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Editorial: October 2021

27 September 2021

In the midst of change, the world urgently needs to rediscover a moral compass: that is the common message from contributors to this edition of Crucible, examining high-profile issues with a global reach. The climate emergency, globalization, modern slavery and racism are all connected, not just as equally international problems, but in practical terms too – with elements of each feeding into and exacerbating each other.

In the day-by-day uncertainty of the summer of 2021, a whole article on overseas aid risked being out of date before the ink was dry (or the electrons had settled); but as world-wide problems demand international solidarity and cross-cutting solutions, a chunk of this introduction will glance over our fraught response to poverty and inequality on a global scale.

You might not expect the first words from a former vice squad officer of the Metropolitan Police, Head of the Met’s Human Trafficking Unit and the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, to be a quote from Pope Francis; but Kevin Hyland and Alison Ussery set their analysis of the state of modern slavery, in the UK and the wider world, within the context of our planetary stewardship, and of our Christian duty to care for the poor, the marginalized, the voiceless, the dispossessed.

Showing what you can do if you’re the Pope, Pope Francis summoned the world’s leading police chiefs and bishops to a summit at the Papal Residence in 2014. This led to the Santa Marta Declaration and the formation of the Santa Marta Group: a ground-breaking global attempt to find ways of tackling a problem that can be solved only by international co-operation and determination at the highest level, by bringing together Catholic bishops, law-enforcement agencies, lawyers, and NGOs. This isn’t pasting awareness-raising posters on toilet doors (although that undeniably has its place in local campaigns); this is an expert-led international effort to tackle the detection, conviction rate and prevention of a crime which is set to outstrip the drugs trade in its global value.

Modern slavery takes many forms, occurs all over the world, and – like the climate crisis and racism – is grounded in the arrogant assumption that some human beings can treat other human beings as simply there to be exploited. Like environmental degradation and racism, it is a sin in which the rich world is implicated through the unclear provenance of the products we enjoy or rely on. There is a more direct causality between climate change and racism and modern slavery, too (as the Santa Marta Group’s excellent website reminds us): famine, poverty, and loss of homeland drive desperate refugees into the clutches of traffickers who lock them into exploitative, degrading or unregulated labour, where they then become invisible amongst an army of casual or migrant workers, liable as ‘illegal immigrants’ to fall foul of immigration laws.

Hyland and Ussery raise another important ethical question for Christians: it is our duty not just to provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, etc, but also (as mentioned in the Anglican Five Marks of Mission) to question and challenge the failing structures that prevent effective action to combat injustice. The UK’s well-meaning National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is manifestly under-resourced, leaving literally thousands of victims in limbo for years even before a decision is made about whether or not there are ‘conclusive grounds’ for proceeding under the Modern Slavery Act. During this time victims may disappear without trace: back to their homes, countries, or even into repeated exploitation; whilst the conviction rate is too pitifully small (less than 1% of slavery crimes worldwide) to deter the criminal exploiters.

The slogan “Black Lives Matter” may have been heard before 2020, but the shockingly blatant murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last summer brought the lethal implications of racism, quite literally, before our very eyes. Consciences smote us on both sides of the Atlantic. And so ‘taking a knee’ – seen since 2016 as a sporting protest by Black players in the USA during the pre-match National Anthem – became a gesture of repentance and solidarity in Britain and Europe, amongst groups as disparate as football teams and cathedral clergy, Metropolitan police officers (even in Downing Street!), and village green demonstrators. It remains to be seen whether or not the revulsion at racism at all levels, from under-expectations of Black school students to discrimination in employment or promotion, poorer outcomes in healthcare to straightforward attacks and abuse in the street or the media, will translate into a genuine change of heart and practice.

On the subject of racism, Edward Cardale combines personal reminiscence of his student days in the hotbed of USA protest politics of the 1970s with an analysis of how Christianity – and in particular, the radical theology of Union Theological Seminary, New York – influenced the Civil Rights and similar movements, and still exerts an influence today.

