Reconciliation through economic change

July 31, 2003

For Archbishop Njongonlulu Ndungane of Cape Town, global reconciliation means addressing a worldwide economic system that devalues human life and contradicts Christian belief and witness.

The gap between rich and poor is “a devastating chasm” that is “continuing to widen,” said the primate of the Province of Southern Africa, a speaker at  "God’s Mission in a Global Perspective," a July 31 forum hosted by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. 

In South Africa, for example, 60 percent of people – 27 percent of them employed – live “below a very miserly poverty line,” he said. Six hundred die daily of AIDS-related diseases.

Worldwide, poverty levels, spending on prisons and the incidence of homelessness, crime, child abandonment, drug abuse and other social ills have increased in every country, he said. “That has happened at the same time that new technology has increased the wealth available to the world by something like 200 to 300 percent.

“This matters, of course, to all of us as citizens,” he said. “To Christians, it goes to the heart of our prophetic mission in the world. It contradicts what we know to be the character of humanity as revealed in Jesus Christ. The economy in which people live is extremely influential in the way they are able to live together as the kingdom of God on Earth.

“If people are forced through the social and economic system to compete against each other at all costs, they lose the sense and value of community. If people lose their self-respect because they are treated with contempt, if children are not lovingly cared for, if men and women are deprived of the opportunity to work with meaning and pride, then they will fall prey to drugs, to crime and other means to ease the pain. If poverty forces people to leave their families in poor and rural areas and to compete at the expense of others in inhuman conditions, they lose the vision that God has set before us. If our system of political equality creates scarcity despite the abundance that God has given us, we are throwing God’s gift back in God’s face.

“It is for the church,” he concluded, “to explain this connection between our aspiration for the reign of God or God’s kingdom that we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer and the realities of pain and suffering in the world. We need to affirm the deep and urgent longing that people feel for the poor to hear the good news.”

Ndungane condemned systems of power that let rich countries decide “that repaying foreign debts taken out generations ago is more important than human life.” He criticized those systems for allowing rich countries to insist that poor countries open their markets and cut agricultural subsidies while not doing these things themselves. Current systems allow countries to “commit millions of dollars to Iraq and war against it,” while spending little to fight AIDS and other problems.

“All this is not only incompatible with Christian belief and witness, it flies in the face and makes a mockery of what we preach,” he said. “We preach Scripture that tells us that nothing is more important than human life, not even repayment of a loan. We preach the poor have the same dignity as the rich and should have the same voice and the means of survival.”