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  • Faith, science and technology

    What does it mean to be human and to be part of God’s creation? Responses that seemed to be clear and unshakeable for centuries are severely challenged by new scientific and technological developments. Genetic engineering, for instance, has added a new dimension to the capabilities of humankind to modify and change the development of ourselves and other species.

    Genetic technologies touch our deepest convictions about the value of human life and human dignity. Often, religious language is invoked in public: “We learn the language in which God created life” was the claim made when the mapping of the whole set of human genes began.

    + Documents, resources, links on biotechnology

    The ecumenical movement addressed some of these concerns very early as part of a study process that culminated in the 1979 Conference on Faith, Science and the Future in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston, USA) and found an echo in a study document on biotechnology in 1989. In the meantime, churches have wrestled with the often difficult and divisive ethical questions concerning the beginning and ending of human life and have engaged with the newly evolving challenges of rapidly developing technologies.

    The Advisory Group of the WCC’s Justice, Peace, Creation Team took up some of these challenges and suggested work on agriculture and genetically modified foods as an entry point for a study process on genetic engineering that concentrates on underlying ethical concerns and the vision for life. A small working group on genetic engineering discussed the proposal and developed a background document to stimulate further discussion by members of the Policy Reference Committee II for the 2003 Central Committee( CC) meeting. The debate on genetically modified crops and food aid also became a major issue in 2003, following the rejection of gmo-corn as food aid by the government of Zambia.

    Context matters for both faith and science. In assessing research agendas and technologies, it is both reasonable and necessary to start again and again from the very simple question: Why are we doing this?

    Given the pragmatic, result oriented and often utilitarian ethics of the dominant technological culture, the question can be rephrased in these terms:

    • What is the problem this technology (or science) is supposed to address?
    • Who defined the problem and constructed the solution, and to what end? Is the ‘problem’ simply being defined according to the (commercial) ‘solutions’ that are available or that would be most profitable to those offering them?
    • If context matters, we need to ask again and again not only Who will benefit? but also Who is most likely to lose out?

    The WCC working group on genetic engineering started to build a list of the many documents, brochures and books produced by churches and church related organizations. Although by far not complete, the list shows that the issues are widely discussed and are no longer seen as predominantly “Northern” concerns. Churches in the “South” have studied the impact on people and are fully aware of the leading role of transnational corporations in pushing for the introduction of genetically modified seeds and genetically engineered pharmaceuticals that, in general, do not address the most pressing needs of people.

    The affirmation that “context matters” is, however, also relevant for another reason. With increasing knowledge of the human genome, many scientists have become more critical of the initial drive towards genetic determinism, the assumption of a direct one to one relationship between cause and effect, the individual gene and expression of a certain characteristic or effect. At one time it was thought that humans had more than 100,000 genes, now researchers believe human have only about 20,000-25,000 genes. The relatively small number of genes mapped by the Human Genome Project point to much more complex processes, in which the inter-action between different genes, various parameters of the process and the whole context indeed matter. This should lead to much more careful assessments of the future prospects of the technology with a much stronger emphasis on the precautionary principle.

    The working group produced a discussion document that concentrates on questions arising if we take seriously the socio-political, economic and cultural context as it shapes research agendas and the development trajectory of the technology and its applications. The group working on the document decided to adhere to a double focus on genetic engineering concerning agriculture on the one hand and human beings on the other. Depending upon the context, genetic engineering with animals could fall into either focus. The border between these two areas is fluid anyhow and it is difficult to draw a clear line since all the different applications are based on the same insights of molecular biology and the technology of genetic manipulation. More important, however, is the reason that in all of these areas, we encounter almost the same actors and much the same dynamics.

    The document argues its case not from a supposedly neutral and objective position, but rather starts from the stories and voices of small farm holders, of Indigenous Peoples, of women and of persons with disabilities. Small scale farmers and Indigenous Peoples do not share the assumptions made by protagonists of the benefits of genetically modified seeds and crops. They challenge the broader public to very carefully examine the statements and promises made and to be vigilant regarding issues of power, profit and control. Indigenous Peoples are also struggling in many places of the world to defend their genetic data which have become a highly valued resource in the development of new pharmaceuticals and therapies. Persons with disabilities raise pertinent questions concerning the ideal of the medically managed person that is the shared ground for much of the discussion on human genetics. Many women warn that even their bodies are turned into an economic resource. These and other groups urge the wider public to take nothing for granted, but to re-examine the arguments brought forward in favour of genetic engineering, which usually reflect the context of societies highly integrated into the global economy and influenced by the modern development paradigm. It is precisely for this reason, that their experiences and voices are often marginalised and excluded from the discourse.

    The group working on the document included representatives of Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities together with researchers, ethicists and staff of churches working on the issues at stake. In making their choice transparent, they have also responded to the mandate of the JPC team, which takes responsibility of the document. This choice of perspective also implies that the document does not pretend to be representative of positions taken by WCC member churches coming from different theological traditions and different contexts. It seeks to foster the debate within and among the churches and to challenge them in their prophetic witness. It is meant for those in the churches who have an interest in the ethical challenges concerning genetic engineering and are ready to engage in an ecumenical discussion concerning their own assumptions and perceptions. This in turn applies also to this document – it is a discussion document in the real sense of the word.

