Globalization & Community: The BECs Challenge the Modern World (Amaladoss)

GLOBALIZATION AND COMMUNITY

The BECs Challenge the Modern World

Michael Amaladoss, S.J.,

            The Basic Ecclesial Communities, as the Church, is called to be on mission in the world. The context and goal of this mission is the establishment of God’s Kingdom in this world. It is from this point of view that we have to look at the modern world in order to explore in what way the BECs challenge the modern world in view of the Kingdom.  The BECs, of course, can choose to live apart, unconcerned about the modern world, busy with their religious practices, reading the Bible and celebrating the Eucharist.  Then it will be untrue to its mission.   The mission of the Church has been described as prophetic dialogue.  The prophetic Word comes from the good news of the Kingdom and challenges the world to conversion in view of becoming the Kingdom.  The Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is a community of freedom, fellowship and justice.  The Church is its symbol and servant.  It seeks to embody the Kingdom and at the same time to promote it in the world.  The Eucharist is its dynamic celebration.

Science, Technology and Consumerism

            In order to understand how the Church and the BECs challenges the world, we have to understand what and where the world is today.  We speak of the modern world.  What is modern about the world?  Modernity is usually contrasted to tradition. We should not confuse modernization with Euro-Americanization in a colonial and post-colonial setting. The modernity of the world can be understood from three different points of view. First of all the modern world is characterised by science and technology.  These are not totally new forces.  The discovery of the wheel and of the number zero (0) were epoch making.  But the impact of science and technology on the people and their lives in the last 200 years has been rapid and extensive.  Science seeks to discover nature’s laws and technology tries to use them through its machines. The result of the explosion of science and technology is a sense of knowledge and power.  This has led to the process of secularization where the humans affirm their autonomy from the divine.  If the relationship between God and the universe is that of a Creator who is outside the creation then a world that functions according to its own laws can ignore, if not deny, the Creator.  Science and technology has given birth, not only to a world without God, but also to a consumeristic world.  The human world today is full of machines that extend human power in unheard of ways. The humans can no longer do without them.  From this point of view different parts of the world may be more or less modern.  Consumerism joined to technology also leads to the exploitation of the earth and energy resources often leading to their destruction. 

Democracy

            Secondly the modern world is a democratic world.  In the past the world was ruled by kings and their nobles.  Feudalism characterized political order.  Feudalism was further strengthened by colonialsm.  Starting with the French revolution, democracy as the rule of the people, by the people, for the people is finding an increasing presence in the world.  While a fully democratic country does not seem to exist anywhere, there are areas in the world where democracy is still absent.  Multi-party democracy is only one form and is not the best.  Eventually we should move towards a participative, consensual form of democracy.  With such democracy will go freedom and a sense of agency.  There is an increasing desire of the people for this.  But it would not happen as long as politics is at the service of economy and commerce. Besides, the present world order is largely colonial in many hidden ways, economically and militarily, if not politically.  The Church is not very democratic.  It is said that it is not a democracy.  It is not an autocracy either. It cannot be a majoritarian democracy.  But it can be a participative and consensual one.  It is so in the Eastern Churches. This could be experimented on in the BECs.

Globalization and the Media

            The third characteristic of the modern world is the phenomenon of globalization.  It is made possible by the technologies of communications.  Contacts across the world today are instantaneous.  The speed of travel and of the exchange of goods is amazing.  The people can use these means to build a world community of sharing and fellowship.  But the globalization of capitalism can lead to globalization of exploitation and inequality.  The globalization of the market leading to the globalization of a consumerist monoculture is destroying the local cultures and identities of people.  The market of goods is in turn controlled by the money market and money itself has become a virtual good, present only in the mind of the traders who speculate with them.  So we live in an imaginary world.  The speed and extent of globalization has led to a loss of depth and to a globalization of superficiality.  The gap between the few rich and the many poor is increasing both globally and locally.  The inequality is also seen in the abuse of resources. It is often said that 20% of the world’s population use 80% of its resources.  It is also a concern that an unbridled use of resources may deprive future generations of their due, since some of the resources, like oil and minerals, are limited.  A consumerist life style focusing on the body and material goods also alienates the person.  The women are treated as sex objects. Children are abused.   

Violence

The world is said to be getting flat.  The young people in the call centres in Manila or                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Bangalore may be serving clients in the USA or England.  But they are slaves selling, not their physical, but intellectual labour. Individualism, inequality and competition lead to open or hidden violence seeking to dominate and protect necessary resources.  Even religions tend to justify such violence when their own identity is threatened and they also are used as political tools.

What shall We Do?

What are we – the Church, the BECs – are called to do in such a situation?  How can we challenges the world to change?  What will be those challenges?  Would we also challenge ourselves since we too are a part of this world, interiorizing its values and benefiting by it in various ways?

            Let us look at the world again.  Its problems are multi-dimensional: economical, political, social, personal/psychological, cultural and religious.  As Church we cannot offer the world economic, political or social solutions.  Religions operate at the level of meaning.  They offer a worldview and attitudes, a value system and ways of behaviour.  

A Dualistic Worldview

The worldview today is dichotomous.   God is cut off from the world.  In a creationist perspective in which God is seen as maker of things it is easy to do away with the creator and declare the world autonomous.  We objectify the material world.  It is something to be dominated and used and thrown away.  Science and technology help us to do so.  Such an utilitarian mentality also affects the way we look at nature and the human.  Nature is not seen as a part of our being human, to which we are related through our bodies.  It is objectified and exploited.  This attitude then extends to other consumer goods.  Women, and sometimes men, are made sexual objects.  Given a culture of sexual inequality, the women suffer more than the men.

Individualism and Egoism

Human behaviour is dictated by individual and collective egoism.  The others become our enemies. In a competitive atmosphere traditional community structures like the family and neighbourhood are breaking down. It is each one for him/herself, the survival of the fittest.  Relationships are breaking down.  There is a lot of talk about human rights.  The focus tends to be on individual, not on social or economic rights.  No one seems to bother about duties.  People speak very little about social justice.  There is no longer a sense or experience of community.   The state is a political framework meant to encourage individual initiative.  Profit making is the motive that seems to guide choices in life and work.

Slaves of Machines

There is nothing wrong with science and technology.  The media of communications and their globalization are making the creation of one global community possible. These have made life easy in many ways.  Diseases have cures, production has increased, distribution is made easy and rapid.  The many gadgets have freed the humans to be busy with more creative and pleasurable pursuits.  But the human beings have become slaves of a global machine.  The facilities of science, technology and communications seem primarily to be used to exploit the majority of the people for the benefit of some.  The few rich who control the machines also become their slaves in some way.  So the humans on the whole have lost their agency and freedom. 

Modernity and Tradition in Asia

Modernity, however, is not a uniform phenomenon.  What I have said above would apply fully only to the Euro-American centre of the contemporary global world.  In Asia, however, the various countries with their own religions and cultures are encountering modernity led by science, technology and the media of communications in their own way.  We should say that they are caught up in the tension between their traditions and modernity.  Asia is a religious continent, having given birth to all the living religions of the world.  The South and East Asian religions are also different from the West Asian monotheisms. Family and social values are still strong in this part of the world.  On the other hand, democracy has not really taken deep roots with feudalism still playing a big role.  Ethical concerns like rights and duties and social justice do not yet dominate public discussion.  But modernity is taking deep roots also in Asia, though its interaction with Asia need not and may not be the same as with Christianity and Euro-American culture. 

What are the challenges of the Church and the BECs in Asia to this modern world? One problem is that the Christians in Asia are really caught between the East and the West or Euro-America.  They have inherited an Euro-American Christianity and their faith reflection and expression tend to be still Euro-American. At the level of practice there may be a certain, or even a large, amount of popular religiosity.  But at the level of reflection Euro-American perspectives tend to dominate.  So the Churches in Asia need to be inculturated.  For the present discussion I shall speak as if the Churches in Asia are already inculturated and are Asian Churches.  This does not involve an abandonment of Christian faith or the Scriptures.  But it does mean a distancing from some forms of expression that Christianity takes in Euro-America.  It involves also a re-interpretation of the Scriptures in the Asian context. But at the moment this is not a given, but something we can realistically hope for.  And I would like to place myself there.

A Holistic Perspective

The first and the most important perspective that Asia can offer is a holistic perspective on God and the world.  The Euro-American view of the universe is dualistic and dichotomous.  One speaks of God and the world, God and the humans, body and spirit, humans and nature.  These are all separate from each other and we have to bring them together with great difficulty.  The Asian perspective is more holistic.  Differences are acknowledged, but a basic unity is affirmed.  The Chinese tradition saw the whole of reality as a dynamic movement of the yin and the yang, the feminine and the masculineMahayana Buddhism speaks of the inter-dependence of all beings. It calls the dynamic process as dependent co-arising.  Based on this Bhikku Buddhadsa of Thailand speaks of Dhammic socialism, because everything is inter-related and co-responsible.  Everyone should be ego-less.  Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam speaks of inter-being.  There is mutual involvement is being.  It is based on such inter-being that he builds up a vision of peace and harmony.  The Hindu tradition in India speaks of the advaita or non-duality of being.  God and the world are not two, because the world is totally dependent on God.  Without God the world will not exist.  Such a holistic perspective will help us not to objectify the body and the material world, to see the human as a spirit-in-body with its root in creation, to accept the masculine and the feminine as two dimensions of one being, and to explore the possibility of the divinization of the human following Jesus the God-Man.  We have such organic and holistic images in the New Testament.  Jesus tells the disciples: “I am the vine, you are branches.” (Jn 15:5) He speaks of mutual indwelling (cf. Jn 15:7-10) that leads to ultimate communion in God: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”  Sin may indeed introduce some differentiation and tension, but it can never be a total break till the last moment of life. Paul speaks of the body of Christ. (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-31)  The Eucharist is a celebration of cosmic communion where Christ integrates in his divine body the humans and the cosmos, thanks to the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Such a holistic perspective of the universe will be a strong anti-dote to the separations and objectifications of the modern world.  The Church and the BECs around the Eucharistic table can experience and celebrate this cosmic communion.  St. Ignatius of Loyola used to speak of “finding God in all things and all things in God”.  From such a holistic perspective the objectification and exploitation of the humans, particularly the women, and nature can be avoided in Asia and in the world.

Such a holistic perspective should lead us to live in harmony.  First of all we have to live in harmony with nature.  When people talk of ecology and the preservation of nature, the people in the richer countries seem more worried about the pollution/cleanliness of the atmosphere and the quality of life.  They are not bothered about the exploitation and destruction of nature and of its unequal consumption depriving the majority of their rightful share now and in the future.   The poorer people will be more concerned about such questions of justice.  Beyond these issues we have to evoke the need to live in harmony with the body and nature, limiting consumption to what is necessary and protecting nature because it is an integral part of one’s being in the world.  A harmonious life would also involve living in harmony with one’s body and sex.  This would mean avoiding excessive consumerism and respecting the complementarity of the sexes, experiencing their interaction in oneself.        

A Healthy Secularization

This perspective of ‘finding God in all things’ also leads us to a healthy secularization.  The secularization in Euro-America privitizes religion and establishes a God-less world.  The secularism in Asia is positive, finding precisely ‘God in all things.’ In the Hindu, Confucian and Buddhist religio-cultural traditions the world did not reach out to an Absolute beyond it. The Absolute was rather immanent providing an ethical basis to life in the world.  I think that in the modern world it is not necessary to protect God by separating God from the world.  We have to find God in the world.  In the gospels it is significant that the double commandment of loving God and loving the neighbour (cf, Lk 10:27) is reduced to the new single one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)  John comments: “No one has seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”( 1 Jn 4: 12)  Jesus confirms all this by evoking the final judgment: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  It has been said that the secularization of Euro-America is more anti-clerical than anti-God.  Our response should be, not to build up a religious world side by side the secular one, but to find God in the world. Maybe we need to secularize the Church.  The Church must see itself, not as a power opposed to the world, but as a humble servant, losing itself in the world  (in the poor and the suffering) and animating it from within, not to engage in visible and triumphant religious activity, but to feed the hungry, cloth the naked and visit the sick. The height of such secularization will be our experience of God as a force for communion when we share food and drink together in Jesus’ name.

Building Community

            We are living in a world of inequality and division.  The inequality is both economical and social, having to do with status.  A community does not mean the disappearance of all differences.  But it does mean a basic formal equality.  Economically no one should be in need. An equality of opportunity also should be assured. Socialism as praxis has disappeared.  But capitalism has to become socially sensitive in order not to become oppressive. Socially it means that the others are respected for what they are, not by the accident of birth.  The caste system in India, for instance, is an unequal, hierarchical system determined by birth.  Such a discriminatory system cannot promote community.

            Today we are also living in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world.  The human tendency is to find unity in uniformity and look at the other as somehow inferior to oneself.  The community is then divided along the lines of ‘we’ and ‘them’.  Such a division increases ignorance and prejudice.  When such differences are politicised it can lead to quest for  dominance and violence.  Such differences can be overcome only if we are able to find a principle of unity that transcends all divisions.  One basic principle of unity is the humanity of every one.  Today every human being has an individual identity, dignity and rights.  Human rights include the right to practice a particular religion, belong to a particular culture and speak a particular language.  Problems may arise when the rights discourse recognizes only individual rights and ignores group rights.  When the rights of cultural and religious minorities are not protected they may be marginalized or suppressed.  This can lead to self-defensive violence.  That is why cultural and religious differences in society must be recognized, respected and accepted.  In some countries, like India, the rights of minorities          are protected.  People pretend that globalization will flatten all differences and impose a monoculture over the globe.  The monoculture that globalization promotes is instrumental culture – the things that we use and consume.  It does not touch that much the way people think, look at the world and express themselves in art and literature.  This is what gives the people an identity.  We see them defending it all over the world, with violence, if necessary.

            How does the Church engage this modern world prophetically? Already in 1974 the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, which met for its first assembly in this very city, Taipei,  presented the way of the Church in mission as dialogue with the many poor, the rich cultures and the living religions of Asia.  It has been developing this three-fold dialogue over the last forty years and it still remains relevant to us. I would like to spell out the task of the BECs in this context.

Dialogue with the Poor 

The BECs in Latin America had their origin in the context of the theology of liberation.  They were movements from below, initiated and animated by the people, with a particular care for the poor.  The BECs in Asia have to dialogue with the poor and the oppressed.  I do not know whether they are made up principally of the poor people.  But the liberation of the poor must certainly be one of their concerns. The option for the poor does not consist merely in meeting the needs of the poor, but of transforming socio-economic and political structures that make people poor.  Starting with an option for the poor and inspired by it we will have to move on to an option for the non-poor.  It is the non-poor who need to change and who can make change happen in society.  The non-poor change makers are not merely the rich, though they are not excluded, but intellectual and socio-political leaders who can initiate and bring about change.  The poor may provoke, inspire and support change. But they will not be able by themselves to bring about change that concerns every one.  Converting everyone to change and to become change makers is a real challenge for the BECs.  Traditionally, the BECs are based on geographical proximity.  This means, in practice, that the poor and the others belong to separate groups.  We could explore the possibility of having mixed groups representative of the People of God in a wider area.

Secondly, the BECs have not only to opt for the poor, but also be poor (in spirit).  They need to become egoless, liberated from consumerism and greed, according to the Asian spiritual tradition.  Thirdly, the option for the poor cannot be an exclusive option that pits the poor against the others and promotes revolutionary conflict. There needs to be a struggle, but it will have to be non-violent according to the Asian tradition.  Rarely it may be a national one as has happened twice in the Phlippines.  Often it may be local focused on better civic facilities, etc.  Normally the BECs should be active in civil society, constituted by the peoples’ movements, NGOs, the group of intellectuals, the media, etc. This is the public space as different from the political arena.                 

Dialogue with Culture

            The building up of the local Church was the focus of the FABC.  The Church has to be the symbol and servant of the Kingdom. But this can be done effectively only from within.  Just as the Word became human in order to transform humanity – to divinize it, as the Greek Fathers would say – the Gospel has to become incarnate in the culture in order to transform it.  This is not happening in Asia today.  First of all, the Church, structurally, still remains foreign.  In spite of the openness of the Second Vatican Council efforts at inculturation are constantly checkmated. It is a sad and ideological story which I do not wish to go into here: unity is seen as uniformity.  Secondly, in many Asian countries, the Christians belong to minority ethnic and cultural groups.  They are not part of, and often do not wish to become part of, the mainstream culture of the country.  I can offer the Christian Dalits and Tribals in India as examples.  But it will be true of many other Asian countries. Then they will not be able to do anything to transform the culture of the country.  They may even look on Christianization as Europeanization.  Nothing can be more alienating.  If the BECs are serious about transforming culture they have to be inculturated.  Since this does not seem to be happening from above, it has to start from below, precisely through the BECs.  

            Whatever be the cultures of the BECs, there seem to be some constants that they have to attend to.  The discrimination against women seems to be part of all cultures everywhere.  The BECs could be a place where new forms of relationship between the sexes based on respect, equality and mutuality are cultivated and lived. In other areas the BECs will have to defend traditional cultural values against the inroads of modern culture.  Living in harmony with nature, family solidarity, respect for and protection of the aged and the careful nurturing of the children are values in Asian cultures that need to be defended, preserved and promoted.

Dialogue with Religions/Ideologies

            Except in the Philippines and, perhaps, Korea, Christianity is a small minority in most countries in Asia.  We are living in the midst of other religions and ideologies.  Mission in this context takes the form of prophetic dialogue with these religions and ideologies.  At a secular level, the believers of different religions and ideologies have to collaborate together in the promotion and defence of common human and spiritual values, even when each religion or ideology understands them from the point of view of their own faith perspectives.  Recent Popes, especially Blessed John Paul II, have been insistent on this.  Benedict XVI has invited leaders of different religions to come to Assisi to pray for peace in October this year, commemorating a similar gathering 25 years ago called by John Paul II.  This can be done at all levels.  We are then collaborating in the building of the Kingdom of God.

            Such collaboration can lead to a dialogue at a deeper religious and spiritual level when we listen to the Spirit present and active in all cultures and religions.  This might involve common reading of the scriptures through which God is speaking to us; common celebration of seasonal festivals like thanksgiving for the harvest; common prayer in special times of need like a tsunami, an earthquake or other catastrophe or also of good fortune; and sharing of methods of prayer like Yoga, Vipassana and Zen.

            An ideal way in which such collaboration and sharing spiritual experience can happen is Basic Human Communities which some Asian theologians have suggested. The BHCs need not be opposed to the BECs.  A BEC can be the nucleus around which a BHC is built.  As a matter of fact, if the goal of mission is to build the Kingdom of God, in a multi-religious situation we cannot do without the BHCs, if we think that Basic Communities are useful, both as way of life and as strategy for action. Their focus could start with the secular civil order and then slowly move to spirituality.

Conclusion

            In many countries in the world, BECs are merely used as pastoral tools to organize the parish.  They are local prayer groups, organized according to streets and residential colonies.  They may undertake some symbolic social activity.  I think that we have to highlight the fact that BECs actually arise from the base. They are not constituted by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  They represent the initiative of the people.  Their leadership is lay.  The clergy are at their service for meeting their sacramental needs, especially the presidency of the Eucharist. From a point of view of power they may seem to be alternate power centres in the Church and so threatening to its hierarchical power structure.  The BECs can be a means of rediscovering the Church as the People of God as indicted by the Second Vatican Council.  The Ministers are at its service.  They pray and celebrate the liturgy in its name.  The Magisterium is balanced by the ‘Sensus fidelium’.  It is often said that authority in the Church is service.  But in practice it is exercised as power.  Exercised in the name of God it can tend to become absolute.  In such a situation, the BECs provide a needed balance in the Church.  Not having an official institutional character like the clergy they can dialogue more easily with civil society and with other religious groups.  Working at the grassroots they can bring transformation from below both to the Church and to the world.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J.,

Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, Chennai, India.