World Council of Churches
Commission of the Churches on International Affairs
Working Group on Social Justice and Common Goods
Social Justice and Common Goods
“The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for God founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters”. (Psalm 24:2) The land is a common good to which today we have to add other common goods - sea, rivers, lakes, forests, the biosphere, the stratosphere, etc. - all aspects of God’s world; on which after creation, God looked and declared good, that is, for the sustainability of the good life for all of God’s creatures. This good creation, abundant in resources, was given to humans “to cultivate it and guard it” (Gen. 2:15).
From water to land, from the sea to the coast, from knowledge to work, from energy to territory from joy to peace - these are the themes of an agenda that helps us to build an economy based on common goods. This economy is not founded on commoditisation, privatisation, war, but on people's rights, on equality and solidarity - an economy that is thus an alternative to the current model of – usually unsustainable – growth.
Throughout history the world has had a major challenge of acknowledging that we are all human beings created in God’s image, called to live in community, with responsibilities for sharing resources and caring for creation. Sharing common goods, ownership, participation and right relationships are important for social justice. Yet the rivalry for goods in the market has dominion over equitable sharing all goods and resources. The world is trapped in a death dealing system which defies God’s gift of life and creation.
We are faced with power imbalances at the geopolitical level and the global domination of liberal market. Common goods are under a growing threat of commodification resulting into climate change, poverty and inequality. The power of transnational corporations is setting geopolitical and geo-economic scene. Their power gives them a stronghold on the rules of trade and finance and exacerbates existing inequalities between rich and poor. States are losing their capacity to fulfil their main functions of regulating economy, protecting the environment, defending social cohesion and values and guaranteeing their peoples’ security. At the global level, enforcement of Economic Social and Cultural Rights has been minimal because governments are confronted by forces that do not want rules on the one hand and constantly enhancing anonymity to escape responsibility and accountability on the other.
The World Council of Churches has long been concerned with issues of economic injustice and destruction of the earth. The AGAPE study of wealth, greed line and limits to accumulation is an important process in making clear the problems with the world economic system which goes against the biblical vision of an economy for all people. The regional studies, hearings and consultations on linking Poverty, Wealth and Ecology provide spaces and opportunities for church communities to map out the links and indicate the ills of the system, policies which contribute to disparties; and to also name groups who constitute the axis of power. The methodology of linking Poverty, Wealth and Ecology is very helpful as it facilitates a collective approach in critical analysis and reflection and in seeking transformation. It also enables us to advance our work on justice in the economy and the earth.
Incarnation of God in order to save humanity from sin and hardship reminds all Christians of their duty to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and to work hard for peace and justice for all God’s creation. The Commission of the Churches on International Relations also has a role in reflecting on the current reality of economic, political, environmental and ethical crises and in examining the implications for common goods and social justice. The CCIA, through its Working Group on Social Justice and Common Goods, is offering this paper to the churches with the hope that is helps them continue their work and take new action in the current reality of economic injustice and ecological degradation.
Our contribution as the working group does not pretend to be the first or the final word on these matters. We acknowledge and build upon the admirable work already done by the churches and social movements in dealing with the world's economic and social problems. Furthermore, our document as a whole is open to criticism, amendment and further elaboration.
II. Understanding of terms of social justice, common goods and their links
Two concepts key to the work of the group are social justice and common goods. This section explores the meaning of these terms and links between them. It is against the Christian value system that we seek clarity on the issues of economic justice and common goods.
Some key elements that characterise social justice have been identified:
situation where all people can develop their potential to live an abundant life (a society in which everyone has a freedom to pursue their goals in life and can be the best she/he can be),
acknowledging rights of all people to and providing access to all goods essential for life in peace and dignity,
participation of people in decision making, with the power to speak on their own behalf, where voices of voiceless are heard by those in power,
living in a community where one can be loved, can receive and share material as well spiritual goods,
respect and dignity for all human beings and nature.
