It is a commonplace to say that, to climb a mountain you take it one step at a time. This is fine until the mountain looks very high, the steps are painful ones and it may just be possible to opt-out and pretend it is not there.
My early involvement in Christian Aid in the mid-1970s involved comparatively easy steps on this mountain. As Christians, we understood we were duty-bound to help out those less fortunate. Our view of these less fortunate invariably included pictures of women and children eking out a living, tilling a barren and unforgiving soil. We were helping them, and we felt good about doing so.
In the intervening decades, the world has become smaller. We have learned so much more about poverty, particularly in emerging nations. Whereas members of my family, who had worked in Colonial Administration in Africa or India in the 1950s would assure me that poverty was a result of indigenous listlessness and idleness, (based on their incomprehensible unwillingness to knock themselves out doing physical labour in the service of the British Crown), these days we know that the world’s economic systems are inequitable because they serve the interests of the world’s dominant nations who designed them. In discovering that our culture and our standard-of-living is a major factor contributing to emerging world poverty, makes that mountain suddenly appear considerably darker and steeper.
The story continues with the realisation that global climate change is the deferred consequence of the nations who underwent an industrial revolution. The very force which consolidated European colonial dominance in the nineteenth century, and the economic superiority of the developed world, is the very same one which carried the seed of what has become climate-change through greenhouse gases. Our culture is not only responsible for inequitable economic rules, we invented human-made climate-change, whose effects now make for catastrophic shifts in weather which disproportionately imperils the livelihoods of emerging nations.
With each successive Christian Aid campaign focus, in the last thirty years, our own cultural soul has become increasingly laid bare, that mountain has begun to look very dark indeed.
Most recently, as technology has enabled the movement of capital beyond the reach of national laws, so the phenomenon of tax avoidance has become a huge factor in our failure to manage the distribution of wealth. When the growing list of super-rich individuals possessing personal fortunes greater than the Gross Domestic Product of many emerging nations, then the morality of our own culture is laid bare and has nowhere to hide.
That mountain now appears to be immense and almost insurmountable, maybe we cannot climb it at all, so why bother? It was easy when charitable giving was about our own beneficence. These days we are being asked to resource the restoration of humans who suffer as a consequence of our own treasured lifestyle, we are being asked to face a truth too hard to bear.
There are always ways of avoiding the issue. In the United Kingdom, the tabloid press represents a whole industry dedicated to presenting us a world in which, all that is wrong is a result of someone else’s incompetence. Tabloids are popular because they will invariably locate the evils of the world somewhere else. The soul fed by a tabloid narrative need not worry about its complicity in anything dark or evil: there is no mountain, it is someone else’s mountain, or the mountain is an illusion.
Global poverty remains a spiritual issue because it makes us look within. It invites us not to be subject to our whim or our need to be indulged or desire to follow fashion. It raises a question about what needs determine our sense of what we can expect from life. Global poverty invites us to ask if we really are masters of our own destiny, with freedom to choose. Or whether we are part of a larger web of life, where everything connects.
Our affluence is not only a corrosive presence in the lives of the impoverished, it also diminishes our own lives, by reducing us to being spoilt, indulged and trivial, in other words, a good deal less than we could be, if only we took time each week to remember the world and our neighbour as gift; the health of the world and our neighbour as inseparable from our own.
Each successive Christian Aid campaign, in my lifetime, has made me more aware both of what I have to power to do, and what I have the potential to become if I heed its call.
Andrew Spurr is Vicar of Evesham in the diocese of Worcester