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Reconciliation through identification with others

By Matthew Greco
8/1/2003
[Special to Episcopal News Service] 

For Abagail Nelson, the director of Latin American programs for Episcopal Relief and Development, shrimp are an apt symbol of both the inequity and complexity of economic issues that affect both the developing and the developed world.

While traveling to Ecuador as a 20-year-old exchange student, she saw that much of its coastal economy ran on shrimp and became fascinated by how much Ecuadorians knew about the United States and in turn how little Americans knew about them Later, she returned to Ecuador to follow the shrimp trail from the water to the plate. In the process she lived with larva fishermen, learned how to throw a net, met activists who wanted to stop the cutting of mangrove forests by shrimp farmers, who in turn were worried about illnesses that could decimate their harvests.

Nelson is one of three young people selected by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold to represent both the church’s response to globalization and to witness the possibility of global reconciliation at  "God’s Mission in a Global Perspective," July 31. She says her journey into the world of shrimp helped her enter into a multitude of different points of view. “I became more committed to these webs of interrelatedness and more dedicated to holding their faces before me as I tried to reconcile their lives to my one of choice, travel and privilege.”

Each of us must ask what kind of link in the chain we will be, Nelson said. But she doesn’t think it’s worth time feeling guilty for having clean water or nice things. Nor should we waste time trying to justify our way of life to others. Instead, she said, “I believe that God calls each of us to stretch ourselves to truly identify with another reality. Walk in another’s shoes for a while. See what the pebble feels like from his or her perspective.”

In this kind of intercession, each of us can redeem our own lives, Nelson said, and realize “there but for God’s will sit I. When we mutually enter into another’s space, we become part of a transformation of grace that leads us to dedicate our gifts to helping the marginalized, to those left out, the losers, the victims.”

This kind of thinking can be scary at first, Nelson said. “But God does not call us to be comfortable. He calls us to be whole. In wholeness we learn that oppressive systems limit the oppressor as much as they do the oppressed. In wholeness we reorder the priorities of our lives, our jobs, our purchases and use our gifts and talents, our education and our money so that there are no more victims.”

A show of 'revolutionary love'

For Ranjit Mathews, an intern at the Office of the Anglican Observer at the United Nations, inequities and injustices in the global economy can be hard to fathom, let alone reconcile. Why isn’t there the same moral outrage when every week 3,000 people in South Africa die of AIDS as there was when the atrocity of Sept. 11 occurred, he asked. While many in the developing world are asking where there next meal is coming from, “somebody like me is asking, ‘What meetings should I attend here at General Convention?’” The line engendered a laugh, but first-world comfort comes at a heavy price, Mathews noted. “Would we rather live in a place where everything we do is of ultimate importance because our very lives depend on it, where even our faith is not just an appendage, but the force that keeps us alive?”

Meanwhile, the church sends out missionaries to places like South Africa to tell them about Christ, Mathews said. But “how can we at the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society speak of Christ in the developed world, when all the while, our countries and their institutions are causing so much death and starvation? Which country really needs missionaries?” he asked.

Last year working as part of the Young Adult Service Corp, Mathews said he met the head of a South African AIDS lobbying group, who refused to take antiretroviral medicines because his countrymen and -women were not privileged enough to have the same access. Although this man was an atheist, Mathews said, “It was as if I was being evangelized to believing that God has many, many different faces and that I shouldn’t let my own prejudices of what I think God is constrain the possibility of God.”

This is where Christians need to step in, and let people know they are valued by the living God, Mathews said. This is especially true in the face of policies by international organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that may not be looking to raise the dignity of the poor. “If this is the case, then the church must say something, the church must be a witness and raise its prophetic mantle. For isn’t the business of the church to witness to the ultimate reconciler, Jesus Christ?” Mathews asked.

Acknowledging it will be painful, he said it’s a path the church must take. Christians must recognize that it is the spiritual malnourishment of the developed world that has caused such deep poverty in the developing world.

As St. Paul said, we must become new beings, Mathews said. “Must we not leave our comfort zone and stand in solidarity with the people of the developing world through a showing of revolutionary love?”

Reconciliation through faith

For the Rev. Dr. Sabina Alkire, who has worked at the World Bank, Harvard University and the United Nations Commission on Human Security, a Muslim saying about the West is a fitting critique of the state of the developed world: modern ‘man’ has burned his hand on a fire he kindled when he forgot who he is.

And who we are includes the web of relationships that make us all human. For Alkire, an economist, that means improving living conditions — even for the poorest of the poor — is  not all about the tangible but involves nonmaterial relationships. She spoke of a Pakistani woman whom she helped set up a rose-growing business. As the business became successful, the woman said she felt she was doing holy work because her roses were used in weddings.

So, rather than simply help people to be less poor, the church needs to help people live fuller, more related lives, Alkire said. In doing so, the discussion shifts from money to one of ethics and other approaches and other values. “It’s a richness we’ve forgotten,” she said.

Relatedness has other connotations as well — poverty can’t be understood except in context, she said. Some sixteen of the world’s 20 poorest countries are in conflict or at war. Yet, 83 percent of the world’s arms trade is produced by the five members of the U.N. Security Council, who are supposed to protect the world’s security, and two-thirds of that production goes to the developing world.

Other numbers also give context to global poverty. There are two billion Christians in the world today, controlling about one-quarter of the world’s wealth. If Christians truly lived up to their name, there wouldn’t be such poverty today, she said.

So what should we do? As Christians we are called to listen, though we don’t always understand. While that may sound simplistic, it will give us the strength to help. At times in our listening, Alkire said, we will see not crocuses but the cross — the symbol of our faith. But it is our faith that gives us the dogged durability to remain open, which can lead us to reconciliation.