We are tempted to use the enormous complexity of international economics as an excuse to do nothing.
The 1980s have ushered in the Third Development Decade, but without much optimism. Although during the first two development decades some progress was made in the economic growth of Third World countries, as well as in public health, life expectancy, and literacy, the gap in average per capita income between the rich and poor nations still widened considerably.
According to the World Bank’s 1979 Report on World Poverty “about 800 million people still live in absolute poverty, with incomes too low to ensure adequate nutrition, and without adequate access to essential public services.” The Brandt Commission Report on International Development Issues, published this past February, adds that 17 million children under five die every year, and that in 34 countries more than 80 percent of the people are illiterate. These facts, comments West German ex-chancellor Willy Brandt, constitute “the greatest challenge to mankind for the remainder of the century.”
The call for a “New International Economic Order” was thus issued; it was first formulated in 1973 at the meeting of non-aligned countries in Algiers. It demands radical restructuring of world economy in the interests of developing countries, and expresses their determination to gain economic independence along with the political independence they have recently gained. The UN General Assembly endorsed this in 1974 and published a “Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States.” The NIEO is a plea for more direct aid and credit facilities, the right to regulate multinationals, the removal of trade barriers, and more adequate representation in international decision-making structures like the International Monetary Fund. Little progress has been made to implement these proposals. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Nairobi in 1976 and in Manila in 1979 are regarded by most as disappointing and by some as failures.
How should Christians react to the growing demand from the Third World for economic justice? There are two major biblical principles that should help us to think and feel “Christianly” about it.
The first is the principle of unity. It was Adlai Stevenson in 1965 who likened the earth to a little spaceship in which we travel together, “dependent on its vulnerable supplies of air and soil.” Barbara Ward elaborated the theme in her book Spaceship Earth (1966) and developed it further in Only One Earth (1972). She bemoaned the lack of “any sense of planetary community,” and added that human survival depends on our achieving “an ultimate loyalty to our single, beautiful and vulnerable Planet Earth.”
This is clearly a biblical vision. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). That is, God has created a single people (the human race) and placed us in a single habitat (the planet earth). “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” was his original command (Gen. 1:28). The whole earth was to be developed by the whole people for the common good; all were to share in its God-given resources. This divine purpose has been frustrated by the rise of competitive nations, who have carved up the earth’s surface, and who now jealously guard their part of its fossil fuels and mineral deposits. But we cannot evade our responsibility to the poor on the ground that they belong to other nations and therefore do not concern us. The major point of the parable of the good Samaritan is that true neighbor love ignores racial and national barriers. We Christians should be pioneering the way, by repenting of all selfish nationalism and by developing instead a global perspective. For “the chief new insight of our century,” writes Barbara Ward in her latest book, Progress for a Small Planet (1979), is “the inescapable physical interdependence” of all human beings. We are one people inhabiting one planet. We are our brother’s keeper.
The second biblical truth concerns the principle of equality, which Paul develops in 2 Corinthians 8:8–15. He grounds his appeal for the poor Judaean churches on the theology of the Incarnation—that is, on the gracious renunciation of Christ who, though rich became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (v. 9). It was a renunciation with a view to an equalization. It should be the same with the Corinthians: “your abundance at the present time should supply their want … that there may be equality” (v. 14).
An important qualification is necessary, however. The equality the Bible commends is not a total egalitarianism. It is not a situation in which all of us become identical, receiving identical incomes, living in identical homes, equipped with identical furniture, and wearing identical clothing. Equality is not identity. We know this from the doctrine of creation. For the God who has made us equal in dignity (all sharing his life and bearing his image) has made us unequal in ability (intellectually, physically, and psychologically). The new creation has even increased this disparity, bestowing on us who are “one in Christ Jesus” different spiritual gifts or capacities for service.
How, then, can we put together this biblical unity and diversity, equality and inequality? Perhaps in this way: since all have equal worth, though unequal capacity, we must secure equal opportunity for each to develop his or her particular potential for the glory of God and the good of others. Inequality of privilege must be abolished in favor of equality of opportunity. At present, millions of people made in God’s image are unable to develop their human potential because of illiteracy, hunger, poverty, or disease. It is, therefore, a fundamentally Christian quest to seek for all people equality of opportunity in education (universal education is arguably the principal means to social justice), in trade (equal access to the world’s markets), and in power sharing (representation on the influential world bodies that determine international economic relations.)
We are all tempted to use the enormous complexity of international economics as an excuse to do nothing. Yet this was the sin of Dives. There is no suggestion that Dives was responsible for the poverty of Lazarus either by robbing or by exploiting him. The reason for Dives’s guilt is that he ignored the beggar at his gate and did precisely nothing to relieve his destitution. He acquiesced in a situation of gross economic inequality, which had rendered Lazarus less than fully human and which he could have relieved. The pariah dogs that licked Lazarus’s sores showed more compassion than Dives did. Dives went to hell because of his indifference.
I hope in my next article to make some suggestions as to what we who live in comparative affluence could and should do to help the world’s 800 million destitute people.
John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."
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