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Reimagining Globalization

By May 1, 2012 No Comments

by Hak Joon Lee

Several years ago in one of the opening sessions of my ethics class, I gave the usual long lecture on globalization using various complex academic jargon such as time-space compression, glocality, deterritorialization, and transnationality.

After the class, a witty student sent me an email that politely chided my pedagogical ineffectiveness in explaining globalization.

“Professor, the following example is a far simpler account of globalization.” Question: “What is the truest definition of globalization?”

Answer: “Princess Diana’s death. An English princess with an Egyptian boyfriend crashes in a French tunnel while in a German car with a Dutch engine driven by a Belgian chauffer, drunk on Scottish whisky (check the bottle for the spelling!), being pursued by Italian paparazzi riding Japanese motorcycles. She was then treated by an American doctor using Brazilian medicines!”1

Yes, I had to agree with her. It was far better!

Globalization is changing our world. It is invading our daily lives in the home, workplace, church, school, and throughout society, turning them into never-ending cultural and technological frontiers. Aliens are raiding our communities, not on horseback, but through the internet, Skype, Twitter, texting, YouTube, and Facebook. Using Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, the Great Disruption is indeed taking place. We are living in a time scholars call one of the major axial changes in history: from the industrial to postindustrial era.

Although globalization is bringing many benefits to our lives, it also produces many problems: disappearing jobs, shredded safety nets, ecological degradation, growing international organized crime, the influx of immigrants, increasing identity thefts and intrusion into personal privacy, the undermining of traditional structures of authority—especially church, local community, family—altering socialization dynamics and gender roles. People are confused, disoriented, and displaced. Many feel the ground is shaking under their feet. The rise of religious fundamentalism, the Tea Party movement, and the Occupy movement reveals the depth of the threats to their security that people sense in the face of this axial change.

However, globalization puts enormous pressure even on those fortunate enough to keep their jobs and continue to fare relatively well. Growing global competition demands institutions and individuals to constantly update their knowledge and skills. The new mantra is “Reinvent yourself! Globalize Yourself!” Otherwise, you will soon be irrelevant and even disposable.

Every institution is trying to adapt to globalization in one way or another. Churches are no exception. In response to changing cultural ethos, technological innovations, and popular tastes, churches try to reinvent themselves. Watching the grim reality of rapidly declining denominations, many churches experiment with new forms of worship, ministry programs, and polities. They digitalize their communication, remodel their sanctuaries, modernize management styles, sing contemporary music, and rely on screens and open websites. I doubt, however, whether these kinds of changes are all that we need. More than technological and cultural adaptations, we need a major ethical paradigm shift.


The world needs a new order and a new covenant as it moves from a nation-state paradigm to a transnational paradigm, and to establish these, it needs the guidance of Christian theology and ethics. We need to globalize our vision, values, and norms, and theological guidance is indispensable for this task.

Why? Because the challenge of globalization is deeper and broader than cultural or technological changes. Although adaptation to technology is inevitable, the deeper changes that will be needed are structural and institutional. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “[W]e find ourselves caught up with many problems” because “we have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture; we have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology.”2 If Christians fail to address this structural change, keeping only to adapting ourselves to changing technology and popular culture, we may miss the point. If the driving forces of globalization are neoliberal capitalism and technology, Christian churches have tried to adapt only to the latter, without engaging with the former. As others have said before, it would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while ignoring the impending danger and disaster.

A major source of our problems is institutional and structural disequilibrium on a global level. While politics is still very much local, corporations are already global. We no longer have routine institutional checks and balances. Corporations are exploiting this disequilibrium, this moral vacuum, to maximize their profits. They are recreating the world in their image—one large consumer society. Many Americans have been slow to understand the significance and long-term impact of globalization on their lives because either they have regarded globalization as Americanization (thus believing America will control its course to her own benefit), or the nature and scope of globalization has been too broad to notice, too complex to understand.

What should we do with globalization, then? How can we rein in the abusive powers of corporations? One option is the assertion of the traditional boundary of a nation-state as some form of localism, of economic protectionism, which we see in the rise of nativism and religious fundamentalism all over the world. However, globalization will not be reversed. The only way to address it is to build a new order, new checks and balances, in other words, a new social covenant on a global level.

A global society requires a new moral framework that goes beyond the traditional nation-state. We need to build the global community into a newly imagined community, just as the nation-state, now sacralized for many, was once an artificial, socially constructed, imagined community—sovereign, not biologically (organically) interrelated, but sharing similar interests and identity as people.3

We need to globalize our moral vision, values, norms, and our sense of loyalty; we need to globalize peace and justice, democracy, and human rights. I believe that unlike other social movements, the Occupy movement is one that addresses this structural problem of globalization. It protests against this structural injustice of globalization and attempts to build a new democracy through a grassroots, horizontal organizing method. Applying Walter Brueggemann’s analysis of the three dimensions of the Exodus experience to the Occupy movement, by and large, Occupy enacts the first two dimensions—”critique of the dominant ideology” (neoliberal capitalism in their case) and “public processing of pain” (demonstrations and occupation of public places). And perhaps it explores the third, probably the most challenging dimension—”release of new social imagination.”4

What is the place of Christianity in this confusing sea change? Rather passively watching or adapting only technologically, can Christianity set the moral agenda for a global society? Can we capture this growing widespread yearning of the millions of people in the world and guide them to find a new direction and purpose in life? Can we release a new moral imagination for a global society? These are important questions. If Christians do not wrestle with these issues, they will soon fail to exercise moral leadership in this global society, becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Although the challenges of globalization are daunting, I am rather excited and cautiously hopeful. I believe that Christianity is uniquely equipped to address these challenges. As the world looks for global values and a new paradigm of life, Christianity is uniquely gifted to offer these global values. We are in fact the Exodus people. Christianity began as a global religion with a strong global impulse. It has contributed to the rise of modernity, democracy, capitalism, human rights, and constitutionalism. Yet it has sometimes forgotten or compromised that impulse, comfortably settling into the protection of nation-states, cultural traditions, and denominational structures.

Globalization is now challenging Christians to live out their true calling as a global tribe—the followers of Jesus Christ, the New Adam. This global moment, when approached with humility, courage, and theological imagination, could be a new Christian moment, one with no particular pretense of Christian domination. Rather Christianity can inspire many peoples and institutions for the promotion of the common good, peace, and justice. Probably for the first time in history, our context (namely the global context) closely approximates the scope of the gospel message and the true Christian ministry: the triune God as the source of all life, and humanity as brothers and sisters chosen in Jesus Christ. The universality of Christ’s gospel is for such a time as this. Now is the time for Christians to restore and live out our universal moral impulses in a genuinely global form, neither comforting ourselves under the behest of state or imperial powers, nor prematurely escaping to the eschaton. It is a time to release and apply the global instinct, the global DNA, intrinsic to Christianity.


Let me very briefly examine two historical examples of the way Christianity provided a new social imagination for society by capturing the hearts and minds of people.

The Jesus movement was a religious social movement that took place in the Greco-Roman world. According to Justo Gonzales, the Greco-Roman world was undergoing dramatic social changes somewhat similar to today’s globalization.5 In short, the Mediterranean world was a microcosm of a global society. The Jesus movement arose in response to the breaking down of many local communities under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire and the exploitation by the ruling elites of Jerusalem. As in today’s world, there were many competing paradigms and ideologies within the Jewish community addressing the challenges of displacement and oppression—the Sadducees (the counterpart of contemporary prosperity gospel preachers), the Pharisees (the counterpart of modern biblicists), the Essenes (the counterpart of sectarians), Zealots (revolutionaries), then finally the Nazarenes.

The people of Jesus were different from others. Their message was global and eschatological. In light of their experience of God’s presence in Jesus and the Spirit, they globalized the Jewish values relevant to their contexts, but in a manner more faithful to the original calling of Israel. They offered a new vision, new values, and new sets of communal practices (hospitality, love, nonviolence) for people. Confessing God as the source of all life, they proclaimed, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). They called each other “brothers and sisters.” The doctrines of the universal sovereignty of God and the Trinity offered a moral framework to harmonize universality and particularity, respecting diversity within the bounds of their shared core beliefs, while engaging with the philosophies and sciences of their time. They confessed God as the source of all life, who governs all human beings and communities with his constant love and justice. Based on this belief, early Christians did not fear to live as global nomads. As they moved from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria toward the ends of the earth, they regarded every part of the world as their home.

