Faith and Reason: Who put the poor man at your gate?: Mark Birchall continues our series on money and justice. He argues that we may not know what to do right, but we must know we are living wrong. He is a former stockbroker.
Saturday 01 August 1992
Lazarus is still at our gate, still suffering. But he is such a familiar feature of the landscape that we ignore him, just as Dives did. We've seen him so often, we no longer ask, 'Why?'. And, if we do ask, 'Why?' the natural first reaction is to say that the causes of unemployment, starvation, homelessness, civil war, whatever Lazarus' problem may be, are either too complex to understand, or too enormous to solve; or both. So we pass on - perhaps literally on the other side of the road.
We may complain, especially if Lazarus' problem makes a stink in our own back-yard. We may even give, for flag days or raffles, but usually at the small-change level except apparently to Telethon. But, in general, we do not think. Dorothy Sayers wrote, 'Most Englishmen would rather die than think, and many do.'
Thinking, in this sense, usually means challenging conventional wisdom. We note with satisfaction that unbridled Communism has proved to be a moral and economic failure. It created greater poverty, more pollution, and less real freedom; it replaced one group of rich people by another. Now it has collapsed. But we fail to see that unbridled capitalism is also a moral and an economic failure, judged by its results. Doubters can ask the Maxwell pensioners, or his former employees; or the long-term unemployed; or the single parent in a tower block with a vandalised lift.
Look at some facts of economic history. In a recent decade, real wealth in the OECD nations increased by 41 per cent, but their aid to the Third World, as a proportion of GDP, actually fell. If we had been content with just a 40 per cent increase, our aid programmes could have been doubled. The oil crisis in the early Seventies led to a fertiliser shortage. So the United States imposed a short-term ban on fertiliser exports in a year when they used as much fertiliser on their lawns, gardens and golf courses as India used for all its agriculture. As Kenneth Leech said earlier in this series, there is a coldness in the heart of man.
This coldness goes along with a real lack of logic. We work hard to support our private affluence, but complain at the cost of tackling public squalor. We pay 'someone who comes in' pounds 1,000 a year to keep our house clean, but complain at the same sum for the poll tax, of which only a tiny fraction goes to keeping our streets clean. We accept without question the advertising which tries to make us spend on what we don't need, but deplore any call for more spending on what we all want - better roads, railways, schools and hospitals. We dodge the real questions. We do not think.
Central planning and central state expenditure have got a bad name - through ideological excess, or state tyranny, or through their past neglect of the vital need of wealth creation. That dog has now got a bad name, so we hang it. We will not face the fact that some things simply have to be done centrally, and paid for through taxation. Necessary recent emphasis on wealth creation, the market economy, freedom of choice, and the individual needs a check or balance. This comes best from a biblical emphasis on the God- given duty of concern for the poor, and on the local or global community of which they and we are all a part. No one is an island, although we try to make ourselves so.
At a deeper level, we seldom think about the fact that the real values in life are based on people, not on things; on relationships, not on consumption. Nor do we think much beyond this life. We talk little about death; less about the process of dying; and not at all about what, if anything, lies beyond. In Jesus' story, Dives woke up to this too late; too late for his own good, and too late also to do anything to help his five brothers, no doubt still living it up at home. He wanted to warn them to think, before it was too late. That message is the call to repent; simple, in the gospel, but needing always to be unpacked if it is ever to be more than superficial.
Repentance is much more than feeling sorry: metanoia means literally thinking again, thinking in a different way, seeing things from God's perspective in a way that leads to changed behaviour.
JK Galbraith said that economic policy is usually a choice between the unpalatable and the disastrous. For the rich man trying to be just in the modern world, as for the rich nation, it may be a hard choice, the sort no one likes making. The unpalatable choice may mean asking questions about how we earn wealth; and about how we use it.
Why do some work ludicrous hours when so many are without work? Why do we pay farmers not to grow food, in a hungry world? Such questions may show us that much of our consumption in the West is unnecessary, some of it unwise, and some even insane. We dare not ignore uncomfortable facts; we have to think, and keep on thinking.
The Brandt Report in the Seventies warned us that it was in our own interest to think again about our economic relationships with the poor of the world, simply for the sake of our future peace and security, if for no better reason. The earth summit at Rio warned us that in some respects the world is now almost over the edge of the precipice. When they have used all their forests for firewood, where will they go for fuel? Forget any talk about rights; the rich man who wants to live justly has a duty to think, to care, and to take action.
The judgement on Sodom was not what most people imagine. It was exactly the same as the judgement on Dives. The people of Sodom were 'arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy' (Ezekiel xvi, 49). Bishops and theologians have a duty to keep pointing this out. But they must never think they can produce the solutions to what are almost always complex problems. Their task is to challenge and enable the Christian politicians, economists, researchers and other opinion-formers to keep working at the problems. Because, unless we all think again, it may be too late.
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