    The document deals first with the implications of genetic engineering applied to human life and then turns to the implications for agriculture.

    Human genetics
    Genetic engineering added a new dimension to the capabilities of human beings to modify and change the development of human and other species. It is at the origins of a new generation of pharmaceuticals, new diagnostics such as pre-natal genetic diagnostics that can be used for pre-implantation selection, new somatic therapies, and embryo cloning. These technologies and future genetic research developments and the legal frameworks around them, e.g. regarding intellectual property rights, patenting of life forms, prior informed consent and privacy, status of the embryo. are rapidly developing. There are significant gaps in which there is no legal or regulatory framework and only little public debate in most of the countries. Of grave concern are the racist and dehumanising aspects of a new eugenics.

    Human genetic technologies deeply touch theological issues. Far beyond the immediate ethical questions that arise with the use of any new technologies, they touch the fundamental ethical fabric of our societies:

    • Human genetic technologies touch our fundamental attitude toward life. This is emphasised not only by defenders but also by critics of a theological view.
    • Human genetic technologies force us to clarify our understanding of human beings as creatures of God, especially when in issues of human genetic technology religious language is invoked in public.
    • Human genetic technologies involve an assessment of the weight of different goods such as the possibility of healing sicknesses and the integrity of early human life. Sometimes ethical dilemmas cannot be avoided. Then, it is all the more important to carefully analyse and assess the ethical aspects of the problem and thus come to a responsible decision.
    • Human genetic technologies are based on a distribution of resources for health that has to be questioned. Human genetic technologies depend on resources that are extremely unequally distributed in the different parts of the world. The use of significant financial resources to help some parents have healthy children through expensive genetic technologies must be balanced against the need of other children to have their basic health needs met.
    • Human genetic technologies that allow parents to choose or enhance the traits of their children may have an impact on the ecology of values in a society and will redefine concepts of sickness and disability.

    The document offers theological reflection on these concerns and arrives at policy recommendations concerning:

    • promising fields of genetic research,
    • warning concerning embryonic research and rejection of designer babies,
    • no to buying and selling human body parts,
    • warning against the mixing of human and animal genomes for research,
    • as examples and invitation for further debate.

    Biotechnology and agriculture

    The document is approaching these matters from the perspective of the deprived and powerless. It closely examines the roles and positions taken by major actors, e.g. scientists, transnational corporations and financial markets, governments and politicians, consumers, farmers and social movements, and Indigenous Peoples. Special attention is given to Food Aid and the place of genetically engineered foods being offered to regions experiencing severe food shortages before addressing threats to biodiversity. Theological reflection of this section concentrates on a theological understanding of food and food production before it embarks on a critique of genetic engineering in agriculture.

    The group calls upon the WCC, member Churches, individual Christians and people of good will to embark on the following six forms of action

    1. To build partnerships with civil society, people’s movements, farmer groups and Indigenous Peoples in opposing the science, philosophy and practice of genetic engineering in agriculture.

    2. To challenge Christians working for those promoting genetic engineering to reflect upon the implications of their work in the light of the Gospel’s concern for truth and justice, and to consider the possibility of being whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors.

    3. To encourage Christian theological reflection to shift from issues of food security to issues of food sovereignty so that our concerns for justice, freedom and participation are not compromised.

    4. To encourage Christians involved in medical research to continue to investigate the impact of genetic engineering in agriculture upon human health, as called for by the European Commission.

    5. To stand in solidarity with those working in local communities to promote healthy food and good nutrition amongst the deprived, especially in a time of HIV/AIDS.

    6. To recognize in our work and reflection the way in which access to food stands on the interface between ecology and economy in the struggle for life against commodification and control

    7. To engage biblically and theologically in reflection on food, faith and justice, and especially to consider the possibility that the agapé meal at the heart of Christian worship – the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist – could be envisaged as a sacrament of resistance against those who seek to control food.

    In doing these things, we stand in continuity with the AGAPE document, and particularly section 3.3., “from food security to food sovereignty”:

    We believe that God’s economy of solidarity and justice for the household of creation includes the promise that the people of the world have the right to produce their own food and control the resources belonging to their livelihoods, including biodiversity. It is therefore the right and responsibility of governments to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the South and in the North. It is their right to refuse the demands of agribusinesses that seek to control every aspect of the cycle of life. Such an approach requires respect for indigenous spiritual relationships to land and the bounties of mother earth.
    The way forward
    The work done so far on genetic engineering has helped to identify also other challenging technological developments, especially in the field of nano-scale technologies that operates at the scale of atoms and molecules. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the global market for nano-scale technologies will exceed $1 trillion within six years, yet most governments and intergovernmental agencies have hardly heard or thought of nano-technology. One of the Ecumenical Conversations will focus on the challenges by new technologies to the churches’ witness to the sanctity of life. The question will be if the WCC can facilitate exchange among the churches on these issues in order to broaden the basis for common witness and action. Is it true that time has come for a new emphasis on the concerns posed by science and technology?

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    + Documents, resources, links on biotechnology

    Martin Robra
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    © 2005 World Council of Churches. Remarks to: webeditor"