they should be among the first to listen to their experiences. And if these experiences point in the direction of sin and injustice, than churches should also not be ashamed to speak openly in terms of accountability and responsibility: What is concretely done wrong to ordinary people "to men, women and children", and by whom is it done?

Three major impulses

From a historical point of view the break-down of the communistic block was needed as an act of resistance against an atheist ideology and its entire system of violence. But no doubt it also caused a deep shock in the economies and societies of Central and Eastern Europe. The consequences of that are still visible today, for instance in lacking forms of cooperation and in the absence of appropriate legal and social institutions. But at the same time it looks increasingly incorrect to seek the origin of all the big problems of today in what happened more than a decade ago. Three impulses can be seen as the deeper causes or reasons for what shakes now the very foundations of economy and society:

Firstly there is the impulse of the concrete way in which, after the political break-down, the problem of ‘transformation' was often handled. Sometimes so-called neo-liberal ‘shock concepts' were used which destroyed a lot of the existing systems of production, distribution, and social security, without being able to put something comparable in place " and so sowed the seeds of for instance growing criminality and increased financial indebtedness. The real costs of this very painful process are still present and are often strongly underestimated.

Secondly a significant number of Central European countries are preparing now their possible entry into the European Union in the future. But that asks already now a lot of social and institutional adjustments.

And last but not least, there is as third impulse: the deep and growing influence of the process of globalisation. The term ‘globalisation' is used in different ways with different interests, but here our focus is first of all on the project of economic globalisation. Which challenges namely all nations of the world "the countries of Central and Eastern Europe included" to increase sharply the levels of productivity and ‘competitiveness' of their respective economies.

Intended and non-intended side effects

Each of these impulses have their intended but also often their non-intended side-effects. Sometimes national policies are formulated as a reaction to these impulses, which serve primarily the self-interest of some groups, instead of the well-being of all. Moreover, each of these three impulses also ask for specific social, economic and institutional ‘adjustments' that contradict each other easily.

The project of economic globalisation is for instance primarily driven by the desire to turn the world into one dynamic market place of a mainly uniform character. It therefore claims a free mobility for capital flows (also if these are of a speculative nature), and asks also an ongoing privatisation of the economy and sharp reduction of government budgets. It moreover contains an unleashing propaganda for new consumer products, for less taxes and for the adoption of more materialistic life-styles. But the wish to transform the previous planned economy into a really responsible ‘mixed' economy with social safety nets and good ecological underpinnings implies, at least temporarily, a stronger national government. Many public efforts are needed to build up the necessary institutional and legal framework. Such a contradiction between different ‘claims' is even stronger for the countries which wish to enter the European Union. They are confronted with a whole range of necessary adjustments in agriculture, tax regime and in their systems of social security.

Some pertinent questions

How to solve all these tensions? Or should we say that, looking at their consequences, these combined far-reaching claims of continuous adaptation go further than in honesty may be asked from any human society? Why should for instance the process of economic and financial globalisation "perhaps the most demanding factor of all" be accepted as just an unavoidable development for which no alternative exists? For how then to explain that this project at the same time is clearly related to a ruling ideology and also tied to monopolistic interests? The present process of globalisation undoubtedly allows some people to attain excessive forms of wealth, but it pushes others over the brink of a decent life for themselves and their children. If powers are presently active which remove from countries the opportunity to live according to their own cultural roots and values and do harm people and nature, then indeed the question arises if all this is really acceptable.

These are some of the leading problems which we want to address as representatives of churches and ecumenical partner organisations in the coming important consultation on Globalisation in Central and Eastern Europe: Responses to the environmental, economic and social consequences (Budapest, 23 -29 June 2001).

A moment that calls for a clear witness by the churches

Churches are called in every time by their risen Lord to respond to the historical situation with which they are confronted. That can even be seen as an inalienable part of their Mission. But there are times which bear an element of kairos, in which it is even sinful to remain silent. Is such a historical moment perhaps again reached?

