Christians split over WTO
Some say free trade aids Third World nations;
opponents claim it worsens economic divide
By Sally Macdonald Seattle Times: Nov. 13, 1999
There may be as many Bibles in evidence as free trade tracts and environmentalist treatises when World Trade Organization ministers meet here this month.
Many of the people expected to take to the streets during WTO will be calling attention to what they see as God's will regarding free trade among nations.
They disagree on the details, but Christians are honing a message of concern for people of the Third World to bring before the WTO.
The four day event, which begins Nov. 30, will bring trade ministers from 135 countries to Seattle, as well as thousands of protesters. The organization, founded in 1995, makes and enforces rules for trade among nations.
Supporters say the WTO removes impediments to free trade and helps level the playing field for smaller countries. Some conservative Christians believe that free trade opens doors to missionaries in nations that might not welcome them otherwise.
Politically liberal Christians say the trade ministers aren't accountable to their governments and their global trade policies threaten the sovereignty of nations. They worry that uninhibited trade endangers indigenous cultures, encourages abuse of laborers and creates conditions that lead to environmental disasters. Ultimately, they say, WTO policies lead to a world in which the poor will never catch up with the rich.
Both sides say their opinions are rooted in the Bible.
Some Christians have joined the Jubilee 2000 movement, which is using the Seattle gathering as a forum to persuade Congress to forgive debts of Third World nations.
A level playing field?
"Theologically, my position has to do with creation in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions," said Gary Chamberlain, a Seattle University theologian who believes free trade is ethically sound only if it is fair trade. Chamberlain and other Seattle U. professors met Wednesday with students to explain the economic, environmental and ethical Issues the meeting raises.
"It is God who has ownership of the goods of creation," Chamberlain said in an interview. "We are just the stewards. When you have 1 1/2 billion people living in abject poverty while the rest live in resplendent wealth, there's something wrong."
Pope Paul VI, who authored a report on the issue in 1967, pointed out that economics requires nations to trade with one another. But under organizations like the WTO, Chamberlain said, rich nations will always retain the power to enact rules that benefit themselves.
"When you say free trade, it sounds good, but the odds historically have been stacked in the hands of the first world countries that colonized the Third World," Chamberlain said. "To talk about free trade as though it were an open playing field ignores history."
Chamberlain and others say they are concerned about a global economy being a catalyst to homogenizing cultures.
Japan, for example, has long placed a spiritual value on rice, its staple food. Under WTO global trade rules, Japanese rice farmers haven't been able to compete against cheaper imported rice, Chamberlain said.
Christian values evolving with world
The notion of accumulating wealth and goods was not a Christian value until fairly recently, said John Cobb, a theologian with the Claremont School of Theology's Center for Process Studies in California.
"Jesus specifically said, 'You cannot serve both God and wealth.' That doesn't mean wealth is a bad thing. It simply means we should not put wealth first."
But since about 1980, power has been shifting from national governments to international institutions "whose goal is simply economic growth," Cobb said.
To those who say economic growth puts have-not nations In a position to catch up with the rest of the developed world, Cobb answers, "Statistics say the gap in income between rich nation, and poor has become larger and larger. There may be a few people in developing countries whose lives are made better by free trade, but there are millions of people whose lives have been made worse."
Jubilee calls for debt cancellation
That is a concern of Jubilee 2000, a global movement that is calling on the U.S. and other wealthy nations, the International Monetary, Fund and the World Bank to cancel debts owed by poor countries.
It’s a notion found first in the biblical book of Leviticus, in which God calls on people to declare a jubilee year" every 50 years in which debts are forgiven and seized lands returned to their rightful owners. The idea is picked up later in the Scriptures by the Prophet Isaiah; and, in the New Testament, Luke relates how Jesus called for Isaiah's writings and preached deliverance of the poor and "the acceptable year of the Lord."
In the modem world, many of the poorest nations are paying so much interest on loans they have little left for schools and health care for their people, said the Rev. Peter Strimer of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral. Strimer is helping organize a Jubilee 2000 human chain during WTO to call attention to the effort.
Some Christians support WTO
Not all Christians believe the WTO's approach to free trade is suspect.
A new group, Working Families for Free Trade, is planning a rally on the eve of WTO to counter protests and the Jubilee 2000 demonstration. According to a press release, the group is concerned that protesters "unrepresentative of mainstream Seattle residents will portray Puget Sound as being unfriendly to trade."
The group says it is a coalition of groups that espouse "free trade, Christian values and economic development." The rally will feature Randy Tate, leader of the Christian Coalition, and King County Republican Chairman Reid Davis.
Conservative Christians are concerned that closing the door to trade in other countries also closes the door to evangelism, said Tate, a former congressman from Puyallup.
Open markets are linked to religious freedom, he said, and free trade makes it possible for religious workers to monitor human rights conditions and distribute Bibles in countries that once barred them.