Globalization and its (dis)contents

With all the information in the world now at our fingertips, we are brought face to face with the suffering of our neighbors around the globe, igniting within us a longing for the reign of God, says Carol Howard Merritt.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation,” by Carol Howard Merritt.

Recently I asked a conference participant to explain what it was like for her to be in her twenties. “I am a part of a generation that has all the information in the world, literally at our fingertips.”

“Yes!” I responded with great enthusiasm. “Isn’t it amazing?”

“Well, sort of,” she shrugged, and halfheartedly and politely gave in to my eagerness, “but mostly it’s just really scary. We have all the information in the world at our fingertips.” When she repeated the statement, the gravity of it touched me. She was pointing out that while it is wonderful not to have to go to the library for every bit of information, there is a burden in having that knowledge. Her generation is growing up knowing all about wars, starvation, and huge inequities among people all over the world. No wonder our hunger for social justice is so acute.

Her remark reminded me of the short-term mission trips I took part in as a teenager. A lot of concerns have been raised about these trips, and important questions have been asked about whether they do any good for the people who are receiving the guests. The journeys cost a lot of money, and some wonder if those resources might be put to better use in other ways.

Whether or not the excursions were more than mere tourism, they affected my life deeply. Digging up sewage pipes in Switzerland, stripping wallpaper in France, sleeping on a houseboat in Hong Kong, meeting Christians in China, leveling ground in the Philippines, and preaching throughout Uganda, I gained a tremendous perspective on the world and on different cultures.

My experience is common. In addition to the Internet’s offering an increased awareness of events happening all over the world, many U.S. Christians of my generation have traveled to other countries, helped churches with manual labor, and worked alongside other Christians. Along with the inevitable culture shock, we brought home with us a hunger for social justice and lingering guilt about how much we consume.

I remember packing up my clothes and other possessions for my trip home from Uganda, Africa, and having a certain hatred for all of the stuff that I owned. At that point, all my material possessions could fit into a studio apartment, but I still felt regret about them. I wanted to give away all my shirts and skirts to the people who surrounded me and needed them much more than I did. I donated as much as I could, but still realized I needed a lot of clothes to make it in our culture. The inequities between the haves and the have-nots of our global economy felt crushing.

By contrast, previous generations often had more limited awareness of the situation in other parts of the world. As a child, my mother was told to eat her dinner because children in China were starving; yet she found it difficult to make the connection. “What do those children have to do with my potatoes?” she would wonder. Now, we fully understand that other children go to bed hungry -- we may even have met some of these children -- but we just do not know what to do about it. We want to share our full plates, but we’re not sure how. We are replete with food, but a deeper hunger to right the injustices remains.

Here in the United States, buying things is often a hobby for us, a way to show appreciation for loved ones, or something we do to cheer ourselves up when we’re feeling down. Yet as we look at all the stuff piled up in our attics and garages and see our children’s overflowing toy boxes, we wonder how it grew so quickly. We are concerned that we consume too much, from the plastic bags we carry home from the grocery store to the Styrofoam peanuts in which we drown our Christmas gifts before mailing them. We know the earth has become exhausted trying to keep up with our demands, and we worry about the environmental damage that we cause. We end up with the feeling of dread familiar to people preparing for postretirement downsizing: our shame builds as we sort through all of our stuff and realize how much we have that we don’t ever use let alone need. Often, we have a lingering self-hatred that can overwhelm us.

We understand the discontent and frustration this new kind of globalism introduces in developing countries, as people in these countries gain access to television and the Internet, and suddenly can glimpse U.S. lifestyles and feel the fury of the great inequities. However, affluent Christians in the United States often encounter a different kind of frustration. It is the vexation that comes to those who should be content in our globalization. We can feel trapped in a cycle of consumption and disheartened by huge inequities, yet we do not quite know how to get out of it.

Our information-overloaded generation is aware of the huge disconnect between the lifestyles of many U.S. teenagers, where high school proms are a $17 billion industry, and the lives of the many other teenagers in our country and abroad, who do not have even basic food, clothing, or shelter for the day. We hold PTA fundraisers so our children can go on yet another field trip, while many other parents are trying to make sure their children get one meal a day. We recognize outrageous absurdities; for instance, the amount of money spent on bottled water is three times the amount it would take to solve our global water crisis.

U.S. church leaders who have worked with different people around the world recognize how our wealth has come at the expense of others. Through travel and Internet access, we have increasing experience with the suffering and excesses of the global community and know our systems of consumption are broken. All this ignites within us that longing for the reign of God, that dream of each person being fed and sheltered.

With this increased knowledge comes a heightened sense of responsibility. It is part of the epiphany of the face: when we come face-to-face with another human being in need, we see God in that person, we understand we are traveling together, and we are compelled to reach out to her.

One of the greatest gifts our churches can pass along to a new generation is our long tradition of commitment to social justice that is best encapsulated in this notion of the reign of God. This hope can become a cure for our information-immersed cynicism. If our strong vision of what God intends life to be like could team up with the leadership and innovation of a new generation, this could be an amazing time for our congregations and our world.