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Seeing the Globalised World from Both Sides of the River

Frank Brennan SJ
Society of Jesus, Procurators' Congregation
Loyola, Spain
September 2003

At the Procurators' Congregation in Loyola, 100 Jesuits were able to jet in, from all over the globe, meeting together for a week. Back home we can keep in touch by email, enjoying the benefits of globalisation. The modern ease of travel and communication are a blessing and opportunity for our mission. But these benefits are not shared equally in our world. New chasms between the rich and poor are carved out. New criteria distinguish the "haves" and "have nots".

The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development noted:

The rapid integration of markets, mobility of capital and significant increases in investment flows around the world have opened new challenges and opportunities for the pursuit of sustainable development. But the benefits and costs of globalisation are unevenly distributed, with developing countries facing special difficulties in meeting this challenge. We risk the entrenchment of these global disparities and unless we act in a manner that fundamentally changes their lives, the poor of the world may lose confidence in their representatives and the democratic systems to which we remain committed, seeing their representatives as nothing more than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals.

Typical of the NGO sector, the Society for International Development pointed out in its Hague Declaration in November 2002 that globalisation has "the potential for greater human development and prosperity on the one hand or alienation, disempowerment, impoverishment and polarisation on the other."

Back in 1985, I attended a meeting of Aborigines living on a riverbank in Northern Australia. The Aborigines had lived on a government reservation which was run by a church and which had since closed. Some of the people moved to government housing in a nearby town but they did not like it much and the neighbours liked it even less. Eventually they became fringe dwellers on land they regarded as their traditional country. They were seeking land title and money for houses from government. At the end of the meeting, the convenor pointed across the river and said, "See that house: that is Mr X's weekender. They don't come very often but when they do they come by helicopter. See that helipad on the roof. It cost $3/4 million." That was almost twice the amount they were seeking for basic permanent housing.

I have often told this story in schools. I once told the story to the final graduation class in one of our Jesuit schools. The teacher tried to reassure me with the observation that the boys asked the very same questions that all young people would ask about this situation. He thought the school had succeeded by providing the trusting space where the students could ask their questions. I was wondering what the effect of hours and hours of classes dedicated to social justice had been when the questions were the same at the end of the process, as you would have expected at the beginning. Especially in the more wealthy schools, there are many questions: Why don't the Aborigines build their own houses if they want them? What are they complaining about? If the white man didn't come, they wouldn't even have a water supply. If it weren't for Mr. X paying his taxes, there would be no money to pay these people welfare. After many years, I gave up trying to answer these questions or to refute these comments. In response, I ask only one question: Which side of the river are you standing on as you ask your questions?

There is never any doubt about which side of the river people are standing on. Can you see that there are just as many questions that can be asked from the other side of the river? They are just as unanswerable. They are likely to make you just as upset and powerless and confused. Where you stand depends on where you sit. Jesuits in a globalised world need to be able to stand on both sides of the river. We also need to assist with the bridge building needed so that others can move more readily from one side of the river to the other. Moving on both sides of the river, the moral actor is able to understand the interdependence of those on either side of the river and then to take a stand in solidarity with those who are marginalised, disadvantaged or dispossessed in any situation of political conflict and historic injustice. The bridge analogy works very well for many social conflicts when "golabalisation" is such a buzz word. It is simply an application of Jesus' invocation to the first disciples in John's gospel; "Come and see". When pacifist American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan was distressed by the activity of some of his Latin American Jesuit brothers who had identified with armed struggle and revolution, he found there was no substitute for responding to the invitation, "Come and see."

At the recent procurators' congregation, the image of the river proved useful as we wrestled with the intellectual content and the practical challenge of globalisation. In the discussion that followed there were some splendid additions made to the image of the river. Those with strong ecological concerns pointed out that the river was being poisoned all the time no matter which side of the river we were standing on, and this environmental damage was a disaster for everyone, regardless of which side of the river they stood. Others surmised that in the global village, the water mass was now more like a lake than a river. We move around finding many different perspectives on the water and on the shore.

In a globalised world, old borders are being removed or weakened, while new borders are being erected or strengthened. Those who have the wealth and the passport to enjoy the benefits are moving into a more borderless world. Being part of an international Order, we Jesuits can readily avail ourselves the benefits. But we need to have a discerning eye to the detriment, especially to those who do not enjoy our mobility or shared spirituality and commitment that renders transnational dialogue more achievable and less threatening to identity. When there is a fair exchange across the borderless world, all is well. But the removal of borders can also cause a one way flow of benefits, swamping the weaker partner. For example, in my home country Australia, there is presently a strong concern being expressed by the local film industry. They fear that a free trade agreement with the US could kill off the local industry, eventually undermining the strength of local arts and culture, subjecting all Australians to a "McDonalds" style culture diet.

New borders are being erected where none existed before. First world governments are competing with each other to design more stringent tests for the admission of asylum seekers. Mandatory detention of unvisaed asylum seekers, interdiction on the high seas followed by refoulement without the checking of asylum claims are becoming more acceptable practices. Border security in a post-September 11 world impacts most on bona fide asylum seekers and on travellers from the world's trouble spots who will be more readily excluded. Globalisation produces new divisions of rich and poor, including the information rich and the information poor.

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we are no longer a bipolar world. In the past, we accepted refugees who came from the same side of the bipolar conflict as we did. For example, Australia was generous to Vietnamese refugees because we fought on the same side as those who fled. But in the new world, refugees do not flee from conflicts backed by the bipolar superpowers. They flee inter-ethnic conflict in failing states. We have no public reason to treat them in any way than as foreigners having no special claim on our concern.

In a bi-polar world, we can define everyone as "us" or "them". In the new world, some want to distinguish between the Americans and the rest of us. Such categorisation hurts us all. Our globalised world is increasingly identified as a world dominated by one superpower advocating democracy and free market capitalism for all.

Jesuits in the first world are likely to be the natural, easy winners from increasing globalisation. Jesuits in the third world are likely to be more attuned to the downside, appreciating at first hand the exploitation and cultural death threatened by cash crops, junk food and culturally neutered mass media.

At the procurators' congregation we reflected on the need to study the light and darkness of globalisation in the light of gospel values. We need to display effective and affective solidarity. In the past, we have taken a uni-dimensional view. We Jesuits are strongly placed to be on both sides of the river, locally and internationally. We are uniquely positioned to use our position and to speak out. We are at our best when we have credibility with those who own the helicopters as well as with those who are dispossessed. We need to distinguish globalisation from the ideological dimension associated with the rebirth of liberalism, acknowledging that many of the world's problems pre-date globalisation.

Groum Tesfaye, the procurator from Ethiopia noted: "You can take the boy out of the village but you cannot take the village out of the boy. We can now keep the boy in the village by offering him better education in situ. Globalisation is presently degrading the villager's local life, but it could enhance local life. This faceless predator is affecting our ministry. With inter-provincial collaboration, we could do much for distance learning, bringing education into the village directly." Whether the waters around us be a pond or a river, we Jesuits need to keep mobile and grounded, surveying the water and terra firma from all perspectives, before acting with effective and affective solidarity with those caught in the mud of their circumstances or denied access to the bridge of other possibilities.


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