Printer Friendly

Affirming the Role of Global Movements for Global Ethics.

... the Earth was meant to be home for all living creatures, which live in different spaces, but are linked to each other in a web of relationships. The human community is placed within the wider community of the Earth, which is embedded in God's household of life. It is this vision of a truly ecumenical Earth that challenges the ecumenical movement to search for new ways of revitalizing and protecting communities of Indigenous Peoples and of the marginalized and excluded, participate in resistance against the growing domination of economic globalization, and engage itself in the building of a culture of peace and just relationships, a culture of sharing and solidarity.(1)

Common goals?

The secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), Kofi Annan, provoked an outcry and angry reaction from many of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participating in the UN social summit in June this year in Geneva when he presented the "Better World for All" report, a glossy magazine signed jointly by himself and the heads of the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The critique focused on the issue of credibility: the fact that his signing a document prepared, and promoted, by organizations controlled by the "club" of rich countries jeopardized the role of the UN as a forum for all nations and peoples -- especially those who suffer and lose out in the process of corporate globalization. Not only among the NGOs was the report quickly dubbed "Bretton Woods for All".

Confronted with this critique, the UN secretary-general responded that the goals of the report were in line with the goals of major UN conferences in the 1990s and that it was important that those organizations involved did subscribe to them. "These are our goals," he wrote in an open letter to the WCC. Although this was not entirely true -- the Copenhagen summit, for example, called for the eradication of poverty while the report promoted the OECD goal of reducing of the number of people living in absolute poverty by 50 percent by the year 2015 -- his response revealed the major problem identified by most NGOS concerning the implementation of the Copenhagen commitments. They emphasized the tension between social development goals and the failure of "free-market"-oriented means to achieve them.

Already in 1995 in Copenhagen, Konrad Raiser, the general secretary of the WCC, stated:
 The tendency to consider open markets and economic growth as a panacea for
 almost all social ills must be challenged. The alternative approach would
 require, from the outset, the active participation in decision-making
 processes of those who are affected by such decisions. It would be a
 "building-up" rather than a "trickle down" approach, starting with the
 needs of local communities and using these as the basis for global

 ... It seems to me that our current dilemma is that we use a social
 development model when we state our intentions, but that we apply an
 economic growth model when we act. Nothing short of a renewed and massive
 political will is required if we are to practise what we preach. The
 changes we need are not only administrative, legal, technical or
 technological, but changes in the direction of life-oriented values, a
 change of hearts and minds.(2)

While the goals may sound almost the same, decisive differences become visible if one considers not only the goals being addressed but also the means and processes of implementing them. Referring to life-oriented values Raiser points, of course, to the contribution of ecumenical social thought and action to social development and the churches' witness for justice, peace and creation. But if his remarks are also applied by analogy to the debate on global ethics, the question arises whether the existing agreements on very general goals are really enough: can they inspire the change of hearts and minds that is required to generate the massive political will necessary for real change?

The ethical minimum is not enough

Hans Kung deserves all merit for his significant contribution to creating a widely-recognized platform for interfaith dialogue. He was able, of course, to build on the accomplishments of the Parliament of the World's Religions and the World Conference for Religion and Peace. The 1993 declaration "Towards a Global Ethic" by the Parliament of the World's Religions was a fruit of just that cooperation. It also inspired other initiatives, such as the 1997 Declaration on Human Responsibilities and the UNESCO Universal Ethics Project.(3) Certainly Hans Kung's work stimulated the public debate and opened up unexpected possibilities for contributions to reflection on global affairs by representatives of the world religions. It also made it much more difficult to justify the misuse of religion on behalf of violence and discrimination.

According to Kung himself:
 A global ethic is nothing but the necessary minimum of common values,
 standards and basic attitudes. In other words: a minimal basic consensus
 relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes,
 which can be affirmed by all religions despite their undeniable dogmatic or
 theological differences and should also be supported by nonbelievers.(4)

It is thus described as the ethical minimum that provides a basis for a rational dialogue of civilizations.

