Globalization From Below

A mustard seed movement that might actually bail us out

Published in The Progressive Christian, March, 2009.

 The small towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley sit side by side, nestled in the forested Sierra Nevada foothills in Nevada County, California.  As in many communities, conservatives and progressives coexist and sometimes clash, including in the churches.  But despite headlines announcing war, ecological crisis, and a slowing economy, something hopeful is developing here.  The same could be said of your community.  A movement is afoot that in the eyes of the world may seem foolish and weak, but in God’s economy may express deep wisdom and lasting power.

Each Wednesday I shop at Briarpatch Cooperative in GrassValley, taking advantage of Senior Discount Day.  Locally-produced grains, organic produce, eggs, and free-range meat are highlighted throughout the store. On Wednesday evenings, once a month, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Mountains in Grass Valley fills up with people attending the regular meeting of Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy (APPLE), which sponsors films, speakers, and often a potluck, followed by discussion and planning for building a strong local economy based on food security, environmental sustainability, alternative energy, and support for local farmers and businesses. Members of local faith communities participate in these efforts and share home-grown produce, serve fair trade coffee, host films and forums, and organize an annual faith-based Earth Day event, which focuses on caring for the earth as a sacred trust from God.  Throughout our community people are working in countless ways to create a more compassionate and sustainable world, through the Food Bank, the Peace Center, Sierra Yuba River Citizen’s League (SYRCL), Hospitality House (a rotating homeless shelter program), and many other organizations.

Throughout the United States and around the world, communities are experimenting with locally-based initiatives that encourage support for small businesses, organic farms, environmental protection, and regional food self-sufficiency.  Small, local, human-scaled groups are forming networks and coalitions that cross regional and national borders to address issues of common concern.  Together, these networks form a widespread movement that is decentralized, diverse, creative, and engaged in various struggles around the world.  This multi-faceted movement has been called a “peoples’ globalization,” a “globalization from below.”  Though largely overlooked by the mainstream media, like a tiny mustard seed this “movement for global justice” may yet transform the world.

Progressive Christians differ in their views on globalization.  Many accept the dominant form of globalization as inevitable, as a given; discussion revolves around how Christians (or churches) can adapt to globalization while seeking to soften its negative impacts on people and the earth.  Only rarely is there serious discussion about how to resist the dominant form of globalization or radically restructure global society.  At the same time, countless socially-concerned Christians, congregations, and denominational leaders are actively involved in the very networks that make up the movement for global justice.  Their values converge.

One of the reasons for this incongruity is that the term globalization can mean different things.  The term as generally used implies market-based globalization, involving economic integration and trade liberalization, what some call the “Americanization” or the “McDonaldization” of the world.  This is, in essence, the model of a global shopping mall, with its benefits available only to those who have money.

Globalization can also mean the networking of people around the world based on shared values, respect for biological and cultural diversity, democratic processes, and concern for the common good—the model of a global village.  Though often merged in peoples’ minds, these are radically different ways of organizing global community.  And they are taking place simultaneously.

The goals, structures, and processes of the movement for global justice provide a striking contrast to those of the dominant form of globalization, which is based on an integrated “free market” global economy, driven by powerful transnational corporations, supported by an ideology often referred to as “Market Fundamentalism,” and enforced by U.S. military power.  Market-based globalization is focused upon wealth creation and economic expansion at the expense of people and the earth.  It depends upon turning the gifts of God’s good creation and the labor of God’s beloved children into commodities to be bought and sold.  It is fueled by speculation.  People in developing nations often speak of market-based globalization as “cultural imperialism” or “empire.”  It has also been called “corporate globalization.”

Market-based globalization is hierarchical.  Its primary goal is to expand free-market capitalism and to integrate every country on earth into one global market.  The rule-making institutions of the global economy, such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, impose one-size-fits-all development solutions and trade policies regardless of cultural differences.  As with all empires, this imposed globalization requires domination and violence.  As with all empires, it contains the seeds of its own destruction, as recent economic shocks have shown.

In contrast to this globalization of dominance, grassroots movements make up a form of peoples’ globalization built upon relationships of partnership and networks of people responding to poverty, war, injustice, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in endlessly creative ways.  Around the world, people who have been working passionately for years on various issues are seeing their causes converge; they are coming together in the struggle to resist global annihilation and to develop creative alternatives for a hopeful future.  This movement encompasses groups organizing for positive change in every country and on every continent.  The title of a book on this topic proclaims “We are everywhere.”[1]

Some of these networks have become truly global, such as the church-led Jubilee Movement to cancel the debt of poor nations; the student-led movement to eliminate sweatshops and child labor; the Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups that help indigenous groups and others resist the destruction of forests; union movements that reach out in solidarity beyond national borders; coalitions to resist the IMF, World Bank, and WTO; the global peace movement; and grassroots organizations working for United Nations initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Kyoto Protocol.  Together these networks are very powerful. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, global civil society has become the world’s “other superpower.”[2]

Although this movement has no overarching ideology or litmus test, shared values have emerged, including ecological sustainability, food security, the “precautionary principle,” human rights, strong local economies, and participatory democracy.  Paul Hawkins’ bestselling book on this topic is called Blessed Unrest:  How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World.  He describes this “movement of movements” as “coherent, organic, self-organized congregations involving tens of millions of people dedicated to change.”[3]  The movement’s mantra is “another world is possible.”

Progressive Christians and progressives from other faith communities can play a huge part in this process.  World views are shaped, minds are changed, spirits are transformed, and hearts are opened through sermons, Bible studies, fellowship, and mission.  Supportive, like-minded groups for study and action are formed within churches and through outreach into communities.  Concepts of mission are extended to create networks of fair trade, creation-care, and simple living.  Many churches are engaged in education and advocacy on the key issues of our day, both at the denominational and local church levels.  Some are engaged in resistance, providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, reaching out to disaffected GIs, and witnessing for peace in their communities or in war-torn lands.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann said that Christian hope is “hope that the world will be different.”[4]  Adaptation to the dominant form of market-based globalization is unacceptable.  It is not enough for progressive Christians to minister to its victims and soften its negative impacts upon people and the earth.  Of course, these things must be done.  But as followers of Jesus, we are also called to preserve and defend God’s good creation, resist the institutional Powers that threaten life and the future, join hands in solidarity with people around the world who seek to build a better world, and live out our hope that a peaceful, just, and sustainable world is possible.  As we do so, we may find truth in the words of Arundhati Roy, “Not only is another world possible.  She is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

[1] Notes from Nowhere, eds., We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anti-Capitalism (London/New York: Verso, 2003).

[2]. David Cortright, “Civil Society: The Other Superpower,” Disarmament Diplomacy 76 (March/April 2004), (accessed 3/7/07).

[3]  Hawkin, Paul, Blessed Unrest:  How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (Penguin Books, 2007), 4.

[4] Richard Bauckham, “Jürgen Moltmann,” in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1, ed. David E. Ford (Campbell, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 299.

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