Last night, we brought our “Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on Global Greed” here in Chiang Mai to an end with the formulation of a “Common Word” on the economic mess the world is in and what we might do about it.
That’s quite an achievement. Finding a common word about the economy between Buddhists and Christians who share few common words about “theology” (Buddhists are uncomfortable with the word, theology) will be surprising to many. It’s an indication, I think, that religions can more easily find agreement about ethics than they can about doctrine.
In any case, our “Common Word” will soon be announced once it has been vetted by the organizations who sponsored our dialogue (the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation).
For the moment, I can offer a preview of the content of our Common Word under the slogan: “The Way to the Global Is through the Glocal.” That’s cutesy, I know. But it contains a powerful insight. Let me try to explain briefly.
Throughout our conference, as I tried to make clear in earlier blogs, we – both Christians and Buddhists – agreed that to understand and do something about the financial crisis that now surrounds us, we cannot talk only about personal or individual greed. Rather, we have to recognize and grapple with the reality of structural greed. Personal greed takes on the form of structural greed, and structural greed takes on a life of its own. So to prevent similar economic catastrophes from happening in the future, we have to deal with the greed that has become incarnated in the structures of the global economy.
But how do that? These structures of greed are incredibly powerful, living as they do, not just in the neoliberal economic policies of Wall Street, but also in the politics of Washington, Berlin, London, Tokyo –as well as in the public media that determine how people think of their nation and its economic policies.
So it’s not very promising to start from the top of the economic, political, and media systems. It seems impossible to start with trying to dismantle greed in its structural forms.
But that doesn’t mean that we should therefore simply start from the bottom – that is, from the level of personal greed. Of course, we must always seek to transform individual hearts. But that is not enough to change structures.
Therefore – and this gets to the heart of our Common Word – we should focus our energies not on the structural level, nor on the personal-individual level – but on the local level.
On the grassroots level, in our local communities, at the roots of civil society we should try to create structures that will insure economic policies and practices that will promote the democratization of the economy – that will prevent economic power from being concentrated in the hands of a few, that will provide a process of checks and balances for economic transactions.
We identified four examples of such local efforts that are already taking shape in different parts of the world: local exchange and trading systems (LETS) in which trading is done in local and regional currencies, cooperative banking, decentralized energy, and localizing the production and exchange of goods necessary for basic needs such as water and food.
Such local efforts, which are based in personal values and which try to create local structures of greater economic participation, will not remain just local. As these local realizations of a new way of organizing the market and the production and exchange of goods increase, and especially as they network with each other, they will have a transformative effect on global structures. They will become “glocal.”
But, at the end of the process, the Buddhists reminded us Christians, that all these efforts on the “glocal” level meant to transform the “global” level, won’t really work unless we are also continuously working on the “personal” level. Our efforts to transform the world have to be rooted in our efforts to transform our own hearts.
As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us: We cannot make peace unless we are peace.
So the message of our conference is this: As we all seek to transform our hearts from self-centeredness and expand our hearts toward compassion for others, we work on the local level, trying to create new ways of organizing our local economy that, we hope, will gradually transform the global economy. Our focus is the local. Our goal is the global. We act glocally.