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Faith leaders share AGAPE document — a vision of a caring economy

“That’s what church is all about,” sighed an elderly, rural South African woman in relief, as she stood at the entrance of her church and watched people in the church share food and life stories in small groups with the wider neighborhood.

Andrea Froechtling

German theologian Andrea Froechtling told that story as part of a mutirão—Portuguese for workshop-—on AGAPE at the WCC’s assembly.

A document and movement called AGAPE, sparked by the Caribbean Conference of Churches, offers an alternative to the economic globalization of multinational corporations. 

“AGAPE,” referring to God’s unconditional, self-sacrificial love, is the acronym for a WCC document “Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth: A Call to Love and Action.”

Prepared through the WCC’s Commission for Justice, Peace and Creation under the direction of the Central Committee, it was approved for use in the Feb. 16 plenary on economic justice.

Panelists for the mutirão were among those who worked on preparing it.  Along with Andrea, they were Jooseop Keum of Korea; Pamela Brubaker of California, and Ofelia Ortega, of the Christian Institute of Theological Studies in Cuba.

Andrea continued her story, describing what happened to the fruit, maize and sugar cane brought to the altar for the Eucharist service.

The South African woman, whom Andrea met while living there, next said:  “If you live a life that shares, then you know what the giver and sustainer of life wants you to do.  God is a great sharer of concern, of justice, of all we need for life, and I guess discipleship means we just follow suit.”

Andrea, author of Being the Church Beyond the South-North Divide, said that sharing what matters most in life goes back to the early life of the church.  It goes back to the meaning that sharing of a meal has in many religious and cultural communities.

The AGAPE process proceeds in footprints that already paved the way, she said, listing some of those footprints:

• A meal concluded God’s covenant with the Hebrew people, according to the book of Exodus.

• During the exodus, God provided manna for the day, offering an economy of enough for a day on the way through the desert.

• The early Christians lived together in an agape community, sharing all they had with each other.

• Jesus’ stories of the banquet, placing those at the margins at the center stage, provided another model of agape.

“As people of faith, we are storied people.  It is by no accident that many stories of our faith tradition are stories of alternatives, of different ways of living in just and caring relationships,” Andrea said.  “Living alternatives as people of faith means giving birth to the hope that is within us.”

The AGAPE process seeks to provide an incarnation of our faith and hope.  It is driven by faith in the one who said:  “I have come so that all may have life in its fullness.”

As an alternative globalization addressing people and earth, AGAPE is based on stories of faith and the challenging, prophetic voice of the Gospel tradition, she said.

“As a process, it needs people to embark on it, people who will embody the hope, people who will confront structures and powers leading to death, people who will live an agape theology of life,” Andrea concluded.

Jooseop Keum and Pamela Brubaker

Jooseop, executive secretary for Christian World Mission, said churches should take a firm faith stance that gives life to a suffering creation when life is at stake. 

“Globalization is a matter of life and death for the majority of people in the southern hemisphere,” he said.  “It integrates everyone’s lives into a single economic system.  Its ideological message is that the global marketplace will save the world.”

It is a vehicle bringing a form of unity in contrast to religious and cultural plurality, a unity like the Roman Empire brought in Jesus’ time, Jooseop said.

“That empire united market and culture ostensibly to bring prosperity and peace to all people,” he described.  “The Roman emperor, claiming to be ‘good news,’ forced people to be subject to him and worship him.  The emperor was bad news for Galilee.  Globalization then was for the benefit of Roman citizens, not everyone,” said Jooseop, former general secretary for the National Youth Association of the Presbyterian Church of Korea.

“Jesus introduced an alternative, a globalization of the kingdom of God, recognizing that each nation brought new insights to everyone.

The Roman Empire did not allow the existence of small nations.  They were subject to the empire.  Jesus countered that by teaching that people were subjects of God’s kingdom, he said.

Jooseop—who earned a doctoral degree in 2002 in mission and ecumenism from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World—added that Paul established the early Church as an alternative community, a globalization from below, an alternative to the empire.

“A message from the early church is that globalization of the church is in opposition to globalization of empire,” he said.  “It  is the call of and to the Christian church throughout history.

“A strong mission-centered, prophetic approach is a call for the churches and the ecumenical movement to translate the traditional concept to churches—preaching, schools, hospitals, strengthening institutions.  We forget what we are for—to convert to the church to seek Jesus as an alternative to the Roman Empire to give those suffering an alternative to the Roman Empire.”

He called for returning to the heart of Christian communities, to refocus and shape church life, to do theological critique on globalization, to seek a spiritual base for alternative mission programs, so people share in a sustainable, just approach to development.

