WTO Protest

Is Violence Justified?


Thunder Jones (rrj@bu.edu)
Fall, 2001


 Almost two years ago, the media covered the protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle.  These protests were led by organizations such as the Sierra Club and called for an end to globalization; the system of global free trade that they believe is destroying both the environment and indigenous cultures in order to feed the unquenchable hunger of modern consumerism.  These protests turned violent quickly, as anticipated, and chaos soon enveloped the conference.  There is no question that the protests had the right to protest, however, the violence within these protests is worthy of analysis.  There are two main questions that must be answered: why did the protests turn violent and is the violence theologically justified?


The WTO: What it Is, What it Does

The Self-Description – “The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to help producers of goods and services, exporters, and importers conduct their business.” (1) For more information see: http://www.wto.org/english/res_e/doload_e/inbr_e.pdf

The Opponents-Description – “The World Trade Organization was founded in 1994 as the successor to GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), an obscure, Geneva-based organization that had been charged since the end of World War II with gradually reducing international tariffs. The original WTO treaty was seven years in the making and 22,000 pages long. The WTO’s stated mission is to referee the global economy, to provide a “level playing field” for all competitors. Or, as Renato Ruggiero, the WTO’s first Director-General, put it: ‘We are writing the Constitution for the 21st Century.’  In the name of “free trade”, the WTO’s 135 member nations have given it sweeping new powers to arbitrate trade disputes. Any country, at the behest of its local corporations, can challenge another country’s laws before secret, three-person arbitration panels. Almost any national, state or local law that protects the environment, workers’ rights, consumer rights or human rights can be construed as a “trade barrier” and thus be declared “WTO-illegal”. Any country that refuses to acquiesce to a WTO ruling is subject to severe trade sanctions. Since its inception, the WTO has heard over 20 cases. And every law that has been challenged has been overturned.” (2)


The Problem: Globalization

The driving economic force of the past decade has been globalization.  If you walk out of the Harvard Square “T” stop, you’ll find some guy with a poster board strapped on that opposes globalization.  Why? 

Globalization is the streamlining of trade.  It is 16th century free trade lived out in 21st century style.  Because modern life has created the ability to communicate across the globe easily, transfer money instantaneously, and move inventory quickly from one nation to another, free trade has become devastating to the indigenous culture.  Entire nations, such as Japan, have based their economy on the ability to export specialized items to foreign nation, specifically the consumer Goliath that is the United States of America.  The result is that the unique culture of geographically smaller civilizations is annihilated in order to create a system in which the civilization can export goods to the West. The ability to become an exporter requires a civilization embrace Western education systems, Western economic policy, and, inevitably, Western culture.  Not only does this process harm culture but allows transnational corporations to pillage nations that are willing to sell right to land at incredibly low prices due to desperation or ignorance.  Its opponents also claim that globalization has created unsustainable growth that will irrevocable devastate the environment.  Free trade, and the process described above, is facilitated by the WTO, the successor of to GATT.  This devaluation of unique indigenous cultures and ecological devastation are the causes that opponents of the WTO protest.


CNN Reports Violence within the Protest

An Excerpt from CNN.com  - http://www.cnn.com/US/9911/30/wto.04/index.html

November 30, 1999

'Chaos in the streets'

Police said the protesters started gathering at 5 a.m., five hours before the scheduled start of the conference, which was delayed by the first of several street clashes -- this one just a block from the convention hall.

A protester who slipped by security officials is dragged from the podium of the WTO conference center


Ellithorpe said the officers started using pepper spray after the protesters refused to disperse as ordered after some of them had tried to block access to and from buildings and broke windows in some buildings.

At least an hour later, clouds of tear gas descended on a crowd of protesters who were bashing in windows of a jewelry store, Nordstrom's Department store, GAP clothing store and FAO Schwartz toy store.

"Barbie Kills" was sprayed on a window full of Barbie dolls at the toy store.

"It was chaos in the streets," said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, who is attending the conference.



Under the US system, these protesters had every right to peacefully assemble in order to show their opposition to the WTO and its politics.  The issue is their use of violence.  Is the theologically justified?


Theological Analysis on the Use of Violence – Gutierrez, Niebuhr, and Yoder


Gustavo Gutierrez

Gutierrez would affirm that violence in the face of oppression is justified.  He addresses this issue in A Theology of Liberation when he discusses institutionalized violence. (3)  In his discussion of the oppression in Latin America, he describes the exploitation of the people as, “a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence,” which is accountable for thousands of innocent lives. (4)  Gutierrez reasons that since institutionalized violence ignores the rights of individuals, then the oppressed may use just violence to overcome the unjust violence of their oppressors. (5)  Liberation theology views sin as the oppression of the powerless.  This is based upon the belief that God favors the poor based on exegesis.  This system portrays the large, faceless corporations as evil because of their exploitive nature.  Within liberation theology, this system of exploitation is sin, thus is to be overcome by the righteous. 

Globalization and liberation theology seem to be star-crossed lovers.  Globalization creates a structure in which the wealthy are able to take advantage of the poor by underpaying foreign laborers and creating export-based economies.  These two components devalue the local culture, lead local people to embrace Western ideology, and simultaneously destroys the local businesses because of a lack of labor. While the system described by Gutierrez was designed for Latin America, when applied on a global scale, it becomes a strong argument for those who would violently oppose globalization.  When one applies liberation theology to the WTO protests, violence again the mechanisms of globalization is justified.  Furthermore, the violence by participants did not physically harm anyone, though it may have had psychological effects.  The WTO is the body that represents the oppressive power structure of globalization.  If there was a single target for the oppressed to focus on, it would be the WTO. 


