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Walter Wink

Globalization and Empire

We have met the evil empire and it is us

More than one person has declared globalization to be the most important issue of this century. No doubt it is too early to make such a sweeping judgment, but we can at least declare it to be critical, especially when it is joined with an equally critical issue: empire. These massive social movements—globalization and empire—are like converging glaciers, slowly mingling with each other, creating the greatest concentration of power the world has ever known. Globalization could be defined, following Teilhard de Chardin, as the increasing social compression as humanity becomes aware of itself as an entity. Two world wars and their bloody successors illustrate in a perverse way this enfolding of humanity upon itself. We see the world shrinking through instantaneous communication, economic and military interdependency, scientific cooperation, tourism, the internet, the free market, the European Union, trade agreements such as GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement), and, ironically, English as the lingua franca of much of the world. But the process of global totalization has been going on for several thousands of years, and that is where the confluence of globalism with empire first began to become visible.

From Sumer to Babylon to Assyria and Egypt, then Greece, Rome, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain, the great Western empires have defined the "known world" by their reach; all else was barbarism. Now for the first time there is a new empire whose reach is co-extensive with the world itself. Americans don’t like to think of their land as an empire, but we are. And while there is great resentment of American power, the very people who decry America’s global reach are the recipients of American technology. American empire is ubiquitous, indeed, under the administration of George W. Bush, empire has been brought to a new zenith of power.

The Powers That Be

The biblical understanding of the "principalities and powers" offers us striking insight about globalization and empire. In the Hymn to the Cosmic Christ in Col. 1:16-17 the Powers are described as having been created in, through and for Christ. "For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

Who is this cosmic figure in whom and through whom and for whom the world was created? Surely not Jesus, the lowly human being whom the Powers killed and who trumped the Powers. Surely not also the messiah of Jewish hope, for whom Israel waited to deliver her from Rome. It must be a figure closer to Wisdom (Hebrew Hochma or Greek Sophia), Yahweh’s daughter in Proverbs 8 and Wisdom of Solomon 7-9, who acts as co-creator, architect of creation, and archetype of the universal feminine. Let us then address this cosmic One as she seeks redress for her suppression all these centuries.

The Colossians hymn is the brash assertion, against the grain of human suffering, that the principalities and powers that visit the world with so much evil are not autonomous, not independent, not eternal, not utterly depraved. The social structures of reality are creations of God. Because they are creatures, they are mortal, limited, responsible to God, and made for the purpose of serving the humanizing purposes of God in the world. Put in stark simplicity, the Colossians hymn presents this insight as a drama in three simultaneous acts:

the Powers are good,

the Powers are fallen,

the Powers can be transformed.

Following the hymn, Paul reminds his readers that they were "once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds" (Col.1:21). The context therefore makes clear, whereas the hymn itself does so only by allusion (v. 20), that these Powers are or have become hostile to the purposes of God in their creation. Nevertheless, the hymn itself celebrates their creation in, through, and for Christ. They are not demonized as utterly evil; they are the good creations of a good God, and God, in the Genesis story of creation, creates no demons. But their rationale for existence is to serve the human needs and values revealed as ultimate by the identification of Jesus with Wisdom and the Cosmic Christ.

It is tempting to regard these Powers as simply evil. The good news is that God not only liberates us from the Powers, but can liberate the Powers as well. The gospel is not a dualistic myth of good and evil forces vying for ascendancy. It is a sublimely subtle drama about the intertwining of good and evil in all of historical reality. In their good aspect, the Powers are a bulwark against anarchy. They are a patron, repository, and inspirer of art. They inculcate values that encourage interdependency, mutual care, and social cohesiveness. They encourage submission of personal desires to the general good of everyone. Their evil is not intrinsic, but rather the result of idolatry. Therefore they can be transformed.

Even in their apostasy and dereliction from their created vocation, the Powers are incapable of separating themselves from the principle of coherence. When subsystems idolatrously violate the harmony of the whole by elevating their own purposes to ultimacy, they are still no more able to achieve autonomy than a cancer can live apart from its host. Like a cancer, again, they are only able to do evil by means of processes imbedded in them as a result of their good creation.

