Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A theology of foreign aid?

Social media is a little like Chinese whispers, but I recently heard of a discussion going on somewhere that can be summarised as: Israel were given resources to develop their economy, that's the way economies should work and foreign aid doesn't work. It's an international version of the argument that welfare is a bad idea because it encourages people not to work, and often tacitly they are suffering because they deserve it and aren't working hard enough.

Now I'm one to promote hard work, using what you have to hand, etc, but I think this is an empty argument on two levels. Firstly, I think it's theologically poor, and secondly, aid and development do work. For the second problem, see Barb Deutschmann's article here.

Israel was given the promised land with plenty of resources to develop a healthy economy, but can we use it precisely as a case study for geopolitics?
  1. Israel dispossessed the original inhabitants and were given resources they didn't work for (see Deuteronomy 6:10-12). Without going into the mire that is the "Holy War" and displacement of the nations, this is not a model for us. This narrative has been used to perpetrate great injustices, murder and dispossession (e.g. North America) and it is profoundly unChristian to take such an example and apply it this side of Christ, and in our post-colonial age.
  2. Israel had an economy unlike ours; the idea of Sabbath and Jubilee was about reliance on God and re-distribution, including debt forgiveness. Hence, many Christians pushed for debt relief. To be sure, loans were wasted by corruption in developing nations, but the lenders were no less irresponsible. Surely a Christian understanding of global economics should include debt forgiveness, especially where it cases great suffering.
  3. Israel exhausted the land in greed - in not following the Sabbath laws or Jubilee laws. They are not a good model for human rights or land management (see for example Jeremiah 5 on destruction of the land).
  4. Israel didn't rely upon its own resources alone - no nation can. Think of its cedar imports for the temple.
  5. Israel was meant to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). This should be our model - where blessing can include financial help).
  6. There is no Christian nation - so straight application of a promised land teaching needs to be done carefully.
Now helping a nation in a time of need with aid in an exercise in neighbour love, just as Jesus commands us to do in the parable of the Good Samaritan - love those in need.When Sri Lanka was overwhelmed by a tsunami, should we have told them it was God's punishment (the story of the blind man in John's Gospel should tell us no), or that they had their own resources to draw on? Of should Christians proclaim neighbour love and give personally as well as ask the government to do so?

And what of development funds? The article here examines a number of causes, including corruption. However, the legacy of western colonialism and ongoing exploitation by the west of the developing world tell us there is an historical and ongoing burden of debt on us to do justly (Micah 6:8). Our lives are more comfortable because the system is designed to burden others so we might live well. America prospered because of slavery, Australia by dispossession of the first Australians, etc, etc. As noted in Barb's article, well thought out aid and development allows the proper use of resources by evening things out. As the saying goes, if the system rewarded hard work, African women would be millionaires.

Finally, climate change is set to swamp everything we've achieved in aid and development. The comfortable lifestyles of the west will impact the lives of those in the developing world, and for Christians to be blind to the moral urgency of aid just shows the Babylonian Captivity of the church afresh.

Aid and development is a way of showing love to our neighbours. Anything else is baptism of greed after the fact.

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