An indication of that possibility was given by President Havel of the Czech Republic in his speech to the meetings of IMF and World Bank in Prague on 26 September, 2000. "Our planet", so he said, is now "enveloped by a single global civilisation", but it "appears to be the first civilisation that is basically atheistic". Which implies in his view that it is "thus possible that people often behave as if everything were to end with the end of their own stay on the Earth". Humankind is (so) becoming increasingly "estranged from itself": "it depletes non-renewable natural resources, interferes with the planet's climate, and tolerates a cult of material gain as the highest value to which everything else has to yield..." If atheism comes so clearly to the fore " should then churches refuse to speak?

Of course Christians should not deny that present developments have also their good sides. More liberty is present than before, and parts of the world's population may be growing towards better material living conditions. But from the depth of their faith Christians should also be aware that ‘good sides' can never compensate for or legitimate the pains of so many suffering people. That is especially not the case if arguments like the following are used:

  • that never in history any good development took place without at least some people bearing the sacrifice;
  • that it is just fine that a money-oriented economy now takes the lead in the development of human culture, and also controls the political realm; and
  • that it has no sense to refer in all those issues to our Christian faith, because it is not only powerless but also belongs to another reality.

    For such is the guidance which then comes from the roots of our Christian confession:

  • Has God not promised his people life in fullness? How can we accept an economy which systemically is geared at wealth creation for the few at the cost of the lives of the majority of people and the earth?
  • Do the Scriptures simply not forbid any kind of shifting the burdens by the rich and the powerful to the poor and the needy? And do not the rules of God's Kingdom speak about the preservation of the weak, instead of referring to the survival of the fittest?
  • Did our Lord Jesus not always place the economy in the context of serving the household (oikos) of a good and healthy culture, instead of giving it dominion?
  • Are we not called to live together in this world as a koinonia, as a serving community in which the members help each other to meet their material as well as their spiritual needs " in response to the salvation in Jesus Christ, and to God's gracious gift of the Holy Spirit?

Concrete responses by churches

In most of the countries of the region churches played already a significant role in protecting values and human dignity, especially during the time of the communist system. They also brought the message of reconciliation in the process of the building-up of new democratic states, and often helped to overcome historic forms of hostility among nations and ethnic groups. Standing in that rich tradition, indeed, the open question needs to be asked of how the churches themselves see their specific role in the present process of globalisation. True reconciliation requires at least that the voices are brought to the fore of all those who are now marginalised and/or are unjustly excluded from all possible benefits.

Churches and church-related movements use different words to describe their present task in accordance with their respective traditions.

The Conference of European Churches in its Church and Society Commission, backed by the tradition of the European Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society, has been making a continuing effort to elaborate ethical and theological views of various aspects related to the theme of sustainable development in the particular European setting.

The Kitwe Consultation on Reformed Faith and Economic Justice organized by the South African Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1995 stated: "It is our painful conclusion that the Africa reality of poverty caused by an unjust economic world order has gone beyond an ethical problem and become a theological one. It now constitutes a status confessionis. The gospel to the poor is at stake in the very mechanism of the global economy today."

The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) responded in its 23rd General Council in Debrecen, Hungary to this statement by calling its member churches at all levels to become engaged in a committed process of Progressive Recognition, Education and Confession (Processus Confessionis) regarding the ongoing Economic Injustice and Ecological Destruction in our world.

This process of Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and on the Earth got an important echo in the 8th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (Harare 1998), where the decision was taken to labour on The Churches Response to Economic Globalisation, and where all member churches were encouraged to join the process started by WARC.