We are reminded of the varying roles Christianity has played in the ensuing years: from the compassionate but short-lived presidency of Jimmy Carter, through the largely single-issue (abortion) Christian Right, now blended with vaccine scepticism and climate-change denial, to the extraordinary romance between evangelical fundamentalists and Donald Trump. Cardale leaves us with definite signs of hope, now surprisingly focused in the person of Joe Biden. Arguably still the most powerful of world leaders, Biden faces criticism, perhaps even ostracism, from his church, for his principled stand against imposing his religious opinions on others through government policy (the abortion thing again); but his genial demeanour belies a surprisingly steely approach to world affairs, and Cardale wonders if under him, American religion can even now be part of the solution, rather than adding to the problem.

Stuart Elliott takes up the theme of climate-change denial, including from a Christian perspective, in his challenging piece on the urgency of environmental action. Asked to write something about COP26, and the most global issue in the world today, Elliott bucked the temptation merely to encourage world leaders and applaud the efforts of campaigners. He refuses to be dazzled by the glamour of an international summit and lays starkly before us the kind of measures we need to take, both governmentally and personally, to avoid climatic disaster on an utterly irreversible scale. Like an addict realizing the need to change only after recognizing that they have hit rock bottom, we need to see that our ‘glass is empty’ (not half-full of wishful optimism or feeble hope in technology), before we shall be able to turn around our current disastrous trajectory. There is a link between global capitalism and climate breakdown, and Elliott introduces us to some startlingly original readings of scripture to jolt us into a new understanding of our place in the world and the role of the economy, alongside real-life examples of alternative approaches which show that another way is possible. The urgency of success in Glasgow this November cannot be overstated.

Stephen Green examines the ‘dialogue’ between the traditional Western and the Chinese world-views. Like Cardale on the USA and Elliott on the climate crisis, he sees the world-as-we-know-it on the cusp of a profound change. The turnover here is a move away from the belief that the Western, democratic, ambitious, individualistic approach – tempered (at least in modern times) by an understanding of human rights and ideals of fairness and equality within the rule of law – is the one and only, universal and best outcome for human flourishing. In its place comes a recognition that other views of the individual and society may be equally valid and beneficial. Although alternative world-views do appear from time to time in modern Western societies – think of experiments in community or communal living (not forgetting religious communities), self-sufficiency and alternative or circular economics – Green argues that in China we see a vast, industrialised and commercially successful country based on the world-view of Confucianism. This world-view is communitarian rather than individualistic, has a sense of the human place in the cosmos rather than a belief in human ‘exceptionalism’ (to borrow the term often used for American self-understanding!), and sees relationships between people on a group level imposing a sense of duty and obligation ahead of personal rights.

There is fascinating comparison between Chinese and Western (Greek, Jewish, Christian) philosophy, and in case we start to feel out of our depth, Green encouragingly says that neither is more Christian than the other. He finds a common understanding of the creative tension between mercy and righteousness, justice and benevolence, charity and equity – however the core qualities are described – across all traditions.

If all that sounds like a rosy view in light of the Chinese government’s behaviour towards the Uighurs, independent Christians, or citizens of Hong Kong – not to mention the colossal contribution to carbon output of China’s developing cities and consumer culture – Green points out that the Western world-view is equally flawed and badly implemented, and both sides would do well to ‘look in the mirror of their own principles’ to put things right.

Global problems demand the solution of concerted global action; and in the face of all this, the UK Government has reneged on its commitment to spend 7p in every £10 of Gross National Income on overseas aid.

The face and purpose of ‘overseas aid’ (perhaps more correctly, ‘overseas development aid’, ODA) has mutated repeatedly. Colonial powers in the early 20th century used it to provide infrastructure and facilitate the exploitation of raw materials to help their colonies emulate and support their own economic development, whilst the support of rich and powerful nations – from expansionist 19th Europeans to Cold War rivals, to China and America in the present day – subtly or blatantly encourages ideological, trading and military support from emerging players. As we come to recognise our interconnectedness as not just fellow-members of the human race, but as co-tenants of our planetary home, equally vulnerable to emergencies from climate change to pandemics, the notion of ‘global solidarity’ has come to replace the ‘aid’ word. Global learning becomes less of a oneway system, and more of a mutual enterprise.

