Faith & Reason: A theology lesson from the streets of Seattle

Faith may not seem to have much to say about free trade. Yet religious truths underpin both sides in the row about the World Trade Organisation
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The Independent Culture
FROM THE call for "Christianity and Commerce" in Victorian times to the cries of "No, no, to the WTO" on the streets of Seattle this month the vision of free trade has tantalised both theologians and missionaries. The belief that trade can transform the well-being of people - whether to counter 19th- century slavery or the contemporary collapse of agricultural economies in Africa - spans the different worlds of David Livingstone and Clare Short. The secular faith of modern economists is in the global economy, the virtuous link between falling tariffs, removal of "market distortions" and the resultant rising wealth generated by trade.

Yet the representative from my organisation, the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) to Seattle, a Zimbabwean, came with a report on how the liberalisation of the Zimbabwean economy had affected poor farmers. It was a familiar story to Africans: first the currency is devalued, then the price of seeds and fertiliser rise out of range of ordinary farmers, next agricultural support services are cut as government squeezes state expenditure, crop yields drop, families go hungry, farmers with land shortage move on to hillsides, erosion becomes chronic, people's health deteriorates. Not a story that fits easily with the win-win story of the economists.

There has been, of course, a spectrum of Christian belief about the relationship of the market to God's plan for humanity. Adam Smith sits towards one end where the market is understood as part of God's providence.Near the other end, where the market takes on an almost diabolical character, sit radical European theologians like Ulrich Duchrow or liberation theologians in the South who are the sharp end of the modern global economic system.

In the middle lies, for example, the Catholic Church and, less clearly, the Church of England, combining in their ethics elements from both ends. This says that markets are the most efficient way of distributing scarce resources but, uncontrolled, they can behave like barbarians, destroying and accumulating wealth; they can only be beneficial to the common good provided there are adequate mechanisms for protecting and promoting the interests of the poor. Call it a "third way" at your peril, it is certainly a form of social democracy.

Seattle brought the largely secular equivalents of all these positions on to the streets. But the theological dimensions of the debate are more complex than reflected in a simple spectrum of belief about the market. The biblical and church traditions of relevance to global trade contain two major strands, one centred on justice, the other rooted in a concept of the stewardship of creation. St Francis of Assisi brought the two strands together but it was far easier to do so in the Middle Ages than today.

Lumped disingenuously together as "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation" there does not appear to be any difficulty in combining them. But when brought down from the general to specific points of policy advocacy there often can be a problem. The short-term push of developing nations for growth is not easily compatible with environmental protection - nor indeed the rights of children and workers. The industrialisation of the developed world, of course, showed scant regard for any of these until challenged by groups in civil society.

The national delegates from the developing countries in Seattle wanted above all a fair trading system in which they could compete and a democratic say in achieving it. Many have populations with citizens who daily go hungry. They wanted justice in global trade. And they did not want the developed countries to limit their opportunities by setting impossible conditions and by threatening to punish transgressors. An understandable position when the most powerful player, the United States, is the most damaging polluter who blocks progress on global warming.

The non-governmental agencies met primarily in interest-based working groups; thus environmental (integrity of creation) and development (justice) groups unconsciously reflected the two major biblical strands. Some 1,500 NGOs, consumers, unions, development and environmental agencies avoided conflict with the developing countries' representatives by agreeing with their minimum position: that the WTO needed to have a new vision, to be made transparent, democratic and accountable.

The message of the WTO debacle thus comes down to faith in a vision. There are enough organised people who do not share economists' faith in the global economy to make a difference. Whether in this week's conference on corruption in Zimbabwe or in the recent report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on poverty in Britain, they have seen that the impact of liberalisation is not win-win: the rich get richer but the poor remain mired in poverty. In the words of the eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches: "The vision behind globalisation includes a competing vision to the Christian commitment to the oikumene, the unity of humankind and the whole inhabited earth."

The WTO has to change. It could now begin to embrace a competing vision in which the poorest are privileged and its proceedings transparent and democratic. And if we can avoid in coming years what Catholics once called "the weakening of the will and the darkening of the intellect", this need not be just a theological dream.