We must be careful here. To assert that God created the Powers does not imply that God endorses any particular Power at any given time. God did not create capitalism or socialism, but God wills that there be some way to distribute goods necessary for life. The simultaneity of creation, fall and transformation means that God at one and the same time upholds a given political or economic system, since some such system is essential to support human life; condemns that system insofar as it is destructive of full human actualization; and presses for its transformation into a more humane order. Conservatives stress the first, revolutionaries the second, reformers the third. The Christian should be able to hold together all three.

An institution may place its own good above the general welfare. A corporation may cut corners on costs by producing defective products that endanger lives. Union leaders may become more preoccupied with extending their personal advantages than fighting for better working conditions for the rank and file. The point of the Colossians hymn is not that anything goes, but that no matter how greedy or idolatrous an institution becomes, it cannot escape the encompassing care and judgment of the One in and through and for whom it was created. In that One "all things hold together" (Col. 1:17--literally, "receive their systemic place"--sunistemi, the source of our word "system"). The Powers are inextricably locked into God's system, whose human face is revealed in Jesus. They are answerable to God. And that means that every subsystem in the world is, in principle, redeemable, or reformable, or replaceable.

We may pollute our water supply and the air we breathe with no regard for the future; but we are systemically inseparable from the ecosystem, and the judgment of the system rebounds on us in escalating carcinogenic illnesses. A nation can behave as if it did not belong to the world-system of nations, as did Nazi Germany, and can attempt to subordinate the system to itself; but its very attempt to do so mobilizes the wrath of the nations against it and brings about its own defeat. No subsystem that aspires to the status of God's System can itself long remain viable.

Adam Smith himself acknowledged this principle of coherence when he wrote that the ultimate goal of a business is not to make a profit. The goal is the general welfare. Profit is the reward one gets for serving the general welfare. It is part of the church's task to remind corporations and businesses that as "creatures" of God they have as their divine vocation the achievement of human benefaction. They do not exist for themselves (Eph. 3:10). Nor can they—or we--be saved from the Powers by anything within the power system, but only by something that that transcends it. And despite being fallen creatures, it is still possible, right in the midst of the old reality, for both people and Powers to live in relative emancipation from the power of death.

These then are the components of a theological analysis of the Powers That Be: they are good, they are fallen, and they can be transformed, but only under the constraints of the Domination System, in which we continue to live, and move, and lose our beings.


Armed with that analytical framework, we begin by affirming that globalization is good. According to Charles Norchi, "Globalization is a term describing an inexorable march of forces accelerating the interdependence of the planet to the point where we can speak of a true world community." It marks the time shortly after World War II when the new UN decided that how a government treated its own people on its own soil would no longer be its own business, no doubt in part as a result of the Nazi atrocities. Globalization might be characterized by the shift from political to economic ideologies (communism to the free market), the universal spread of scientific, technological, and medical research, the concentration of power in multinational corporations, and a weakening of national ties in favor of global markets. Those who defend globalization assert that it will, over time, lift the poor above poverty, dissolve dictatorships, protect the environment, integrate cultures, reverse the growing income gap between rich and poor, and revolutionize international communications.

Proponents champion globalization in two ways. The first is to claim that it is innocuous, and to cite statistics that appear to back this position. Globalists claim that economic growth and developmentally-efficient technologies will cause all keels to rise (overlooking the fact that only the rich own boats). This is the line taken by the Bush administration, which is notorious for creating statistics on demand. "In NAFTA’s first five years, employment grew 22 percent in Mexico, 10 percent in Canada, and 7 percent in the U.S.," figures hotly contested by opponents of NAFTA. If that were true, people would be swimming from the U.S. to Mexico! UN economists claim, on the contrary, that Mexico lost over two million jobs over the same five years, that half of the entire nation lives below the poverty level, and that campesinos have seen a 30% decrease in their income over the last decade. But whose statistics are we to believe?