Before state aid became a thing, Christian missionaries added value to their evangelism with educational and humanitarian projects. All too often this focused on introducing Christianity and trousers to the unsuspecting locals; but Christian missionaries and those they inspired have also championed indigenous rights and promoted nationbuilding – from the Jesuits in Latin America (heroically depicted in the film The Mission) to the Community of the Resurrection’s Anglican Mission in South Africa (nurturing Bishop Trevor Huddleston, schoolboy Desmond Tutu, and the anti-apartheid movement). Another example would be current climate change resilience led by the Methodist Church on islands in the Pacific.1 Aiming to make the Bible available in the vernacular, missionaries studied and translated indigenous languages, generating the unintended consequence of preserving them against eradication by cultural imperialists.

Medical treatment and care have benefitted from missionary work, carried out with sometimes self-sacrificing solidarity. Explorer and linguist Mary Moffat Livingstone (David was often introduced as her husband2 ) was one of many to succumb to malaria in Africa, whilst her contemporary and compatriot Mary Slessor is perhaps the best-known for early work amongst malaria sufferers. Missionaries pioneered vaccination programmes and risked early versions of the jabs on themselves. Fr (now Saint) Joseph Damien, ministering to the Hawaiian leper colony of Molokai in 1884, addressed his flock with the famous words “My fellow lepers”, after contracting the disease himself. Christianity’s record on HIV/AIDS has been mixed, but at least some missionary work has been directed towards overcoming stigma and teaching realistic health and safety practices.

It was a coalition of Christian humanitarian and development agencies which led to the founding, in 1992, of the UK Fairtrade Foundation, followed in 1997 by Fairtrade International. Through linking producers, importers, retailers, consumers and community groups across the world, the Fairtrade mark promotes ethical business development and equitable trading relationships as a sustainable way out of poverty. The Fairtrade scheme isn’t perfect: some operations fall into the same elitist traps as conventional business, with perks of executive dining-rooms and toilets for senior staff; community facilities like schools and clinics may be free of charge only to partners in the Fairtrade scheme, not to the wider population; producers may find accreditation off-puttingly expensive, and inspection regimes may be superficial due to the costs involved. Even Fairtrade cannot create immunity to endemic food insecurity, but it can and does improve productivity, provide a decent return, facilitate access to education, and combat labour exploitation.3 (And after all, who can argue with good works based on coffee and chocolate?)

It was Christian agencies, too, which spear-headed the millennium’s Jubilee 2000 campaign – “the high-water mark of international aid” as one speaker to the Christian Aid AGM in 2017 described it. This was to cancel or reduce the crippling debts of poor countries suffering from ‘structural adjustment’, ie the cancellation of state investment in essential services which the rich world takes for granted, like health and education, after the oil and financial crises of the 1970s.

The figure of 0.7% of GNI, as an allocation to ODA by rich countries, was first mooted by Robert McNamara, Head of the World Bank from 1968-81. Britain adopted it as a pipe-dream under the Labour Government of 1979; but in 2014 Britain led the EU in achieving and enshrining it in law, under the Conservative premiership of David Cameron.

Seven years and one pandemic later, Boris Johnson’s government has scrapped it, on the grounds that the means-related figure was no longer affordable against the demands of rebuilding the economy. Despite vigorous campaigning by charities, churches, opposition and rebel MPs, it has so far proved impossible to overturn the decision, with the latest attempt resulting in conditions for its restoration which have only been met twice in the past 20 years. And despite assurances that women and girls would remain a priority, figures from the (newly re-merged) Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office reveal that girls’ education comes ninth out of the ten spending categories listed.4 (In a gloriously easy sum to work out, from the figures given, this amounts to £10 per pupil, for the 40 million girls they aim to support across 25 countries.)

Inequality, the climate crisis, refugee displacement, racism and unrest will not be improved by cutting support to the poorest, reducing expenditure on health and education worldwide, and putting at risk the infrastructure and co-operation to combat international organised crime. There can be no better example of the urgent need to re-set the moral compass.

The Revd Canon Carol Wardman is based in Cardiff. She is the Bishops’ Adviser for Church and Society, for the Church in Wales. 

 

Notes

  1. https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/5862/wcr-julia-edwards-mar-apr2013.pdf accessed 22.07.2
  2. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Mary_Moffat_Livingstone accessed 22.07.21 3
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211912421000456 accessed 22.07.21
  4. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/uk-official-development-assistance-oda-allocations-2021-to-2022-written-ministerial-statement accessed 25.06.21