In Hangzhou, China, Xi Jinping hosted the member nations of the G20, along with eight heads of state, on September 4-5, 2016. The purpose of the G20 is to provide a forum for twenty major economies to discuss trade and issues related to trade. The Hangzhou summit is the eleventh meeting and focuses on pollution in China, climate change, and several economic statements. To bring back the old acronym emblazoned on many bracelets, WWJD? Or, what would Jesus do?
To put it slightly differently, how would Jesus respond to world trade conferences? The New Testament does not give sufficient evidence of Jesus’ engagement with world affairs to warrant a thoughtful biblical response to some contemporary issues. In other words, the gospel milieu is directly not transferable. Jesus was concerned, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith once wrote, with God and humanity, not Christianity as an organized religion. Thus, applying Jesus’ principles directly to the G20 might be a stretch.
First, the G20, along with many such international trade meetings, does not focus on church matters. There are no gospel readings, nor do the members join in singing hymns or reciting prayers. In fact, host Xi Jinping reminded his fellow Chinese senior party officials at a conference in April to be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” The meeting is a secular affair, so the question becomes: does Christ have a role in secular affairs, like meetings about world trade?
Rereading gospel texts, the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ because Jesus, as Smith noted, cares about God and humanity. The G20 considers trade matters. Trade affects humanity. Therefore, Jesus would care about trade matters. If logic allows one further step, the question becomes ‘how?’ What is Jesus’ concern with trade matters?
One of the fundamental issues in G20 meetings is human rights. The U.S. accuses China (and others) of human rights violations. Russia and the U.S. break off talks because of mutual distrust. Laos has experienced the most per capita bombing in the history of the world, and President Obama takes a side trip to offer a commitment to future justice. The entire scene if fraught with human rights issues. And, if Jesus cares more about God and humanity than the institution of church, then surely Jesus cares about the human rights associated with trade.
What are the issues? Fair wages. Decent working conditions. Health care. Potable water and sustainable food. Battling climate change on behalf of the disenfranchised, and not just on behalf of the wealthiest people. And, reasonable work hours, allowing space for family, recreation, and leisure.
Taking each issue in turn, first, fair wages is a human issue, not some leftist, socialist agenda. A fair wage is, as defined by the Australian judge H. B. Higgins, “a wage sufficient to ensure the workman food, shelter, clothing, frugal comfort, provision for evil days etc. as regard for the skill of an artisan, if he is one.” A fair wage is something more than a minimum wage. It is the difference between surviving and living. Humans have survived in the most abysmal situations in the history of the world, from life rafts to Antarctic plateaus. However, the goal of life is not survival, but living. Trade meetings are about trade agreements leading to life.
Fighting for decent working conditions seem to be something out of a Dickens novel. Any discussion of decent working conditions should begin, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” However, for many people, working conditions are still horrid. They set up nets alongside the Apple factory in China to prevent people from committing suicide due to the horrible working conditions. Just as the Father Barry proclaimed in Along the Waterfront (1954, Dir. Elia Kazan), “Every morning when the hiring boss blows his whistle, Jesus stands alongside you in the shape-up… You want to know what's wrong with our waterfront? It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making the love of the lousy buck - the cushy job - more important than the love of man!”
Health care, potable water, edible food, climate change, and reasonable work hours are the same. Jesus cares about people. Again and again, he wants people to have the care they need. He wants them to be able to eat and drink. The Bible is clear about God’s care for the world. And, reasonable work hours are part of having fulfillment in God’s world. To continue the movie metaphors, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” (The Shining, 1980, Dir. Stanley Kubrick).
Jesus is present in the G20 meetings. God continues to speak in the world. Whether or not we listen is up to us.