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The Heart and Soul of Globalization

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The consequences of the world’s changing economic order are huge. You are small. Can your actions make a difference? Of course. Activists from the world’s faith traditions are showing the way.

This article appeared in our February 2004 issue.

At age 51, Robert Waldrop is six feet, 260 pounds, with a flowing beard and opinions on everything, including a favorite Bible passage: “He who trusts in the Lord shall be made fat. It’s in there somewhere.” Despite his informality, Waldrop is serious about applying his understanding of Roman Catholic teachings to daily living. Those teachings, he says, may be reduced to a simple statement: “Noncooperation with evil, cooperation with virtue.”

For Waldrop, the prevailing economic order falls squarely into the former category. He’s one of the growing number of spiritually motivated activists seeking to counter the negative consequences of globalization — the worldwide integration of economic, political, and cultural systems, spearheaded by the United States — that is affecting the human family on a scale comparable to the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution.

“Whenever possible,” says Waldrop, “I spend my dollars at locally owned and operated businesses, preferring independents to franchises, and a union label is a plus. In ever go to the big fast food places — McDonald’s, Burger King, etcetera. If I want a hamburger, I go to a local independent who is capable of making a burger without being supervised by a transnational corporation. I put my retirement fund that I have through the archdiocese in the bond and cash fund, rather than the stock fund, to avoid such entanglements.”

More than most, Waldrop walks his talk. He’s a committed member of the Catholic Worker movement started by the legendary social reformers Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. He shares an 80-year-old house near downtown Oklahoma City with other group members and an array of pets. He’s turned his side yard into an organic vegetable garden. He runs a home delivery food pantry for people who can’t get to stores, such as elderly shut-ins and single mothers without transportation. He drives a 1989 pickup; and makes ends meet working part-time as music director for one of the city’s wealthiest parishes. (“It’s important to help the rich connect to the poor.”)

The Good, the Bad, and the Reality

Says Waldrop, “Globalization, in terms of the reduction of legal barriers that separate peoples, and developing solidarity among the peoples of the world, is, as the pope [John Paul II] has often noted, a good thing. But the globalization of exploitation and ‘robbing the poor to pay the rich’ is a very bad thing. Indeed, this is killing the poor and driving many of the poorest of the poor to the point of desperation.”

Spiritually motivated activists such as Waldrop are walking a well-trod path. From antislavery members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in the eighteenth century to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., religious activists have played key roles in the struggle for full civil rights for African- Americans. In the early twentieth century, the Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister and labor reformer, preached and wrote voluminously that individual salvation is inextricably linked to the betterment of society. Many of his ideas were incorporated into the New Deal legislation of the 1930s. On the peace front, activists ranging from the Vietnam era’s the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., to Buddhist teacher the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh have denounced the futility and wastefulness of war.

Will large numbers of the spiritually motivated join the likes of Robert Waldrop to oppose what they regard as globalization’s destructive fallout? Many already have.

In New York, Rabbi Michael Feinberg leads a coalition of religious and labor leaders striving to improve conditions for the legions of foreigners seeking economic advancement who become trapped in minimum-wage jobs cleaning offices, washing dishes, sewing in sweatshops, or doing the heavy lifting at construction sites. “New York is a global city that for some is a nonstop party, and for others means scrounging on garbage heaps all their lives. That’s the globalization that I oppose,” says Feinberg, who cites the Hebrew Bible’s dictates against exploiting the poor, the widowed, and the “stranger in your midst.”

Uptown from Feinberg’s office near the former site of the World Trade Center, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp links the increasing poverty of his congregants at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem to the ongoing loss of manufacturing jobs to developing nations, because multinational corporations are more concerned with cutting labor costs than with the devastating impact on longtime employees.

In 2002, I accompanied Kooperkamp and members of his church to an anti-globalization demonstration outside the Park Avenue hotel hosting the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of global business and political elites. “We in the church tend to spiritualize power, like talking about the power of the Holy Spirit,” he told me. “But globalization is often about down-and-dirty politics, and that means going downtown and protesting when the opportunity presents itself.”

The Wiccan activist Starhawk focuses on the impact of globalization on the environment, an outgrowth of her spiritual connection to the earth as the Goddess, the source of all life. She warns against the destruction of rainforests to supply wood for urbanites in the temperate zones half a world away, and the efforts of multinationals to control global food production. Should that happen, she wrote in an impassioned email from Mexico, where she helped organize demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun in September 2003, “All food will be grown in large, industrialized farms for export, using chemicals and herbicides on patented genetically engineered crops that are further packaged, irradiated, branded, and shrink-wrapped before being sold to you at your corner large corporate supermarket. Profit, not health or sustainability, will be the determining factor in agriculture, as in every area of human endeavor.”

