In this thesis, I use language which specifically addresses an audience to which I
belong, which I am disposed to name as us – the prosperous, the satisfied, those in power, we in the United States who live above the poverty line. For reasons that I hope will be clear, it is fitting to couch my arguments in language that is so personal and situated. While it is crucial to understand, as liberation theology teaches, that the “primary victims have a wisdom about our condition that others require for their own enlightenment,” 1 and the poor must themselves be the subject of the corrective, there is also a special locatedness and distinct mission for those who live within the world of the wealthy and powerful who would reinforce the work of liberation. The most important relationship I am pointing towards is that between the global poor, living in destitution in the so-called developing countries, and the global prosperous, especially us, the flourishing North Americans. I have focused attention here because we who prosper in the United States are among those world citizens most deeply embedded in a system which gives us the option to distance ourselves from the
problems of global poverty and poverty in our own country. At the same time, the very system that allows us the luxury of remoteness directly perpetuates that impoverishment from which we recoil. The two phenomena are in my judgement related, and my language is intended to highlight that relationship as a living reality.


One perennial problem for politicians and theologians alike is poverty. Today, in our globalized world, our awareness of the depth and intransigence of global poverty has never been greater. Decades of failed policies such as large infrastructure investments in, and massive loans to, impoverished nations, have spurred a search for new approaches. The victory of the market-based ideology and attendant doubts about wealth-redistribution have deepened the political conviction that there has to be another way to pursue poverty reduction.

It is in this context that the agenda of economic development specialists has shifted to a focus on the empowerment of those who have the least. Poverty is seen as “a human condition [in which] people are unable to achieve essential functions in life, which in turn is due to their lack of access to and control over the commodities they require.”  Empowerment, then, is “the ability to influence decisions on how commodities [broadly defined] are both generated and distributed.” [1]  In other words, powerlessness in society is the key dimension of poverty to be tackled.

A search for the social and economic conditions that can facilitate the movement of the poor and marginalized out of their plight resonates with the call for compassion found in nearly all religions. A long line of biblical mandates, for example, call the covenantal community to love and care for the weak, the stranger and the outcast. In Christian terms, the work of poverty reduction accords with Jesus’s proclamation concerning the treatment of the outcast and downtrodden: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

And yet, we know, it is never as easy as all that. When the prophetic call is reduced to an exhortation to charitable kindness, the structural realities of poverty are hardly challenged. And this is why today’s widespread rhetoric of empowerment for the poor can be deceptive: authentic empowerment of the many on the margins entails a change of relationship between them and the few at the center of power. From the perspective of the powerful, it is easy enough to give lip service to the idea that poverty reduction must be a win-win situation, in which the gains of the powerless need not rock the boat of the powerful. This proposition should indeed be true: if human power is shared in the right spirit, achieved together, it ought to be a bottomless well upon which all can draw. But, on balance, power as practiced in the world today is a decidedly zero-sum, win-lose proposition. For those in power, that power is by and large not seen as limitless resource – if one is to gain power, another must relinquish it. It is power over, rather than power with or power to. [2] For mutual power relations to flourish, for interactions to create a new, better condition of mutual benefit – in other words, of genuine empowerment for the poor – the powerful must change. That change can be felt as a loss of control. Taken to its logical end, the empowerment agenda has to be a challenge to the way that the wealthy and powerful live and think about how we live – a challenge to change, to share power and wealth; ultimately, to change the meaning of possession, or to relinquish a share. The trick is to show those of us who hold the cards that the challenge to change is not a threat, but an invitation to a better way of life for all.

At the present time, any challenge to the wealthy to respond to the problem of global poverty is an uphill battle. Since the dawn of Marxism, the will to improve the lot of the poor has foundered on the rocks of political controversies over property, wealth redistribution, and “moral hazard” (the idea that “giving” to the poor only encourages the bad habits and dependencies that made them poor in the first place). But with the defeat of Soviet socialism and the subsequent surging force of free-market neoliberalism, the ease with which the wealthy and powerful can foist off responsibility is especially great now: put most succinctly, a contemporary kind of instrumental rationalism, “[c]onjoined with social Darwinism and possessive individualism… forms, for classes in positions of power and privilege, all the delineaments of a ‘viable religion,’ the kind of deep-seated faith that undergirds and sustains the lived experience of the everyday world of the

elite.” [3]  “Empowerment” can thus be recast as the responsibility of the poor to take care of themselves, period. A cynic might concede that, as long as nobody takes this idea of empowerment too far, it, too, might have its season.

But I would like to suggest that today a qualitatively new and different element can be added to the mix to give the empowerment agenda greater authenticity. It is an idea which has already made an impact in science, spirituality, and philosophy, but has yet to register as more than a blip in the world of conventional politics and punditry. This hidden element is the newly widespread understanding that we are all in some sense profoundly interpenetrated, interconnected, and inter-related.

Call it relatedness, relationality, inter-relatedness, or interconnectedness; everyone has heard variations on this slogan – We are all related and interconnected – repeated in various contexts, almost as if it is a self-sufficient idea that requires no further elaboration. But many writers have elaborated the idea deeply, drawing on diverse resources such as ecological science and philosophy, cosmology, biology, and Eastern spirituality. “We exist as individuals in a vast community of individuals within the ecosystem, each of which is related in intricate ways to all others in the community of life,” says Sallie McFague. [4] The Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara says, “Interdependence means accepting the basic fact that any life situation, behavior, or even belief is always the fruit of all the interactions that make up our lives, our histories, and our wider earthly and cosmic realities.” [5]

Douglas Sturm speaks of an ontology of relationality, arguing that our “individuality can be comprehended only contextually.”[6] We are the result of the confluence of what has come before, not to be understood independent of our community; yet each of us is also a creative agent making our own individual stamp, self-determining and self-constructing. For Carol Gould, individuals are social beings who “engage in joint or common agency” in pursuit of common goals. “[I]n pursuit of their individual goals, they require the respect, recognition, or forbearance of others.” [7] For Sturm, this “thick interdependency of our lives” is the principle of relationality: human life as a continuous dialectic between participation and individuation. There is little we can accomplish apart from the communal matrix that sustains us. When Sturm says, “We are members of each other. We belong together,” he intends his statement as “both a political affirmation and a religious declaration” – for it speaks simultaneously to how we are to coexist together and to the essence of what we are. [8]

I will be drawing ethical and justice implications from this orientation of mutual belonging. A general principle of our interconnectedness drives us toward an understanding of justice as solidarity, as an imperative of right-relatedness. But any such translation of relatedness thinking into real-world action in pursuit of economic and social justice, and, especially, of effective poverty reduction, has, once again, so far been a difficult task. Consider, for example, the pervasive “antiglobalization” protests of recent years: I suspect that, for many of the (peaceful) activists, strong intimations of inter-relatedness and its moral implications stand silently behind their actions – yet media reports consistently paint the protesters as muddle-headed idealists unable to connect their ideas to economic realities. Relatedness is an orientation to our very sociability, not a simple slogan, and if it does underlie the seeming hodgepodge of justice concerns expressed at global summits, it does so quietly, and no wonder: when reduced to a slogan, the appeal to our relatedness only causes the hard-headed to roll their eyes.

The time has now come, I believe, to make this translation: to turn the value of relatedness into effective political and economic theory, and to incorporate it into our understanding of justice – in other words, to make it into a basis for transformative action. Now, I am hardly in a position to present a full theory of the connections between inter-relatedness and empowerment here; but I will present some of the groundwork that is already underlying such thinking, and use three case studies to show some of the real-world terrain for these ideas. I mean to suggest that a good place to start is in connecting ideas of inter-relatedness to ideas of empowerment. I will posit a relationship between these concepts as follows: by viewing our world through an ontology of inter-relatedness, we force the relational aspect of the empowerment agenda for the poor – the balance of power between the prosperous and the deprived – into the foreground. In so doing, we sensitize and strengthen the empowerment agenda and gain effective criteria for its authenticity. To make such a move is to ask, in any given situation, how is the entire web of relationships interacting with – impacting and being impacted by – a particular strategy of empowerment-out-of-poverty?

Relationality is a more fundamental concept than empowerment, for power is a relational quality: (em)power(ment) only makes sense within relationship. In any case, the spirituality of both empowerment and relatedness is a fundamental concern here, even if the terrain seems to be largely political and economic. The reason for this is nicely conveyed by Bernard Meland: “Spirit connotes a depth of thought that forms the matrix of relations in which all life is cast…. spirit is a quality of being which arises out of a particular depth of sensitivity in relations. It is, in other words, a goodness in relationships.” [9] To believe in that goodness, I believe, is to maintain a spirituality.

Relatedness can equally be treated in a secular vein, for example drawing on insights from physics and biology. I think that secular conceptions of both relatedness and empowerment can stand alone as foundational to justice, but that their deeper underpinnings are most richly revealed from a spiritual orientation. In religious thinking, relatedness may appear both as a complement to other foundations and as a central pillar in its own right. Relatedness complements, or intertwines with, important religious justice-visions like the Jewish Sabbath and Jubilee mandates, the Christian love command, the assertion of traditional indigenous lifeways, and new formations of eco-holism. But relatedness also stands out clearly on its own as a foundational understanding: we might think of the being-in-community of trinitarian understandings of God and of humanity, or of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, or of the Eastern mode of relationships encompassing the relational “no-self.” We might assert, with Harold Oliver, that reality is relatedness, that the relation is fundamental, the relata contingent. [10]

Finally, importantly, I believe that relatedness can be an inter-religious touchstone, eminently sharable by any religious tradition. All of these crossover paths are important to the intellectual, affective, and – maybe someday – political importance of relatedness.

So here we have the two elements – one, empowerment, is a fairly pragmatic and specific agenda for change, and the other, relatedness, is a way of knowing, or a way of seeing the world. Separately, each beckons us in diverse ways to transform our relationships. Together, the combined themes of empowerment and relatedness could be applied to a wide range of concerns, but the focus here is on addressing them specifically to problems of poverty and wealth. The animating idea of this thesis is that values and practices of empowerment and right relatedness, when combined, provide a much stronger grounding for effecting global poverty reduction than either does separately – or than narrowly economic or political approaches can. Civil society, with its rich links of community,  is the social location within which this combination of empowerment and relatedness is most fruitfully expressed, both in value and in practice. In civil society, the synergy of a conscious interplay between these two values could generate an important new basis for action to tackle global poverty reduction.

The thesis proceeds in three chapters, each made up of several sections. Most sections begin with material observations and conclude with commentary on the underlying spirituality of the given topic. The first chapter lays out the particulars of poverty, relatedness, and empowerment. Section I-1, concerning today’s poverty reduction agenda, argues that the accumulation of wealth as we know it today is an impediment to the ability of the poor to access the life-possibilities they need to overcome poverty. Fundamentally, wealth is a shared human asset and markets should serve people; with this assertion, a claim is made upon the well-to-do. Section I-2 provides a richer rendering of the theological and philosophical meanings of inter-relatedness as they pertain to poverty reduction and empowerment. Relatedness has both a natural basis and theological warrants and it can change the way we think about our property and our institutions. Section I-3 gives an account of the agenda of empowerment and explicates ways in which institutional power can be a stumbling block. Section I-4 introduces the role of civil society, the free groupings of persons that exist outside of the established institutions of government and business. Civil society, I argue, could become the perfect embodiment of relatedness-empowerment ideals. This argument in fact is the capstone on my prior arguments for the combination of relatedness and empowerment: civil society is the concrete ground for this new approach – the social location where I believe the action will take place.

[Note: for brevity, the second chapter of illustrative case studies from Nigeria, Ecuador, and the Jubilee 2000 campaign have been omitted from this online version. They are available upon request.]

The third chapter is a constructive effort to spell out the ways in which relatedness values bolster the empowerment agenda and so improve the opportunities of today’s global poor. Section III-1 begins with the thought of David Sturm: at the heart of the politics of relationality is “a principle of justice as solidarity” intended to enhance the vibrancy of the whole community and each of its members. Justice as solidarity affirms the positive freedom to develop oneself through one’s actions. It also insists that the effective exercise of such rights and liberties requires cultural and economic support. I conclude by considering two concrete political and economic proposals which utilize new conceptions of civil society: direct global representation, and reconceiving the final ends of wealth. Section III-2 concerns the ways in which, in theological terms, the relatedness value helps to make liberation present. The liberation of the oppressed is a call for an alternative social system, which can begin with any modest move toward the dissolution of the categories oppressor and oppressed. Relatedness delivers all the elements for the softening of the world’s brutal edges: solidarity, shared feelings, mutuality, dialogic relationship, reciprocity. Section III-3 concludes the thesis by offering some ways in which the prosperous can begin to contribute to re-making relationships with our world’s impoverished billions.




[1] Alan Fowler, Striking a Balance (London: Earthscan, 1997), 3-4.

[2] My thanks to Martha Ellen Stortz for clarifying my thoughts on power relations.

[3] Douglas Sturm, Solidarity and Suffering: Toward a Politics of Relationality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 163. Sturm is paraphrasing the thoughts of Richard Rubenstein in Rubenstein, The Age of Triage (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 222.

