Joerg Rieger, Globalization and Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010, 63 pp. Link to purchase here.
Joerg Rieger is currently professor of constructive theology at Southern Methodist University, but he will be moving to join the faculty of Vanderbilt University in the fall of 2016 as a professor of constructive theology. His work is well known in the academy, and in the field, as working creatively with the issues of our time. This short book is certainly no exception.
I came to this book expecting a constructive theology of globalization or a theological response to globalization. However, Rieger’s work is mostly an examination, through the lens of Christian theology, of various models of globalization and their implications. Many, like myself before reading Rieger’s work (or really before reading any real literature on globalization), thought of globalization primarily in terms of technology and communication. For me, the real issue for theology and globalization was the close proximity of different religious traditions and the proliferation of western technology throughout the world. While this is indeed part of globalization, much more of it has to do with economic systems (i.e. spread of free-market capitalism), culture, and power differentials.
One may expect forces of globalization to increase the well-being of all people as wealth is distributed across the world. This is not the case in reality. The truth is, economic difference has widened and even those in so-called developing nations do not benefit unless they are the ones making deals with the major industrial corporations or the ones trying to incorporate western culture into their midst. Rieger addresses the issue of globalization primarily through evaluating types of power structures.
“The dominant forces of globalization often proceed by erasing and eliminating alternatives. Alternative forms of globalization not only resist this move and encourage diversity but also encourage fresh visions of unity in diversity.” – p. 3.
He criticizes the top-down hard power paradigms exemplified in the Roman Empire and during the Spanish Inquisition at the same time he highlights how these empires influenced Christian theology and vice versa. Though we have largely removed (at least for the moment) this sort of hard power globalization through force, there are still widespread soft power aspects that work to the detriment of the many and benefit of the few. Rieger analyzes all the ways soft power, most obviously manifest through differences in economic capital, affects various regions of the world and what theology can do to provide an alternative vision.
“The empire eradicates the narratives of Jesus’ life and ministry in a specific context, at a specific time, in solidarity with the people, in order to present Jesus as a God who matches the principles of classical theism, such as impassibility, immutability, and omnipotence…[They] make no reference to the life and ministry of a Jewish construction worker called Jesus who announced an alternative kingdom – called the Kingdom of God – where the last will be the first and the first will be the last.” – p. 20.
While most of the book, or perhaps long essay of 63 pages, is devoted to critiques of the ways Christianity has worked hand in hand with empire, the more positive, constructive element of Rieger’s work resides in providing an alternative vision for the method of globalization which he calls the “bottom-up.” As the name suggests, it does not start with power concentrated in a small few, but with the common people. Rieger draws upon his own Methodist background to make a few points about the bottom-up vision of John Wesley. He also tries to make us think much more about the life of Jesus, and not merely the cross of Jesus or his ontological status as God. When one looks toward the life of Jesus for theological resources for globalization, one finds the divine in the margins, among the poor, sick, and outcast. Jesus was continuously fighting against the elite of his time whether it was the temple leadership or the Roman Empire as occupying force. This model of Jesus’ life, for Rieger, is much more promising going forward.
In fact, this underside, perspective from below, is where God has always been at work in the great traditions of Christianity: in the Exodus, the prophetic tradition, and in Jesus’ own life within the context of an oppressed people group dominated by the larger empire around them. If this is where God is, then, according to Rieger, theology must be located there as well and not among the powerful elite intent on maintaining the status quo of extreme power differentials.
The book is extremely short, so one should definitely not look to it as a complete system of thought. Rieger has written elsewhere more extensively on similar topics, notably his books “Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude” and “No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future” which readers should consult for a more complete image of Rieger’s alternative vision to the dominant top-down power model in our globalized world. Nonetheless, this book is extremely important as a conversation starter, and it works as a suburb introduction to the arena of theology in dialogue with power structures and globalization, one of the prime issues to face in the world today.