Another example is the Free Church Calvinists and Baptists, who captured the social imagination of millions of people at the dawn of modernity. The ideas of modern democracy, human rights, religious freedom, rule of law, constitutionalism were the products of Free Church public theology, which profoundly influenced Enlightenment social philosophers and politicians. Free Church Calvinists were at least one generation ahead of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and their theories of social contract. In the case of Puritans, they applied the Reformed “third use of law” not only to individual and church life but also to social life. They responded to the practical necessities of their time, such as pluralism within Christianity, the rise of a new commercial class, and new scientific methods and philosophies, through a renewed public theology of covenant.

What do these historical examples mean for us as Christians living in the global era? How should the church respond to globalization? What is our role in forging new vision, values, and virtues? What kind of theology, ethics, and missiology will help to release a new imagination and bring wholeness to our life?

While the early church in many ways is normative for us, we should be careful not simply to romanticize it. The world we now live in is different from the world in which they lived. They were political and social minorities, but today in many countries Christians are exercising enormous economic and social influences.

But we do need to do at least two things. First, as the problems are structural, we need to engage in the public task of theology, psychology, and missiology. We need to undertake interdisciplinary engagements in diverse fields in order to respond to the common practical necessities of our time to care for not only individual souls, personal well-being, and our religious institutions, but also for the stewardship of institutions, including family, corporations, schools, and hospitals. As the Apostle Paul said, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We need to look at how the individual and the societal, the global and the local, and the religious and the civic intersect with each other and the impact they make on each other.

Second, like the Jesus community, we also need to build a new community—a new peoplehood of God. This new practice is to embody a genuine sense of fellowship (namely, koinonia among people of different backgrounds). Without this practice, we will never have a chance to actually build a new peoplehood and our theology will remain abstract and speculative.

The building of a new community requires genuine fellowship, which is enduring, free, equal, and reciprocal (Acts 2:42-47). Reciprocity is a way to koinonia. It is the process that turns diversity into a living unity. Reciprocity is the grammar of covenant and the logic of the Trinity, perichoresis. Without this genuine reciprocity, cross-cultural and multi-cultural communities could end up under the hidden control of a dominant culture, or as a simple coexistence of many parallel subcultures without mutual engagements.

Another familiar description of this reciprocity is intertextuality. We already practice this intertextuality in our professions in one form or another. For example, missionaries are trained in intertextuality to understand other cultures. Biblical scholars and preachers engage in conversations with the text. Counselors and therapists engage in conversations with deep, underlying psychic structures and the suppressed selves of their counselees. Historians dialogue with the past, and theologians engage with the issues and questions of our contemporary culture.

We learn of the significance of fellowship not only from the early church, but also from Jesus. Among Jesus’s disciples, we find individuals with diverse backgrounds—Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. These two roles were socially incompatible. The former was the target of the latter’s hatred. If Zealots were local heroes then tax collectors were the same category as sinners and prostitutes. One can imagine how uneasy it was for them to be civil to each other in the beginning—a lot of bias, suspicion, anger, and even hatred toward each other. However, these disciples were compelled to fellowship together.

Going one step further, imagine that Jesus teamed Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot together for a mission trip when he sent out his twelve disciples two by two. (“And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two,” Mark 6:7). For their safety and tasks, they had to rely on each other. Think about what their trip would have been like, what conversations they could have had, given their colorful backgrounds—a lot of awkwardness, recriminations, excuses, and charges. However, I believe that Jesus made a difference in their lives. Following Jesus meant embracing others, repenting, forgiving, and reconciling on the deepest level.


Our shrinking world is hungry for a new paradigm of life. Can Christianity be the answer to this growing hunger? Can it be the good news again? Can the church carry out this public task of theology to assist the building of a new global community? Can we embody a model of such a new community?

I began with an example of globalization surrounding the death of Lady Diana. Allow me to conclude with another related to the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:

A Republican judge who is Catholic went to greet a Democratic Congresswoman who is Jewish, whose life was saved initially by a young, gay Latino, and eventually by a Korean-American surgeon, and memorialized by an African-American president whose African-American wife hugged the Irish-American astronaut husband of the congresswoman.

This is the kind of world we now live in, and we must unpack what it means, theologically, ethically, and missiologically.



2 Martin Luther King Jr., “Sermon on Temple Israel of Hollywood,”

3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006).

4 Walter Bruggemann, Hope within History (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987).

5 Justo Gonzales, “Foreword,” in Globalization and Grace: God and Globalization. vol. 4, by Max L. Stackhouse (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), xiii-xxvii.

Hak Joon Lee teaches theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.