The declaration "Towards a Global Ethic" nurtured the hope that moral values held in common by people of faith can become an instrument for a more peaceful and just world, despite the prediction of a "clash of civilizations" by Samuel Huntington(5) and the religious differences which often seem to fuel conflicts between nations and ethnic groups.(6) There are, however, a number of concerns which have to be taken seriously. For example, Glynn S. Philips, contributing "a non-religious viewpoint on ethics and global problems" to a volume with the title Testing the Global Ethic, questions the declaration "Towards a Global Ethic" as a Kantian-type attempt "to ground morality by the method of universalizing", a move which gives precedence to individual freedom and autonomy -- both modern Western values -- over against moral obligations grounded in the ethos of a given community.(7) That is, the declaration does not yet fully overcome some of the limitations of Eurocentric philosophical and theological traditions.

This underlying problem of the global ethic project has other significant consequences. The project does not really transcend the prevailing anthropocentric worldview -- one not shared, for example, by indigenous peoples and their communities. Any global ethic for the future has to be faithful to the earth and the children of the earth. The declaration "Towards a Global Ethic" remains vague when it comes to social and ecological consequences. Philips notes that two different concepts of the world economy are used in the document: one more reformist and one more radical. The text necessarily (!) lacks the specificity which would make it relevant for the ongoing struggle for people-centred social and institutional projects at local and global levels. In a word: the principles are too general.

These observations lead to the question whether the strong focus on a universally recognized text does not overshadow the processes of common action and reflection, at many levels, which create the basis for a shared interpretation of experience, recognition of common principles, and mutual accountability. Unfortunately the universalized "ethical minimum" cannot replace what does not yet exist: a shared global ethos and ethic, one rooted in a socially and ecologically sensitive global cultural vision backed by the "moral communities" and "moral formation" which would provide its viable environment. This is why "base communities" committed to a genuine earth ethic are crucial actors for an emerging global ethics. They provide collective "spaces" for the common production of meaning, arising from common struggle. Together they contribute to a process of globalization from below, a process badly needed against the dominating power of corporate interest.(8)

Despite this critique, Hans Kung's global ethic project is of crucial importance. It grants "space" which would otherwise be occupied by the utilitarian values aggressively promoted by corporate globalization and its guiding neo-liberal ideology. There are other initiatives bringing religious leaders closer to the institutions which promote corporate globalization and seek to influence their decisions, for example the world faith development dialogue led by the archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the World Bank, James Wolfenson. The hard decisions, however, which actually guide the World Bank are made in other circles, and there is a real danger that the "space" which interfaith contributions provide for other than purely economic values will be confused -- and finally destroyed.

The Earth Charter process

Another very interesting project for a "declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century" is the Earth Charter process.(9) The Earth Charter gives special emphasis to the world's environmental challenges. This reflects the history of this document, that developed from the unfinished business of the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. The UNCED proposal for an Earth Charter was rejected under the pressure of the United States but in the follow-up to the conference the idea was taken up again by the former UNCED secretary-general and chairman of the Earth Council, Maurice Strong, supported by the former president of the Soviet Union and founder of Green Cross International, Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as the Dutch government.

The recently presented final text of the Earth Charter grew out of a worldwide participatory process of consultation, involving many individuals and organizations from different cultures, diverse sectors of society and different faith communities in a dialogue on shared values and global ethics.(10) It transcends an anthropocentric worldview with its main emphasis on the community of life on earth, linking this inclusive ethical vision with the recognition of the interdependence of "environmental protection, human rights, equitable human development, and peace".(11)

According to the Earth Charter initiative:
 The Earth Charter is influenced by the new scientific world-view ... It
 draws on the wisdom of the world's religions and philosophical traditions.
 It reflects the social movements associated with human rights, democracy,
 gender equality, civil society, disarmament and peace. It builds on the
 seven UN summit conferences on children, the environment, human rights,
 population, women, social development, and the city held during the

The Earth Charter presents itself as a people's treaty, introduced to heads of states and delegates gathering for the UN millennium general assembly session in September 2000. The organizers of the process hope that the UN general assembly will endorse the document in the "Rio+ 10" review in 2002. The Earth Charter is most likely to play an important role for the future development of international environmental law; it is still an open question, however, to what extent it will inspire projects within civil society. Its institutional base at the international level is stronger than its links to new emerging global movements. The Earth Charter is linked to the Draft International Covenant on Environment and Development of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which is meant to guide the development of an integrated legal framework for all environmental and sustainable development law. Through these mechanisms it becomes another instrument in the ongoing process of globalizing legal frameworks and adjusting national laws -- an often overlooked feature of globalization.