Despite such examples, the majority of globalization’s critics receiving wide media — and therefore public — attention have academic or political backgrounds, and their analyses are generally limited to the economic sphere. Globalization is problematic, they say, because it has so far failed to deliver its promised economic advances to the world’s poor. Political chicanery, corporate corruption, and capitalism’s inherent weaknesses are cited as the reasons.

A Path to Salvation?

This perspective assumes that humanity is motivated only by material wealth. It ignores the spiritual and psychological needs recognized by the world’s enduring faith traditions, replacing them with the values of the global marketplace, in which immediate and maximized profits are paramount. Everything has a price, and the more consumption, the better for all. Happiness is rooted in material progress, product choice equals the highest freedom, and being well connected is more important than being deeply connected.

Religious values, by contrast, favor long-term solutions and selfless action. Economic activity is viewed as a means to sustain rather than lead humanity, and the emphasis is on behavior that leads to individual and communal salvation. Salvation?

Strip away competing theologies and salvation is at rock bottom the understanding that certain behavior best assures long-term (including eternal, if that’s your cup of tea) individual and community survival. Globalization’s most egregious spiritual offense is its rejection of this deep seated human understanding and the psychic security it provides. “The most important point, from a Buddhist perspective, is that [globalization’s] emphasis on competition, individual gain, and private possession encourages the development of ill will rather than loving-kindness,” says David R. Loy, an American Buddhist teaching in Japan.

The Benefits of Competition

The Pandora’s box of globalization has been opened. The world will never be the same. Moreover, as Robert Waldrop points out in his comment about Pope John Paul II, globalization has its good points. It has spread such concepts as democracy, human rights, gender equality, and awareness of health and the environment.

An American Hindu monk, Bhakti Tirtha Swami Krishnapada of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, told me he believes that even competition in the global marketplace has benefits. In striving for a slice of the market, multinationals must understand customer needs. The motivation may be market manipulation, but it also means “getting to know more about the whole person. We see this as something healthy because it takes into account the deeper aspects of a person....People want to feel valued and appreciated. From a Vedic perspective, anything that helps people interact ultimately helps them in their pursuit of the godhead.”

Put another way, it means adopting an alter globalization stance rather than a blindly reactionary anti-globalization position; that is, working for an alternative globalization that benefits the majority rather than the minority. It’s not the act of connecting markets and cultures that is detrimental, but the exploitative manner in which it is currently playing out.

The spiritual quest is to discern transcendent meaning from worldly experience and live in accordance with that meaning. If the problems of globalization are to be addressed, they must be approached with the same clarity of spirit as any other circumstance.

Escaping "Moneytheism"

The actions of people like Robert Waldrop are a powerful illustration of how individual actions rooted in spiritual values resist globalization’s negative aspects. Some suggest that the next step is to cast our religious institutions in the role the labor movement once played as a counterbalance to unrestrained capitalism — globalization’s “moneytheism,” to borrow David Loy’s term. This is no easy task, given the historical hypocrisy, conflict, and greed associated with organized faith. And interfaith dialogue alone won’t make a difference, says David Little, a professor of international affairs at Harvard Divinity School. “If religious responses to globalization are to make a difference, cooperation [needs to be] practical, organizational.”

This task may be challenging, but it isn’t unprecedented. The Jubilee 2000 international debt relief campaign brought together religious progressives and conservatives, Christians and non-Christians, presidents and prime ministers, and even rock stars and the pope, in a spectacular effort that resulted in some of the world’s poorest nations receiving hundreds of billions of dollars of relief from debts they were saddled with as the price of gaining international investments and access to foreign markets.

And how did it start? With the activism of Bill Peters and Martin Dent, two British men motivated by their Christian beliefs who were familiar enough with the Bible to know about the jubilee tradition of the ancient Israelites, who every 50 years freed their slaves and returned land purchased during the previous half-century to ensure that no segment of society gained excessive wealth while another was reduced to perpetual poverty and servitude.

What a nice thought. What a nice example.


Ira Rifkin, a former news director at Beliefnet.com and national correspondent for Religion News Service, is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (SkyLight Paths).


This entry is tagged with:
From the ArchivesActivismSpiritual ActivismEconomicsThich Nhat Hanh

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