This inequality is not new. But as the UK Prime Minister David Cameron said recently, "More unequal societies do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator". A new survey by the World Economic Forum reports that its members foresee widening economic disparities as one of the two main global risks over the next decade (alongside failings in global governance). (1) Should the ecumenical family remain silent? Certainly not. Under the theme of the 10th WCC Assembly, God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace, this issue must be addressed by churches and the ecumenical family. Greed destroys people, societies and God's creation. Ecumenical initiatives since the Porto Allegre Assembly in 2006 have studied the link between poverty, wealth and ecology, as well as the issue of structural greed, and they have been identified as the root cause of the current crisis. In a letter on the financial crisis addressed in 2009 to the Group of 20 rich countries, the WCC pointed out that "we are witnessing an era when greed has become the basis of economic growth". (2)
Even prior to 2008-2009, when the global financial and economic crisis struck, greed was evident in the global economic system in widening income inequality among and within countries. Since the 1980s, in fact, the income share of the top 20 percent of the population has been expanding in nearly all countries. In more than half of developing nations, the richest 20 percent of the population received over 50 percent of the national income, while those at the bottom experienced little improvement in living standards. Empirical studies have linked these developments to the global shift toward more market liberalization, privatization and deregulation--policies that have tended to benefit the haves more than the have-nots. The rise in income inequality was accompanied in global and national incomes by an increase percentage reported as profits and a shrinking share as wages.
Another reason for studying structural greed is that the ecological crisis has raised awareness that the Earth's resources and its capacity for absorbing waste are limited. The global population's consumption has already exceeded the planet's regenerative limits by more than 20 percent, warranting radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and overall consumption, especially by rich nations, who have used more than their fair share of the global atmospheric and other ecological commons. Konrad Raiser, citing De Lange and Goudswaard, writes that, "Only by defining the upper limits of consumption and thus of income for the rich can the real needs of the poor be satisfied and the impact of the economy on the environment be brought under control."
The 2003 study project on "Christianity, Poverty and Wealth", sponsored by the Association of WCC-related Development Organizations in Europe, raised fundamental questions in this area including how to develop wealth or greed lines to stand in counterpart to poverty lines. In response to these challenges, the WCC convened the Greed Line Study Group, which has met twice and posed the following questions:
Can excessive wealth be defined as concretely as we sometimes define poverty? Is there a wealth line above which no one should rise just as there is a poverty below which no one should be allowed to fall? Can we speak of "relative wealth" in the way we speak of "relative poverty" so focusing once again on the unacceptable disparities within communities and countries, rich or poor, as well as between them? What might be the indicators of excessive wealth to stand alongside poverty indicators?
This issue of Ecumenical Review makes available to readers the first contributions of study group members on the issue of greed. You will note that the views of the group members are varied. The subject is approached from economic, theological, sociological, ecological and ethical perspectives. There are attempts to define greed and structural greed. Readers will note the marked differences between greed and self-interest and desire. The article by Michael H. Taylor offers ideas on this aspect. Edward Dommen rescues John Calvin's views from their usual portrayal, and Lucas Andrianos and Carlos Larrea highlight attempts to calculate greed, wealth line and greed lines.
Will the study help to change the current problems we are dealing with? The mantra that "greed is good" and the notion that unlimited wealth accumulation brings happiness have, in recent decades, become familiar and popular. While greed has of course existed since time immemorial, there is arguably more tolerance, even approval, of it in present days. More critically, greed appears to have become officially sanctioned and entrenched in our economic systems--the intrinsic goals of which are to grow limitlessly, to generate the highest possible returns in the shortest timeframe and to maximise utility or pleasure from the consumption of material goods.
Raiser contends that, "Since the economic order of capitalism is based on the individualism of the homo oeconomicus and the pursuit of 'rational' self-interest, it not only fosters greed but depends on the unlimited desire of greed." It is now apparent that this is an issue of the ecumenical family and churches, because it is a spiritual problem. The "spirituality of consumption" is what sustains the dynamics of capitalism--for in the current market society, goods have become "icons" of self-realisation and happiness. Says Raiser: "What we are calling greed' is regarded as perseverance in the pursuit of complete self-fulfilment".
So what can the churches do? It is evident that the issues raised by the AGAPE document in Porto Allegre in 2006 have now become a reality. From the foregoing it is clear that there is strong biblical justification for placing limits on or overcoming greed in various levels. What then is the role of churches? What steps could churches take to address the problem? For Jung Mo Sung, theology and Christian churches have a role to play in uncovering the mythic uses of the notion of the incarnation of God and the falsehood that greater consumption and economic success lead to complete self-fulfilment. Theology could and must counter the "spirituality of globalised consumerism" and the idolatry of capitalism. Specifically, he proposes that: "Christian churches should witness to a spirituality that accepts the human condition and knows that our 'being' does not consist in possessions, in products, in grand mansions or imposing churches, but rather lies in loving relationships between people".
What change is envisaged by working for greed indicators or indices? Greed has to be analysed both individually and structurally, Deeper attention ought to be directed at systems of greed implanted in economic and political structures that legitimate and propagate a culture of greed that continues to rend the social and ecological fabric. The formulation and recognition of a greed line or greed indicators is, in and by itself, an act of spiritual discernment. At the same time, it could bring much-needed attention to this problem and encourage public discussion, leading to the institution of anti-greed measures at the structural level. It is hoped that the ecumenical family will have made a greater contribution to humanity and ecology by working further on this issue.
Dr Rogate R. Mshana is WCC Director for Justice, Diakonia and Responsibility for Creation, and Programme Executive for the Poverty, Wealth and Ecology and Their Links Project.
(1) "The Rich and the Rest", The Economist, January 22, 2011, p. 11.
(2) See the letter at http://www.oikoumene. org/resources/documents/ generalsecretary/messages-and-letters/27-03- letter-to-g20.html.
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|Author:||Mshana, Rogate Reuben|
|Publication:||The Ecumenical Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2011|
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