The limits of a global economy

Spiritual leaders say one giant marketplace must not trample the values of other cultures

As antiglobalization protesters scuffle with police wherever the major powers' financial or political leaders gather, representatives of the world's faiths are speaking with a quieter, yet equally intense concern.

"The American view of globalization is people all over the world ... adapting an American consumerist lifestyle. We must recognize this is not true globalization," says David Frawley, a Hindu scholar. "To the degree that globalization emphasizes consumerism and the creating and satisfying of desires, it is out of alignment with Hindu beliefs, which are about taming desires."

Recognizing the impact of religious thought on how people react in the world, award-winning journalist Ira Rifkin set out to explore why those "who come from a religious background seem so agitated by the way globalization is working itself out."

In a recent interview, the former national correspondent for Religion News Service discussed the import of his findings, published in a thought-provoking new book, "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval" (Skylight Paths). A lucid introduction to the values and ethics of eight major faiths, the book highlights both positive and negative impacts of globalization and the diversity of views within the traditions.

"We are living in the country that is the prime winner so far, so perhaps it seems more of a success [to Americans] than it really is," Mr. Rifkin says.

To many from both East and West, globalization is not only failing to fulfill its economic promises but is also undermining cultural identities that have supplied meaning and purpose for generations. Frawley and others see its inherently secular and materialistic values as the fundamental issue.

Conflict also exists between short- and long-term perspectives. "The main concern of religion is what is best for the individual and society over the long term," Rifkin explains. "Globalization is short-term oriented - how to maximize profits today, create political stability today, raise standards of living today."

Religious groups have benefited along with others from its positive aspects - such as facilitating the spread of faith. Rifkin talks with young Indian high-tech workers who moved to the US for well-paying jobs; searching for an anchor in a foreign culture, they found deep meaning in their Hindu faith, which had been little more to them than cultural wallpaper back in India.

Those of the Bahai faith, which sees the world as a reflection of God's unity, embrace globalization as part of God's plan, but see a need for more justice in economic and financial decisionmaking.

Indeed, for all faiths that come out of the Abrahamic tradition, Rifkin says, the most basic concern is justice. "Those traditions conceptualize God as being a just God, and we as individuals must lead a just life," he says. From individual churchgoers to religious leaders, Christians, Jews, and Muslims are grappling with how to bring that value to bear on the globalization dynamic.

Pope John Paul II, for example, has emphasized that the economic system must serve human beings, not the other way around, and has called for a new definition of prosperity and international regulation of corporations and markets.

For Eastern religions, the great value is individual and societal harmony, and that which disrupts that ethical pursuit "is a negative on the spiritual path and a negative in terms of the community structure," Rifkin says.

Buddhism, for instance, emphasizes generosity, compassion, and the interconnectedness of all life, plus a sense of universal responsibility. Greed, which many feel globalization fosters, is one of Buddhism's three "poisons."

In Rifkin's book, Thai activist Sulak Sivaraska laments the "seduction" of his country by globalism, which, while boosting its economy, he says has devastated its traditional culture, leaving it awash in "sex tourism, Coca-Cola, and unregulated capitalist nightmares."

"Globalization has shaken people's identity to such a degree that they are adrift in ways perhaps they have never been before," says Rifkin, who reported from several parts of the world.

The most visible reaction has come in the Muslim world. "Islam, like traditional Christianity, sees itself as God's chosen form of globalization," he says. "So if you have an alternative vision coming from the West - a secularized form of Christian culture - it's seen as an interloper."

To avoid a long conflict between the West and Islam, he emphasizes, "the best hearts and minds in both worlds must seek accommodation - take time to understand the very deepest motivations of the other side, which come out of religious values."

Rifkin contends that all peoples act out of a conscious or subconscious religious context. Globalization itself, with its vigorous promotion of freedom and individualism, has been called by some in the West "Protestantism without God."

What is the prospect for religion bringing its ethics to bear on globalization? The Jubilee 2000 movement is its one great success story, in which faith-based groups were key to moving the industrialized countries to give significant debt relief to the world's poorest nations.

Today, some religious groups seek ways to blend local values with globalization - in a new movement called "glocalization." The world's bankers and corporate executives invite religious leaders to their World Economic Forum, where they press for spiritual as well as material needs to be acknowledged and respected.

Showing that respect is the first step, Rifkin says, respect for the ways others structure their lives, their values and beliefs.

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