Living as Children of Light: Global Economic Justice and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Light TPPAs the plummeting temperatures and winter storms of the last few weeks have reminded us, we are in the season of winter, when the world is at its darkest. This is the time when Earth orbits the sun in its widest arc, shortening the day and lengthening the night. For many, it is a time of searching for light.

And yet as Christians, we know that we are also in the Season of Epiphany. No other time of the liturgical year is more focused on light. During Epiphany Christ is present, born again among us, and Christ’s light illuminates the world. It guides, inspires and transforms those who seek it out. That is because it is hard to go back to seeing the world the same way we used to once we have seen it alight.

When Christ’s light shines in the darkness, the possibilities for a better earth are somehow more visible, for even the shadows are diluted by light. And that means that hunger, greed, and indifference are impossible to ignore any longer.

Most of you know the biblical stories. There are the “wise” men who ignore a powerful king to protect the life of a vulnerable baby boy. And then there is Christ, plunging into the depths of the Jordan and then rising up, showing us how the holy can wash over us and drench the world in peace and hope.

These stories remind us that in every age, the struggle for freedom from economic oppression, the struggle to shine light in the darkness, must be not simply a season but a way of life.


When Christ’s light shines in the darkness, the possibilities for a better earth are somehow more visible, for even the shadows are diluted by light. And that means that hunger, greed, and indifference are impossible to ignore any longer.

Our world is globalizing faster than most of us can grasp. Oddly enough, in this context of change and uncertainty, we find ourselves blindly trusting an anonymous “marketplace” to make decisions about what is produced and what it will cost, who will work and who will not, who will have bread and who will have none – or far too little. But we who have seen Christ’s light know that the ordinary machinations of the global economy should not impoverish people – from sweatshop workers in Asia to the many U.S. auto-workers whose lost jobs may well be gone abroad forever.

In this context, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is calling for light in very practical terms: asking for justice and transparency in the process of why and how the government negotiates trade agreements. While that may sound remote and complex, the implications of these agreements are very real for the lives of ordinary people, both here and abroad.

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The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to which President Obama alluded in his State of the Union Address last night, is one such example. It is the biggest free trade agreement ever put forward, encompassing 40 percent of the global economy, and its contents are a well-kept secret. For four years negotiations have been under way – with at least 600 corporate advisors having access to the text – yet, ordinary citizens and only a few Congressional representatives have seen the document, except for a few sections that have been leaked. Citizen debate has been virtually with rumors and leaks as our only source of information.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s global partners have asked us to join them in the holy work of economic reform tied directly to the TPP. Many members of the PC(USA) have responded to the call. More than 1,000 Presbyterians have sent letters to President Obama asking him to open up the TPP text and to create a more open process for trade negotiations. At least 3,000 have sent postcards asking members of the House of Representatives not to vote for fast track. To send a letter or postcard yourself, go to

The World Mission and Compassion, Peace, and Justice offices of the Presbyterian Church have also responded to this call for justice in trade negotiations. As transnational corporations head to the Global South to mine for minerals, a provision of free trade agreements called the State-Investor clause has left developing countries at a significant disadvantage. This clause grants corporations the right to sue a host country for activities or regulation that result in loss of profit, considering it a breach of the agreement. For example, under the Peru Free Trade Agreement, the Renco Group, Inc., filed an $800 million claim against the Peruvian government and its subsidiary, Doe Run Peru, after the Peruvian government revoked an operating license for a smelter in La Oroya, one of the most polluted towns on the planet, where 97% of children grow up with dangerous levels of lead in their blood. The license was revoked after the government granted multiple extensions to the company to clean up site in accordance with updated Peruvian environmental standards. In partnership with the Peru Joining Hands Network, the Presbyterian Church has for many years accompanied and advocated on behalf of the citizens of La Oroya and many others who find themselves victims of unjust trade agreements.

la oroya(1)
The smelter in La Oroya, Peru

And yet, our national and global leaders continue to approve and enact similar agreements. It seems we are in dire need of light.

What’s more, the House and the Senate both introduced bills on January 10 to grant the president fast track authority on the TPP. This mechanism enables Congress to give away to the executive branch its constitutional authority to determine the terms of trade agreements. If fast track is approved, the TPP will come before Congress when changes can no longer be made; Congress will have the right to vote only yes or no on a virtually complete document that was quietly negotiated during the last four years.

This is a problem with both practical and theological consequences.

In practical terms, big decisions with far-reaching impacts being made by a few people in the shadows runs counter to democratic principles and to Presbyterian practice, which always broadens the base for conversation on critical matters. Our polity is particularly attentive to giving the minority a voice in open debate. In this instance, it appears that in fact the majority voice is excluded, that of U.S. citizens. Working in the shadows limits vision, skews perspectives, and instills fear. It is hard to see straight, to differentiate between right and wrong. It is also tempting to behave badly when you can act without accountability, a lesson many corporate leaders on Wall Street learned all-too-well in 2008.

The theological problem ought to be obvious by now. For this is Epiphany, the season of light.

In the words of our own Resolution on Just Globalization, approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006):

“Those who call today for trade and investment free of controls seek a world that is a far cry from the biblical vision of community that provides hope for a just society encompassing the whole inhabited earth. A global economy of biblical dimensions would be a community of shared values and commitments that transcend geographic, political, ethnic, and cultural divisions…

The best hope is that trade functions as a means of grace to create dignified work that support people’s lives, puts food on the table, and undergirds the creation of a just society. The moral test is whether our increasingly globalizing economies support the human enterprise and the larger creation. If trade further impoverishes segments of the world’s population, its purpose is distorted and such injustice calls for reshaping global structures that cause economic oppression and creates wealth for only a few at the expense of the many. Such a world is a parody of the biblical vision for just community.”

If we do not speak up in this season, the moral failure is ours. We cannot wait until this agreement is fast-tracked into the system to see what it says and how it will impact lives. The moral test of this globalizing economy is how it treats living, breathing people and how well it tends the health of creation. Do we have the faith to let our light shine in the darkness of the TPP negotiations – and to trust that the darkness will not overcome it?


If we do not speak up in this season, the moral failure is ours.

After all, God’s first spoken words in the scripture are: “Let there be light.”

Let there be light indeed.


Contact your members of Congress and ask them to vote NO on Fast Track via the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness.

AUTHOR BIOS: Catherine Gordon is the Representative for International Issues at the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness. Alexa Smith is the Associate for Joining Hands Against Hunger of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

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