Common goods in economic theory are described as goods which are non-excludable but are a subject of rivalry i.e. when they are offered nobody can be excluded from access them, however people compete for them because there is not enough of this good to satisfy everybody’s needs (so called tragedy of commons). In our paper the above criteria are not fully respected and common goods are identified as all that is essential for a life in fullness and dignity for all God's creation. Examples of common goods include: land, water, air, health, education, shelter, energy, transport, peace, human security, information, knowledge, solidarity and freedom.
Concluding this section one may state that social justice is when people enjoy universal access to common goods. It is when "peace and justice kiss" (Psalm 85).
III. Theological understanding and analysis
The commitment to social justice and life in fullness for all people has not been easy for the church. Churches need to re-read the signs of these times as they discern the gospel message in today’s world of economic injustice and ecological degradation, where the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. We are all challenged to respond adequately to the problems related to the current global economic crisis: job losses, cuts in funding, drying up of aid, etc.
Many churches have been co-opted into the neoliberal economic system as its beneficiaries. Let us not forget the historical complicity of the churches in building and sustaining empires and benefiting financially from their conquests. The church’s mission among the “uncivilised” was inextricably incorporated into Europe’s economic conquests. Remembering the courageous witness of many Christian missionaries who strove to protect colonized peoples and their cultures against the colonial powers we also recognise the long history of convergence between imperialism and Christianity in many European countries and in the United States. In this light, today, churches’ silence in the face of injustices caused by economic and political powers may also be seen as complicity in the unjust system.
Churches today seek a new worldview vis a vis the systemic injustices of the world economic order which has disregarded the order of God’s creation and our responsibility as part of this creation. In a world of great disparities between rich and poor, where pursuit of wealth is the order of the day, churches need to reflect critically on what is necessary for life and what are our shared responsibilities to honour the order of God’s life-giving economy.
In 1968, churches which gathered for the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala, Sweden stated: “Our hope is in him who makes all things new. He judges our structures of thought and action and renders them obsolete. If our false security in the old and our fear of revolutionary change tempt us to defend the status quo or to patch it up with half-hearted measures, we may all perish. The death of the old may cause pain to some, but failure to bring up a new world community may bring death to all. In their faith in the coming Kingdom of God and in their search for his righteousness, Christians are urged to participate in the struggle of millions of people for greater social justice and for world development.” From Uppsala Speaks (p. 45)
We are reminded in Acts that the social justice and common goods have always been important to the mission of the church, since its early days: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostle’s feet and it was distributed to each as had need.” (Acts 4: 32 - 34)
Paul addresses the issue of social justice and how community may be organised to ensure that people understood the necessity of common goods for all people. He said, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little." (I Corinthians 8: 13 - 15)
In the book of Exodus we read the story of the Israelites in the “wilderness of sin”. When they arrived in the wilderness their supplies were depleted and they murmured for food. God promised bread from heaven. In the evening the quails came up, and the people gathered as much as they needed. The manna came down like dew. They called it manna, which means, “what is this?” It is a portion - it is that which God has apportioned for them, as common goods needed for their daily sustenance. The manna was rained from heaven. It appeared when the dew was gone, as a small round thing, as small as the frost, like coriander seed, in colour like pearls. It could be ground in a mill, or beaten in a mortar, and was then made into cakes and baked. The manna fell only six days of the week, and in double quantity on the sixth day as provision for the Sabbath. We are told that if it was hoarded – gathering what more than what was needed; it became worm infested and smelly. This system of manna from heaven lasted for the forty years the Israelites were in the wilderness.
The Israelites were to gather enough manna every morning as their daily provision. They must recognize what is enough and be contented with enough. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Each one is to gather as much as he/she needs. Take an omer (2 litres) for each person you have in your tent.” The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed. (Exodus 16: 11 - 17)
The manna from heaven was common goods required for daily sustenance of each person, each household. It needed to be regulated in order that each person, each family would have enough. Those who accumulated more manna than they need; those who thought they were wiser and better managers than their neighbours were proven wrong. The next day their extra (or what was in excess of enough) became infested with worms and could not be consumed.
