Volume 22 - Issue 2

Are We Truly Global?

By Vinoth Ramachandra

It is 15 August, and India has begun her 50th year of independence from British rule. I am travelling by train from Bangalore to Madras, musing on the day’s media offerings. The President’s address to the nation is on all the front pages. He reaffirms India’s ‘national sovereignty’ and her ‘right’ to pursue whatever policy she chooses. The context is India’s refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a refusal which has led to vilification in many sections of the Western media. The Indian position is that the treaty must be tied to a definite timetable for the eventual dismantling of all nuclear weapons by the present nuclear powers (namely, the USA, Britain, France, Russia and China).

I am deeply disturbed, as well as fascinated, by the underlying issues. On the one hand, I admire the Indian government’s courage in standing up to Western hypocrisy and hegemony. But, on the other hand, I believe that the desire to imitate the nuclear powers is itself demonic, stemming from false and foolish notions of security and power. The Cold War between India and Pakistan has served to legitimate the massive squandering of both human and material resources in the midst of enormous deprivations. Technological research that carries potential military benefits has no difficulty attracting funds, while other research that tackles problems of poverty and social decay languishes for lack of funds.

Moreover, what do slogans such as ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘the right to self-determination’ mean in a nuclear age? Radioactive fall-out, like other ecological disasters, does not respect political, ethnic or geographical boundaries. ‘A self-determining democracy’ is what every Western nation imagines itself to be; and it is what many in the South aspire to be. But if democracy means the right to participate in decision-making that affects my life and my community, then the conditions of late modernity seem to make democracy an impossible goal. A decision to build more nuclear reactors in India, for instance, affects the life-chances of people in neighbouring countries who share the risks while receiving none of the benefits. Similarly, American ‘domestic’ issues such as taxation, subsidies for farmers, interest rates and military spending have major repercussions on the economies of other nations. Yet the thought that other nations should be consulted for their views on what goes on in American politics, perhaps as a matter of moral principle, would be regarded with sheer surprise (if not righteous indignation) by even the most globally conscious of American citizens.

Here we touch on what sociologists have come to call globalization: the stretching of social relations across spatial boundaries, so that what affects me may have its origin not in my immediate neighbourhood but in some remote corner of the globe. While this process has been going on for the past couple of centuries, its scope and pace have intensified in the past couple of decades. I can communicate with a stranger in Tokyo more often (via my computer) than with my next-door neighbour. A reckless speculator on the New York futures market can precipitate the collapse of an African economy. The growth of an industrial conglomerate in South Korea can put workers in Chicago on the dole. The lucrative child adoption market for tourists in Asia is linked to falling sperm counts among European males, and the anti-social behaviour of children in a Sri Lankan village to the fashion of having foreign housemaids in Hong Kong and Singapore. We are increasingly interrelated, for better and for worse …

At the same time as we become aware of our global inter-dependence and vulnerability, we also experience the erection of new barriers between peoples. Ethnic nationalisms are on the rise, from Quebec to Fiji. In global perspective, both ‘Little England’ and ‘Fortress Europe’ are birds of the same feather. Countries with the most sophisticated communications systems are also the most insular, as anyone who has lived in the US or Britain will testify. For all the explosion in tourism and cable television, the American and European media still propagate the image of the South as a ‘black hole’ of squalor, war, famine and ecological disaster. Images of America and Europe that predominate in the South are of Hollywood glamour, sexually ‘loose’ women, uninhibited consumption and an effete Christianity. We tend to be exposed to the worst in each other’s cultures. Those who seek to build bridges of mutual learning and understanding are in short supply.

Given that the gospel is the story of God’s bridge-building work, isn’t it one of the responsibilities of a theological seminary to produce men and women who are bridge-builders? Alas, theological institutions in the West, by and large, seem ill-equipped to meet the challenges of globalization. The academic curriculum rarely reflects the changing nature of the world in which we live. Church History courses, for example, usually pay little attempt to the movement of the Church beyond its European or American expressions, despite the fact that Christianity in Asia predates that of many European (and certainly American) societies and, more importantly, that the ‘centre of gravity’ for the global Church has shifted in this century to the countries of the South. The only situation in which the typical theology student is likely to learn about other cultures, religions and the world of international politics is if he or she follows a course on ‘mission’ (or ‘missiology’ as it is called in North America). In the more academic institutions, these courses either do not exist or are optional electives.The idea that all biblical study and theological reflection should have a missionary dimension seems too radical a notion for the theological academy …

In a recent book on cross-cultural ethics, the American missionary-theologian (shouldn’t this be a tautology?) Bernard Adeney reminds us that the ‘social dynamic of Christianity is no longer primarily Western’ and that ‘the Bible and the West and God and society all look incredibly different when seen from Latin America, Asia or Africa’. He believes that ‘the best hope for a sustained critique of the current international order stems from a Christian social dynamic’, but is sceptical that this will come from the West. Why? Because the ‘centre of vital Christianity is in the Third World, and that is where the vision of the kingdom is best understood’.1

I am inclined to think that this is rhetorical exaggeration. But I have some sympathy for Adeney’s frustration with the insularity of his fellow-Christians in the West. In an increasingly inter-dependent world and a global Church that is now truly multicultural, and with access to communication tools that our forebears never imagined (let alone possessed!), there can be no excuse for remaining imprisoned within one’s own ecclesiastical and cultural blinkers.

To be ‘contextual’ in our theology is vitally important, but ‘contextualization’ is not the same as parochialism. The ‘context’ in which we all labour today is one on which other contexts impinge, in bewilderingly complex ways. Hence our need to support and encourage each other to (in the words of the old adage) ‘think globally while acting locally’. If we all, from North and South, are to be a truly global Christian community, we should heed the call of the late Kenyan theologian John Mbiti to ‘embrace each other’s concerns and stretch to each other’s horizons’.2

1 Bernard T. Adeney, Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World (Leicester: Apollos, 1995), p. 177.

2 J. Mbiti, ‘Theological impotence and the universality of the Church’, in G.H. Anderson and T.F. Stransky, Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies (New York: Paulist Press/Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 17.

Vinoth Ramachandra

Colombo, Sri Lanka