The second pro-globalization line of defense is to acknowledge that globalization will require Herculean efforts in order to ratchet up the economies of the developing world. These super-realists point out, for instance, that every prosperous country today was once mired in "developing" status. That includes Britain, France, Sweden, Germany, and the U.S. Child labor was essential for the launching stage. Children have always worked on farms and in family enterprises. Such work is necessary in order to train workers for higher paid jobs, the pro-globalizers argue. It only took Hong Kong and Taiwan 25 years to reach what Europe took a century to achieve. India, which initially rejected foreign investment, has cut child labor from 35 percent in the 1950s to just 12 percent in the last few years.

The problem is that globalization is also fallen, fallen hard. And the name coined for that fallen state is "globalization from above." It is characterized by secret deliberations, a lack of democracy, domination by the most powerful nations and multinational corporations, and a race to the bottom, where the poorer countries vie for factories and agribusinesses at the price of the well-being of their own people. In the World Trade Organization meeting last week in Cancun, according to the The New York Times, when the U.S. and E.U. refused to cancel the $300 billion subsidy paid every year to farmers in the richest countries, while demanding that the developing countries forgo subsidies altogether, the developing 20+ nations walked out. The meeting was declared a failure on all sides by all the more powerful delegates, whereas those from the poorer nations were dancing in the streets.

In the third world, it is not unusual to find factory workers working 14 hour shifts 6 or 7 days a week with no overtime pay or bathroom breaks. In Thailand, for example, young girls work 9 hours for $2 for a day’s work. That sounds inhumane, and it is. But for many, the alternatives are worse: prostitution, begging, crime, or primitive agriculture. These factories offer the best-paid jobs they have ever had. Removing the best of a series of bad options does nothing to better the plight of the world’s poor. Plants just relocate. In an attempt to attract these runaway plants, countries offer incentives that include banning unions, turning a blind eye to environmental protections, violating human rights, and ignoring safety precautions. After the BBC exposed such working conditions in Cambodia, both Nike and the Gap pulled out, costing the country $10 million in contracts, and costing hundreds of Cambodian their jobs.

The irony is that those who are most opposed to globalization are also dependent on it. I am thinking of the world-wide demonstrations against the Iraq War, orchestrated as they were on the internet. Here was a truly revolutionary effort whose failure to stop that war should not eclipse the radical possibilities that it disclosed. There will always be cheerleaders who are blind to the destruction that globalization can cause. And there will always be strident opponents who are blind to the way globalization gives some people their first opportunity to fulfill basic aspirations. Globalism is ambiguous. It is good and it is fallen, and if it is to be redeemed we need to quit arguing whether it is good or bad—it is both—and get to work transforming the world economic order.

Part of the confusion about globalization and poverty is that the proportion of people living in poverty in the world has declined dramatically (from 54.8 % in 1950 to 23.7 % in 1992, and has continued to fall since then). Meanwhile, their absolute number has been increasing, due to the population explosion. After an admirably nuanced treatment of globalization, Peter Singer concludes , "Whether the WTO makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, the verdict has to be: not proven." Fine. We don’t need to know. We already know what we need to know: that unconscionably huge numbers of people in our world are hungry. Bread for the World says that it would only cost the U.S. $6 billion dollars a year to do its part to cut hunger by one-half by the year 2015.

That’s about 6 cents per American per day.

As businesses go global, they are less concerned about the families of those laid off or the social safety net that protects them. Fifty-four poor countries actually got poorer during the booming 1990s, with more than one billion people living in absolute poverty, without clean water to drink or enough food to eat. By contrast, in the 1980s only four countries showed a decline, and that was before the WTO. Something seems to be terribly wrong with trade policy.

