Lent Course 2007: Magnificat

Unit Five - Whose World?

"He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away".

The minor injuries received at the hands of our Grunge Park teenagers by nephews of Mustaq Khan were only one of the misfortunes which befell them as the result of a chain of unfortunate events whose beginning is disputed. Depending on our point of view it might have been:

Having reached Unit Five we are surely all far too cautious to pick one of the items on this list to the exclusion of the others but are we now experienced enough to see that there is a deeper trap in the way the question has been put than the simple matter of paradigms in Unit One and causality in Unit Two. Should our behaviour towards the Khans depend in any way on why they are how they are and what role we and our ancestors might have had in how they are now?

In looking at economic justice there are three sets of problems which we will need to consider:

Generosity, however, has come under strong attack in terms of its outcome. First, it is often said recipients of generosity, not obliged to work for benefit, become lazy and end up squandering what they receive; this philosophy is summed up in the idea that something is only valued by people if they pay for it. Secondly, and connected with the first point, generosity, even on a large scale, is said to lead to no long-term change; even if we could construct a situation in which everybody started out with exactly the same physical resources and opportunities, the very differences between us would guarantee different and unequal outcomes. Thirdly, it is often said that those who receive generosity feel dependent and inferior.

The first and third points raise the question of whether we should simply give unconditionally, taking no interest in what people do with our gift. Should we worry about outcome and if we did not would this in turn reduce the possibility that recipients would feel inferior?

The second point, however, is much more difficult to deal with. There is a great deal of evidence that straight generosity does not alter underlying problems. How do we, therefore, square our ethic of generosity with our practical wish to change the lives of people for the better?

Further, regardless of outcome, should we simply give everything we have to the poor and look to the lilies of the field? There are a number of issues which we should consider:

Here, on the other 'side', is the liberal nightmare:

A donor agency upholds the policy that recipient communities should determine how development assistance is deployed. The community decides that rather than accepting the advice of the donor to provide primary health care to the whole community it wants the health expenditure to be spent only on males for the purpose of trauma surgery, mostly resulting from internecine warfare.

Should the agency:

Having considered these issues in somewhat abstract terms, we now need to look at them through the eyes of Mustaq Khan and his family.

It will soon become clear why we will work in reverse order, starting with restitution.

Iqbal lives with his three sons, two daughters and one wife in a tiny village at the foot of the Khyber pass. The land is arid and there is frequent crop failure. Surveying all his ills, Iqbal believes (see Unit One) that colonialism and unfair trade agreements are responsible. His eldest son points out that the feudalism under which they live came before and has survived colonialism and that the same feudal, absentee landlords, who keep them in poverty are also the government ministers who make the trade deals to buy luxury cars instead of agricultural machinery. It is this same feudalism which allows him to go to school but not his sisters.

Mustaq wonders whether he should follow his cousin's family to Grunge Park. Iqbal reports that although things can be very tough, he is much better off than he would have been if he had stayed at home with Mustaq.

Looked at from Iqbal's point of view, however, matters are not so simple. First, he believes that what has forced him to England is not feudalism but the basic unfairness of colonialism. He was working in the same factory as Jane's parents but now that it has shut down he cannot find work; colonialism has been compounded by economic imperialism. He wonders whether his children are suffering because of the limitations of the education in their Islamic school but, on the whole, he prefers to blame everything on the prejudice of people around him and the hostility of the 'colonial' government.

At last we are coming to the crux of the problem. Leaving aside conflicting views of history, the Grunge Park 'community' is beset by a series of differences of perception which are not necessarily in conflict, so we will pair them:

Setting aside the extremely important issue of perception - that what matters is what people believe to be true rather than what can be factually ascertained (a critical factor in the first pairing) - there are some fundamental problems about justice which have to be mutually settled.

These questions apply equally to the planet as a whole and to Grunge Park. The question we keep asking ourselves in a different form is whether we simply rely on unconditional generosity, apply forms of positive discrimination or whether we are satisfied with equal opportunities.