James had a warning for people who possessed more than they needed – whose material possessions was an abomination to God. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5: 1- 5)
James was speaking out against the mentality of the rich and their devotion to wealth. They were misguided and this was detrimental not only to themselves but also to everyone else and to the community as a whole. He passed an indictment against the rich. Their charges can be summarized as greed and injustice. The greed of the rich has been demonstrated in hoarding wealth and living in luxury and self-indulgence. James feels very strongly at the offensiveness of the sin that the rich have dared to hoard wealth even in the days when they should be most concerned to repent. In the context of “the last days”, when the rich should be most in fear of God, their greed amounts to mocking God – like throwing insults into God's face.
James also warned that the destruction of the wealth would consume the rich people themselves. The imagery expresses forcefully that their sin has been a deliberate pursuit of evil. Literally, James is saying that the rust or corrosion on the gold and silver will be the active agent against the rich. The corrosive action will take two forms: first to testify against the rich (acting as evidence of their guilt) and then to eat their flesh like fire (acting as punishment for their sin).
Elsa Tamez, a Latin American theologian gives a perspective of this text of James from the standpoint of the poor and angle of oppression. She observes that the day labourers of James's day would have been the poor who struggle to eke out a living in daily subsistence. They depended on daily wages for survival. The salary was already low, but for day labourers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just. (James 5:6)
In the light of the dramatic global situation, what should be the response by churches? How to make the voice of voiceless heard and be more proactive in actions that might initiate a change? WCC can consolidate the churches’ power and capacities in lobby and advocacy work.
WCC may be crucial in undertaking advocacy campaign globally, initiating conceptual discussions over commoditization of goods on different decision making levels and not less importantly bringing in hope to people locally, so that people feel themselves valued and empowered to pursue own interests and have their basic needs met. Through WCC support the churches and development agencies (noteworthy in this context is the concept and experience of transformational development) should seek to restore and enable wholeness of life with dignity, justice, peace, and hope for all. They should promote change and growth within communities leading to sustainable change and transformation, where and when people are motivated and equipped to solve their own problems.
As Christians we respond to the call to live out the Kingdom of God and embrace a deeper hope in Christ's redemption of the world. Our goal is more than just the absence of extreme material poverty, but for people to discover their true identity as children of God and recover their true vocation as productive stewards faithfully caring for the world and all creation in it.
How then should our faith integrate with the ways we engage in and keep ourselves alert to challenges that come along? How do we help people overcome the cynicism and the feeling of powerlessness especially in a situation of economic, cultural, environmental and political crisis? A revaluation of the value of life and its place in economic and social relations is necessary to understand problems (including those of commoditization) on all fronts. Treating ourselves and our environment as commodities and valuing them according to the cold forces of the market creates a dangerous social environment in which we are predisposed to discriminate against and devalue life.
The churches should make it a living witness that life is God given gift and it must be accorded the value due, which cannot be measured in any currency in the world. The WCC can help with alternative solutions and examples to the range of complex problems in this context. "Another world is possible" was the motto of World Social Forum. Why not dwell on the experiences of such global social movements, which stimulate a decentralized debate and reflections, and engage into concrete actions towards a fair world. The WCC can initiate sharing between the churches (including "Living Letters" idea) which can help counter the pessimism and resist the attitude that "this is not realistic" approach by showing the real work done by various churches, by examples with holistic integration of faith and development. The goal of our work should be a positive change in the whole of human life materially, socially and spiritually.
As Christians and churches we are also facing a danger of being ”useful idiots” by the centers of power. Churches’ charitable and development efforts may be used as an excuse not to undertake radical reforms for justice since churches take care of the poor and underprivilaged anyway. Churches should therefore be clear that they are not comfortable with injustice and demand systemic economic and political change.
This is still a vision and far reaching objective, while people strive for basic needs on daily basis. Therefore, our work should not be limited to motivations and visions, but to operations and concrete actions, and the postures with which WCC and we will walk along, and our activities aligned with sound biblical theology. We should be engaging in and educating for Christian development and share experiences that effectively evidence that "another world is possible." The WCC can help engaging in global lobby and advocacy campaigns and linking the churches to movements from around the world.
