Sunday, June 12, 2005

In between rock concerts, the lead singer of U2 and poverty activist Bono managed to swing by Washington, press the flesh of star-struck senators and even earn the praise of President Bush, ahead of the next G8 meeting.

However, the president will not find much warmth in Scotland when he arrives for the meeting next month, because Bono and assorted rock stars, some in much need of reviving their ailingcareers,have arranged a march to protest American stinginess and the need for more aid to Africa. Such protests are a heady concoction of idealism, youth, middle-classrebellion, morality and religion.

Politicians are caught between a rock star and a hard place because the cause of world poverty is such a noble one. Unfortunately, it is also an economic problem that will only be solved by good economics, rooting out the prevalent corruption in the continent and stopping tribal and civil warfare. This leaves politicians who see reality looking like Scrooge on Christmas Eve, losing the moral high ground to the rock stars and protesters wearing their hearts on their designer sleeves.

The crowd that will gather will protest global capitalism, yet they themselves are well-heeled protesters in branded clothes, listening to iPods, watching rock stars with wealth beyond their wildest dreams. These are protesters who are what they protest. Aside from music and merchandise sales, celebrities like Bono earn huge contracts from advertising deals with companies like Apple, urging us to live the technological good life. Such celebrities are the chief executive officers of multimillion-dollar-a-year corporations like U2 Inc. They are what they protest.

Those attending the march on G8 show themselves to be consumers of poverty, purchasing the feel-good factor of thinking they have done something about it. The powerful at the G8 meetings are well aware of poverty. There is an arrogance in assuming they are not, an arrogance that is often the hallmark of celebrities used to doors being opened for them. The leaders of G8 are to weigh up their national wants with the world’s wants. At the heart of this protest is debt cancellation, along with increased aid, which will no doubt still be channeled into bribes and arms rather than food and health. Which is why the American answer to this is somewhat more measured than what the Britpack Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown, who Bono calls the Lennon & McCartney of poverty, would like.

Campaigners from many secular and church groups seemed to have convinced governments around the world, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to forgive the debts of poor nations, but want less stringent conditions. This has left everyone to argue about what form the debt cancellation should take, and what conditions should or should not be attached. The early campaigners for debt relief came out of the Christian Jubilee 2000 protest movement, which used the text from the Book of Leviticus concerning the year of Jubilee, thus claiming religious legitimacy for this policy option.

Given the moral dimension of this emotional debate, this religious appeal should not go unexamined. Jesus firmly set forgiveness within the context of our broken relationship with God, not as a negotiation between persons or nations, which is what the debt-relief program amounts-to. Our sinful nature is a corruption of what was God-given, and likewise corruption lies at the heart of much of the problem in the developing world: economic corruption and warfare. The fear has to be that while cancellation of debt will wipe the slate clean, this will only lead to a tabula rasa for a new economic debacle, because these root causes are left relatively undisturbed.

The debate has become more secularized, and so the terms have changed subtly from forgiveness to cancellation of debts, and as the year 2000 came and went “Jubilee 2000” became “Drop the Debt!” Sadly, the debt-forgiveness campaign is a materialistic reading of the Gospel, just as much as if one were to advance a get-rich-quick scheme based on a biblical work ethic.

Certainly biblical teaching is unequivocal in calling us to have concern for the poor and hungry, but it is not a guidebook to economic policy-making.

The linking of biblical teaching in such a way undermines the real power of the Gospel, the power to change people’s lives, who will in turn make real change happen on the basis of their faith in an uncertain, pluralistic and globalized economic world.

David Cowan is a member of the board of advisors of Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.

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