What is clear is that supranational trade agreements have superseded national laws that protect the land, its workers, and their health. For example, the Australian/U.S. trade agreement of January 2003 (AUSFTA) can override Australia’s Constitution, rendering the Australian government unable to ban carcinogenic substances. Under NAFTA and the WTO, it may be unlawful for Texas school and commercial buses to use natural gas fuel to reduce pollution. The WTO prohibits the labeling of food that contains toxic chemicals. The Canadian government recently filed an appeal in a case won by S. D. Myers Inc., an Ohio waste-disposal company that said it was hurt by a Canadian law banning the export of PCBs. The WTO found in favor of that company. Medico began using alternative procedures for treating salmonella and E.coli that had never been evaluated by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), yet the WTO permitted it to retain its eligibility despite U.S. objections. The Mexican maquiladoras are now losing factories to China, which has conditions of virtual slavery. Workers at the Wellco Factory making shoes for Nike are paid 16 cents an hour in 11-12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, 77-84 hours per week, with fines if they refuse overtime, for which they are nevertheless paid nothing.

The World Trade Organization and other agencies for regulating trade are not beholden to any public community of accountability. In every case where multinational corporations have sued governments under the WTO, the corporations have won.

Concern for unions and the environment are given lip service, but in fact are generally ignored. Transnational corporations have become detached from national loyalties and communities. When Europeans objected to hormone-treated beef from big U.S. beef producers, the WTO forced them to accept it. Canadians objected to carcinogenic additives in imported gasoline, but lost. Not even the U.S. is immune from WTO control. In one case, the WTO overturned a U.S. law that protected sea turtles facing extinction. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) can give corporations control of hemispheric water supplies, the "blue gold" of the twenty-first century. It could privatize education and social security, making them inaccessible to the poor. Complaints are adjudicated by trade "representatives" who have not been elected by any elective body.

But third, globalization can be transformed. The language being used to speak of the transformation of globalization is "globalization from below." That would, quite simply, require opening deliberations to democratic procedures, keeping promises regarding labor rights and environmental responsibilities, organizing massive turnouts of people demanding change, and making major commitments to heal the world’s hunger. There is plenty of ground for hope, and there have been significant victories along the way: the World Health Organization’s action against the misuse of infant baby formula, the protocol against the use of nicotine, providing affordable AIDs treatment for poorer countries, stopping negotiations for the inequitable Multilateral Agreement on Investment, blocking the "Millennial Round" of the WTO, creating a treaty on genetically engineered products, student opposition to sweatshop products bearing their universities’ logos, the defunding and consequent discontinuation of construction on the Narmada Dam in India, the campaign to outlaw landmines, the decision of Monsanto to withdraw from the business of selling sterile seeds, and the public uproar against the WTO meetings around the world.


I spoke earlier of two glaciers converging, globalization and empire. Not surprisingly, we now see that the same three-fold analysis fits empire as well: Nations are good, nations are fallen, and nations can be transformed. They are good: the Pax Romana, with its road system and its success in ending piracy, made it possible for the gospel to spread throughout the empire with a minimum of danger. Paul could therefore shower encomiums on Rome as God’s servant for good (Romans 13). In the modern world, nations have provided a bulwark against seizure of lands, protection of their citizens against lawless behavior, and establishment of social welfare programs for the betterment of children through education, safety and prohibition of child labor. They protect against invasion, they ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism, and they can sometimes make the trains run on time. The New Deal is an excellent example of a government that cared for its people.

But, once again, nations are fallen, and the form they often take when they fall is empire. I doubt that empires can ever do much good. The Book of Revelation tells the real story: the Roman Empire was a dragon, a monster from the deeps that must be destroyed and reconstituted along humane lines (chapters 12--13 and 17--19). But the last word is that the empire that we see annihilated in Revelation 19--20 nevertheless comes marching into the Holy City, where the tree of life stands, and the leaves of the tree are for "the healing of the nations" (Rev. 21:24--22:2). Theoretically, nations can be restored to their divine vocation which, like the economy, is to serve the general welfare.