The text of the Earth Charter contains a preamble, followed by sixteen main principles grouped into four parts on respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social economic justice, and democracy, non-violence and peace. The sixteen main principles are supported by sixty-one supporting principles, making the Earth Charter a multi-layered document. It ends with a conclusion entitled "The Way Forward".

The division between the main principles and the supporting principles was one of the major points of discussion in the drafting process. A rather influential group wanted to shorten the text and delete the sub-principles. Another group, with closer links to civil society groups and social movements, insisted on including them because they refer to some of the principles and criteria which are controversial in international negotiations within the framework of multilateral environmental agreements such as the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in the WTO. It is here that the precautionary principle is mentioned, or reference is made to traditional knowledge, the rights of indigenous peoples and discrimination "based on race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic or social origin" (principle 12,a).

The shorter version would have been a more general declaration on principles for a just, participatory, sustainable and peaceful society. This formula, used in principle 3 of the Earth Charter, reminds one of the social idea of the just, participatory and sustainable society (JPSS) proposed by the WCC Nairobi assembly in 1975. This was an important step in the history of ecumenical social thought and action because it was an attempt to link the struggle for social justice with the debate on sustainability, then in its early stages. This attempt did not fully succeed. The concept did not sufficiently reflect the aspirations and goals of the concrete struggles of specific groups and movements. A similar problem surfaces again in the structure of the Earth Charter. The multi-layered structure reveals both the strength and weakness of the Earth Charter process: its strength in so far as the final version continues to reflect contributions from the participatory process, its weakness in that they are confined to sub-principles, while the main principles represent the thinking and approach of Northern environmental movements.

Highlighting undercurrents of global ethics

It is worthwhile to explore some striking parallels between lessons learned in the Earth Charter process and the recent history of ecumenical social thought and action.(13) JPSS had the potential to bring Northern and Southern based approaches into dialogue with each other. But the basis for that collapsed when European and North American governments rejected embarking on negotiations on a New International Economic Order. And it was destroyed by new strategies to strengthen and support the operational basis of transnational corporations, in many cases combined with national security policies implemented by a growing number of military dictatorships. This situation required first of all solidarity with victims of oppression and those resisting it.

Konrad Raiser proposed to reinterpret the next phase of the conciliar process of mutual commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation as a period of growing awareness of the dangers inherent in the accelerated process of economic globalization.(14) Globalization has not only brought about the homogenization of certain institutions and cultures, it has also helped create new local cultural environments and cross-cultural alliances. In reaction to the impact of economic globalization, people and social movements began to emphasize the dimensions of identity and culture, the local context and the particularities of their group. The growing interdependence also increased the sensitivity to a cheap and facile language about a global "shared" community. In addition to older internationally organized social movements and contextual theologies reflecting their concerns (social justice and liberation, anti-racism, human rights), some new global anti-systemic movements formed which also contributed to the development of parallel contextual, but at the same time global, theological movements such as feminist theology, indigenous peoples' theology, and others.(15)

The world convocation on JPIC marked the point when representatives of these different streams within the ecumenical movement finally rejected any attempt to impose upon them a common interpretative framework which did not grow out of their own interaction. Nevertheless they also agreed on the ten Seoul "Affirmations,, which are probably best explained as an anti-systemic covenant between different global movements rooted in biblical affirmations, and creating a space for common action. The WCC's Theology of Life programme was an attempt to build on these affirmations and to overcome fragmentation and encourage interaction among the different movements, exploring the common ground of a shared spirituality and creating opportunities for mutual support and common action.

The Earth Charter is situated between JPSS, with its main principles, and the ten Seoul "Affirmations" with its sub-principles, which reflect the "undercurrents" of global ethics. From the point of view of recent ecumenical social thought and action, it is important to highlight the contributions of those undercurrents of global ethics, and to foster their cooperation, rather than subordinating them to the dominant mainstream. The global movements are the major actors for an emerging global ethics legitimized by the aspirations of the people and their struggles.