[4] Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 1993), 105-108.

[5] Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 52.

[6] Sturm, 9.

[7] Carol C. Gould, “Private Rights and Public Virtues: Women, Family, and Democracy,” in Carol C. Gould, ed., Beyond Domination: New Perspectives on Women and Philosophy (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983), 5. From Sturm, 11.

[8] Sturm, 7, 231-232.

[9] Bernard E. Meland, The Realities of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 233, quoted in Sturm, 13.

[10] Harold H. Oliver, Relatedness: Essays in Metaphysics and Theology (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 93-94.

[11] Of which the author is a member.



I-1       The wages of poverty

The persistent deep poverty and consequent marginalization and suffering of fully half the world’s six billion people is a matter of great and ongoing concern. Globally 1.2 billion people are currently estimated to live on less than $1 per day; and almost 3 billion people, roughly half the world’s population, live on less than $2 per day. [1] Between the rich and poor nations, the disparities are extreme. The top fifth of countries by income have 86 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP); the bottom fifth just one percent. The top fifth command 82 percent of the world export markets and 68 percent of foreign direct investment; the bottom fifth just one percent of each of these. [2] Compounding the difference between even ordinary Americans and the global poor, even the vanishingly small slice of the wealth held by poor nations collectively is subject to great internal wealth disparities between poor and rich similar to those in the United States, or worse.

What does this mean for the truly poor? The case studies in Chapter 2 reveal the some of the ways in which the poor are pushed aside. In Nigeria government officials take kickbacks to sell off forest homelands far from the capital. In Ecuador the financial and political system declares its double standards in a crisis by protecting the assets of the powerful while freezing and appropriating the funds of ordinary bank accountholders. In the case of Jubilee 2000 and international debt, we find entire generations held hostage to loans that were long ago funneled into private offshore accounts.

The agenda of global economic development has proceeded through several decades of painful lessons and halting progress, but it has slowly learned important lessons for the task of poverty reduction. Still, the agenda of reducing poverty remains largely unfulfilled. The causes of this failure are legion and are entwined with a vast and diverse array of particular concerns with varying degrees of affinity and overlap, such as the status of women, the harsh impacts of economic liberalization and free trade on the poor, economic concentration, corporate responsibility, labor practices, local disempowerment, race issues, and environmental degradation. I cannot begin to recount all of this here. Instead, I would like to begin by placing the most salient goals of today’s poverty reduction agenda alongside those features of our global economy that are most implicated in perpetuating impoverishment.

Now, as to the lessons learned over half a century of globally coordinated economic development: frequent attempts have been made in recent decades to define the essence of poverty and the task of poverty reduction. [3] Generally speaking, this effort has been a journey from relatively simple formulations to increasingly elaborate ones, culminating presently in the understanding that poverty reduction is a complex process that demands an active strategy of empowerment.

As explained by Alan Fowler in his recent book, Striking a Balance, overcoming the complicated condition of poverty is much more than a matter of meeting the basic needs of minimum nutrition, shelter and clothing, as once was thought. It is more than a achieving a some threshold of consumption levels, and it is more than attaining a certain quality of life and the capability, as Amartya Sen says, to fulfil valuable functions within society. [4] Overcoming poverty is more even than gaining control over a wide range of “commodities,” including less tangible things such as education, good health, social standing and security. A person’s completed emergence from poverty, in Fowler’s account, is finally reflected in her overcoming a multifaceted state of powerlessness, in which she cannot achieve key functions because she is unable to influence the control of the commodities she requires. Fowler describes poverty reduction as a hierarchical unfolding of goals, “a process through which people progressively gain control over commodities in a rough sequence related to: survival, such as food, shelter and warmth; well-being – health, literacy, security; and empowerment, in the psychological sense of self-esteem and status, and in the political sense of exerting influence over decisions which affect their lives.” [5]

Today’s development agenda thus recognizes powerlessness in society as perhaps the most critical dimension of the problem of persistent poverty. Power, simply put, “is the ability to accomplish purposes or to realize desires.” As such, the exercise of power is not only the raw and dirty work of politics, but “an essential dimension of all life.” [6] The absence of structures and processes for participation, much less control, is an indicator of marginalization or exclusion.

Yet, if this empowerment strategy has taken hold in the circles of economic development theorists, it is not at all reflected in the mainstream of economic affairs. If the question is – “How do we create the empowering conditions in which the poor gain the capabilities and participation they need?” – the leading answer today is the competitive free market. The point of the economic strategy for fighting poverty known as the “Washington consensus” – recognized in the developing world as a free-market recipe of “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs) – is to expand the growth economy, with the ultimate goal of creating new investment and business that will create new opportunities and income for those who have the least. By these means, developing nations will gradually reduce the numbers of the poor. These arguments extolling the benefits of the economic growth and technological progress have great power and have largely defined our times. We have just witnessed the passing of an extraordinary century of real progress, and most people have every reason to believe that more of the same is coming. Astounding volumes of wealth have been created and standards of living have risen radically across the globe. Technology development has brought unprecedented health and lifespan to much of humanity, and the spread of such real benefits as electricity, communications, and education has never been so wide, encompassing communities that have long suffered under the yoke of underdevelopment and exploitation. Many whose grandparents were peasants now live longer and better lives, the partisans of the capitalist mode of economic growth like to say, than the kings of a century or two ago.

Yet this vision of prosperity for all through trickle-down growth also serves to support and justify the same hegemonic order that blithely accepts the utter exclusion of the majority of humanity. There is massive intellectual and material power in support of a status quo which sustains the roots of domination and seems to crowd out humanizing alternatives: not least, the myriad ways in which all Americans depend upon and participate in the benefits. From the perspective of the global poor, more income may indeed arrive in some places and at some times, but the forces arrayed against genuine empowerment remain unchanged. The ability of the great economic powers to hold the center and keep the clamor of voices at the margin is the measure of their hegemony.

In a highly influential book on globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes of a global system with a striking lack of an ethical signposts. The rule of the market, Friedman argues, is that there is no one in charge; you have no choice but to run with the pack. From this kind of scientistic, economistic, deterministic point of view, there is no source of moral wisdom that might be universally applied; there are only the pragmatic rules of the game – among them, that our many sets of moral values shall compete with each other in their own marketplace, and, if the market be free, that no one set of values may be allowed to dominate (i.e., hold a monopoly). The one universal, in fact, is the market itself; and within the bounds of the capitalist free-market system, the very traditions of moral and aesthetic values are sometimes divided and conquered by self-serving ends.

Those individuals and institutions who hold the greatest wealth, regardless of their benevolent side, tend first to exercise their power to protect and expand their interests. Most wealthy-nation governments act first out of self-interest and are not abashed to say as much – no recent United States president has been so vocal and narrowly focused on acting “in the American interest,” particularly economic interest, as George W. Bush in 2001, but his pronouncement stand within a long tradition. [7] The result of this boldly self-serving attitude is that our leaders regard even the poorest nations first as competitors. No matter that the advantages build on themselves, that this is a competition in which the team with the greatest payroll cannot fail to win. The result is also found in the way that multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund unilaterally impose on poor nations the economic vision of their wealthy-nation donor governments. Fixated on stable future macroeconomic growth in a protectionless open-market regime, slashing government assistance, imposing austerity in the name of efficiency, the resulting plans typically hurt the immediate welfare of the poorest in the hope of future benefit. Yet, during the boom years of the 1990s, that promised benefit never arrived for the vast majority of the world’s poor.

Market thinking has little place for the perspective that Sallie McFague brings when she says, “If the most basic meaning of justice is fairness, then from an ecological point of view, justice means sharing the limited resources of our common space.” [8] Just as we seek in our individual lives to exist in a benevolent milieu of living-together, giving and sharing, so we might seek to live in a common space of social structures and institutions that interact in these ways. Later I will make the case that we live in a world of radically related selves and that the ethical nature of belonging-together presses the case of what justice should mean for us in distinct ways. Great and growing disproportions of wealth and poverty, by which some live lavishly while billions live on a pittance, at best on the edge of malnutrition in the most meager of homes, belies the reality that communities of wealth and communities of poverty are related to each other – or, rather, it establishes that the mode of that relation shall be one of domination/subordination. The common terrain of home on earth is not shared.

If we return to the facts of income inequality and wealth disparity, we shall see that the very same neoliberal [9] economic growth strategy that claims to have the answer to poverty actually perpetuates poverty even in the midst of rapid growth. Consider the findings in a discussion of income-inequality in a recent Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Poverty Briefing. In September, 2000, world leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit meeting in New York set a goal to reduce by half the more than one billion people living in “extreme poverty” (defined as earning less than $1 a day, and likely going hungry). The target is to meet this goal by 2015. But the ODI briefing finds that “high levels of income-inequality limit the poverty reducing effects of growth….high-inequality countries will need to grow twice as fast as low-inequality countries to halve poverty by 2015. This is not feasible.” [10]

World Bank data, which assumes growth of 4 percent per capita per annum, indicates that “if all the countries in the developing world were to belong to the high-inequality group, although poverty falls, the target of halving extreme poverty by 2015 would not be attained. [But if] all these countries belonged to the low-inequality group then the target is easily met and poverty is halved as soon as 2005.” [11] As long as such inequality is the rule, the vaunted goals of political leaders are openly in vain.

Now, this is an opportunity for us in the wealthy nations to pin the blame on someone else: is it not the elites in the poor countries who are holding their own countrymen in poverty? Relational understandings will challenge that scapegoating. The profit incentives of the market economic system itself, flowing from, even imposed by the wealthy nations, ensure that income inequality is indeed the rule. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect developing-world elites to choose to become more egalitarian when they can look at the same basic pattern in the United States’ domestic economic order. It is clear that those who are middle-class or wealthy in America have little interest in engaging themselves in an economic re-ordering that would deliver the same kind of empowerment to our own country’s poor. The wealth inequality trends in the United States are striking. In 1998 the wealthiest 10 percent of the American population owned 71 percent of all wealth and the bottom 90 percent owned 29 percent (in 1978, those allotments were, respectively, 49 percent and 51 percent). [12] Since 1977 the top one percent of American households has nearly doubled its share of the nation’s wealth, jumping from 20 percent to 38 percent. [13] With respect to financial assets (stocks, bonds, and other non-housing equity) the concentration is even more pronounced. In the United States the top one percent holds nearly half of all financial wealth. [14]

Our American economy is presented from the hegemonic center as the pre-eminent model for economic transformation for the world. It is to the most successful Americans that such third-world elites compare themselves, emulating the lifestyle and aspiring to live up to it. Douglas Sturm argues that the question of distribution is inextricably linked to our perceived ontologies: how the wealth is held tells us how things in the world are actually practiced today and how they are “supposed” to be. [15] J. Mark Thomas says, “Every economic system is simultaneously a system of distributive justice and a moral statement about the right relationship between liberty and equality, the distribution of rewards and punishments, and the relationship between person and community and between stability and change.” [16] The relationships between the poor and the wealthy embodied by our system in the United States makes a loud statement. That same message is mirrored by the enormous inequality that holds true between rich and poor nations. In a nation self-consciously holding a small pie, those few individuals in a position to keep up with their rich-country peers have to take an even larger slice of the pie than do their elite companions in the rich countries. It remains easiest to point the blame at developing-world elites for hoarding their profits at the expense of a more balanced and rapid national development. But the relatedness ethic demands that we go further than just blaming politicians and bureaucrats. I am suggesting that we in the wealthy nations might take these facts as an opportunity to discover our own relatedness to that poor-nation inequality dynamic. The development strategy itself is inextricable from the problem, and the chain of command for the enforcement of that strategy runs upward from the multilateral lending agencies, to their wealthy sponsor governments, to their leaders, to us, their electors.

Since market thinking is here to stay, perhaps we should take another tack, and ask what are the purposes of the market economy. Consider the formulation, “Markets are in the service of humankind.[17] Day in and day out, a substantial part of human activity and of the earth’s bounty is devoted to productive endeavors which sustain the flow of markets. We all take part in market life. Yet it is in the nature of market incentives that the final benefit of all this activity – the wealth that productivity generates – is distributed unevenly. It appears that some in the global community are in the slow process of trying to set at least theoretical limits on that unevenness. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in the 1990s began emphasizing “human well-being as the purpose of markets and development. [Most development-oriented non governmental organizations] would assert that people and their values are both the means, ends, and judges of development.” [18] This understanding defines human development as “a process of enlarging people’s choices,” including, at a bare minimum, “to lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge, and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living.” [19] For a long time, such a moral claim on markets has done battle with the philosophers of trickle-down economics, who believe that economic growth as such, in almost any form, fulfills the service obligation of markets to humankind.

I have said communities of wealth and communities of poverty are related to each other. How far does this relationship go? Could we say that the poor have a claim on some part of the wealth of the wealthy? The UNDP consensus answers “yes”: accumulated wealth cannot stand by unhelping while poverty cripples many people at levels below critical thresholds of well-being. Perhaps that sense of obligation should be pushed further, and we could say that the wealth of humanity is in some sense for all of humanity. But let us hold ourselves only to this emerging consensus that prosperous communities have a role to play in undergirding certain basic minimums for those who are least well-off. The implications of that commitment, I shall play out in the ensuing chapters.

