By Dr David Smith
In 1977 I set sail with my family from Tilbury Docks in London on a Nigerian cargo ship bound for West Africa. The journey took five weeks, sailing through the Bay of Biscay before off-loading cargo at various ports, beginning at Dakar in Senegal. When we at last reached our destination, a tiny port in the Niger Delta, the single berth was occupied by a vessel being unloaded and we had to wait midstream for days. My family had to go ahead of me because transport had come a hundred miles to pick us up; I followed a week later with our trunks in a never-to-be-forgotten overnight journey on roads destroyed by the Nigerian Civil War and infested with armed robbers. We had no contact with each other since not only had mobile phones not been invented, but there were no telecommunications at that time.
I relate this story not to pretend to some kind of missionary heroism, but to illustrate the difference between then and now. The merciful slowness of our introduction to an African climate and culture has been replaced by rapid international air travel which has shrunk the spaces of the world, while the revolution in telecommunications has made possible instant contact across the globe. There are obviously great advantages for mission as a result of these changes, although – as with all technological developments – we should be aware of the possible downsides of the speeding up of both transportation and communication. There were great physical challenges in that long voyage to our new home, but what we learned from being in the company of a Nigerian crew throughout that journey was of enormous help in preparing us to understand the new cultural world within which we were to live. A six hour flight with movies and games provided is a very different type of entry into Africa and one airport looks very much like every other.
The changes mentioned above have been crucial to the emergence of a globalised world. When the flightpaths of aircraft are superimposed on inter-continental maps we become aware of the extent of the interconnectedness of our world and the unprecedented movements of people, whether business executives, academics, or tourists. For those with the resources, the whole world has literally become their playground, as a glance at the weekend travel supplements will reveal. At the same time, the traveller who goes to the ends of the earth now remains in instant contact with the place and the people she leaves behind, since the worldwide web has made possible immediate communication around the world.
The resulting globalisation brings many benefits and opens up the possibility of an appreciation of other peoples and their cultures for huge numbers of travellers. However, Christians have to ask at least two critical questions concerning the consequences of this enormous historical development. First, if many people benefit from the freedom of movement we have described, what about those who are excluded from such privileges and find that their options for travel are actually reduced as the world in which they exist is one in which the spaces are closing up? For millions of people globalisation is experienced not as a liberation, but as a destructive development which increases hardship and undermines traditional cultures and ways of life. On the continent of Africa, which had remained overwhelmingly rural long into the twentieth century, village communities are placed under enormous pressure as the young are compelled to migrate to ever-expanding cities in search of employment and enticed by promises of a new kind of freedom. The central concern of the Bible with the demands for justice for the poor and oppressed, means that Christian mission cannot accept the usual account of globalisation at face value, but must notice and respond to the needs of masses of people who exist on the margins of this new world.
Second, globalisation is not merely an economic and technological development, but the carrier of a particular culture which is presented as being universal in its extent and application. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, the belief in the power of Free Markets to bring well-being and happiness throughout the world has come to be accepted as self-evidently true and shapes the political priorities of governments in China and India as well as in Britain and the USA. People come to be identified as ‘consumers’ driven by self-interest; a fact which is obvious in those airports mentioned earlier, which allure travellers to buy the same branded goods before they fly, as they fly, and after they have flown. Christian mission is by definition concerned with cultural issues but today it faces the challenge presented by a culture making universal claims and based on a view of the human person which the Bible leads us to reject as false.
There is, however, another kind of globalisation occurring below the radar of the press and media as the church grows across the southern hemisphere and in precisely those social contexts to be found at the margins of the contemporary world. I recently experienced an example of faith and love in a remote village in Pakistan where some of the poorest people on earth, suffering terrible oppression, revealed a strength of faith and hope which moved me to tears. What has been called the ‘shift in the centre of gravity’ in Christianity, from the rich and powerful nations in Europe and America, to the Global South, holds the promise of an alternative form of globalisation shaped, not by a secular theory of economics, but by the vision of the City of God in which the long-promised shalom will remake the world and bring justice, reconciliation and peace to all the nations.