A Discussion with Fr. Peter Balleis, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Italy
With: Peter Balleis
July 19, 2012
When and how did you discern your vocation to become a Jesuit?
I grew up in a Catholic family on a small farm in Bavaria, but I had no idea of a vocation before my family took a trip to Kenya when I was 19 years old. That trip was one of those experiences that change you for a lifetime—I can still vividly remember encountering a man begging us for change at the fuel station. I had never seen anything like that before, nor had I seen anyone like the missionary Benedictines we saw further out in the countryside later on the trip. People lived according to a totally different social model that reminded me of the descriptions in the book of Judges. These were experiences that opened my world and opened my mind; I began to think, if the world is like this, what do I do with my life?
My vocation was hardly set in stone at that point, but I did have a sense that I wanted to work for development, faith and justice—perhaps like the Benedictines in Kenya. In any case, I returned to Germany and studied philosophy in Munich (still as a lay person). It was during those studies that I began to feel the definite stirrings of a vocation, and as I discerned further, I knew I wanted to go to the missions that the Jesuits ran at that time. I joined the Munich province in 1981, and was sent to Zimbabwe in 1986. After some time there, I did my licentiate (master’s) in Brazil, where I was exposed to radical thought on justice and liberation theology. Having learned Portuguese in Brazil, I was sent to JRS in 1994 to work in Mozambique and Angola. I’ve been with JRS ever since, becoming the southern Africa director for five years, then spending another five years doing fundraising and advocacy work for the organization in Germany before coming back to Rome to assume the directorship in 2007.
How did all your travels, inculturation, and work shape your vision of globalization?
Brazil was a big turning point for me—I left there fired with radical critical thinking on the question of social justice and economics. Looking back, I’d say that the Chicago school’s economic theory (that of Milton Friedman) has been the dominant ideology of global governance and business since the 1970s. That’s been especially true in the south, and at great cost. Just look at the developing world: the economic inequalities and inefficiencies are glaring, and increased integration into the global economy hasn’t been the cure-all it was supposed to be.
Looking at the rampant poverty in the global south, we need to be aware of the strong link between poverty and conflict. People won’t stay silently poor forever. This also is not the first globalization, and previous rounds have usually ended on the rocks. Look at what Europe was doing in the sixteenth century at the time of Ignatius. Look at the British Empire at its height in 1900. In both cases (and plenty of others), the world was getting more connected by the day. The methods and media are different today, but the basic processes are remarkably similar. And the warnings couldn’t be clearer, particularly that of 1900: the crackup of the British Empire resulted in two world wars and the Great Depression.
Today’s globalization has been driven by finance, not production, and the south is really hurting at this point. We’ve created this highly questionable system, and now we’re reaping the whirlwind in the form of the financial crisis. We should have seen this coming for a number of reasons, but we naïvely assumed that we could maintain a system in which goods and money are perfectly mobile but people are not. In fact, people have been increasingly less mobile in the new globalization, precisely because some of them are needed in certain places to extract or produce the goods that the system is built upon.
Explain that idea of mobility of goods and money versus that of people some more. What’s going on there?
Bear in mind, I’m not an economist; the primary focus of my work has always been social justice. Still, as someone who works with refugees, I can tell you that even if you criminalize mobility, people will still move to follow economic opportunity. In fact, it’s hypocritical to hold that we can have this perfect mobility of goods and money but deny that mobility to people. The very goods and money in question are produced by a highly competitive global system that depends heavily upon cheap labor, so there’s a fundamental dishonesty involved in saying that people shouldn’t be able to move to where there are opportunities, goods and money to be found—and to where the economy has created an incentive for the in-migration of cheap labor.
Competition is another thing that we naïvely assume to be invariably good without looking at the logical outcomes. Now that the U.S. isn’t the only serious economy in the world, every other country is trying to carve out its own space in the global system. Not surprisingly, this increases confrontation, conflict and yet more competition. Much of that takes place over resources, over which we’re likely to see more conflict in the future. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but we live in a risky time: left unchecked and unminded, global competition might lead to global conflict just as it has in the past. The world of today looks a lot like the world of 1900, and we know how that turned out.
What do you see as the biggest risks today?
Poverty is huge. Poverty produces resentment, which produces extremist governments. Extremist governments exist in a mutually-reinforcing relationship with fear: the more people fear “the others,” the more they’ll elect extremists; the more they elect extremists, the more those extremists will ramp up fear and suspicion. What follows from that process is nationalism in the dangerous sense. Just look at how the Euro crisis is unfolding: you’re starting to hear whispers of go-it-alone-ism, particularly from the Germans. The idea of Germany doing better on its own than in concert with Europe has led at least twice to utter disaster for both Germany and Europe, so we mustn’t let that mindset come back.
What’s to be done?
To be clear, we need to correct the system, but we do not need to scrap it. The financial system needs oversight and regulation just like everything else. Also, a crisis is an opportunity to make some big choices and changes—but of course you have to make the right ones. The important thing is to correct and curb the system with a view toward humanity. As I say, a crisis produces fear, which produces manipulation—which we must guard against as stringently as possible. That we face challenges is beyond question, but as Ignatius himself said, fear is the worst enemy of human nature. It’s people preaching fear that are the biggest threat to making the right decisions at this juncture.
How does religion tie into globalization?
