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Inviting Everyone to "the Banquet of the Kingdom": The Global Economy and Cultures Project

By William Bole

(published in the Yearbook of the Society of Jesus, 2002)

"The globalization of the world economy and society proceeds at a rapid pace ... [and] while this phenomenon can produce many benefits, it can also result in injustices on a massive scale... The Society must try to assist in the formation of an effective international network so that . at this level, our mission can be carried out." -- 34th Jesuit General Congregation

Some people sing praises to it, lifting it up as a golden calf. Others curse it, sometimes forgetting to light a candle in the darkness. Most of us, though, aren't quite sure what to make of it."It" is globalization, usually defined as the spread of free-market economies to virtually everywhere. The phenomenon has literally incited riots in world capitals, during trade and financial meetings. Now, a loose network of Jesuits from around the world is taking a different tack. In the spirit of Ignatian reflection, they are seeking to understand, in hopes of helping to transform, the global processes.This is hardly just a theoretical exercise. All of the Jesuit social research and action centers taking part in the five-year project are operating on the ground of communities grappling with seismic social changes. Consider some of the stories emerging from the Global Economy and Cultures Project, coordinated by the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

  • In the landlocked, central African nation of Chad, villagers in the south are struggling to understand how an oil pipeline will transfigure life and ways, along with a sense of the sacred, cultivated over thousands of years. Oil companies plan to compensate villagers for any fruit trees destroyed by pipeline construction. The villagers worry, though, about losing access to fishing, hunting, and farming as well as sacred sites. Distressing to many is the very thought of fixing a dollar value onto mango trees often planted to mark the burial of an ancestor, on ground that is sacred to them.
  • In Ireland, the booming economy has produced many winners, who have second homes in the countryside and proliferating consumer items. But these "winners" can give the impression of no longer needing God. That is one cloud on the cultural horizon. Another is a global media culture that has fueled what Father Tom Giblin, S.J., of the Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin calls the "sexualization" of Irish adolescence.

  • In India, many rural people see a threat to what they consider a cultural treasure: the centuries of shared knowledge about the curative uses of their many indigenous herbs and plants, such as turmeric and ginger. It is a therapeutic tradition that mingles, in many tribal communities, with rites of worship. But India is also a signatory to trade treaties that necessarily have rules for international property rights. Which means the government, under the World Trade Organization's vigilant eye, must sell off exclusive rights for making and marketing these herbal remedies. Already, international pharmaceutical firms are queuing up for exclusive patents on these new "products." Some wonder if the traditional herbal arts practiced in millions of households will soon mutate into anonymous transactions over the drugstore counter.

These are bits of 43 narratives drafted by approximately three dozen Jesuit centers on five continents and compiled by the Woodstock Center. Through the storytelling technique, participants in the cooperative project are aiming to understand how economic globalization affects the way people "live, think, feel, organize themselves, celebrate, and share life." In a word, culture.

The Global Economy and Cultures Project has its genesis in the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (1995). The decree, "Our Mission and Justice," stated that while globalization may produce many benefits, it could also result in "injustices on a massive scale." Among other signs of these times, the document pointed to economic structural adjustment programs (of particular consequence in Africa) and "market forces unfettered by concern for their local impact." The congregation also warned against an unhealthy, homogeneous "modernization" of cultures.

During GC 34, Father James L. Connor, S.J., Woodstock's director, began talking with his counterparts about the possibility of joint endeavors involving Jesuit social centers. From those conversations in Rome came the idea of a collaborative focus on globalization. It is the most extensive collaboration of its kind among Jesuit social centers worldwide.

In explaining Woodstock's way of interpreting globalization, Father Connor points to a fundamental conviction of Christian and Ignatian spirituality. "However sinful a situation is, however oppressive an experience might be, Christ is there present, working, struggling, shaping, calling out to us for our active companionship with him. We need to look for Christ in the ambiguous, painful, exploitative situations in our economy and cultures and world. And we need to do this together, because it is a communal or corporate discernment."

These are intensely ambiguous social processes, sometimes corrosive, sometimes hopeful -- and often barely detected on the global screen. The stories gathered by Jesuit centers, which normally conduct their investigations below the radar of global financial and media networks, illustrate the moral ambiguity of economic globalization.

Take, for example, the promise and parallel threat of oil development in Chad and Cameroon. With backing from the World Bank, an international oil consortium led by Exxon Mobil Corp., is building a nearly 700-mile pipeline that will transport oil to Cameroon's Atlantic port -- and from there, to Western markets. World Bank officials call the project a test case of globalization.

The Chad government will surely reap millions of dollars in annual oil revenue from the consortium. However, many worry that the money will be soaked up by government corruption. More than that, they fear for their traditional ways.

"For these people, land is their life," notes Father Debi Yomtou, S.J., who helped prepare the Chad narrative. The villagers have always considered themselves guardians of land entrusted to them by their ancestors. But now they are told that all of it belongs to the state. "The people are going to lose something very important to them, the land and what it means to them," adds Father Berilengar Antoine, S.J., another Chadian who is studying at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Even so, the people are not simply or entirely against oil development. Some who cultivate cotton, introduced in the 1920s during the colonial period, are staggering from its sagging price in global markets. They look to oil as a possible solution, but warily. Mainly, the villagers "want to be listened to" by various actors in this global development drama, says Father Antoine.

The Global Economy and Cultures Project has held two international consultations at Georgetown University (1999 and 2000). (It also publishes a monthly newsletter on the activities of participating centers.) During these fall consultations as well as regional meetings, representatives of Jesuit centers have followed the Ignatian method of prayerful discernment. For example, participants take time to "reflect on the meeting, writing their consolations, desolations, and unanswered questions," notes Father Gasper F. Lo Biondo, S.J., an economist and Woodstock senior fellow who is coordinating the project. Through it all, they have found unity and depth.

"Fundamentally, there is something that is extremely positive about this whole movement of making the world one. It's an expression of Creation, God's creation. This is good," says Father Ricardo Falla, S.J., articulating a theological narrative latent in these stories from many lands. "But as in Creation, there is also sin. This whole thing could be used to dominate" and suppress people and cultures, says Father Falla, who coordinates the Central American Province's Social Apostolate Commission, in Honduras. He adds that North Americans and Europeans look at this reality primarily from a Creation perspective, while people who live in the periphery tend to focus on the sinful side, from the perspective of those who are suffering.

Core participants in the project represent Jesuit centers in Africa (Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, in addition to the informal Chad group); the Middle East (Lebanon); India (six states); East Asia (Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Korea, Taiwan); Latin America and the Caribbean (Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela); North America (Canada, United States); Central and Eastern Europe (Poland, Russia); and Western Europe (Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom). A sister project is specifically addressing the seldom-discussed impact of globalization on cultures in the United States.

As the narratives are refined, the Woodstock Center will engage ethicists in a process of assessing the narrative data. The end product of the Jesuit collaboration -- in 2003 -- will be a document that presents ethical guidelines for leading actors on the global stage, "something with teeth in it," says Father Lo Biondo. These global players range from policy makers and business executives to trade unions and non-governmental organizations.

Quoting from the GC 34, Father Lo Biondo explains that the project's ultimate purpose is to help discover the Lord, laboring "to build up a world order of genuine solidarity, where all can have a rightful place at the banquet of the Kingdom."