But when a nation aspires to empire, it tends to become virulently evil, no matter how hard individuals may try to prevent it. The Gospels unambiguously assert that Satan rules all the nations of the world (Matt. 4:9/Luke 4:6), and thus regard the Roman Empire as diabolical and to be replaced by God’s domination-free order. For empires live from the lust for power, and that lust is insatiable. We today are in the grip of an administration that was fraudulently elected, that lied about the reasons for dragging our nation into war, and is gutting vital civil liberties founded on the Constitution. It has manipulated our media and foreign governments with false information. It has ordered the indefinite detention of citizens and non-citizens alike without access to counsel, without being charged, and without opportunity to challenge the detention. It has used secret arrests and denial of public trials. It demonized the Iraqis even though that devastated country had no direct involvement in the bombing of the World Trade Center or al Qaeda. The President either lied about Iraq’s alleged possession of "weapons of mass destruction," or he himself was massively misinformed by his own intelligence branch—in either case, he is guilty of malfeasance in office.

Even if the purported megaweapons actually existed, they were not used against us. Bush’s spokesmen lied about Iraq purchasing uranium from Niger, a claim exposed as an intelligence fabrication to frighten the American public into supporting war with Iraq. Colin Powell made his case before the UN from a plagiarized magazine article by a California graduate student whose focus had been Iraq in 1991. The Pentagon cynically staged Jessica Lynch’s authentic sufferings as a propaganda pageant, when in fact her life was saved by Iraqi doctors at great risk to themselves. This administrations’ behavior trashes the Constitution. Such a string of lies constitute perjury, and perjury by a sitting president is impeachable. President Clinton was impeached for far less.

What lies behind this behavior? Nothing less than a vision of world-girdling empire seeking unilateral world domination through absolute military, economic, and political superiority. How do we know? The administration told us so. In the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, a White House document released last September 20, 2002, the Bush administration acknowledged that America has become the world’s policeman and legislator, prepared to rule the world without the help of any other nations or the United Nations. And the United States Space Command document, "Vision for 2020," claims even outer space as subject to "full spectrum dominance" by the American empire. Bush has backed out of treaties like the ABM and Kyoto because he wants no check on his ambitions. He played the Iraq card by pretending to work through the UN and its inspectors, even though the decision apparently had been made the summer before to attack Iraq regardless of world opinion. He violated the Charter of the United Nations, of which our nation is a signatory, by launching preemptive wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and threatening to do so elsewhere. As William Stringfellow so prophetically declared in the speech which first called for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, when a president lies so flagrantly to his own people; when he tells us that he will not heed any protests; when he, thus, pronounces the astonishing doctrine that the president is unaccountable to the American people, then ours has ceased to be a democracy and has become an empire. And this government has openly declared for empire.

An American empire violates the most profound genius of America. Empires are simply bullies, and there is little justification for them. James K. Galbraith pronounces a warning that is ominous for our present leaders: "The problem of empires, historically, is not military defeat. It is bankruptcy. Empires do not tend to business at home, and they tend to lose out to rivals who do." Our nation needs to be called back to its highest ideals. When the skein of lies is all disentangled, perhaps we can recover some modicum of those ideals that have made our land so unique, despite its failings. It is only because I love my country that I want to see it do right.

The Powers are good, the Powers are fallen, the Powers can be transformed. Analysis of the massive evils of globalization and empire would lead to paralysis if we did not remember that the Powers can be changed, but oh, with such difficulty. The task is made infinitely easier, however, by recognition that our job is simply to recall them to their divine vocation, which Adam Smith defined as serving the general welfare. On the one hand, we have the vision of all things in heaven and on earth being subordinated to that One who exemplifies the New Humanity (Col. 1:15-20). On the other, there is the greed of commerce and the power-lust of empire. The question is whether we can live out that vision of the One in whom and through whom and for whom all things were created, despite the fallenness of the world, knowing that the One who calls us to this task will provide the power to do it.

Dr. Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.  Previously, he was a parish minister and taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  In 1989-1990 he was a Peace Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. The author of many books, including the award winning Engaging the Powers and The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, Walter and his wife June Keener Wink have led peace workshops all over the United States and Canada, as well as in New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, South Korea, East and West Germany, England, Scotland and Ireland. 

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