As church people we need to answer our calling and be mindful of the fact that we live in a world full of complex and cross-cutting interests. We need to take a position and such a position will of course be praised or criticised for being partisan or similar or dissimilar to others. Nevertheless we have to take a position. To guard ourselves from being "used" we need to stick religiously to our mission, engage everyone equally with dignity, fairness and transparancy. And above all be self-critical and undertake regular evaluations of our work.
Social reformers have to find ways to compel the rich and powerful to make changes that will benefit the poor and the powerless. This is a requirement that any strategy to create a better world has to contend with. For Christian reformers this presents a dilemma. As God's people we want to use peaceful methods, not force, in order to make the world a better place. At the same time history tells us that no amount of moral preaching without actions will change the hearts of those intent on maintaining their privileges at the expense of others. The question then is: which strategies can be used to change the world for the better while avoiding strife and violence?
The development of an international movement for global economic justice and human rights, as embodied, for example, in the World Social Forum process, has inspired, strengthened and given hope to many people trying to address the world's problems and to improve the lives of ordinary people. Similarly, the involvement of millions of people throughout the world in mass anti-war demonstrations served to change the attitudes of a great number of people towards the war in Iraq and the conflict in Israel/Palestine. The election of the first black president of the USA has underlined the importance of ordinary people and their attitudes in historical developments because that election was arguably made possible by the phenomenon of the mass social movements. In many countries the church is well placed to lead the mass social efforts to make the world a better place. Historically that is what the work of the church has entailed over the centuries: saving souls, fighting against moral depravation and doing charity work among the poor and destitute.
Despite these noble efforts of many the rich continue to get richer and the poor poorer. This seems to point to a need to identify and address the fundamental causes of the problems. It is also true that sometimes the church's interests have become entangled with those of the rich and the powerful in ways that undermine its mission. Churches need to clarify its position vis-a`-vis the contending class interests in society. More importantly, the current global economic crisis gives the impression that matters are coming to a head with respect to the world's problems. The situation demands new strategies to address the urgent problems faced by humanity, some of which, such as global warming, appear to threaten the very continuation of human, animal and plant life as we know it. In this section of this paper we want to suggest that the time has come for churches and other faith-based organizations to explore new methods of historical intervention in order to help build a world in keeping with Christ's teachings. More specifically, churches need to take a leaf from and where possible to make common cause with the social movements that have sprung up at the turn of the millennium to form the global movement for economic justice and human rights. This has already happened somewhat with the WCC AGAPE process that was inaugurated in the context of the World Social Forum. The churches need to embrace more closely and to act more openly using methods and ideas that are consciously part of this global movement and building on the best of what it has achieved. As the working group we believe that this is possible without deviating from the church's mission or in any way compromising the church's basic value system or its moral and social standing. To the contrary, this orientation might enhance the churches’ work by making it more relevant and responsive to the needs of its flock. What then are the methods and ideas that have characterized the global movement for social justice?
Firstly, we can attribute the success of this movement to its reliance on the power of ordinary people in the endeavor to change things for the better. The basic idea is that those who bear the brunt of policy, those who are directly affected, are the ones who should be mobilized to take action in pursuance of their interest. Invariably it is never the policy makers or the powerful elite who bear the burden of their own policies. This is always the cross of ordinary people, of the poor, of the working class, of womenfolk, children, the youth, the elderly, etc. The principle is mass mobilization and in the church context this means galvanizing into action the millions of Christians and people of faith throughout the world to desire and work for justice and positive social change. In other words the church needs to build a movement.