First, though, I shall conclude this section by introducing the theological connection between poverty and oppression, as explicated by liberation theologians. “Liberation is liberation of the oppressed,” Clodovis Boff says, restating the relation which Jesus drew from Isaiah in his foundational first public act in Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Who are the oppressed? For Boff, the “characteristic visage of the third-world oppressed is that of the socioeconomically poor…the disinherited masses of the urban and rural slums” – those who are subject to “infrastructural oppression.” [20] Many people have found it easy to attribute such social destitution to personal vice or to collective backwardness, but liberation theologians such as Boff instead identify poverty as oppression. “Oppression,” in these terms, is, minimally, the usurping of any human being’s freedoms and capabilities to develop and grow, in a world in which there is enough for all. It is disempowerment. There are critical thresholds points below which such capabilities are not self-sustaining. In our world today, the most strikingly obvious location of oppression is the materially poor, whom Ada María Isasi-Díaz calls “those for whom the struggle for survival is a way of life.” [21] “Poor,” Clodovis Boff says, is taken as a code for “dependency, weakness, helplessness, anonymity, contempt, and humiliation” – though the poor would not define themselves in such terms. Poverty is “the fruit of the actual economic organization of society,” which exploits and excludes in privileging capital over labor. [22]

The solution, Boff argues, is “an alternative social system,” a transformation in which “the poor emerge as the ‘subject’ or agent of the corrective.” [23] Like other writers in the liberation vein, he posits the theological fact of oppression as very much a this-worldly reality; and it is likewise with salvation. “Jesus denounced the Domination System of his day,” Walter Wink tells us, “and proclaimed the advent of the Reign of God, which would transform every aspect of reality, even the social framework of existence.” [24]

I-2       Meanings of relatedness

I have grounded this thesis in the notion that the empowerment agenda could be greatly vivified by connecting it up with values of relatedness, generating a strong and widely accessible ethic for the global challenge of poverty reduction. I would like now to clarify what I mean when I speak of relatedness. Relatedness is a concept which applies equally to ecological webs, cosmic origins, and social bonds. To help define what relatedness means, Ivone Gebara’s words concerning interdependence are very helpful:

Our interdependence and relatedness do not stop with other human beings: They encompass nature, the powers of the earth and of the cosmos itself….Knowing is a human act… however, the animal, vegetable, and cosmic forms of consciousness are also part of our makeup. This other kind of interdependence does not come to full, conscious awareness, and so it is rarely considered….Once we do recognize its importance…we will be able to care for the earth and all its inhabitants as if they were close relatives, as parts of our greater body, without which individual life and consciousness are impossible….It is not a matter of denying my individuality …rather, it is an invitation to a deeper perception that includes our greater self… [25]

It is an invitation to what Douglas Sturm calls “the social character of reality”: “we are not, initially, individual beings separate from all others. We are born in and depend for our very life on a vast context of multiple lines of relationship, biological and cultural, present and past.” Paraphrasing Bernard Meland, Sturm describes us as “re-presentations of the world as much as we are individuals: the sea water flows through our veins; the chemicals and ores of the earth give structure to our bodies; the atmosphere provides us with breath and life; whole civilizations vibrate through our language. At the same time, we bring to each moment the stamp of our individuality…. In short, the fundamental theme of life is individuality-in-community.” [26]

This account is not merely an agreeable reinterpretation of reality. It is based on a wide-ranging, converging set of new understandings. One universal way into relatedness is what theologian Sallie McFague calls the common creation story. This is the oft-told story of our world as pictured by quantum physics and contemporary cosmology. It begins with our origins in the explosion-outward of our universe from infinitely small beginnings, the event we call the big bang. “From this beginning came all that followed, so that everything that is is related, woven into a seamless network, with life gradually emerging….All things living and not living are the products of the same primal explosion and evolutionary history and hence interrelated in an internal way right from the beginning.” [27] Expanding the scope even further, Ian Barbour says, “From astrophysics we know about our indebtedness to a common legacy of physical events. The chemical elements in your hand and in your brain were forged in the furnaces of stars. The cosmos is all of a piece.” [28]

What is most especially highlighted by many writers today – and is a body of meaning immediately accessible to many spiritual traditions – is, as McFague puts it, “the radical interrelatedness and interdependence of all aspects [of the common creation story]”: “We exist as individuals in a vast community of individuals within the ecosystem, each of which is related in intricate ways to all others in the community of life.” An “ecological sensibility” grows out of this story, so that “everything that is traces its ancestral roots within it, and the closer entities are in space and time, the closer they are related.” The power of this understanding, once grasped, cannot be underestimated: as Brian Swimme says, “No tribal myth, no matter how wild, ever imagined a more profound relationship connecting all things in an internal way right back from the beginning of time. All thinking must begin with this cosmic genetic relatedness.” [29]

The ethical import of this deep relatedness is a call for an attitude of openness, inclusiveness, and solidarity. The perspective of relatedness is a “both/and” proposition: beings as both autonomous and related. Autonomy is affirmed, but connectedness to others is integral to its meaning. McFague says that relatedness does not imply a lack of individuation among living beings – indeed, relatedness is a meaningless concept if there are not individuated beings to relate to one other! A sense of responsibility grows out of an understanding of one’s self as both autonomous and interdependent. Thus, the larger structures and institutional contrivances of the human world do not negate the role of the individual. We have suffered, Walter Wink argues, “tragic illusions about the power of new systems to create new people.” If Soviet communism did not produce the “New Man” (sic), it is, Wink asserts, because, while Marx was right that the self is “the ensemble of social relations,” that is not all that the self is.

The self is that ensemble of social relations which also knows itself to be primordially grounded in being-itself, to have a name uttered over it, or within it, from all eternity. No state, or family, or employer can reach all the way to the core of our beings; and it is this residual irreducibility that makes it possible to resist society, to oppose the Powers, to transcend our own socialization. Much as we might like to lay the blame for all evil on the rise of the Domination System, we cannot do so without at the same time sacrificing responsibility and freedom. [30]

Relatedness, then, is an affirmation of individuation, not an idea that threatens individuality with diffusion into the cosmic soup or the divine One. At the same time, relatedness is a focusing on the undervalued aspect of related individuals: the relationship itself. An increasing web of relationships is the other side of the coin of the burgeoning complexity and variety of life in the process of evolution – and this understanding is a corrective to the view that evolution itself is grounded only in competition. [31]

Let us apply these ontological understandings to an ethical question: what ought to be the status of property in light of our relatedness? Property, as a kind of claim over things, is itself “a form of relationship.” [32] At the dawn of the modern age, John Locke established, in his Second Treatise of Government, his vision of “the State of Nature,” “what State all Men are naturally in”: “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions and dispose of their Possessions as they think fit…without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man.” [33] Locke’s vision of atomistic individuals in a “State of Nature,” each a law unto himself, is not intended to be “real” – he does not argue that any such state of being ever existed. Yet, to the extent that Locke’s thought remains foundational for us, we still do see ourselves as natural individualists. We might believe that our self-determination gains its expression in society only through political and legal means in our relationship to our government. Because of this narrow view, we are   missing out on a discussion of what the powers of the economy and our social belongingness ought to mean for us. I will argue later that we fail to see how, as people making common cause with each other, we can empower ourselves and others through our involvement in civil society.

If Locke’s ideal State of Nature is a state of perfect freedom to act as we will, without the consultation of others, I would propose instead that we begin in a state of community – in a web of mutual dependencies and obligations. All our freedom is balanced with responsibilities, all our freedom is bound by the limits of obligation and reciprocity. We are free to choose what is best for ourselves, but, if we absolutize that freedom, we ignore the downstream consequences of our free choosings. In our freedom, we cannot ignore the relational effects of our actions. Furthermore, we are bound not merely by our relationships and our context; we are biologically bound in the very interplay between our genes and our context (nature and nurture). All of this lends a great poignancy to our freedom, making it yet more valuable, for our freedom is not an imagined sovereign island of total control, a charmed separateness, but, rather, both a constant struggle and an expression of a deeper unity within community.

Locke’s State of Nature presents a kind of Eden-like ideal as a guiding conception for something quite different: the actual state of consensual power relations, which is to reinforce the autonomy and dignity of the individual. Without denying the importance of this objective, relatedness, on the other hand, grants a special status to the relationship itself as foundational and fundamental.

It is possible to interpret Locke and his “State of Nature” differently than I have. In contradistinction to his individualist vision of rights that sustain our separateness (freedom in the control our possessions; government primarily to protect property), there is a theologically-based communitarian aspect to Locke’s thought. The property right assures the preservation of all humankind, as per God’s wishes, by assuring equal participation in a community that enhances our lives together. Collective life, by God’s intent, is grounded in the necessity of interaction and an obligation of mutual love. [34] Unfortunately, by means of what starts out as a reasonable proposition, the mutual obligations are progressively lost in the dust. There are two main reasons for this. First, if Locke based the property right on natural law, he also subsequently removed all natural limits to that right. If the world is open to the claim of anyone who will stake it, differential appropriation of parts of it is earned by the labor that industrious individuals put into improving it: “As different degrees of Industry were apt to give Men Possessions in different Proportions,” the busy man (sic) begins “to enlarge his Possessions.” And thus, “it is plain, that Men have agreed to disproportionate and unequal Possession of the Earth.” The second reason follows on the first. Locke’s agrarian model of production is hopelessly out of step with the economic transformations that followed his time. The world and its economy has changed; what remains is Locke’s individualist. Locke’s especially productive farmers would convert their surplus of perishable agricultural produce into things which do endure: “Gold, Silver, and Diamonds.” As the methods of industrial capitalism grew, the potential for some individuals to capture the finer commodities grew out of all proportion with that of the farmer at his plow. [35] This movement into the cash economy led to what C.B MacPherson called “possessive individualism.” [36] Any natural law limits on accumulation that Locke retained have long since been exceeded.

This transition has only served to intensify the fact about property that has always been the case: property propagates power. In the early twentieth century, Bishop Charles Gore defined “property for use” as that which people need in order to exercise “true freedom” – but he noted that that constitutes “a very limited quantity on the whole.” “Property for power,” on the other hand, is what comes with greatly expanded accumulation by an individual or group. This gravitational pull of extensive property begins to effect control of other people “whose opportunity to live and work and eat becomes subject to their will.” So, Douglas Sturm asserts, “Property confers on the owner a power over others.” Property, then, is for Sturm a form of sovereignty. Morris Cohen likewise argues that “dominion over things is also imperium over our fellow human beings.” He proposes that, in the public interest, a doctrine of the positive duties of large property owners ought to be developed in the law. [37]

Perhaps this idea that property comes wrapped in duties and obligations would have appealed to Thomas Aquinas, who opposed any concept of absolute property. Aquinas argued that the shared, common use of worldly things is their primary purpose and that individual possession is less a right or privilege than, as Sturm puts it, a “burden or obligation to care for and manage things in an orderly way.” For Aquinas private property is not a natural law, but a convention devised by human beings to facilitate use, and that use should especially inhere to the ones who needs it most – the hungry and the naked. [38] That sense of obligation is a relational understanding of property.

To finish these considerations of relatedness, I shall turn from possessions to persons. In relatedness we are invited to find the fundamental basis of value in the other – we may name or designate that value in countless ways, but the invitation of relatedness is to come to the acceptance, faith, or knowledge that this basis of value in the other is something real. And therefore to care for the other – even the distant and the stranger. Some people perceive the Presence of God in the world and particularly in the Other, and to live in this way is to adopt a theological orientation that emphasizes the reality of this value. Perhaps this is a way of feeling our liberation – or of seeing the world as our deepest intuitions tell us it truly is.

If we are profoundly interpenetrated, then this state of mutuality and interconnectedness has important ethical implications, provoking judgements of right and wrong. The openness of individuals-in-relation carries an ethical call for sharing in life-enhancing mutuality. Thus, as Gebara puts it, “ethics is a network of relationships designed to respect the integrity of all beings, both individually and collectively.” [39] Still, a value of “ethical relatedness” begins with the recognition that the mere acknowledgement of our relationality ensures nothing, for relationships can be and are just as easily suffused with oppression and injustice. Relationships carry the opportunity for exploitation. [40] Invoking relatedness as an ethical reality, though, Gebara says that, even without an appeal to “a transcendent principle or a higher divinity,” relatedness and the interdependence among all beings offer us an act of welcoming from which we may derive our ethics. But this requires a new learning, a renewing wisdom and yearning for justice and freedom. [41]

How does poverty play into this spirituality of right-relatedness? McFague notes that religions have often spiritualized the meaning of poverty, as if it is an affront to the spiritual nature of humans to ground our vision of right relations in “mundane issues of space, turf, habitat, land” – in other words, “to think physically and concretely about sin.” It might indeed appear that positing such a relationship reduces the nobility of the human to a minimal, physical level. But, McFague continues, it is precisely that minimum that “those individuals and nations bloated with self, living the life of insatiable greed, refuse to recognize.” [42] Without incarnating our spirituality in the physical and psychic realities of poverty, the compassion of “spiritual poverty” drops out.