Reinhold Niebuhr

While Reinhold Niebuhr seems an odd choice for justifying the use of violence by protesters of the WTO, his concept of war can be used for the argument that violence against tyranny is moral.  During World War II, Reinhold Niebuhr accepted violence as sometime necessary for the completion of the greater good.  In his essay, “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist,” he proclaims that man is tainted by original sin and to proclaim pacifism is to ignore this doctrine and thus commit heresy. (6)  Rather, Niebuhr suggests that the ethic of Jesus is not immediately applicable concerning violence because securing justice in a sinful world is impossible without ignoring the “law of love” that Jesus’ life presents. (7)  He argues that, “The gospel is something more than the law of love.  The gospel deals with the fact that men violate the law of love.  The gospel presents Christ as the pledge and revelation of God’s mercy which finds man in his rebellion and overcomes his sin.” (8)  This view of the gospel allows the righteous to sometime use violence to render justice.  He even advocates war in extreme cases when tyranny violates the systems of justice. (9)  Niebuhr acknowledges that this ethic ignores the ethic of Jesus, but is unable to determine any other means to counter injustice.

Those who protest the WTO seek justice.  They view the ecosystem as being devastated by globalization and cultures being synthesized into a global culture that robs them of their uniqueness.  They view this as the tyranny of the sinful person, in the sense that Gutierrez defines sin.  Niebuhr’s views violence as justified when it is necessary to deal with the sinful person allows his ethical system to become part of the argument for violence.  If opponents of globalization view the process as inherently tyrannical, then in his system, they may use violence and violate the “law of love” in order to establish justice.  Though Niebuhr would likely oppose the type of individual violence, the basics of his rational against pacifism allow the oppressed to struggle against their oppressor, especially when no lives are lost, only economic goods.

John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, presents an argument that is a critique of Reinhold Niebuhr’s stance from the Anabaptist perspective.  Yoder offers an uncompromising pacifist ethic that is not focused on results, but following the ethics of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels.  In an article written in April of 1955 in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Yoder states, “It is not nonviolent resistance chosen pragmatically in preference to violence because of its greater effectiveness in the struggle for existence or for progress; it is rather nonresistance, unconditional obedience to the nature of live, making no promises of effectiveness.  The ultimate expression of this ethic is the cross, and Christ’s ‘obedience unto death, even the death of the cross,’ was the utter opposite of a calculating pragmatic choice of means.” (10)  Yoder also rebukes Niebuhr’s claims that failure to act against tyranny is equal to supporting tyranny because of his allegiance to the ethics of the cross and prefers slavery by tyrants because such actions are caused by the sin of the tyrant, not the sin of the Christians to wage war so that the lesser of two evils can be accomplished. (11)  Yoder defines the concept of self-preservation as selfish and sinful, thus rejecting the idea that violence against an oppressor is justified. (12)  The harshest criticism that Yoder levels upon Niebuhr is the absence of the Church in the critique of pacifism.  Yoder argues that the church is a supernational body that transcends any other allegiances and war places Christians against other Christians in combat for their nation, thus destroying hope for unity with the body of Christ. (13)  The ethical system presented by Yoder rejects acceptance of the lesser of two evils and demands that Christians imitate Christ’s crucifixion in their own ethics stances so that they will experience resurrection.

Yoder disallows the type of violence committed against the WTO and demands that we suffer rather than act with violence.  He does not ignore the responsibility of Christianity to be a prophetic voice among the nations, but refuses to physically or psychologically harm other in an attempt to make that voice be heard.  Yoder’s concepts are radical and often lead to great suffering among those who subscribe to them; however, I believe that they best embody the ethic of Christ. 



While globalization is a destructive force that is ecologically, culturally, and economically damaging, violence is never theologically justified and should be alien to the Christian faith.  To close, I acknowledge that the ethical option presented at the end of this presentation is both difficult and uncomfortable, but I must accept it if I accept Jesus as the son of God.  If the ethic presented by His life is not the ethical norm for Christianity, then there is no ethics in Christianity at all.  I oppose globalization, but I refuse to take violent means to express that view and reject any theological premise that finds such justification.  This leaves only direct action such as refusing to buy products that are produced though globalization and supporting local industry over multinational giants.  The refusal to act with violence also leaves my voice untainted with blood, a clear voice of opposition that can be respected by those who agree and disagree with the message.  It is also a voice that carries the strength of Christian unity and the hope of the Kingdom of God.

I disagree with Gutierrez’s concept of institutionalized violence and Niebuhr’s notion that tyranny should be responded to with violence because of the sinful nature of humanity.  These theological constructions provide a channel for frustration and often lead to change; then again, this change is accomplished by sinful devices that are opposed to the politics of Jesus.  When accepting these ethical systems, the theologian chooses action over passivity, but also chooses to act in accordance with the lesser of two evils.  While I do believe that these systems provide for political solutions, I refuse to accept them as compatible with the Kingdom of God.  Humanity will toil and struggle and attempt to establish justice, and this quest is not necessarily immoral.  Nevertheless, it will never be successfully complete.  It is a dream that can only be accomplished by the Prince of Peace, Jesus.  This is the heart of Christian eschatology and the hope of generations past, present and future.



1.  “What is the WTO?”  http://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/whatis_e.htm

2.  John Tarleton.  “Love and Rage in Seattle: The Day the WTO Stood Still” December 1999.  http://www.cybertraveler.org/wto.html

3.  Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 63-64.

4.   Ibid.

5.   Ibid.

6.   “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. Robert McAfee Brown. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 103-105.

7.   Ibid., 106-107.

8.   Ibid., 111.

9.   Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), 14-16.

10. John Howard Yoder, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review. April 1955, 104-105.

11. Ibid., 112-113.

12. Ibid., 114.

13. Ibid., 115-116.