Secondly, the power of the new social movements lies in their ability to organize both locally and globally. The problems of the world often cannot be resolved at a local level or even at a national level. For example, the problem of global warming requires all the peoples of the world to come together because of the very nature of the problem. It will not help a country to reduce to zero its carbon emissions if other countries continue to pollute. For the Church linking the local to the global will likely entail local parishes, church organizations and faith communities organizing themselves around issues that affect them and then finding ways of joining together through sharing information and taking joint action with similar groups in other localities and countries. In this respect we need to encourage cross-pollination and solidarity between the church in the south and the north. Fellowship, solidarity and effectiveness are likely to be enhanced if issues for common action are carefully chosen and defined in a democratic and egalitarian fashion
Thirdly, the new movements spend a lot of time building coalitions. In a way, linking the global to the local can be seen as a vertical process while coalition building across social sectors and going even beyond the Church can be seen as a horizontal process. The Church cannot succeed if it isolates itself. Not only must Christians reach out to Muslims and other faiths in the spirit of ecumenism, but there is a need to embrace other people of different philosophical convictions. This requires ideological tolerance, maturity and self-assurance in what one believes in. Such coalition building is made easier by choosing issues that unite organizations and movements and which have less potential causing divisions. At the same time we need an honest and inventive method of dealing with differences.
Fourthly, the social movements rely on a campaigning method to raise awareness, build support and win their issues. Campaigning is central to movement building. A campaign can be short-term or long-term but it always needs to be planned. The Church has a lot of experience campaigning when it spreads the word of the Lord. The same methods can be used and they can be combined with mass education, activism and action to take forward the Church's intervention in economic justice issues. The hunger strike, although seen as an extreme form of protest action, builds on the faith-based practice of fasting. Marches and demonstrations are methods of campaigning which build on the church traditions of processions and other religious events. Various church organizations in Canada and other countries have produced impressive literature on global economic issues from the Christian perspective. Such literature and other audio-visual material, if well put together, can go a long way in achieving the conscientisation process that is so necessary in re-orienting church members and the general public on global issues. Seminal concepts such as that of "empire", ecological debt, greed line etc. need to be properly explained and assimilated into the daily thinking and language of the people.
Fifthly, the global movement for economic justice relies considerably on policy analysis and research conducted by hundreds if not thousands of academics, researchers and scholars. The churches need not re-invent the wheel in this respect but it will sometimes be necessary to analyse church and public policies from the Christian perspective. Also, demands and slogans of the movement should not be developed in a whimsical manner; careful thought and investigation is necessary. There is nothing worse than a strong well-executed campaign being dismissed because of poor policy spadework leading to unrealistic or contradictory demands and policy positions. It is also true that the global movement needs all the help it can get because it too does not have all the answers. The churches can develop insights based on its unique standpoint that can greatly enhance the debate and shed new light on issues. These insights can be used to lobby policy makers and to arm the movement.
Sixthly, a significant amount of the leg work of the global movement for justice is carried out by socialists, anarchists and other people whose strong convictions compel them to build the movement. This is a strength which the Church arguably has plenty of too, namely, people driven by strong beliefs who want to live out their faith. This aspect is a challenge for building a church-based movement for justice; we need to find a way of making social activism part of the Christian identity. Just as church members feel obliged to attend church every Sunday, baptize their newborns, do charity work, and so on, they should by the same vein engage in public activities such as supporting strikes, joining demonstrations against neoliberal policies, debating public policy, etc. Of course this will only be fully possible when the message comes from the pulpit itself. Our vision should be that one day every parish priest will preach the gospel of the new millennium. The new gospel will build on the old and make it come alive and be relevant. It will call for an end to poverty and economic injustice, it will defend every person's right to common goods, and it will point to the sacred obligation to protect nature and resist the destruction of the earth by big business interests.
VI. The role of the churches and the ecumenical movement worldwide
One consequence of the changing power relations in today’s world is that there is more room in the public sphere for the affirmation of collective values and principles. Experience proves that an informed public opinion can be powerful today, and can change governments’ public and international agendas. Again churches are challenged to make use of this opportunity. They need to read the signs of time and to make their voices heard by responding to peoples’ cries for justice and dignity, and by speaking truth to the powers – whoever and wherever they may be.1 The AGAPE call is precisely intended to enhance reflection and action by churches on these issues.2
Some major questions for the church are:
What are theological implications for commodification of common goods?
