Wrestling with chaos
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Date: Updated June 2011
'Such moments can be the creative times when we recreate the systems and values by which we live.'
In a reflection for Pentecost, the Rev Martin Camroux says that we still have choices for our future, even when the world is in chaos
It’s fascinating to be witnessing a time when the world’s economic and political system is in such chaos.
Such moments can be the creative times when we recreate the systems and values by which we live. And what a moment Pentecost is to wrestle with it.
Looking back I wonder if there wasn’t always something delusional in believing that what might realistically have been on the table at places like Gleneagles was ever going to “Make Poverty History”.
What prospect was there that fundamental changes would take place in patterns of trade or power?
And would a doubling of the world’s commitment to development aid really have brought absolute poverty to an end?
The reality of power in many of the bottom billion countries is of betrayal by a style of leadership in which unresponsive elites exploit their own people.
Did $280 billion dollars of oil receipts over the last 30 years “make poverty history” in Nigeria? Instead by the end of military rule rich Nigerians were holding around $100 billion in capital outside the country.
Incredibly in post-apartheid South Africa economic inequalities have actually widened. In any case the vast cash flow never occurred.
Today rich countries gave less of their national incomes to developing countries last year than they did when they promised to "Make Poverty History" in 2005. Collectively, they gave 0.3% of national income in aid – the same as in 1993.
In any case the bright optimism of “Make Poverty” history didn’t ever really square with the unsustainability of laissez-faire capitalism.
Professor John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has predicted that by 2030 the world is heading for a "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources which will threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions.
In the same vein John Gray, one of our more provocative philosophers, predicts "the coming century looks like being one of wars, massacres and forced migrations”.
Things do not always turn out as even the brightest philosophers imagine. I have always tried to heed Sam Goldwyn’s warning: “Never prophesy, especially about the future”. But it is impossible to ignore the evidence of an economic order that cannot last.
None the less Christians have a hopeful contribution to make to the discussion of what comes next. No Christian can say “All hope is gone,” simply all hope but one!
The hope is the Pentecostal claim that the Holy Spirit is at work renewing the whole creation, bringing peace and justice. We have a choice for our future.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
A couple of Christian contributions to this time of choosing seem to me immediately apparent. Firstly we need to be delivered from what G.K. Chesterton called “all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men.”
The other week the former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan confessed that he had made a “mistake” in believing that banks in operating in their self-interest would be sufficient to protect their shareholders and the equity in their institutions.
He said that it was “a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” Imagine, trusting self-interest, even “enlightened” self-interest, to control greed, avarice, and arrogance.
There is a certain charming naiveté about that, looking back from this side of the crisis. Immanuel Kant once said: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."
It’s a reminder that the rich will always skew the system to help themselves unless you stop them, and always greed blinds us to things we don’t want to see.
It’s no use expecting the directors of Goldman Sachs to instinctively put the interests of the world before their own! As Roy Hattersley once put it: “Never underestimate the passion with which the rich demand protection of their right to let other people live and die in poverty – or the excesses of false logic to which they go to justify their selfishness”.
Secondly the Christian community has an alternative vision to offer the world: not self-interest but the common good. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the early Christian community.
We read: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all as any had need," and then this word "there was not a needy person among them."
No-one should be so simplistic as to see this as an immediately applicable remedy for the world’s economic crisis. But it reminds us that God's will runs in the direction of equality.
Why is the world today in such turmoil? Why do the nations rage? At the head of the list is the fact that the wealth of the world is so poorly distributed.
In the kind of world we can see emerging the promotion of equality becomes all the more necessary – if resources are going to be limited it is essential they be distributed according to a notion of social justice.
Periods of transition are frequently unstable, deeply uncertain and fraught with danger. This one certainly is. But it is also a time of possibility.
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The Rev Martin Camroux is a retired minister of the United Reformed Church, committee chair of Free to Believe, an informal network of liberally minded Christians striving for an open, inclusive and thinking church, and a winner of The Times' Preacher of the Year Award