Social Ethics, Global Trade and Christian Faith

A few years ago I said in a meeting of colleagues I thought my denomination needs a global trade specialist. My remarks were met with a chuckle by one person and fell into the bottomless silence of rejection without words.

Now we’re in the midst of a global economic crisis that demands more of theologians than the balm of words. It demands structural change to address accountability, responsibility, equity and justice through specific actions.

Churches are good at offering words of comfort and hope. Words of hope and comfort are necessary and important. We need to be reminded that meaning and purpose in life are not defined by the bottom line of balance sheets. In Christian teaching, the core of faith is hope.

However, sometimes we need to be reminded that quality of life is also about our relationships to each other individually and collectively in communities of people, some of whom we know and some we don’t. Another core teaching of the faith is that we exist in community.

We need social policies and laws that at least attempt to ensure equity and justice in the economic system for all people. That’s why I thought we needed a global trade expert who could operate deftly in both social ethics and global economic policy. Mohammad Yunus is already offering insights that provide a different lens through which to view economic policy with his social business models, for example.

For the past several years religious faith in the public conversation has been narrowly defined by conservative politics and a culture war agenda. Morality was framed as individual behavior. Corporate accountability was ignored. While these debates raged, the world got its pockets picked by those who gamed the system. This is a theological issue and it’s about more than individual behavior, or even good personal intentions. It’s about our responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to God.

William Sloane Coffin said "Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always, but never as a substitute for justice. What we keep forgetting in this country is that people have rights, basic rights; the right to food, the right to decent housing, the right to medical care, the right to education." (Credo , William Sloane Coffin, Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 55-56)

Thomas Freidman writes that the world has reached a point of historic change. He refers to Paul Gilding’s phrase, the "great disruption." We’ve hit a wall. The whole growth model we created over the last 50 years, Freidman writes, is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically.

That behavior has led to the collapse we’re all struggling through just now, but it will return. And when it does, we as a society must ensure justice and collective responsibility are more than promises. They must be expressed in social policies that protect human rights and look after our communal responsibilities on a global scale.

It’s now abundantly clear that the world is so interrelated that economic ripples in one region slosh into other parts and cause erosion, or worse. Much as some try to deny it and fall back into national parochialism, we are global citizens. The system in which we live is global. Sometimes we forget how interdependent we are. But everything from the fruit we buy to the clothing we wear is now a globalized product. Our churches and educational systems have not caught up to preparing us for global awareness and a few loud voices are actually opposed to it.

We need new models . And the models should be informed by our best ethical thinking in addition to new sustainable economic policies. As Coffin said, Christian faith teaches that we are connected to each other through a variety of bonds that include human rights and a fundamental belief in human dignity. Where these values have been overshadowed by the contentiousness of the past few years, we need to put it to rest and offer a more holistic definition of faith.

In the perceptions of many in the U.S. and globally, Christianity is viewed as intolerant, doctrinaire and anti-science. Among other things, faith leads to probing questions, inclusive thinking and a framework for ethical behavior individually and collectively. It’s a comfort in times of distress but it’s also a challenge to act, to question and to stand for universal values that affirm the goodness of Creation and the human community.

Further, as I understand it, Christian faith is ultimately about service and sacrifice, both values that are counter to the  culture of individualism and acquisition. As the world looks for new models of behavior individually and collectively perhaps adding these values to the discussion could benefit the global community. They need not be proposed in a sectarian way. They are shared values that permeate many of the world’s great religions and ethical systems. The tragedy of the past decade is that we forgot them, or they got out-shouted by fear and undermined by self-serving behavior.

If we are indeed at a hinge point in history, and if the cultural values by which we’ve lived these past decades must change, then the time has come for a new social ethic , or a review of the social ethic that got set aside and ignored as we fought about these other issues.

And that’s why I thought my denomination needs a specialist in both social ethics and global trade, and it still does.

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