In the light of their joint commitment for concerted action WARC and WCC already organised with the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), the Church of Christ in Thailand and the Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD) an important symposium on the consequences of economic globalisation in Asia (Bangkok, 12- 15 November 1999). After this Budapest Consultation, in 2002 also a broad ecumenical meeting is planned in Western Europe (in the Netherlands) about the role of capital and finance in the present world economy. The theme of the WARC General Council in 2004 will be" Life in fulness", because the mandate of the economy is not to produce death but life in all its processes of production and distribution. The World Council of Churches has also planned in this year an important regional consultation in the Pacific.

But also churches in Eastern and Central Europe themselves have not been silent. The Reformed Church in Hungary for instance asked its Collegium Doctorum "the scientific body of the church" to study the issue of globalisation, while the Roman Catholic bishops in Hungary published a widely commended pastoral letter "For a better world". The risks of one-sided forms of globalisation were also concretely mentioned in the document "Basis for the Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church" which was issued by the Jubilee Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, held in Moscow from 13 to 16 August 2000.

In the light of all these developments and observations, the objectives of the coming Budapest consultation can be formulated as follows:

1. to exchange among churches, and with ecumenical partners in civil society, experiences of the people of Central and Eastern Europe concerning the continuous transition of their own societies, especially now in relation to the impulse of growing economic globalisation; 2. to study and analyse together the systemic causes of injustice and ecological destruction in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well as the social, cultural and environmental consequences - intended and non-intended- of the present reshaping of their economies and of their political and legal institutions (including those on property, privatisation and taxation); 3. to debate the significance of Christian faith, and the mandate of the churches in particular, in response to the experiences of the people, and to explore on this base also encouraging alternative ways of further development inspired by Christian values " including at least some concrete projects for ecumenical cooperation in for instance education, parish activities, and in relation to the media; 4. to make sure that the results of this consultation are received well by the churches and ecumenical partners in the region, but contribute also to a further covenanting of the churches of the oikumene in other parts of the world "for Justice and the preservation of the Earth" (the processus confessionis of the WARC), and to a further implementation of the programmes on Justice, Peace and Creation of the WCC and of the Conference of European Churches.

About the conference

Objectives: Participants

1) To exchange Central and Eastern Europeans' experience of 10 years' economy in transition among churches and other partners.
2) To study and analyse together the social and ecological consequences of reshaping of the economies, and the role of global factors and of the enlargement of the European Union.
3) To explore alternative models reflecting the experience and aspirations of people in the region
4) To make sure that results of this consultation are received by churches and ecumenical partners in other regions of the world, in particular in the context of the processes of reflection on globalization in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches - ‘Covenanting for justice in the economy and on the earth' (processus confessionis) - and in the World Council of Churches - the programme on globalization in the JPC team.

  • 1 or 2 persons from the 17 Central and Eastern European countries listed below, invited in principle through national council of churches (26 persons):
    Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia.
  • 1 expert on Central Asia (including resource person)
  • 2 witnesses from other parts of the world
  • 7 staff
  • 4 interpreters (English - German)
  • 12 ecumenical advisers (members of WARC Task Force for Processus Confessionis, and from WCC)
  • 20 resource persons (keynote speakers, group resource persons, and Bible studies leader)

    Process and specific areas to focus on:

  • First part focusing on Central and Eastern Europe, i.e. the starting point should be participants' context and experiences;
  • then one or two testimonies from people facing similar problems in other parts of the world;
  • then analysing together in 5 groups on main issues:
    • Economy focusing on rural, urban and household economies
    • Economy focusing on finance, trade and communication technology
    • Culture, science, education and religion
    • Social consequences
    • Environment

Other details

  • Opening Service could take place in Calvin's Church in Budapest, organised by the hosting church: the Reformed Church in Hungary.
  • Panel on the relation between theology and economy, and between ecclesiology and ethics in the different Christian traditions, after the opening service. Panellists: 1 Reformed, 1 Orthodox, 1 Catholic, 1 Lutheran.
  • Keynote speech on globalisation from a Central/Eastern European perspective, in the same afternoon.
  • Gender balance was reaffirmed as essential to the quality of meetings and their seriousness.