I-3       The empowerment agenda and worldly powers

The protagonists of the case studies in Chapter 2 – in Nigeria, Ecuador, and the Jubilee movement – are leaders who all share a vision of the empowerment of those who have the least control over the resources of the world, a vision of the transforming approach of “the least of these” to the center of the circle. They are not radical in voicing this stance. From debates over welfare reform in the United States to strategies to revamp the mission of the World Bank, today’s widely espoused agenda of economic development and poverty reduction is increasingly focused on the empowerment of the poor and marginalized. Indeed, the World Bank, often vilified for its failures to generate real poverty reduction, is, at least in its rhetoric, firmly supportive of the empowerment agenda, even at times contradicting the so-called “Washington consensus,” which does not look beyond strict free-market solutions to poverty.

The global development agenda now recognizes powerlessness in society as a foremost dimension of the problem of persistent poverty and empowerment as the route out of poverty. A basic measure of empowerment is visible participation in the community and the society, “a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over decisions and resources that affect their lives.” [43] The absence of structures and processes for participation is an indicator of marginalization.

Overcoming marginalization is a two-way process that cannot occur entirely at the instigation of the weak; empowerment also reaches a hand out to the powerful, and insists on a new kind of partnership. Again, overturning the exclusion of poor communities is not only a transformation of the lives of the poor, but ultimately a demand for changes in the way those in power conduct public affairs. Those who prosper are not the central protagonists of the work of poverty reduction. The quest for “a place at the table” must be largely a local effort. Yet, as we shall see in the case studies, participatory empowerment is in practical terms a demand for, among other things, better governance, especially governance built on processes for inclusion and accountability in politics. Decisions that have formerly been made behind closed doors need to be made transparently. While such goals as the provision of social services and engendering people’s capabilities to function in society at a high level are very important, so too is the goal of making power accountable – indeed, the former really cannot proceed too far without the latter.

Yet, in practice many of those well-meaning people at the center of power and wealth voice this agenda while often acting as if its implications stop at their own doorsteps. At some point, the protagonists of this study tell us, rhetoric rings hollow, and the vision of empowerment becomes a challenge to those who hold power. Power is relational. Genuine empowerment alters the relationship to one of reciprocity. Yet the empowerment strategy can become code language for a neoconservative agenda which demands that the poor pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, with charitable help but no fundamental change in the relationship. Relational thinking negates that formula by acknowledging that the system that benefits the prosperous so greatly also places an upper limit on the empowerment of the poor and marginalized. We the prosperous – and the system that sustains us – must participate and change as well if empowerment is to be the route out of poverty.

Institutions have their own complexity, their own logic, and their own laws. These are beyond straightforward human control, resistant to the moral concern of a few and at times inextricably oppressive. That perennial inevitability may never have been more true than it is today, for ours is a truly new era of technology-driven management and control. In a way radically different from the past, asserts Douglas Sturm, “a new class of persons has assumed the reins of social control, those whose function consists in the technical direction and coordination of processes of production.” Thus, “our common life has been utterly transformed by a phenomenal increase in the size, complexity, and impact of large organizations.” [44]

This control process feeds very much into the contemporary phenomenon of globalization, distinguishing it from past rounds of global expansion and interaction in earlier centuries. It contributes in some ways to what some see as the corrosive effects of globalization. The economist Nicanor Perlas finds that globalization, as viewed from his native Philippines, is a process perverted by “a pathological version of global development.” For Perlas, “Elite globalization, also called corporate globalization, [is] a distorted form of global economic integration, powered by and benefiting only a few… unleashing a dangerous blend of economic, ecological, cultural, and political crises.” [45]

Even for the prosperous, the complexities and problems of the world seem to reproduce themselves at many interpenetrating levels that spring up beyond the accountability of ordinary people. Our own lifestyles are plugged into systems that perpetuate wastefulness and disempowerment in so many ways. We seem to have direct influence on so little of what we would wish to change. Even if we feel certain who or what is to blame for any of the world’s travails, we might find that the obstacles to their resolutions are so structurally embedded, so entrenched at impenetrable levels of power both high and low, that we feel defeated, cut off from the possibility of making the world a better place.

Walter Wink illustrates the problem with a story: a business owner is spiritually reborn and seeks to humanize the conditions of her workers. But she is confronted with the fixed constraint of cost. “If she deviates too much from the general norm for wages and benefits, the cost of her product will put her out of business. So she must be extremely cautious in introducing fundamental change, because her business is dependent on a world economic system that is utterly indifferent to her ethical concerns….The system is greedy on her behalf….[It] is making choices about who will remain viable in the system.” [46] Reinhold Niebuhr pessimistically noted that “organizations reflect the lowest common denominator of morality of their members, and are therefore less moral than many of the people that make them up.” [47]

In his book Engaging the Powers Wink describes what he calls the system of domination and oppression and he interprets Jesus’s rationale in opposing it. He shows how the words of Jesus, sometimes interpreted in ways that make them tangential to the problem of institutions, can be seen as aimed directly at them. In John’s gospel Jesus tells the high priest at his arraignment, “I have spoken openly to the world (kosmos), I have always taught in the synagogue and in the Temple” (John 18:20). Wink reinterprets the Greek word kosmos, which is commonly translated as “world.” He notes that kosmos can be read as referring not to “world” as in our earthly realm, our fallen creation, but, more exactly, to “the human sociological realm that exists in estrangement from God.” [48] Wink argues that Jesus’s syntactic parallelism of kosmos with the Temple indicates that kosmos does indeed have this structural sense, that Jesus is identifying the “world” to which he has spoken specifically with the core religious institutions of Judaism. Wink suggests, then, that the word kosmos is better translated as “system,” an “alienating and alienated ethos” that governs human social existence. [49]

Wink’s interpretation rejects the common Christian view that Jesus is saying that the physical world is evil, that he is rebuking “the created order, sexuality, and even [our] own bodies” – an interpretation that Wink says has led Christians at times “to manifest open contempt for efforts at political change.” Consider the difference: no longer is Jesus projecting himself as an otherworldly being if he is actually telling the Pharisees, “You are of this System, I am not of this System” (John 8:23)! [50]

Wink fleshes out his interpretation of Jesus’ intent with an extensive and convincing depiction of the perennial human order as the “Domination System,” a dehumanizing existence under the thumb of powers which rule by the myth of redemptive violence. His depiction of the Domination System derives from his reinterpretation of the biblical “Principalities and Powers.” These powers are neither entirely spiritualized forces (like angels and demons), nor simply the institutions, structures, and systems of our social reality. Rather, the “Powers” are both the outer, physical manifestations (buildings, portfolios, weapons, machines) and the inner, spiritual reality (corporate culture, collective personality) of the great institutional entities which simultaneously sustain and subvert human life. [51]

Wink notes that the Powers are not to be thought of personalistically – “reduced to the categories of individualism and…imagined as demonic beings assaulting us from the sky.” This obscures their institutional and systemic dimensions by mystification. The spiritual forces of Eph. 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark age, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavenly realms” – are “the interiority of earthly institutions or structures or systems.” The social message of the gospel contends with ”the inner and outer manifestations of political, economic, religious, and cultural institutions.” [52]

The New Testament then is a “drama about the intertwining of good and evil in all of historical reality,” which Wink sums up in the instructive phrase, “The Powers are good, the Powers are fallen, the Powers will be redeemed.” [53] Whether we are speaking of government, businesses, or civil institutions, none of these entities is intrinsically or purely bad or good; they are quite “natural,” necessary, and inescapable organizing forms of mass social existence.  They are not to be overturned. Rather, it is the character of these three realms that must be continually monitored and, however possible, reformed, renewed, coaxed to serve.

Such an analysis can give us guidance in understanding the institutional realities with which we are faced in the task of empowerment. The disempowered conduct their own empowerment; those in power can help, but should not direct the process (nonetheless, we can achieve societal changes that the disempowered cannot – if we can overcome our own complacency). But both groups face a common problem: there are limits to the control any individual, or even group, can exercise over the powers of institutions and massive social structures. Accordingly, I am not going to make expansive claims for the possibilities of institutional change – it must be preceded by the hard work, and hope, of persons-in-community. Personal transformation is a good starting point insofar as its character is solidary, not solitary; insofar as it relates outward to structural change. Social change, the end goal, needs the foundation of many individual personal changes, so one may initiate transformation by starting with oneself and then feeding the results into changing the larger social framework (I would note in this connection that empowerment thinking does not deny, but rather affirms, that one needs others-in-community even to effect self-transformation: the influence that the newly-empowered wield is expressed in its ability to evoke a positive response). The key for social transformation is that personal change itself must be achieved with one eye looking outward to the larger social unfolding. In other words, no strategy of personal growth alone is sufficient.


In contrast to past approaches to poverty reduction which relied narrowly on government programs – or simply on economic growth – the new empowerment agenda relies on the emergence of the participatory, collaborative realm called civil society into the foreground, as the most appropriate vehicle to carry the empowerment agenda forward. What is meant by the term “civil society”? The term may be used to connote the shared civil values of a society generally, but I will apply a more specific usage, in which civil society is equated with “cultural power.” In a theory put forward by Nicanor Perlas, described in his recent book Shaping Globalization, there are three contending institutional powers that reside in the world, determining the direction of its development: government, business, and civil society. Regarding its institutional form, civil society

is made up of…cultural institutions …[including] non-governmental organizations (NGOs), people’s organizations, youth and women’s groups…the media, religious groups, foundations, voluntary organizations, professional groups, academe, and others whose direct and dominant activity does not involve business or government operations. [54]

Perlas offers a visionary account of the potential for a reorganization of the global institutional order, on new terms of a “tri-polar world.” He calls this process “threefolding.” The key to threefolding is the emergence of civil society as one of the institutional powers alongside the long-established forces of government and business. This recognition gives rise to “cultural life as an autonomous realm within larger society.” [55] Prior to the development of this tri-polar order of powers as an acknowledged reality, there are already “three realms in social life or three subsystems in society – cultural, political, and economic.” This is said to hold true of all societies, no matter how small or ancient. For Perlas, the interaction of these three realms generates an emergent, higher-level organizational field that that we call the “social.” [56] But these realms are not the same thing as the institutional powers that come to be identified with each. Each institutional power derives its legitimate force and energy from its respective realm of society, having its own “natural habitat,” and none ought to have a monopoly of power.

Achieving the right relationship between the three institutional powers depends first on achieving the right correspondence between them and their respective realms of society. The health of a society depends on the mutual recognition and support of each of the realms by the others, so that each may develop without adversely impacting the others. As such, each of the three institutional powers may “represent” the realm of society in which it is active:

[C]ivil society represents culture; government represents polity, and business, the economy. Business cannot truly represent the interests of culture or polity. Nor can civil society truly understand the detailed workings of the economy or truly represent the political system. Nor can government articulate economic or cultural aspirations. [57]

Each institutional power has the right to criticize another for intruding on its habitat or for bringing harm to people or nature (the ecosystem that they all share and are sustained by). Yet, Perlas contends, the institutional powers are often not even aware that there is a realm to which they should responsibly limit themselves. Perhaps government goes too far in legislating morality; or business distorts the fabric of a community, through the exploitation of its people or resources. Perlas contends that a better world will result when these boundaries are better understood and adhered to. Partnerships between different realms can generate great dynamism, but the boundary conditions must be well thought-out to avoid co-optation or domination. Each sphere has its own virtues. If business generates wealth and property through profits, and democratic government upholds freedoms and protects property, civil society is a third voice which allows people to speak. It provides social and economic groups with a place at the table, alongside more traditional instruments like electoral and legislative influence and the privilege of corporate ownership.