At this point, it is worthwhile mentioning another initiative which developed from the Earth Charter process. The Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World created another platform for an alternative Earth Charter, one focusing on the interaction of global movements and of initiatives based in local cultural environments. A consultation organized .jointly by the Alliance and the WCC helped to identify some pertinent questions needing to be taken into consideration in future work on global ethics.(16) It became clear that any text produced would not be an end product so much as a tool for the process of interaction, networking, and developing a shared language. Konrad Raiser underlined this in a letter to Pierre Calame, who represents the Alliance:
 Weaving the threads of distinct spiritual traditions together and making
 visible the often hidden correspondences and complementarities among them
 is less a conceptual task, but resembles the process of artistic creation.
 It builds on mutual resonance and the evocative character of each tradition
 rather than on propositional agreement. It invites discovery and
 interaction rather than an appeal to responsibility.

 In a way, the Earth Charter and the process leading up to it is the
 beginning of the attempt to weave such a tapestry, but at this point it
 does not represent much more than the main structural threads. Instead of
 trying to produce a text, which, in the near future, could be presented to
 the general assembly of the United Nations for endorsement, it will be
 important to test out the evocative potential in different religious and
 cultural contexts. The Earth Charter uses what I have called a
 meta-language which has validity only if it helps to evoke specific and
 diverse responses and to facilitate the discovery of correspondences,
 resonances and complementarities.(17)

It will be useful for the WCC in cooperation with the Alliance to follow up on the results of this consultation.

Affirming the role of global movements

The concluding paragraphs of this article will illustrate what should already be clear by now. The major emphasis of my argument has been the role of global movements in networking diverse communities in their struggle against the consequences of economic globalization for their lives, and in supporting them in their search for alternatives. At present, these movements form the undercurrents of global ethics. And, what is most important, they are the actors contributing to a new emerging global ethic which grows, ideally, from a process of globalization from below. These movements have their parallel expressions in the global undercurrents of contextual theologies which are becoming more and more powerful, questioning the prevailing paradigm of academic or church-centred theology, which does not sufficiently address the history of its own co-evolution with the empires of this world.

One of the most exciting developments of the 1990s was the growing interaction and cooperation among those movements. The global protests against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments and the World Trade Organization in the process leading up to the WTO ministerial round in Seattle, the campaign against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington and in Prague, the growth of the jubilee movement and creation of the Jubilee South platform -- all of these events helped different global movements to recognize each other, to join hands and act together. Producing common statements and engaging in common action, they develop a shared understanding of values and objectives, and it is this which is the real nucleus of an emerging global ethic.

These groups and movements give new meaning to human rights. The texts of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appeal to ideas that had taken shape during the European Enlightenment.(18) In a new way, global movements refer today to human rights instruments, e.g. the United Nation's International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These instruments become a powerful tool in addressing the inability of a majority of countries to ensure the economic, social and cultural rights of their people over against powerful global actors. In particular, the Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reflect the influence of this new approach. They have issued stern resolutions and statements on the human rights responsibilities of states and multilateral economic bodies in the era of globalization.

Challenging the reductionist approach of economic globalization, with its exclusive focus on economic value, these movements are open for contributions from faith communities and, in fact, expect them to mobilize their long-term memory, much richer understanding of the spiritual dimension of life and culture, and vision for life. Faith communities are well advised not to shy away from these partners on the grounds that cooperation with them will place them in opposition to powerful economic and political interests. The interaction between faith communities and global movements for change can provide a much-needed bridge, a common reference point of reflection and action that gives new meaning to the diverse religious languages, rituals, symbols and metaphors. Rooted in "thick" cultural environments where spirituality belongs together with daily life experience, but interacting with each other from the local to the global level, the different religious "universes of values" become transparent, and gain meaning for each other beyond their original contexts.