Speaking of fear, there’s been a global upsurge of conservative religion—and I’m not speaking exclusively of Islam here. People need to frame the world for themselves, and too many pastors of too many faiths across the world are framing the world in fearful terms. Globalization has produced a few spectacular winners, but a lot of abject losers. These are the kind of people who are plugged into the global economy and not realizing any benefits from it even as they’re losing control to it. In many cases, people who were at least to owning their shop or machine no longer can afford to do so, so they’re beholden to the global system without realizing any of its tangible benefits on a daily basis. For the “globalized” classes—the top 1, 5, 10 percent—globalization has been a wonderfully positive development, but for billions around the world, it has only meant loss. This in turn produces yet more fear and insecurity.
Those changes and sentiments are being felt in the religious realm, including in the society. Just look out there [Borgo Santo Spirito] at all the young Jesuits running about in their cassocks. For my generation and the one before us, Vatican II was a welcome opportunity to ditch the traditional garb. Now, a lot of these young Jesuits are insecure and more conservative than we older ones, and I think a lot of that has to do with negative reactions to a seemingly incontrollable globalization.
Meanwhile, that also produces plenty of intra-religious conflict as well as inter-religious. Look at Syria: it’s a civil war on the surface, but it conceals a highly strategic geo- political struggle underneath: the Shi’ites are trying to take over and establish horizontal relationships with Iran, Sunnis are trying to build a bridge from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, and everyone wants a chunk of the Levant. When times are fearful and uncertain, people retreat into religion, and that often produces conflict. We have to guard against that abuse of religion.
Are there any bright spots to be seen in all this?
Even and especially when everything appears bleak, there are always some little flowers of a better future or a better alternative. For example, I work with refugees—“losers” of globalization by any measure—and I can tell you they want a new system. Luckily, migration is going on and will go on, and it changes countries (just look at what’s happing in the U.S. right now with Latin American immigrants). As people move about, it changes regional and national consciousness; looking at the Americas from here, they are pretty obviously a connected land mass with enough resources contained within it to provide all its inhabitants with a decent standard of living if we could only create an equitable distribution scheme.
The other thing that seems clear is that openness is now more than ever a strength rather than a weakness. It’s one of the main differences between China and the U.S.—people are all worried about China’s economic growth, but I think the openness and diversity of the U.S. may prove to be more important in the medium to long run. The disaster of Germany and Japan in the twentieth century was that they were monolithic cultures that cultivated nationalistic mythologies and could not tolerate anyone else. The same thing is happening now in places like Zimbabwe; if you turn inwards in today’s world of interconnected politics and economics, you’ve doomed yourself.
All this is really to say that there are tremendous opportunities in globalization. We face a serious choice between a globalization that’s focused exclusively on products and money versus one that’s focused on people; if we choose the former, we will fail and there will be drastic consequences for the world. But we can choose to be people for others, and we mustn’t go backwards as a human race. It’s pretty clear that there’s only one way forward (the human one); it’s going to cost us all something, but we need to realize how much more we all stand to gain from it as well. Luckily, we’re becoming more interconnected by the day, and poor people are starting to get involved as well. There’s been a massive proliferation of digital communications technology and web access via mobile phones in the developing world; in countries where we used to have to carry satellite phones for safety, mobiles are now often more reliable. It can’t be too long before the world’s poor starting using the technology now at their disposal to make their voices heard.
How about the Church and the Jesuits from a spiritual perspective? What can they offer alongside or in concert with the growth in communications technology?
For one thing, technology is just as much a resource for the Church as it is for other people. It’s allowing us to make new connections and offer new services that we never could have dreamed of even a few years ago. A great example is our Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins project, which is a free online university we provide digitally in refugee camps around the globe. We have interested professors at Jesuit universities across the U.S. donate course content, then we host it and offer a degree from Regis to those who complete it. It’s been a huge success, and it’s still growing.
Another thing the Church can offer is a model for the creation of a multinational/ supranational identity amongst a billion people world-wide. I know a diplomat to the Vatican who says he can either see the Vatican as a tiny principality like Andorra or as a huge and wildly diverse “country” the size of China (he prefers the latter). In fact, that’s why China doesn’t want to let the Catholic Church in—it’s so diverse that it would necessarily challenge the monolithic nationalism of that country. Christianity is at its best when it’s open to and strengthened by dialogue, tension and diversity, in the midst of which everyone productively deals with difference and recognizes that everyone has something to offer and something to gain.
As for the Jesuits, one of the most instructive things we bring to the table in globalization is the contemplation of the world from God’s perspective that Ignatius describes in the Spiritual Exercises. In that meditation, we’re meant to imagine ourselves looking down on the world from God’s perspective, seeing all the loving, hating, fighting, starving, eating, birthing, dying, and all other activities going on across the face of the globe at any one time. Then, we’re supposed to “witness” the decision of the Godhead to send the Second Person [Jesus] into that whole messy world out of love. Doing that meditation regularly naturally gives you a “global” perspective and informs your mission as being one for the good of all humanity.
Finally, the Society, like the Church, is a very diverse organization, and in some ways that makes both the Church and the Order better at thinking and acting globally than nation-states. By definition, a nation-state has only one ethno-national constituency that it has to make decisions for; the Church doesn’t have that luxury. We have to think in some way about the ramifications of any decisions across not one country but around the globe. That’s likewise good practice for building a “globalized” and co-operative mindset. There was a time for nationalism, but that time is gone. Now, we all need to work as intentionally and effectively as possible at imagining communities at supranational levels.