How shall we ensure the participation of all people in managing common goods in the world? How do we deal with power imbalances in the world?
How can the ecumenical family engage itself effectively and in a coherent and convincing way in addressing global power imbalances?
How can WCC lead a climate Change campaign with social justice as a focus?
What kind of collective values can we draw for the churches to guide them in addressing the problem of commodification of common goods?
In particular the churchres and the World Councilof Churches are encouraged to consider the following actions.
The churches should raise the concern connected with tendency of reduction of the national governments commitments and involvement in managing of public utilities, reducing social protection due to globalization and broadening the concept of market regulations in all sectors, while market forces and transnational companies are using that weakness and increasing their profits without any social responsibility.
The main role of WCC should be to collect stories from people facing bad effects of the commodification of common goods and to share these stories, these cries with public authorities, economic leaders, at the international level as well as nationally. The WCC must be the voice of the voiceless, because it is the only organisation able to do that. The work of the churches should be first of all to make sure that these cries are heard. WCC needs to be constantly encouraging churches to share with each other the stories of struggle and concrete actions taken.
If solutions are to be found, the churches cannot find them by themselves. As Christians, we don’t have ready made answers and solutions to propose. The Bible offers guidelines (love, sharing, justice for the poor) but does not define one “Christian” economy or “Christian” politics. How to implement the biblical values in our societies? How to live them day by day within our life as a worker, as a consumer, as a citizen? The answers are not easy and must be discussed with different partners. The churches should organize debates, conversations, meetings with grass root people, unions, political parties, citizens associations, economic leaders, etc, in order to find the best solution. It is important then, that the churches look for allies in these discussions to make sure that the voice of the voiceless are heard.
Regarding the way of struggling against the commodification of common goods, there are probably different answers according to the place we live in. In some countries, the churches are powerful and able to lead the protest. In others countries, the churches are very weak and have no means to be heard in the public or political arena. In one case, the churches could commit themselves as such. In other case, the churches may invite their members to join secular associations, groups, and political parties.
Culturally speaking, across different regions we have various relation to water, earth, plants, animals. WCC should develop specific analysis depending on the context. Since the relation to environment is so culturally connoted, not only work on political ground is necessary, but also work on cultural ground (through arts for example), on spiritual ground (how do I consider my own being among others beings, etc.), on emotional ground (what about my children if we are going to lack water, etc.).
To ensure participation of people, we, representing different churches, through our daily work need to endeavor for a just world and advocate for equal participation of people in their rights protection. Churches and church related organizations can initiate public debates and largely use media means to reach a broader constituency, furthermore, regional thematic discussions can be facilitated with the ecumenical family.
The leading role of WCC can be supporting churches carry out awareness raising and advocacy campaigns, assist development organizations disseminate information, work especially through educators and influence public perceptions. Based on practices and experiences as shared by churches, the WCC can lobby on global level on behalf of its member churches. One of our shared value and motto could be “Equal access of all to God created natural resources and right to live in a clean and healthy environment.”
In the most of the societies where the Church is marginalized there is a need to strongly involve the public, ecumenical movement and the Church in advocacy campaigns for proper utilization of common goods. The guiding principle for it may be the commandment “share, care and do not ruin” – this is the most important base to approach the issue.
The Working Group believes that if the world were to come out of the crisis stronger, wiser and less unjust it should address the underlying systemic issues that create poverty and related economic problems. Significantly, our analysis leads us to the conclusion that the global economic crisis is primarily a consequence of an unjust economic system. We therefore recommend solutions that involve advocating structural changes rather than fine tuning of the current system believing that this is more likely to yield lasting solutions to the problems.
The group believes that common goods may prove to be a useful umbrella concept to integrate scattered elements of social justice which are present in many activities of the WCC. We hope it helps churches in their struggle for social justice.
Drafted by the members of the Working Group on Social Justice and Common Goods of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs with assistance of invited experts and WCC staff.