A video shown during the mutirão gave background, saying that since the 1970s, large, neo-liberal, globally controlled, multinational corporations and financial institutions have been at the base of an economic globalization that impoverishes people with structural adjustments.  The process has created rich and poor countries and has created a widening gap between rich and poor people within countries.

Globalization that means the majority of people suffer while some live “obscenely well”  is at the heart of the social justice concern in the WCC and its member churches.

In the Caribbean, unfair trade arrangements affect agriculture, leading farmers to abandon farms that are no longer viable, leaving the land and going to the city, where they are marginalized.

For Pam, a member of the Church of the Brethren and professor of religion at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., AGAPE speaks to women abused by economic globalization, struggling for survival with loss of livelihoods. 

“Women who care for life search for an alternative economy based on their value of caring,” she said.  “Neo-classical economics is not natural law.  Feminist economics refers to economies that can be sustained and that value caring community.

“The ecumenical movement and churches need to promote caring economies for sustaining life in the oikos, the household,” added Pam, who co-chairs the Sweatshop Action Committee of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles.

“The method of economic analysis is based on understanding that unpaid, caring labor—giving birth, feeding families, rearing children, caring for the sick, supporting the elderly—has value in the overall economy.”

In fact the “caring” sector of the economy makes the overall economy possible.

It maintains life outside the marketplace.  There would be no production in the marketplace without this social economy, Pam said.

“Women have a negative experience with an economy rooted in material and the moral devaluation of women’s reproduction and caring.  The GDP would increase by 30 to 40 percent if this sector of the economy were replaced by paid labor,” she said, pointing out that the exclusion and invisibility of this work diminishes the economy of life of those who produce food and prepare meals.

She urges churches to advocate caring communities, so that what can be drudgery can be seen as enriching everyone.

If caring for human life takes precedence over production, she hopes that societies’ priority of spending money to destroy life will be called into question.

As an example of caring economy, Pam said, Brazil pays a stipend to poor families, especially single mothers, so their children can go to school.  That has improved attendance at school and literacy so people can have decent jobs.  It recognizes that unpaid, nonmarket work has a transforming impact on the entire economy.

Ophelia and Aldo
Methodist Bishop Aldo Etchegoyen of Argentina with Ofelia Ortega of Cuba

Ofelia, who was elected at this assembly as one of the eight presidents of the WCC, said, “Women deal with alternatives. contributing their persistence, interpolation (questions), intervention and transformation.”

She told of meeting with some  Orthodox women at an assembly and hearing them talk about 1 Cor. 12 on using the charisma being about using people’s diverse gifts for the common good.

She has also met with women who speak of agriculture for life, not for production and profit. 

“There is unity in Latin America and the Caribbean in responding to the free trade agreements.  Our churches are involved because they know what free trade has meant for Mexico,” she said.

The struggle for water is a lesson of life, she believes.  It embodies solidarity and sharing, opposing free-market intrusion, seeking to make a natural resource that should be available for the common good, into a commodity of private business.

Women are also speaking about water as a basic necessity of life and as a human right, an issue that affects the whole world now and in the future as private corporations seek to own water rights.

“In ‘water wars’ in Bolivia, women helped kick out a private water company, Bechtel, using the four principles—persistence, interpolation, intervention and transformation,” Ofelia added. 

“Women are at the heart of promoting managing water as a public resource for communities. 

“Water is essential for all of life.  We use water to cook, clean, bathe.  Water is basic to life.  Private companies increase rates and claim ownership of water.  Women protest.  We have found solidarity to access water sources that have always been ours,” Ofelia pointed out.

Porto Alegre, for example, also has moved from a private to public water system because of citizen pressure.

“There is spiritual meaning for rural women struggling for water, resisting privatization, organizing blockades and talking with police,” Ofelia said.

Citizens of Cochabamba, Bolivia, organized and expressed their concerns.  Months of massive public protests forced out Bechtel—worth more than $40 billion or about 10 times Bolivia’s public expenditures—after it took over the city’s public water company and hiked rates up 200 percent, which was way beyond what the city’s poor could afford.

Other Latin American communities are also resisting privatization and restoring water as a public utility.

Ofelia recommends that water be excluded from free trade agreements and that commercialization of water should end.

“It should be recognized as a social right and human right,” she said.  “Maintaining a public water system reflects the needs and rights of women, contributing to the society and economy their gift of caring.”

The panelists concluded that an alternative economy that recognizes the value of women’s contributions is about sharing and caring—about God’s kingdom rather than human empires of nations or corporations.

The AGAPE document calls for eradication of poverty and inequality, just international trade, responsible lending and debt cancellation, sustainable use of land and natural resources, public goods and services, land reform and ecological farming practices, decent jobs and emancipated work, and churches transforming unjust power systems.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - © March 2006