It is important for Christians to consider these issues in their own terms because increasingly the debate is not about equity but simply about using social resources to prevent social disruption. Iqbal's eldest son, Hanif, has begun to attend meetings of a fundamentalist sect which says it wants to destroy Western secularism. The solution proposed by 'Community leaders' is that the economic conditions of immigrants are so improved that their radicalism is 'bought off'. this is the ostensible cause of the fight with Bill and his mates. They have heard of vast new plans to help immigrants and they feel trapped in Grunge Park and resent what is happening. Well, that is what they say to the Magistrates but we will have to decide how far we accept that kind of 'causal' argument.

There is, then, it turns out, a fourth kind of resources transfer in addition to generosity, reciprocity and restitution which we might call damage limitation. This is quite different from reciprocity because one party is acting under threat. Again, this is not simply a domestic phenomenon, it is the kind of behaviour which characterises North Korea and Iran.

Let us now look at the attitudes of our four prototypes. Superficially, they are commenting on the highly specific issue of economic redistribution but this is usually a cover for much deeper divisions.

It is quite difficult to get to the root of what the Preacher is saying. 'Socialism' is one of those portmanteau words that means what the user wants it to mean but let us be generous to the Preacher and say that what he means by socialism is the use of central, elected Government to redistribute income and wealth from the rich to the poor. We can see how this might be the enemy of all kinds of things but what makes it the enemy of religion? What does religion or, more pertinently, our Church, have to say about redistribution?

We have already discussed the Philosopher's point at some length but we need to ask, as Christians, how much the outcome matters. This may be an issue for practical people but should we not simply be generous out of love without any care for outcomes? Would it be treating recipients like inferiors or children to say that generosity might 'spoil' them?

The problem with the Politician's maxim is not the obvious one that it looks deeply selfish, its real problem is how you decide when the beginning is over and we can move on to a new phase. If it "begins" at home then at some point charity should move on to somewhere else but, of course, under this formulation it never does. Would it be more accurate for the politician to say: "Charity should be confined to home" and, if he said this, might he then go on to draw the logical conclusion that redistribution within the 'home' is justified? Or does this not end up being a bald statement that people should be allowed to hold on to what they have got?

Having been so hard on the Politician, it is important not to tar Pilgrim with the same brush. The Politician wills the end but Pilgrim pays for it; if there is money wasted in North West Pakistan the chances are that it's Pilgrim's money. He has been paying taxes and donating to charities since the Bob Geldof famine appeal of 1984 and he sees no end to it. Well ordered democratic countries keep giving money to badly ordered, corrupt dictatorships. Why should he be generous to Pakistan when his own children are out of work?

This last question is not easy. If there was a simple ranking that those at the top gave to those at the bottom we would be advancing the argument that nobody can have cake until everybody has bread; this is a variant of the absolute equality problem. Further, however, is there a point at which Pilgrim should be forced to be generous in a certain direction or should he be allowed to choose. In our society the answer is both: private generosity runs in parallel with public policy on domestic and global redistribution. Is there a clear case for this kind of redistribution in the case of natural disaster and famine? And how do we handle choices between giving fish and giving out rods? Is this a real choice or are we so well off that it is only a theoretical choice, a kind of play that excuses us from doing what we should?

The one outstanding issue with respect to redistribution is what we think the obligations might be in the poor and the weak to understand why they are how they are. Necessarily, people who are not very gifted cannot be expected to equal the subtle analysis of those who have degrees in economics but what about the economics graduates in Pakistan or even in Grunge Park? Are the responsibilities all on the one side, on the side of those who are being asked either through taxation or generosity to give up some of their income and wealth?

Finally, and this is only a further extension of what we have already considered, how do we strike a balance between our current level of prosperity and what we should leave to those who follow us? The emerging paradigm is that if we go on as we are doing now, our successor generations will be infinitely worse off than we are to the extent that we might be damaging the planet irreversibly. How do we balance contemporary justice and justice between generations? It might be argued that we have given scant regard to this question, given its massive importance, but it is only possible to tackle this issue if we have some firm ideas about paradigms, causality and the principles of economic justice.

The final challenge for this Course is for us to use all that we have learned to make a reasoned and moral response to our current global warming crisis.