In an unbalanced society one realm can subjugate the others. For example, in what Perlas terms today’s “elite globalization,” the economic sphere dominates over the political and cultural. As entities which are accustomed to exercising powerful techniques of control, the dominant powers of business and government are limited by an economistic, scientistic worldview, and this diminishes their character. But even if the dominant values of business and government were to change, the particular emphases which are perennially appropriate to them – for example, the generation and protection of wealth – are not in themselves sufficient for the healthy state of society. [58] As Perlas says, “Many development approaches today basically ignore cultural, social, ecological, human and spiritual considerations in their actual policies, programs and projects….they have [a] fixation on purely economic and political considerations.” The entrance of civil society changes this: “Culture emerges as an autonomous realm of society worthy of serious consideration, because cultural concerns and actions are embedded in the advocacy and initiatives of civil society.” [59]

Civil society is said to be driven by moral and spiritual values, seeking to enact those values in transformative ways. The realm of values concerns consequential judgements about what is important in people’s lives. The aims and work of civil society range from the human to the ecological and from the personal and particular to the social and, increasingly, the global. Civil society is said to make a unique contribution to the society as a whole, because it represents a people’s culture directly and brings its perspectives and concerns into the public sphere in a way that governments and businesses cannot:

Culture deals with the realm of ideas, which includes worldviews, knowledge, meanings, symbols, identity, ethics, art, and spirituality. The ‘cultural sphere’ is that subsystem of society concerned with the development of full human capacities; we owe to the cultural sphere art, ethics, knowledge and wisdom, our sense of the sacred, and much else that makes life worth living. Culture is, in fact, that social space where identity and meaning are generated. The two are inseparable. Identity and meaning give human beings their cognitive, affective, and ethical orientation. In short, culture is the wellspring that determines and sustains human behavior. [60]

Civil society’s greatest strength is described by David Korten when he says that civil society is the realm of “life values”: it is “built on the foundation of spiritual values that permeate its culture. Personal and institutional relationships are defined by the self-organizing flow of the spiritually grounded life energies of its members.” [61] Korten offers an attractive vision of a global shift that he sees coming into being, drawing on this resource – civil society as sustainable society. In this self-conscious civic realm, “The processes of cultural regeneration are grounded in the rich and dynamic community life and authentic inner spiritual experience of each of the society’s members. The result is a… culture grounded in life affirming values.” Further, “[a]n active citizenry…will insist that institutions of polity be radically democratic in terms of openness, equality, active citizen participation and consensus-oriented decision making. Similarly, they will demand that the institutions of economy function…with the primary goal of providing productive and satisfying livelihoods for all while maintaining a balanced human relationship with the non-human environment.” [62]

Perlas hopes that this sort of civil society can achieve what he calls comprehensive sustainable development. Comprehensive sustainable development is not a socialistic rejection of the market economy, although it is a strong critique of its foundational assumptions. Nor is it an anarchistic rejection of government, although it is a strong critique of government’s failure to stay within it own realm. Comprehensive sustainable development is a vision of the three institutional powers, through their balanced interaction, sustaining “the wholeness of social life”: “Business will bring economic concerns. Government will bring political concerns. Civil society will bring cultural, social, ecological, human, and spiritual concerns. Comprehensive sustainable development therefore considers seven dimensions of development: economic, political, cultural, social, ecological, human, and spiritual.” Such a balance is meant to be a deadly challenge to dogmatic neoliberal economics: it will replace neoliberalism, Perlas asserts, with “associative economics, where the chief motive for economic activity is not profits and competition but servicing human needs and cooperation.” [63]

The progressive visions of consensus, compassion and justice that I have been discussing are hardly self-fulfilling. No one would assume that everyone’s actual inner  life is necessarily so cooperatively unselfish, nor even that, with the emergence of conscious civil society, such visions and values will win out as a social consensus. The institutional realities which I discussed in the previous section may be making inroads into that inherent spirituality which is supposed to flow out of us. Edward Farley speaks of a massive cultural transformation in our time, a global sea change which has transformed the fabric of life, characterized by phenomena like multicultural awareness, pop culture, and the “rise of the postmodern era”: “[t]his complex of economically driven changes has displaced religion as the primary location of values and institutional loyalty and as the primary community of human relations.” Thus,

The typical postmodern lives in and is influenced by a variety of institutions – each one promoting its own world of meaning and value – which compete with each other for the loyalty, time and energy of the population. Moreover, the social shift…has isolated certain powerful institutions (corporate, military, governmental, media, entertainment) from the influence of the so-called normative institutions such as education, religion and the arts. Indeed, the great cultural transformation of our time has changed the character of these normative institutions, drawing them into the marketplace and the world of image-making, of salesmanship and of managerial orientations. This massive shift has had a devastating effect on the once-deep cultural values that exerted their force upon most of society’s institutions… [64]

Values, whether culturally transmitted or self-generated, are diverse and can be divisive. In pluralistic societies in a pluralistic world, whose values are we talking about? Even if civil society is held together by certain commonly held baseline covenants, it is also a marketplace of competing values. Within the locatedness of the many diverse communities of voices that make up civil society, competing groups run the gamut of relationships from neighborliness to diametrical opposition. Many groups within civil society are not concerned much beyond their own community. Some exist to defend and enlarge their own interest, even at the expense of others. Others dedicate themselves to good works, yet, lacking a vision of a wider relatedness to social structures, actually function to curb transformative change and justify existing oppressions. Cautioning against any simple formulation of civil society as the unmitigated good balancing the dehumanizing tendencies of other powers, R. Fatton notes that:

Civil society is not the all-encompassing movement of popular empowerment and economic change portrayed in the…exaggerated elaborations of its advocates. It is simply not a democratic deus ex machina equalising life chances and opportunities…. [C]ivil society is traversed by class interests, ethnic particularisms, individual egotism, and all types of religious and secular ‘fundamentalisms.’

Nonetheless, Fatton posits that if intentionally inclusive, empowering communities are to arise, it will be out of this very background of fractious civil society: “It is clear… that the seeds of the civic community [which is more egalitarian, socially cohesive, and more oriented to the public good] cannot be planted, let alone flourish, without a dense civil society regrouping as a vast network of associational life.” [65]

For the purposes of poverty reduction, I would call this civil association “the civil society of relatedness-empowerment.” Some criteria for the authenticity of such a grouping, and for its worthiness to take on authority equal with the powers of government and business, might include:

  • That in its organized, institutionalized form, it be highly subject to influence from its grassroots members, drawing its energy from its mass base.
  • That it embody both diversity and plurality of perspectives and a single-minded embrace of the unified overarching value of relatedness-for-empowerment.
  • That it be a countercurrent to domination, existing explicitly in a transformational relationship to the domination system, working to alter the relations between the governing powers.
  • That it have the power to motivate changes of heart.

Alan Fowler gives us a good reason to believe that civil society can meet these criteria. Civil society is not the only realm among the institutional powers in which world-defining values are advanced; governmental and corporate cultures also carry distinct values. So why, Fowler asks, might civil society be better able to embody the truest values of a society’s people? He points to one very special quality in the way that civil society actors embody their values, by drawing an analogy to organizational management theory. “How,” he asks, “do you get people to behave well in their organizational roles?” People behave the way they need to in organizations either because they have to – because they are coerced; or because incentives exist which induce them to behave in certain ways; or because they are driven to comply by the force of “their own internal beliefs and values.” Fowler argues that, corresponding to these three types of motivation, governments rely on the first – hierarchy, command and enforcement; businesses on the second – monetary rewards and incentives; and the voluntary organizations of civil society rely on personal values, commitment and self-motivation. The difference is crucial, because these strongly held and deeply motivating values, whether self-generated or tradition-bound, alone give people the “empowerment to behave like co-owners.” [66]

If communities of wealth and communities of poverty are related to each other in ways that we rarely acknowledge – the actions of the one intertwine with and affect the destiny of the other – the public space in which this interaction can become most visible is civil society. I propose that global civil society – those groups struggling for the empowerment agenda – itself embodies the values of ethical relatedness. Relatedness ethics, that is, are taking form in global civil society, with a unique synergy between identity and action. It is in this realm that we find growing the understanding that all entities in the web of life, including our selves and our institutions, are fundamentally open, relational and interconnected – again, as likely as not a spiritual commitment. And it is just this understanding that can lead the people and institutions who make up civil society to both pursue more vigorously the goals of social and economic justice and seek to strengthen the power of civil society in relation to the powers of business and government. Ultimately, if one finds this vision attractive, one might even hope that these values can seep into the character of the powers of business and government as well.

The civil society of relatedness can help us to make heretofore unrealized inroads into poverty reduction and empowerment by bringing communities of wealth (the United States, the so-called G-7 – the group of seven wealthiest and most powerful nations – and other local elites) closer to communities of poverty (America’s poor, “the global south” or “the third world”) in tangible ways that make a difference. Ultimately, this redemptive practice will prepare us for other great looming collective challenges of humanity, like global warming and ecological sustainability. Realizing our relatedness to the global other as a matter of justice and of facts-with-consequences is the practice of the opening of the heart, without which our enhanced participation in global sustainability, collectively as Americans – is as unlikely in the future as it is today.


[1] Asian Development Bank, “Global Poverty Report,” available from; Internet; accessed April, 2000.

[2] Human Development Report 1999. New York ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999.

[3] These include large-scale infrastructural development (dams, energy, resource extraction, roads); securing “basic needs” (such as shelter, food, and clothing) to meet at least bare subsistence; the “green revolution” in high-output food production.

[4] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[5] Fowler, 3-4.

[6] Sturm, 20.

[7] Jeffrey Gedmin and Gary Schmidt, “Allies in America’s National Interest,” New York Times, August 5, 2001.

[8] McFague, 116.

[9] “Neoliberal” is the economists’ term for minimally-regulated, growth-oriented free-market capitalism.

[10] Lucia Hanmer et al. “Will Growth Halve Poverty by 2015?” Poverty Briefing (Overseas Development Institute, July 8, 2000), 1.

[11] Ibid., 2. Income-inequality generates a substantial drag on the positive effects of growth: “In the low income-inequality countries…10% economic growth was associated with a fall in the proportion of people below the poverty line by 9 percentage points. In the high income-inequality countries, 10% growth was associated with only a 3 percentage point reduction.”


[12] For 1976 data: Edward N. Wolff, Top Heavy: A Study of Increasing Inequality in America (New Press, 1996). For 1998 data: Edward N. Wolff, Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership, 1983-98 (Jerome Levy Economics Institute, April 2000). Both quoted in Chuck Collins et al, “Divided Decade: Economic Disparity at the Century’s Turn” (United for a Fair Economy, December 15, 1999). Available from website of United for a Fair Economy,; Internet; p. 2-4; accessed March, 2000.

[13] For 1977-89 data: Wolff, 1996. For 1992-98 data: Wolff, 2000.

[14] Collins et al, “Divided Decade.” We are living in the midst of an extraordinary shift: “In 1989, the United States had 66 billionaires and 31.5 million people living below the official poverty line. A decade later, the United States has 268 billionaires and 34.5 million people living below the poverty line…. Together, the 400 richest Americans are worth more than $1 trillion – about one-ninth of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States, the world’s richest economy. These 400 people…have about as much wealth as the 50 million households in the bottom half of the population.” Collins, et al, 5.

[15] Sturm, 3.

[16] J. Mark Thomas, “The Quest for Economic Justice, ”in J. Mark Thomas and Vernon Visick, eds., God and Capitalism: A Prophetic Critique of Market Economy (Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1991) 7.

[17] Fowler, 6.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action (Utrecht, the Netherlands: International Books, 1995), 245.

[20] Clodovis Boff, “Methodology of the theology of liberation,” in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuría, eds. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 15.

[21] Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 91.

[22] Boff, 15.

[23] Boff, 11-12.

[24] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 82.

[25] Gebara, 52.

[26] Sturm, 127.

[27] McFague, 104.

[28] Ian Barbour, “Creation and Cosmology,” in Peters, Ted, Cosmos as Creation: Theology and Science in Consonance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 147.

[29] Swimme, Brian, “Science: A Partner in Creating the Vision,” in Anne Lonergan and Caroline Richards, eds., Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1987), 87, quoted in McFague, 106.

[30] Wink, 75.

[31] McFague, 173.

[32] Sturm, 81.

[33] Peter Laslett, John Locke: Two Treatises of Government, A Critical Edition with an Introduction and Apparatus Criticus (London: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 4.

[34] Sturm, 100.

[35] Ibid., 23, 99.

[36] MacPherson, C. B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

[37] Sturm, 87.

[38] Ibid., 95.

[39] Gebara, 90-91

[40] Thanks to Rosemary Radford Ruether, who clarified this point in an e-mail to the author, Feb. 2001.

[41] Gebara, 90-91.

[42] McFague, 116.

[43] Fowler, 16.

[44] Sturm, 125.

[45] Nicanor Perlas, Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding (Quezon City, Philippines: Center for Alternative Development Initiatives, 2000), 60.

[46] Wink, 78.

[47] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 129. From Wink, 83.

[48] The term kosmos is equally relevant to the wider communities of living nature and to ecological ways of knowing. Nor, by any means, is the relationality paradigm presented here limited to human nature, even if our immediate concern is narrowly focused on human poverty and deprivation.

[49] Ibid., 51-52.

[50] Ibid., 52.

[51] Ibid., 3.

[52] Ibid., 77-78.

[53] Ibid., 65.

[54] Perlas, 19-20.

[55] Ibid., 3.

[56] Ibid., 3-4.

[57] Ibid., 4-5.

[58] Ibid., 8.

[59] Ibid., 7.

[60] Ibid., 41.

[61] David C. Korten, “Civil-izing Societies.” Unpublished paper, July 13, 2000, quoted in Perlas, 21.

[62] Perlas, 21-22.

[63] Ibid., 6-9.

[64] Edward Farley, “Transforming a Lukewarm Church,” review of Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do about It, by John B. Cobb, Jr., Christian Century, August 27-September 3, 1997, 756-767.