To put it in a less ambitious language: this is a plea to add more intentionally the method of the Life and Work movement to interfaith dialogue at the global level as it was, and is, done in concrete struggles, especially in places where Christianity is a minority. A recent example of common reflection by Christians, Buddhists and Muslims on such experiences of concrete engagement was the consultation on the consequences of globalization on Southeast Asia held in November 1999 in Bangkok, and jointly organized by the Church of Christ in Thailand, the Christian Conference of Asia, the Asian Cultural Forum on Development, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches. Another good example for the potential of this approach, but also highlighting some challenging questions that need to be addressed, is the contributions made by representatives of faith communities to the Colloquium 2000 which took place in Hofgeismar (Germany).(19)


(1) Diane Kessler, ed., Together on the Way: Official Report of the Eighth Assembly of the WCC, Geneva, WCC, 1999, p.260.

(2) Cf. WCC/LWF, World Summit for Social Development, report of the delegations of the WCC and LWF, Geneva, 1995.

(3) Hans Kung and Helmut Schmidt, eds, A Global Ethic and Global Responsibilities: Two Declarations, London, SCM Press, 1998; cf. also Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic, London, SCM/New York, Continuum, 1991; Hans Kung and Karl Josef Kuschel, eds, A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the World's Religions, London, SCM/New York, Continuum, 1993; Hans Kung, ed., Yes to a Global Ethic, London, SCM/New York, Continuum, 1996; Hans Kung, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, London, SCM/New York, Continuum, 1998.

(4) Hans Kung, Human Responsibility for Human Rights: The Challenge, address on 19 February 1999 at the United Nations, New York, p. 1.

(5) Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

(6) See the recent account by R. Scott Appelby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religions, Violence, and Reconciliation (Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflicts), Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

(7) Glynn S. Philips, "Ethics and Global Problems from a Non-religious View-point", in Peggy Morgan and Marcus Braybrooke, eds, Testing the Global Ethic: Voices from the Religions on Moral Values, Oxford, International Interfaith Centre and the World Congress of Faiths, Ada (Michigan), CoNexus Press, 1998, p. 147.

(8) For the concepts of globalization from above and globalization from below see Richard Falk, Predatory Globalization :A Critique, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1999, p. 125ff.

(9) Cf. Earth Charter Briefing Book, San Jose, Earth Council, 2000, p. 1.

(10) The text initially circulated was developed on the basis of a careful study of principles of environmental conservation and sustainable development by Steven C. Rockefeller, published by the Earth Council in 1996. The study included texts of UN documents on sustainable development, international treaties and law instruments, commission reports, NGO declarations and so on. It was aiming at identifying soft law principles that could guide the development of international law on environmental issues. Steven C. Rockefeller was also the chairperson of the drafting committee.

(11) Earth Charter Briefing Book, p. 1.

(12) Ibid.

(13) For the following paragraphs cf. Martin Robra, "Theology of Life -- Justice, Peace, Creation: An Ecumenical Study", in The Ecumenical Review, vol. 48, no. 1, Jan. 1996, pp.28-37; and Working on Theology of Life: A Dossier, Geneva, WCC-Unit III, 1998, esp. pp.54-61; and Lewis S. Mudge, The Church as Moral Community: Ecclesiology and Ethics in Ecumenical Debate, Geneva, WCC/New York, Continuum, 1998, pp. 132ff.

(14) Konrad Raiser, To Be the Church: Challenges and Hopes for a New Millennium, WCC, Geneva, 1997, pp.28-29.

(15) Cf. Robert Schreiter, New Catholicity, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis, 1997.

(16) Cf. the report of the consultation on "The Responsibility of Religions to Humankind" in September 1999 in Geneva. This was organized by Pierre Calame from the Alliance for a Responsible World and the Leopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind together with Jean Fischer, the former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, and Hans Ucko, WCC programme staff working on interfaith dialogue.

(17) From a letter from Konrad Raiser to Pierre Calame, Geneva, 1 February 2000; cf. also Mudge, The Church as Moral Community, pp. 119ff.

(18) Cf. Wolfgang Sachs, Planet Dialectics, London, Zed Books, 1999 p.93ff.

(19) Reports on the Bangkok meeting can be ordered from WARC and CCA. Information on Colloquium 2000 can be found on the world-wide-web at and through Kairos Europa.

Martin Robra (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany) is programme staff in the WCC team on Justice, Peace and Creation.
COPYRIGHT 2000 World Council of Churches
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Robra, Martin
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Oct 1, 2000
Previous Article:Inter-religious Encounter.
Next Article:Religious Liberty in Contemporary India.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters