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Globalization -- in books

An up-close look at "Justice in a Global Economy"

A review    [9-4-06]

Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World.
Pamela K. Brubaker, Rebecca Todd Peters, Laura A. Stivers, editors. Westminster John Knox Press. 165 pp. $19.95 paperback.

By Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon Issues Analyst

Designed for discussion and action in congregations or other local groups, this book takes its subtitle seriously. There are sections on "Household Strategies," "Community Strategies," and "Public Policy Strategies." To make it more usable, each chapter ends with discussion questions and a list of resources, not only books and articles but organizations and web sites.

One reason for developing this book was the editors' sense that many people feel hopeless about the massive scale of the problems facing us. After reading a book like this, it would be difficult to plead either ignorance — about problems or about ways to address them — or hopelessness.

The editors acknowledge a plurality of models for a just and healthy society. But they think there are common elements, such as "narrow inequality," sustainability, healthy relationships among communities, and public goods like education and health care for all. Details are explored in most of the chapters.

"Household strategies" start with community-supported agriculture (CSA) as an alternative to the growing power of corporate plantations. Consumers may find it convenient to go to the supermarket, but U.S. food travels an average of 1300 miles (another estimate says 2000 miles) before it lands on our tables. CSA requires more "eating with the seasons"; but that's normal for the human race. A related chapter addresses eating more generally and lists additional strategies and resources.

While we're talking about food, we should take note of a new issue of The Nation, dated September 11, 2006, devoted entirely to food (if the magazine stand is sold out, you can find it by Googling "the nation september 11 2006 the food issue"). Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, helped edit the issue. There are short pieces by many authors, including Wendell Berry and Jim Hightower. And there are details on violations of federal law at the Smithfield ham factory that was the focus of a dispute at the recent General Assembly.

Special notice might be taken of two articles on organic farming, reminding us that there are not only responsible but irresponsible organic producers. Organic farming can involve even more backbreaking labor for low-paid workers, and some corporations are notorious for refusing to bargain with the United Farm Workers. There is also a reminder that Wal-Mart's promise to sell organics at "only 10 percent" above prices for conventional foods is a mixed blessing. The mega-corporation will be putting downward pressure on its suppliers, some of whom already have a bad reputation for their procedures and their labor relations. The result may be that consumers decide to pay more attention to locally grown organics.

The chapter on household labor is a shock to widespread complacency, especially in the professional classes. Housekeepers and child-care providers are mostly women of color, and in this era of "the globalization of mothering" they are often immigrants, too often illegal and exploited at that. The household is one place to begin crossing human boundaries and subverting an economic system that relies on injustice to maintain its power structure.

More generally, there is a chapter analyzing a new socially sanctioned disease, "Affluenza." Houses have become landfills, repositories of unwanted goods, and the self-storage industry has boomed in recent decades. It's a far cry from the manna in the wilderness, when people gathered only what they needed. Churches and households, then, are called to model "the norm of sufficiency," not "the frenzy of affluenza."

What about "community strategies"? In these decades of footloose factories moving to Mexico, then to China, communities need to find ways to hold corporations accountable with job quality standards, full disclosure, and "clawback" provisions. Several examples of constructive negotiation by the city of Los Angeles are cited, illustrating the continued relevance of rootedness to particular places.

Environmental justice is another community concern, for we all know about polluting factories, "brownfields" left by vanished factories, and landfills, often affecting minority neighborhoods more than others. The chapter on this topic explores a success story in which an organization called ReGenesis negotiated a partnership with the city and county Spartanburg, SC, tapping EPA funds and expertise in the process.

Revitalizing local communities is not one of the usual job descriptions of the congregation, but it often is able to play a decisive role in community economic development. Projects undertaken by a Hispanic congregation in Santa Ana and a Baptist congregation in Atlanta get particular attention here. And the point is driven home that nonprofits are a major and growing segment of the U.S. economy.

Larry Rasmussen has a comprehensive think-piece on an obvious but ignored fact about the human race: "we are not human apart from our home here and have never been human anywhere else" (103). A nonrelation view of human life and an instrumental attitude toward nature is grossly unrealistic. All people, and all things, "were born to belonging" long ago, and creation is "a commons" from which escape is impossible. Several Christian movements around the world are cited as examples of commitment to nurturing that commons.

When it comes to "public policy strategies," migrants appropriately head the list (the book may have been in press before the issue of migrants heated up this spring and summer). Daisy Machado concentrates on the region called the "Borderlands" — northern Mexico and the southwest United States, a region where "the Third World grates against the first and bleeds" (117). This is an area with increasing population, and increasing hardships, the result of NAFTA and corporate policies.

And that brings us to the global economic policies of the U.S., pushed by Democratic as well as Republican administrations under pressure from transnational corporations. Pamela Brubaker recounts some of the conversations to which she was party during encounters between the World Council of Churches and the IMF and the World Bank. These confirmed the cynical position of George Kennan in 1948 that the U.S. already had such a large portion of the world's wealth that it could not afford altruism and redistribution. The U.S. continues to subsidize export crops (chiefly corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton) in ways that harm farmers in Mexico and Africa — and small farmers here in the U.S. An alternative, a proposal for an "economy of life," has been put forward in the AGAPE document prepared for the World Council meeting in 2006.

Finally, we are reminded that most North Americans think of themselves as "normal" or "typical," do not think of themselves as structurally related to the world's poor, and tend to assume that what they have had for so long belongs to them. And yet economic vulnerability is moving up the class ladder, even in the U.S. We might start thinking of ourselves, then, as "the white affluent world minority" (156), and instead of talking generically about "the poor" begin attending to specific groups of economically vulnerable people at all levels of the economic hierarchy (157). Does that sound like enough of a "reframing" task to keep us busy for a while?

If you have comments on this review -- or even better on the book itself -- please send a note, to be shared here.

Globalization – it’s more than economics

A review of In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization, by Rebecca Todd Peters

Continuum: New York, 2004. $24.95 Coming soon in paperback, at $16.95.

NOTE:  If you will be at GA in Birmingham -- Dr. Peters will be signing copies of her book in the Cokesbury bookstore, on Sunday, June 18, from 1 to 2:30 pm.

by Doug King, Witherspoon WebWeaver and editor

Books about globalization seem to be flooding the stores like those inexpensive shirts pouring into our discount stores from ... well, wherever they’re pouring in from these days. So the arrival of another one raises the question: What does this book offer that’s different from all the others?


The answer is clear and engaging: The author, who is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Distinguished Emerging Scholar at Elon University, NC, looks at this phenomenon very explicitly as a moral matter. The various understandings of globalization, she says, reflect "differing moral visions" about human action as "moral agency," about the purpose of our lives, and about what constitutes "human flourishing."

She examines four very different views of the world, as they shape four ways of dealing with our global economic system. The first one we know all too well; she labels it neoliberalism, or "the New World Order" that dominates U.S. policy today. The ethic of this view is built on an individualistic view of human action, values wealth as the goal of life, and sees human flourishing as a matter of individual freedom. The problems created by this set of values hardly need mention. They include the isolation of individuals, the loss of community, destruction of the environment, and the unfettered, irresponsible power of wealth as an end in itself.

The second view offered some balance to that view, in the form of a social development model that held sway among many during the decades after World War II. This view is still rooted in market theory, but it sees human action in terms of responsibility in relation to others, rather than pure individualism; the purpose of our lives is to achieve some kind of progress; human flourishing will come through the achievement of some degree of equity, or economic justice. But an ethic of responsibility is basically paternalistic, calling those who hold power to use it well, rather than to share it. And just as serious, this view accepts the basic market society assumptions of the neoliberal approach to the world, so it really cannot move us toward greater democracy or justice.

The other two views of globalization are not as easy to define, but they are united in their critical stances toward what is going on in the world today. The "earthist" view values above all the sustainability of the whole creation, which is so seriously threatened by both the neoliberal and the development models. In this view, moral agency is not a matter of individualism or responsibility of the self toward others, but rather of mutuality. The purpose or goal of life is not liberty or equality, but right relationships that promote one another’s well-being. And the good life involves above all sustainability, both for humans and for the rest of creation. Peters is obviously sympathetic to this view, but she sees weaknesses in it, too. Primarily, she questions whether the earthist insistence on small-scale and regional economies can offer any real resistance to the power of global corporations and the governments that support them.

The final view is perhaps the most radically critical, for it takes shape as people’s movements of resistance to the structures and patterns of globalization as neocolonialism, the imposition of dominance by one party over others. (As examples, Peters examines the Zapatista movement in Mexico and the Philippine Agenda 21 movement in the Philippines.) This neocolonial domination is happening (as in much of old colonialism, too) not so much through government power as through the immense power of corporations, by which they control governments and undermine cultures. These people’s movements value community, not individualism; they foster respect for culture, and seek autonomy not for individuals but for communities. This set of values is perhaps the closest to those Peters finds in the biblical understanding of human life and the world we live in.

As an interested bystander to the field of economics, I sometimes feel as I felt on my one venture into watching the sport of cricket. It looked – well, different. But I didn’t understand the language, let alone the rules of the game. This book helps me understand some of the language, and the rules (or lack of them) by which the game is being played. And I begin to gain some sense of the differences among the four teams – their different styles, goals, and effects on our world.

The book is not easy reading, because the author deals seriously with the complexities of the world today. But for anyone who wants to get a little understanding of the forces that are reshaping our world at such great cost to many people, this is a good place to start. For a church study group – if it’s fairly serious – there’s material here for long conversations that will help people see the global economy as an arena of values in conflict, and as a matter in which the Christian faith may offer some real guidance for action.

Peters acknowledges the problem that kept bubbling to the surface as I read her book: How can any resistance to the neocolonial power of globalization, or its destruction of the environment, have a shred of hope against the wealth and power of the market society? She is suggesting, I think, some real possibilities: First, we can gain some power by simply recognizing what’s happening, and remembering that economic values and institutions are human creations, and not inevitable mechanisms. Then we can pay closer attention to the moral and ethical underpinning of globalization, and understand the conflicting value systems that shape them – and the destruction being wrought by the values of individualism and materialism and individual liberty.

This book, in short, is calling us to a kind of cultural revolution, in which we affirm interdependence and community and simplicity as the only way to regain some hope of "human flourishing."

I’m struck with how close this sounds to the arguments being advanced by the Rev. Jim Wallis (in God’s Politics) and Rabbi Michael Lerner (most recently in The Left Hand of God). They both make a convincing case that liberals have surrendered their concern for values to the Religious Right, and that it’s time to recover and reclaim the moral underpinnings that support a progressive politic.

Dr. Peters offers us some very helpful steps in that direction.


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Shuck’s new "Religion for Life" website

Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

Click here for his blog posts.

Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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