[65] R. Fatton, Jr., “Africa in the Age of Democratisation: The Civic Limitations of Civil Society,” Africa Studies Review (38:2, 1995), 72, quoted in, and with re-phrasing by, Eghosa E. Osaghae, in Structural Adjustment, Civil Society and National Cohesion in Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe: African Association of Political Science, 1998), 4.

[66] Fowler, 23.



I have asserted that our conscious practice of our inter-relatedness is the driver that can make empowerment and poverty reduction a reality, not just a slogan; and that civil society is the vehicle for this relatedness-empowerment strategy. Thus far I have laid out the meanings and offered case studies to make them more tangible. The attention has been on main protagonists of this strategy, the poor and marginalized. In this final chapter, I will try to strengthen my claim that a relatedness value enhances empowerment for poverty reduction by focusing on the role of the “we” who live a privileged life – for here the needs are particular and great.


In his book, Solidarity and Suffering: Toward a Politics of Relationality, Douglas Sturm presents relatedness as a foundation for social, economic, and environmental justice. As such, it is a useful grounding for my particular concerns with empowerment and poverty reduction.

In essence, Sturm argues for a conception of justice as solidarity, “that quality of relationships through which the self might flourish.” For Sturm the central question of politics is, how shall we live our lives together? Rephrased from within his communitarian political ontology, the question becomes, how might we so construct our lives together that all life flourishes? [1] The answer, he avers, depends on how we construe our identity and our destiny. He reviews the main positions of contemporary political philosophy, scanning for values that most closely accord with justice as solidarity:

  • A politics of welfare is centered on upholding the dignity of individuals with principles of equality. It is a remedial orientation, not a transformative one – that is, it sustains the “dominant system of corporate industrialism, ” while seeking to spread its benefits more widely.
  • Representing the classical liberal tradition, a politics of liberty privileges subjectivity, private ownership and voluntary exchange, emphasizing that responsibilities to others can only be undertaken voluntarily. It is neglectful, Sturm finds, of the more profound issue of social morality – that is, “what, within the ethos of a people, enables it to cohere, to collaborate, to sustain its basic traditions and institutions?”
  • A politics of community is based on social virtues, especially that of empathy, which sustains our sociability and connectedness. It is maintained through a religious tradition or through communitarian republican values such as respect, tolerance, mutuality, and caring.
  • A politics of difference emphasizes the value of diversity from a (broadly) multicultural orientation. It plays the role of critiquing the contemporary order of things – especially out of its interest in subordinating the leading role that the dominant culture gives to economic values over other cultural values.
  • A politics of ecology maintains the broadest conception of inclusiveness, seeking a thorough rethinking of the role of the human species in the earthly biosphere. [2]

Sturm finds that each of these position has its limitations. Borrowing from several of them, he proposes the politics of relationality: at its heart “is a principle of justice as solidarity.” Its objective is the transformation of our institutions so as to enhance “the vibrancy of the whole community and each of its members.”  It is a vision in which “the driving passion of law is not so much to protect the individual against trespass as it is to create a quality of social interaction conducive to the flourishing of a vibrant community of life across the world.” Justice, in his rendering, is a structure of reciprocity, “both a receiving and a giving…. [It] is expressive of a communal cosmology, which… generates visions of a new social world in which… the prospects of human flourishing might be greatly enhanced.” [3]

Sturm describes the character of human life and sociability as the co-existence of our many selves in the “creative passage” together. In this context, “the self as subject is to be cherished… not as a distinct monad, separate from all other subjects, [but] rather as a sensitive and creative participant in an adventure in which all creatures are engaged and are dependent on each other for sustenance and fulfillment.” The individual is both encumbered and enlivened by connectedness. Individual rights, then, are secured not as protection in a fight of all against all, but as rules for governing events in that passage together. [4] He notes that, in the Western tradition, those rights have centered on negative freedom – the “freedom from” this or that interference. Negative freedom “stands at the heart of apologies for a free enterprise economy and liberal democracy.” But, in accord with the vision I have offered of empowerment as the progressive enhancement of a person’s – or a community’s – capabilities and participation, Sturm argues in favor of affirmative freedom, defined here by Carol C. Gould as self-development: affirmative freedom is the “freedom to develop oneself through one’s actions, or as a process of realizing one’s projects through activity in the course of which one forms one’s character and develops capacities.” [5]

The idea of human rights, therefore, is to make “claims on the community and its members to provide, to whatever degree is at all possible, conditions of life optimal to the intensification of value not just for the self alone, but, through the self, for the community, the world, and the creative ground of all life.” [6] Rights and responsibilities come bundled together. Even if, at times, a particular claim may set folks against each other, the justification of any claim is its intent to contribute to the community’s well-being.

Sturm avers that such a concept of affirmative freedom is equivalent to empowerment. As such, however, it can only be delivered where there are rich links of community: “civil and political liberties are, by themselves, devoid of effectiveness without cultural or economic support.” [7] Only an inadequate understanding of these rights can restrict them to participation in the political realm and designate economic and social life as private matters. The affirmative freedom that is empowerment must be actively nourished, supported, paid for. This links us to the wider relationship I have drawn between communities of prosperity and communities of poverty: effective empowerment out of poverty cannot occur without fruitful economic and social conditions, and if those who have are not inclined in small ways to help those who lack, then the route of empowerment for the global poor will remain a lifelong struggle and sufferation. [8]

With this background, I would like to return once more to the idea of civil society as the vehicle for poverty reduction through empowerment. A civil society consciously organized so as to deliver the necessary cultural and economic support of which Sturm speaks offers unprecedented opportunities for bringing relatedness values to life. I will discuss two proposals which – however unrealistic they may seem! – are intended to deliver just that support. The first impacts the political sphere by offering a new form of direct global representation for citizens and civil society; and the second impacts the economic realm, by reconceiving the ends or purposes of wealth, and, in the process, offering a new role for civil society.

Writing in the January/February, 2001 Foreign Affairs, Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss describe today’s global system as governed by interest-group pluralism without the benefit of any unifying body that represents the public interest. The process of globalization is increasing that tendency by dispersing political authority throughout the international order – that is, it is increasingly the case that the policies that shape the lives of individuals profoundly in their various roles – as workers, consumers, patients, and so on – are made with less public involvement than ever before. Much of the legal and legislative authority is seeping towards agencies and institutions beyond the reach of all democratic input, like the World Trade Organization, or business lobbyists.

At the same time, there are some few elite individuals who find that they now have the ability to flex more control than ever before: “Through expanding trade and investment, business and banking leaders [exercise] extraordinary influence on global policy [9]…. elite business participation in the international system is becoming institutionalized.” Falk and Strauss cite, as the best example of this institutionalized elite access, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual cavalcade of the world’s most powerful people, who, with no formal authority, are able gain the ears of top global political leaders.

But people are taking notice of the trend. “People who believe they possess a democratic entitlement to participate in decisions that affect their lives are now starting to demand their say in the international system. And global civil society has thus far been their voice as they attempt to have this say.” [10] So far, the most visible face of this newly kindled interest is the ubiquitous protests at global summits, but it is clear that there is an ever-growing web of civil society associations around the globe working in a less abrupt fashion.

In response to their perception of rising “disaffection with the lack of citizen participation in the global institutions that shape people’s daily lives,” Falk and Strauss put forward the idea of a global parliament of civil society as a way to enhance civil society’s authority relative to nation-states as law-making bodies, and to undo the unaccountable powers of multilateral institutions and elite actors. Such a parliament would be directly elected by all the world’s citizens, one person-one vote. “Unlike the United Nations, this assembly would not be constituted by states. Because its authority would come directly from the global citizenry, it could refute the claim that states are bound only by laws to which they give their consent.” [11]

The proposed parliament would also facilitate vibrant new global alignments of mutual interest within civil society, “[b]ecause elected delegates would represent individuals and society instead of states.” Therefore, “they would not have to vote along national lines. Coalitions would likely form on other bases.” [12]

One benefit of a global parliament of civil society is that it could effectively center the conversation on a global ethic, the general ethical norms of related humanity. Such an ethic must draw on a great diversity of religious traditions, but it does so on the level of ethics, not of core religious truth-claims. As such, it would render the undoubtedly interesting, but divisive, sectarian questions of religious belief or truth-claims as sideshows to the shared public space. This is as it should be; without any disrespect for the world’s religions, it is their ethical orientations that are crucial to the democratic processes and to economic and civil life – not their versions of truth. Perhaps the two cannot easily be pried apart in any given tradition, but the basic ethical conclusions of that tradition can be summarized for public consumption. A global parliament of civil society would create an unprecedented chance for dialogue and common ground between the world’s diverse traditions by offering a realm of public ethics in which the commonalities of diverse traditions can be discovered and built up. [13]

A global parliament of civil society would also restore the balance that is being lost to undemocratic means of power and control, bringing power into the hands of real people in a manner that would enhance accountability and transparency. It would contribute to the solidarity of people on opposite sides of the globe. And it would greatly enhance the empowerment of the global poor, by giving them a voice and the beginnings of the kind of cultural support that affirmative freedom requires.

Now let us turn from politics to economics. Observing the abject powerlessness of poverty and, alongside it, the prodigious accumulation of wealth; and considering the trends of the day and knowing that the time of redistributive, welfarist thinking are largely past; we can reformulate the question of how we are to live together as a question about the status of our property: what is the purpose or goal of wealth? Is my wealth for myself alone?

One valid approach is to look to our religious traditions: in the Judeo-Christian mode,  property may be seen a shared human asset allocated by God to satisfy the needs of all. The theology of creation indicates that the world’s resources are brought into existence by God to meet and satisfy the needs of all of God’s (human) creatures. Shared human well-being, then, is the ultimate goal of wealth; and this is the challenge of solidarity, that the divine command to love one’s neighbor places no condition as to who the neighbor is – unless it is those who are most in need. [14]

Alternatively, as I have done here, we can focus on our profound interconnectedness and intrinsic belonging-together. On that basis, too, we can embrace the notion that the wealth and property that confers power also endows us with responsibilities to others.

Either way, the result is a goal of de-absolutizing the entitlements of ownership in property and wealth. One endowment we carry from our Western legacy is the way we conceive of our private property – there is very little sense of “sharing” of property, wealth or capital, beyond the kinds of municipal or governmental services and properties that are owned by all and by no one. If we begin to reconceive our property and wealth as, to some degree, both communal and individual – as something that can be shared – we must also begin to look for more of that shared space.

But let us not look to government! The past decade has seen the fall of state socialism and, in the post-cold-war years, the retreat of government activism in social and economic concerns; the hegemonic supremacy of the ideology of market capitalism; and its forceful global implementation by the its central institutions. Markets and market-based incentives are here to stay, that there is no wind in the philosophical sails of governmental policies to redistribute wealth. Governments cannot and will not provide the main impetus for serious economic transformation on behalf of the poor. Government intervention, in the manner welfare-redistributive social or economic policy, is a sure ticket to controversy and resistance. It is obvious, then, why I have not pursued an ideal of radical equality in this discussion. We proceed without any expectation that humans will ever be “equal” in economic terms.

Yet, if the socialist thinkers who once challenged the moral rectitude of capitalism have all gone away, still, the capitalist worldview’s claims of its moral sufficiency are not a settled matter. We live in a time in which the retreat of government as the savior of the poor exposes the coarse effects of unregulated profit-seeking capital and the failure of concentrated power to lift up those who have the least. But it is notable that the moral complaints against capitalism have arisen in recent decades from many quarters are hardly coalescing around a “dictatorship of the proletariat” or centralized, government-based solutions. Quite the opposite: much of the attention of those who question capitalism’s excesses is focused on the assertion of decentralized local empowerment and self-determination. It is in this vast patchwork of civil society and its social capital that the values which demand a higher standard of social ethics are most clearly emerging.

The growth-oriented economy is likely to reign for the forseeable future. But where should the wealth that is newly created, from this date forward, go? Although the American nation is fixated on its own growth and economic interest, I would suggest that, all things being equal, the greatest benefits from future world economic growth ought to go to the billions of people who have the least. There are more than a few prospering Americans who would actually agree with this proposition, if they saw a path to that end that did not involve massive government intervention, taxation, and bureaucracy. They also understand that wealth transfers through governments and multilateral agencies have a well-earned reputation for stimulating corruption, waste, ecological problems and militarism.

If the reader will allow a brief utopian exercise, I should like to put forward a proposal which may seem quixotic in its appeals: it has elements that are conservative, libertarian, progressive and liberal; and, naturally, elements which disturb each. I propose that civil society itself might be the ideal destination, the most amenable communal context, for the future wealth we create. The institutions of civil society, those that most directly serve people and help them grow – schools, not-for-profit hospitals, neighborhood associations, housing associations, farm cooperatives – are the very institutions that can be held most directly accountable to their constituents. What if a substantial part of the wealth of society were directed not into private investment portfolios, but into self-sustaining endowments for these institutions?

