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From Unchecked Greed to Prophetic Visioning

“Unchecked greed” and “extreme capitalism” are responsible for the Global Financial Crisis, said Rev Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice Australia.

In March Ms Poulos visited Matanzas, on the northern coast of Cuba, as a member of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), an advisory body of the World Council of Churches.

The CCIA, which advocates on public policy and systemic issues to promote peace, reconciliation, social justice and social transformation, met in Cuba to discuss the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

The gathering focused on the Council of Churches’ response to the effects of the GFC, ways of assisting those nations most in need and the creation of a new financial global system under the United Nations.

“Something that came through strongly was that institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank have lost the confidence of most countries,” said Ms Poulos.

“Basically they’ve failed and the Global Financial Crisis is a symptom of them failing. We looked at how the world’s financial architecture might be reformed. At the core of that is an idea about the democratisation of global financial systems so that they’re not run by just a small number of wealthy countries. The majority of the world’s countries need an opportunity to participate.”

The Commission recommended the General Secretary of the WCC write to the G20 leaders ahead of their London meeting in April and appeal that they embark on a re-working of international frameworks based on a new system of social justice and ethics to ensure financial institutions and their governance are based on an ethical foundation and attention to the social impact of their actions.

“That is core to a Christian understanding of a world where people share what they have,” said Ms Poulos.

“The talk about deep structural change to the economic system is based on an understanding that God’s economy is an economy based on equity, social justice and peace, and those things need to take centre stage in any re-worked financial system.”

There was also keen acknowledgment that the advocacy for global economic change should be undertaken with an inter-religious spirit that seeks to find common ground across the world’s faith traditions.

The Commission also recommended its member churches play a prophetic role in relation to the crisis, particularly in denouncing the unjust economic system underlying it and focusing people’s attention on more sustainable ways of living together.

In answer to that call UnitingJustice Australia is preparing a statement for the 12th Assembly on the way the Uniting Church sees a re-visioning of our economy from one based on materialism, consumerism and greed to one based on God’s vision for our world.

“It will identify an understanding of human progress as the flourishing of all people and the wellbeing of the planet in contrast to this extreme economic system based on unchecked human growth,” said Elenie. “Our statement will do what the WCC is asking us to do — take a holistic approach to the economy and a prophetic stance.”

“Most of us have been sucked into this system based on endless cycles of consumerism: I’ve got an iPod that’s two years old so I think I need to upgrade. But I don’t really ‘need’ this at all – there’s nothing wrong with the one I have. But we’re hooked in, without realising it, to a system that says you’ve got to have more and more and the newest and latest.”

It is evident that when it comes to the financial future of humanity we now have no time to waste on reinventing capitalism and, daunting as the task may seem, Elenie reported that there was considerable hope in the Commission.

“The situation is so bad now that it’s widely recognised by everyone that things have to change. The sense at the Commission was that it’s not just about tightening up banking and financial regulations. More serious surgery on the system is required and that this is the time to make in happen.”

And with a strong and unified effort from churches around the world working together, we might just have a chance.

Ms Poulos said that the Christian church, along with other religions, is growing rapidly in Cuba. The persecution of Christians that followed the revolution — they were thrown into labour camps along with homosexuals and political dissidents — has ceased and there is a serious acknowledgement by the State that faith is an important part of people’s lives.

Though most church leaders fled in the face of the persecution leaving the church decimated, church leaders, including the WCC, continued to lobby Castro over the proceeding decades. A meeting between Castro and 75 Protestant Church leaders in 1990 was something of a turning point and the result of much greater dialogue throughout the 1980s. This, along with growth of Afro-Cuban religions, such as Santeria, a mix of traditional African religion and aspects of Christianity, led to Castro’s admission that the Cuban people were inherently a spiritual people and that he had denied them religious freedom.

In 1992 he changed the Cuban constitution from an atheist to a secular state that acknowledges that right.

Since then Christianity has boomed. “We met with the head of the Department for Religious Affairs,” said Elenie. “And she said they recognise now that importing a form of communism from somewhere else, without thought for what a Cuban version might look like, was not the best thing they could have done. Now they are working with the people of Cuba to find a more indigenous expression of socialism.”

Nevertheless, Cuba remains impoverished and beleaguered. “The biggest impacts on Cuba have been the collapse of the Soviet block, the US embargo and more recently the three major cyclones that took place around the time of Cyclone Katrina but which we heard very little about,” said Elenie. “The cyclones destroyed half a million homes; we heard it’s going to take ten years to rebuild the homes lost.”

Nevertheless, though Cuba still struggles the people by and large appear to support the values of socialism and believe that in the 50th anniversary year of the revolution they have something to celebrate.

Still, it is the US embargo that continues to cause ongoing poverty and hardship and so the CCIA has stressed the need for the US to lift the blockade and for the establishment of an unconditional dialogue between the US and Cuban governments.

Despite its troubles there are positive aspects to the Cuban way of life including a 97% literacy rate, a life expectancy of 74 years and a first-rate health system that boasts outstanding doctors which, according to Elenie, all serve as a reminder that “we can learn from each other, even each other’s imperfect systems”.

“There’s doubtless poverty. However, I didn’t get a sense that people are hopelessly oppressed about the situation. There is a lot of life and energy in Cuba, a lot of people working together to make things better and a great contribution being made by the churches.”