I can speculate as to a mechanism. Today, such entities are funded through a combination of government funding and charitable giving. Government is the only power that holds the power to compel people to hand over their money, with the mechanism of taxation. If the taxpayers so desired, could government continue to use its power to compel money out of people’s pockets, without accepting all of that money into its own general revenue and making all the decisions as to its use? In other words, suppose the government compelled individual taxpayers to contribute funds, in lieu of a portion of their taxes, to the endowment or operating budget of their own choices of qualified service organizations within civil society – particularly ones which are dedicated to the well-being and empowerment of those most in need? By these means, funds would be evacuated out of the federal budget and bureaucratic hands, social services could be strengthened for all, and power returned to local hands. At the same time, individuals would become directly involved in choices to help those in need, while their “tax” burden would remain unchanged.

The model I have offered pertains to the domestic situation of wealthy nations – not immediately to the global poor. The point is, just imagining ways to bring the wealthy and prosperous to acceptance of a new dispensation that is in everybody’s interest is a first step towards other modest claims on future wealth creation. Without expropriating what wealth has already been amassed, perhaps future pools of wealth can be coaxed out of private interests with less resistance than is caused by taxes for government spending. I have sought to establish that civil society can embody relatedness and empowerment values as a driver for poverty reduction. It may also be the most pragmatic way forward for a more general economic transformation: if empowerment is the flourishing of today’s poor through enhanced participation in the world’s opportunities, and if the wealthy and powerful are called upon to be involved in this transformation, and if the ways in which the prosperous could respond are without limit, it is also true that the responses by the wealthy that are most likely are sharply proscribed by the political, economic, and social realities of their advantages. Enhancing empowerment by making civil society into the same kind of pillar of strength as the business community and governments could be more politically palatable to the prosperous than schemes involving economic redistribution explicitly. Today’s wealthy and powerful could go some distance toward fulfilling their duty of empowerment, relatively painlessly, by actively supporting a future in which the power and place of civil society is recognized alongside government and business in the “natural” order. If self-serving motives help to fulfill a transformative vision that stands on its own merits, so be it. Civil society is a “third way,” if you will. It carries its own dangers, to be sure – we need only think of the current controversy over “charitable choice” in the United States. But, with the right intentions, which I have specified as values of right-relatedness, it could offer a better way forward, even for those who back their way into it.

Proposals such as a global parliament and a new orientation to the purposes of wealth are, for the time being, pipe dreams. But after we have dreamt a little, perhaps we can find other, smaller ways in which the values of relatedness, the empowerment agenda, and our solidarity can be advanced, so that all life may flourish.


I have just put forward some constructive, material proposals intended to advance an empowerment-relatedness agenda against poverty; now I would like to conclude by suggesting further spiritual orientations to the same problem. This is an important linkage because the vision of justice as solidarity, as Sturm puts it, or, I might say, relatedness-mandated empowerment, rests ultimately on an affirmation of spirit as reality. We resist the utilitarian urge to put economic efficiency above all our relationships, Sturm says, “because of those moments when we are visited with an intimation of the reality of spirit, when… we become aware of the uncalculated goodness inherent in the depth of sensitivity on which each of us is so dependent for our ultimate sanity…” [15] The religious impulse motivates the thirst for justice. Aloysius Pieris, a Jesuit priest and director of the Tulana Research Center in Sri Lanka, tells how spirituality pushes justice forward: “I submit that the religious instinct be defined as a revolutionary urge, a psycho-social impulse, to generate a new humanity. It is none other than the piercing thrust of  evolution in its self-conscious state, the human version of nature’s thirst for higher forms of life…” [16]

The teachings of Jesus are, of course, greatly concerned with the incoming of the Reign of God. The Reign has been interpreted a thousand ways, but one thing that it is, Walter Wink argues, is a way of praxis for Jesus. He showed this by his own example, with his deep and active involvement in the work of redemption: healing miracles motivated by compassion; risky denunciations of the powers responsible for the “anti-Reign” – identified as the wealthy, scribes, priests, and rulers. The Reign of God is also to be understood in terms of whom Jesus’ addressees are: the poor, primarily – as in the Beatitudes. Implicitly, Jesus denounces the configuration of the society that the anti-Reign creates, a society that can produce so many victims. [17]

The gospel, therefore, “is not a message of personal salvation from the world” – not a relationship between the savior and the spiritual life of the individual absent a reckoning for the encompassing system. Rather, “redemption means actually being liberated from the oppression of the Powers, being forgiven for one’s own sin and for complicity with the Powers, and being engaged in liberating the Powers themselves from their bondage to idolatry.” Worldly structures are related to, subject to, spirituality. Social entities “can only be fundamentally changed by strategies that address the social-spiritual nature of institutions.” [18] This insight does not solve the puzzle of “which spirituality?” – it does not have to. Once an assemblage of spiritual perspectives is acknowledged as important to the public discourse, it is the task of multiple communities to explore the implications of them together in their diversity.

Ada María Isasi-Díaz mirrors Wink’s perspective, noting that, “Salvation is gratuitously given by God; it flows from the very essence of God, [which is] love….The love relationship is the goal of all life.” Therefore, acts and expressions of love among humans “sustain… the ongoing act of God’s salvation.” [19]  Specifically, “[o]ur participation in the act of salvation is what we refer to as liberation. It consists of our work to transform the world.” [20] Such an understanding of salvation as a this-worldly organic principle of growth through love points to the value of, and in, the living Creation per se. The concretization of worldly “oppression” is a call for transformation of the actual relationships signified as “oppressive” – a transformation of this social world. It results in the replacement of otherworldly hopes for salvation with real works of love, by real people.

We cannot avoid, therefore, a confrontation with the sometimes political, sometimes theological language of “oppression.” The word “oppression” necessarily implies the existence of these two opposing populations side by side, oppressors and oppressed – but this is hard language indeed when we locate it in the actual situation of six billion human beings sharing one planet in the dawning twenty-first century. We shall have to wrestle with this dividing of the world into antagonistic camps.

The boundaries, “oppressor/oppressed,” are fluid – individual identities are subject to varied contexts and changing circumstances. So the global web of oppressive tendencies is hardly exhausted with the treatment of the poor and the poorest: Rosemary Radford Ruether notes that the dynamic of oppression/oppressed/oppressor “is a structural relation of exploitation which also deeply shapes people’s socialization.” [21] Isasi-Díaz argues that “[s]pecific oppressions…are not self-contained realities but are interconnected parts of a worldwide system of domination.” Many individuals exist in overlapping communities under oppression. Different individuals experience greatly different degrees of oppression, and those who experience the “lesser” degrees of oppression – the glass ceiling, the absence of affirmative action – will to a greater or lesser extent know, by affinity, the experience of those defined, by poverty, as truly, deeply oppressed. [22]

Ignacio Ellacuría described the need to remember our inescapable relatedness and avoid dividing the world too sharply:

…we must get beyond simplistic formulas with regard to both the causes of oppression and to its forms, so as not to fall into a Manichean division of the world, which would situate all good in the world on one side and all evil on the other. It is precisely a structural way of looking at the problem that enables us to avoid the error of seeing as good all the individuals on one side and as evil those on the other side, thus leaving aside the problem of personal transformation. [23]

Individuals, on both sides of the oppressed/oppressor divide, are a mix of good and evil. We all need transformation.

It is obvious then, that in today’s context of globalization a vision of civil society driven by values of relatedness and empowerment, and trying to affect extreme inequalities of wealth and poverty, must confront substantial obstacles. Globally the dominant powers of business and government are themselves dominated by a nexus of economic, political, and philosophical ideologies: neoliberal free-trade economics, money and power, and scientism and economism. Whatever the intention of these ideologies, in their effect they may be seen in a spiritual-ethical sense as constituting a violation of relatedness. In liberation theology terms the structural aspects of oppression – which can be found in the organization of economies, for example, or the cultural norms of leadership – are aspects of our alienation, both from God and from our fellow creatures. That alienation is the missing of the mark that we commonly know as sin. In this world, in this time, so the liberationists tell us, the Reign of God is held in abeyance by the social phenomena of oppression, the broken web of relationships that extends outward, inward, and through each of us and is bigger than any of us. Injustice and exploitation are the outward faces of sin and alienation.

The challenge is that once we have opened the Pandora’s box of the language of oppression, we have also, in the end, the task of putting that same language to rest. Still, the murky overlapping of these categories, “oppressed” and “oppressor,” should be taken as a sign of hope in the possibility of achieving meaningful sympathy – of seeing the other in one’s self. The goal is to arrive at a situation in which these categories, or labels – oppressor and oppressed – should disappear. If  “the oppression of a class – socioeconomic poverty – is…the infrastructural expression of the process of oppression,” then great wealth and great poverty define two opposed groups which can only unite to the extent that they also dissolve themselves. What would remain afterwards, in this  visionary exercise, is just human beings, living together, without so great a gulf of having and having-not.

What kind of actual transformation would the overturning of oppression require? Any involuntary reform or restriction of oppressors’ way of life, in the name of the rights of the community, would appear to the oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights. Oppressorhood comes with material benefits, and many of those who hold the benefits tend to actively seek to maintain or increase them. The perpetuation of oppression through many generations creates a strongly possessive consciousness that translates things into money and profit. In this manner, to be is to have. [24] Jesus paid the price for overturning the money-changers’ tables. Twentieth-century history shows that the revolutionary urge to take back for “the people” what has been hoarded by the few cannot be done without nasty lingering consequences. For these reasons – because of the sheer unlikelihood that an enduring change in the possessive consciousness can be forced from the outside, and to avoid a conversation full of blame, recrimination and vain hopes – I have looked for the soft solutions oriented to the future, gradually building new institutions that create change without forcing anyone to change or taking anything out of anyone’s hands.

In that same spirit, I shall stop talking about those individuals who wind up in the oppressors’ camp because of their active exercise of personal power at the expense of others. There is a more interesting group to focus on: the many people who benefit from the systems of oppression and yet are of good intention and seek change. In this crowd, we find a subtler, more quiescent sense of what oppression means. The mere accident of birth, after all, produces many “oppressors,” long before they are able to take responsibility as adults. Oppression then has a passive face as well as an active one. Whereas it is not difficult for a well-to-do person in a wealthy nation to react against abuses by corporate or governmental powers or by rogue individuals pursuing nakedly oppressive agendas, it is a greater personal challenge to accept that being in a position that benefits from the work of other actively oppressing agents is also a mark of the oppressor.

For example, all Americans deposit a greatly disproportionate amount of their accumulated waste in the earth’s atmosphere at the expense of present and future generations in all nations. Furthermore, we have a government which fights for our “right” to do so. Even if we rail against this fact, we cannot avoid participating in it – and benefiting from it. Owning up to one’s status as “oppressor” requires an awakening, whereas self-justification is automatic in the culture.

We can thus distinguish between active performance of oppression and the “passive” acts of benefiting from a pervasive system of oppression. Isasi-Díaz gives a name to those individuals in the camp of oppressors, whose “passive action” benefits from structures and acts of oppression, yet who seek to act in genuine solidarity with the poor and oppressed: she calls them the “friends” of the oppressed. Her quotations marks indicate a kind of tentative status, because the action of  “friends” on the side of justice for the oppressed must be renewed every hour of every day, whereas their participation in oppression grinds on inexorably and inescapably. In the “friends,” those who “passively benefit” from oppression, solidarity can take effective root. And with the awakening of solidarity between the oppressed and the “friends,” there is, finally, the possibility of transformative action towards the overturning of oppression. But that is no simple matter. What potential does this class of “friends” have as a force for transformation?

The “friends” of the oppressed, enjoying the fruits of oppression, are nonetheless awakened by the injustices they have perceived, and they have set as their goal to be with the oppressed. This is no simple thing to achieve: Isasi-Díaz illustrates the barrier to a genuine “walking with,” or “being with,” by recounting a conversation from her stint as a missionary in a rural village in Peru: her unemployed and impoverished neighbor told her, “Remember, you can always leave this place; we can’t.” The danger she sees “for the majority of people who are committed to justice,” is that “solidarity means merely agreement with and sympathy for the poor and the oppressed” (emphasis mine). “Agreement with” is an ephemeral commitment, a “disposition” that can be maintained or discarded depending on circumstances. Mere feelings of sympathy have “little or nothing to do with liberative praxis.” [25]

It is important, Isasi-Díaz says, to bear foremost in mind what love actually requires: “the active involvement of those who are in relationship” (italics mine). Love, then, is an active principle; it falls on human beings, as God’s image, to love as God loves, not merely to receive love. Isasi-Díaz seeks to replace charity, as “the appropriate Christian…ethical behavior…in our world today,” with authentic solidarity. That is, if the gospel mandate is that we love our neighbor, acts of authentic solidarity are the appropriate expression of that love, whereas charity is typically a “one-sided giving…of what we have in abundance” – only a salve for the conscience! “If the true meaning of solidarity were understood and intended,” she says, “visible radical change would be happening in the lives of those of us who endorse it with our applause.” [26]

For Isasi-Díaz “[s]olidarity has to do with understanding the interconnections that exist between oppression and privilege, between the rich and the poor, the oppressed and the oppressors.” Through solidarity we identify “common responsibilities and interests.” One measure of solidarity is the “cohesiveness…among communities of struggle.” This emphasis is notably different from notions of altruism which posit a disinterested agreement – for example, a Rawlsian system of ethics in which, if one did not know what one’s position would be within the system, one would support a guaranteed minimum level of justice and opportunity for all. Isasi-Díaz imbues solidarity with a far deeper connection: an orientation to others which depends on “shared feelings,” which “lead to joint action.” We can sense here, then, that solidarity is indissoluble from the concrete experience of the individual in his or her particular community of shared responsibilities and affections. [27]

This is a calling to discern the way through the web of relationships and find the connections that must be woven and the structures that must be built which can allow love to flow into the shared, public realm. An “appreciative consciousness” – an attitude of the heart that opens one to the Other, allowing a person to relate successfully in interdependence – requires an openness and vulnerability, a fluidity of boundaries. [28] Thus the personal becomes outwardly transformational: “To struggle against oppression, against alienation, is a matter of ongoing personal conversion that involves effective attempts to change alienating societal structures.” [29]

Isasi-Díaz poses solidarity as a theory that “opposes the theory of oppression by reconceptualizing every aspect of society.” As one’s awareness of one’s own location in one region of the web of oppression grows, one begins to find its connections everywhere, and, if one is to be true to that intuition, one must follow these links and try to conceive of the totality of these relationships. Then one may see what, in one’s own small place, is to be done. It is through this awareness that “a commonality of feelings and interests [can] flourish and become…the cornerstone of society, the way it is organized and operates.” Recognizing that in our globalizing world no society is isolated, we can begin to locate ourselves in a worldwide web of commonality. Again, it is only in the grounding of our understanding of oppression in our particular experience that the wider connections of feelings and interests that are the essence of solidarity can be felt. The recognition of a commonality is the basis for mutuality. [30] Commitment to mutuality “is possible only if there is a ‘sense of being bound to whoever or whatever is the object of [this] commitment’….Commitment gives other persons or a worthy cause claim over oneself,” resulting in “a relation of binding and being-bound, giving and being-claimed.” [31] Without this conversion, the tendency is to “overcome” divisions by one side destroying the other.

The hardest part about this dynamic of mutuality is the entailment that the oppressed must also accept a claim of relationship and of mutual aid from the “friends of the oppressed,” even as these “friends” cannot entirely lose the mantle of some kind of oppressorhood. “Friends” can, for example, help the oppressed to understand that what they need to do is not to participate more deeply in the structures of oppression, but to change them. This is a tricky dynamic, easily open to charges of presumptuousness and condescension. But such charges in the end risk defending the status quo. Somehow real mutuality must emerge, and that process is inevitably rife with tension. The key point is that “If we do not recognize the need for the oppressed to learn from the ‘friends,’ then we cannot claim that mutuality is at the heart of solidarity.” Solidarity “requires a true dialogic relationship.” [32] In this way of relating, a mutual seeking of the empowerment of the poor might take root.

One final time, I wish to turn the conversation towards community and civil society. Throughout this work, I have tried to define what significance the value of right-relatedness has for the peaceful pursuit of an empowerment agenda. My answer has centered on the emergence of this new kind of civil society: communities of individuals who understand themselves as both strong in individual agency and originally and indissolubly intertwined and shared with their other permeable and interdependent selves; and, likewise communities of communities that understand their relationships in that vein. Such individuals and communities could be expected to go farther in developing the social institutions of ethical, associative transformation. They can provide the forum in which the transformations-to-mutuality of which Isasi-Díaz speaks can occur.

To explicate this relationship between individual and community further, I shall return to the thought of Douglas Sturm. Sturm notes that if the mandate of individuality is “Preserve autonomy!”, the mandate of solidarity is “Enhance community!” The ultimate flaw of a single-minded focus on individuality is ontological: with its determined preservation of autonomy and faith in the market as efficient problem-solver, it “ignores our essential connectedness with the community of life,” and “the interactive character of culture.” For Sturm, we can address our crises “only if we can come to understand ourselves as denizens of a vast and variegated community of life – denizens whose well-being as selves is intimately intertwined with the well-being of all.” [33]

For Sturm the time is ripe for this understanding, because “[the contemporary] language of dialogue, communication, solidarity, community is indicative of a move beyond the classical principle of objectivity and the modern turn to subjectivity to a new possibility: a principle of intersubjectivity.” In this way, multiple perspectives can work together, for divergence is respected as long as it “sustains and enriches the dialectic.” [34] The reason we can and should pursue this intersubjectivity is simply that “we belong together”; we are connected with each other.

What kind of community does this entail? Sturm describes the “relational association” defined by reciprocal engagement in a system of dynamic interaction in which one’s act is both dependent and contributory. It is a structure of interdependency and of empowering mutuality. Examples include the solidarity of true friendships and of covenental communities, in which energies are directed to the welfare of all its members. Participants are motivated to enrich such associations because they are “integral to their own self development as social beings.” [35]

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki places this community more explicitly in the context of ultimacy: “The togetherness of all things in the infinite satisfaction of God is the ultimacy of love, pervading and transforming each participant through the power of God’s own subjectivity. The aims for the world that spring from this divine love are themselves aims toward a richness of community, which is as much named by love in the finite world as in the divine reality.” [36] Sturm avers that “What Suchocki designates as the intention of love – the richness of community – is indicated by mutuality as the overriding quality of relationships.” [37] Finally, Isasi-Díaz tells us that this mutuality “begins to make liberation present.” This, I submit, is the task of empowerment.


Understanding the links in our global relationships and the choices that we the prosperous have – to take responsibility for our side of the relationships, to take on the challenge of transforming ourselves and out institutions – begins with the question, what can we do to participate in change? To conclude, I shall list a number of ways in which the privileged can begin to engage in the empowerment agenda.

As participants in market life we can recognize that the purpose of markets is to serve people. We know this from the benefits that our market economy delivers to us. We can pursue a market that does the same for everybody.

As investors – as owners of the system – we can exercise some control over the trajectory of American money. The tradition of corporate philanthropy shows us that those managers who pursue the profit motive already know that that profit comes with an obligation to enhance human culture and the opportunities for those who have the least. We can influence the corporate behavior and objectives of multinational firms that do business in impoverished nations, directing them to balance their profit motives with the goal of building long-term, sustainable businesses that participate in local communities in life-enhancing, empowering ways.

As citizens we can influence American political leaders – and the multilateral financial institutions over which they exercise extensive control – to go much further in pursuing development strategies of empowerment and poverty reduction, leavening neoliberal economic growth recipes with more forceful strategies to invest in people to enhance their capabilities and power.

As neighbors we can put more of our own time and money into building direct human relationships with the individuals and communities of the global poor, for example, through cultural exchange. This will help us to see them not as a distant and anonymous mass, but as themselves – and as ourselves.

As participants in civic life we can build a rich and global civil society as a locus of people-power and a counterweight to governmental and corporate power. We can assert the privilege of a rich cultural life as a leading purpose of our living and working. We can build new structures that enforce this vision, for example, a global parliament directly representing people and their interests as represented by civil society organizations, bypassing the filters of governing institutions and private commercial interests. In so doing we can re-form the very concept of the democratic polis.

As prospering people we can lead by example in questioning the extremes of income inequality that exist in the United States. We can participate more deeply in the goals of poverty reduction and empowerment within our own communities. Of course, much of this kind of change ultimately requires legislative action in areas such as taxation and social investment, but we can work to build consensus to those ends.

As the owners of great worldly resources we can meditate more deeply on the ways that the resources of the bountiful earth can be shared. What would it mean to have access to something, without owning it?

As charitable people we can look more deeply at the ways our charitable activities either perpetuate or transform the domination system. Does our money and work enhance the capabilities of the poor to function and emerge from poverty, or does it merely sustain them through their lifelong journey of impoverishment?

As believers we can harness our religions to these ends. We can search our own theological and spiritual resources for support for empowerment-in-inter-relatedness. We can insist that these objectives become a more central part of our faith practice. From a Christian perspective we can discover that the meaning of Christian charity is fulfilled in love-of-neighbor as an entering into relationships of mutual obligation, walking-with, being-with, an enhanced effort to understand the other before us. We can renew Jesus’s commitment to “the least” as a dedication to empowerment as on the one hand the work of enhancing people’s capabilities, and on the other the accountability of the powerful.

As intersubjective persons-in-community we can try to get past the philosophies, behaviors and policies that treat others on the margins as objects. We can encourage ourselves and our friends to recognize the poor and powerless as subjects, as leaders of change. We can come face-to-face with them and let them influence us. We can come to respect their aims and desires on their terms, not ours. We can learn to grasp and relish the feeling of our relatedness more deeply. We can try to become less walled-off and separate. We can show up.

As people in power we can recognize and accept that a commitment to empowerment-in-relatedness is a call upon us to be less unilateral, aloof, and autocratic in our choices. We can discover that we can accept that an ostensible loss of power might actually be a transformation of the very meaning of power.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

I have argued that the values of right-relatedness and empowerment combine to generate a new form of cultural organization, global civil society, composed of free people and acting as a counterweight to the powers of business and government. I have argued that such a civil society of relatedness and empowerment can change the terms of the poverty reduction agenda. In order to make this thesis clear and real, I have tried to avoid an over-reliance on philosophical and theological theorizing, offering instead a close-up, ground-level look at the work of this new civil society. This work, we have seen, crosses both communities of poverty and communities of wealth, and is itself an expression of both a deep religious and cultural background and a contemporary vision of justice as solidarity. My intent has been to animate this transformative process for those of us on the prosperous side of the global divide, to invite our further commitment and engagement in the struggle for life – the struggle to end wrenching, deadly poverty.


[1] Sturm, 21, 160.

[2] Ibid., 4, 5.

[3] Ibid., 3, 7, 11, 170.

[4] Ibid., 25-26.

[5] Carol C. Gould, Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economy, and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 40-41, quoted in Sturm, 41-42.

[6] Sturm, 27.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Sturm, 30.

[9] In fact, a strategy of enhanced economic growth virtually guarantees a further concentration of power by these private leaders.

[10] Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss, “Toward Global Parliament,” Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb., 2001), 213.

[11] Ibid., 215-216.

[12] Ibid., 217.

[13] Thanks to Bill Lesher for this insight.

[14] Peter Byrne and Leslie Houden, eds., Companion Encyclopedia of Theology ( London: Routledge, 1995), 767. Citing in particular, Luke 10:25-37.

[15] Sturm, 13-14.

[16] Aloysius Pieris, “The Place of Non-Christian Religions and Cultures in the Evolution of Third World Theology,” in V. Fabella and S. Torres, Irruption of the Third World: Challenge to Theology, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983, 134, quoted in Sturm, 159.

[17] Wink, 82-83.

[18] Wink, 82-84.

[19] Isasi-Díaz, 90.

[20] Ibid., 90.

[21] From a note to the author.

[22] Isasi-Díaz, 91.

[23] Ignacio Ellacuría, “The crucified people,” in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuría, eds. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 267.

[24] Isasi-Díaz, 41.

[25] Ibid., 86-87.

[26] Ibid., 88-89.

[27] Isasi-Díaz, 89.

[28] Sturm, 11.

[29] Isasi-Díaz, 90.

[30] Ibid., 92.

[31] Margaret Farley, Personal Commitments (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 159. From Isasi-Díaz, 99.

[32] Isasi-Díaz, 97.

[33] Ibid, 4, 10.

[34] Sturm, 178.

[35] Ibid., 43-44.

[36] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 123, quoted in Sturm, 39.

[37] Sturm, 43.



I have a great number of people to thank for helping me to bring this work to fruition.

I would first like to thank those whose interviews provided the backbone of the evidence for this thesis: Odigha Odigha, Carmen Yamberla, Nina Picari, Colonel Lucio Gutierrez, Miguel Lluco, and Ann Pettifor. Each one of these people has demonstrated enormous determination to aid in the transformation of the lives of the poor and marginalized, to help bring empowerment into our troubled world, and to challenge the powerful to live up to their duties at every turn.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to my committee members and readers, Martha Ellen Stortz, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ted Peters, and Bill Lesher for their guidance in this project. Marty Stortz in particular provided vital ongoing feedback and straining of my ideas. Bill Lesher was the soul and inspiration of my interest in civil society and empowerment. All four have taught me a great deal about right-relatedness and the importance of spirituality to the social life of humanity.

I would like to thank both Walter Wink and John B. Cobb, Jr. for taking the time to discuss with me in great detail the ideas underlying this thesis at a time when they were fragmentary and developing.

I would also like to thank the interviewers and translators who contributed to this project, Nilo Cayuqueyo and Nicholas Hedgecoe. In addition, the producers and staff at the National Radio Project’s Making Contact deserve my hearty thanks, both for their commitment to bringing the under-represented voices to the airwaves and for their involvement in both of my case studies. I would especially like to thank Laura Livoti, Phillip Babich, and Stephanie Welch for their help.

Finally, I would like to thank those professors at the Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley whose teaching fed directly into my work here: Stephen Ernest, Alejandro García-Rivera, Jean Molesky-Poz, Robert John Russell, and Robert Smith.



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