Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for August 2011

Both the British and German treasuries have struck deals this month with the Swiss government to tax their citizens’ hidden accounts in Switzerland’s globally harmful banking system. However, the identities of these account holders will not be disclosed, allowing Swiss bankers to maintain their bizarre boasts of “privacy” and “confidentiality”. The agreement with Germany sees the latter accepting a paltry $2.8 billion from the Swiss banks said to be holding an estimated $276 billion of Germans’ undeclared wealth. The Swiss authorities will in future tax Germans at the rate of 26 per cent on their interest from their accounts and hand that money over to the German government. Similarly with UK citizens.

The vast majority of nations whose public wealth is siphoned off to tax havens by their political masters, drug barons and business elites have no such bargaining powers. The Tax Justice Network and Christian Aid have been advocating for years an end to banking secrecy in offshore tax havens such as Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Cayman Islands and Bahamas. The unilateral German and British actions have undermined that painstaking work. The Tax Justice Network estimates assets held offshore total $11.5 trillion– which if taxed could yield revenues in excess of $225 billion. But leave aside taxation; these havens are vast pools of illicit funds and make the fight against corruption, money-laundering and international crime so much harder.

We are treated to the spectacle of European and American governments thrown into a panic over their budget deficits and taking out their fears on their citizens who are least responsible for the problem: the urban poor and the lower middle-classes who are being subjected to crippling cuts in health care,  education and the provision of public services. The super-rich are allowed to get away with tax evasion on a gigantic scale; and immediately cry “foul” if the rulers whose palms they grease even suggest a rise in taxes. (Warren Buffet is a rare exception to this rule!).

I am often reminded of the late John Kenneth Galbraith’s memorable words, written back in 1977: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged also feel that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich. So it was in the Ancien Regime when reform from the top became impossible, revolution from the bottom became inevitable.”

How refreshing to turn to Professor Zgymunt Bauman’s recent book, suggestively titled Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age.  Bauman is one of the most original and insightful social thinkers of our time. Even at the age of eighty five his output is prolific and his prose still clear, trenchant and thought-provoking. He lives in his retirement near Bradford, a city in the north of England that has repeatedly witnessed bouts of rioting and inter-ethnic violence. Writing well before the most recent spate of riots in London and other English cities, Bauman notes that in Bradford 40 per cent of youngsters live in families without a single person who has a regular job, and one in ten young people already have police records. Such a statistical correlation, he points out, “does not in itself justify the reclassification of poverty as a criminal problem; if anything, it underlines the need to treat juvenile delinquency as a social problem.” (NB: David Cameron and others of the ruling class in Britain were quick to label the recent acts of arson and looting as a “law and order problem”, as if this settled the matter). For Bauman, there are social roots which lie “in a combination of the consumerist life philosophy propagated and instilled under the pressure of a consumer-oriented economy and politics, the fast shrinking of life-chances available to the poor, and the absence for a steadily widening segment of the population of realistic prospects of escaping poverty in a way that is socially approved and assured.”

The term “collateral damage” has recently been added to the vocabulary of military forces to refer to the unplanned, unintended (but not necessarily, unanticipated) effects of armed interventions, effects that are damaging, harmful, and costly in human terms. Many military commanders retrospectively exonerate themselves by saying that while such risks were noted they were worth taking, because one “cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”. What is glossed over in such accounts is someone’s usurped power to decide which are the eggs to be broken and who gets to savour the omelette (certainly not the broken eggs). Thinking in terms of collateral damage tacitly assumes an already existing inequality in people’s rights and life chances. The situation of youth in Bradford, Bauman suggests, “is a collateral casualty of profit-driven, uncoordinated and uncontrolled globalization.”

The richest 10 per cent of adults worldwide own 85 per cent of global household wealth, with the richest 2 per cent among them capturing more than half that wealth. London is the most unequal city in the world. The financial brokers, hedge fund managers and corporate Fat Cats routinely pilfer and pillage on a scale that dwarfs whatever happened recently in English cities. But they are never hauled before magistrates’ courts for summary sentencing. Nor are they even publicly rebuked. Until, of course, like a certain media tycoon, they fall out of favour with their political cronies.

Karin and I are in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport, on our way home to Colombo.  We have spent the past fortnight in London and Poland, at the Jagiellonian university of Krakow, one of the oldest universities in the world, where the quadrennial IFES World Assembly was held. The latter brought together around 600 student leaders, staff and Board members of about 120 national movements affiliated to IFES (sadly, many of the Francophone African delegates were refused visas to Europe).

We also had the privilege of attending John Stott’s funeral in London today. News of his death, at the ripe old age of 90, was announced at the beginning of the Assembly; which was wonderfully  appropriate, given that IFES enjoyed a very close relationship with him ever since its formation in 1946 and he was one of our greatest advocates. It enabled us to celebrate his memory collectively.

Much was said of Stott’s humility and integrity, both at the World Assembly and at his funeral. He was one of those rare Christian leaders who was willing to change his mind and admit that he had done so. Much of this thinking about the Gospel and Christian mission was challenged by his visits to the Two-Third world and his exposure to Two-Third World Christian leaders and their theologies. He actually listened to us, unlike so many others who only came to propagate their views. Commitment to the poor, and a growing engagement with social and political ethics,  came to the fore in his later writings, much to the consternation of his conservative friends.

In a plenary Bible reflection that I gave at the IFES assembly, I mentioned how, when Stott invited me to give the London Lectures of 1998 (lectures which eventually became my book Faiths in Conflict?), he urged me to “Please say something that will disturb and challenge us evangelical Christians. We need to see our blind-spots.” Here was a 77-year old man wanting to be taught by a non-Westerner roughly half his age. How different from other British church leaders I knew!

The difference emerged even during the World Assembly (which was one of the best I have experienced- though I confess that being on the program planning team may have biased my judgment!). My Bible reflections and talks are routinely criticised by some people, usually from older Western student movements, but this time the response was almost unanimously appreciative. But some did express their concern that, in preaching from Mark 12:28-34 and stressing Jesus’ summary of God’s requirements (loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself) I neglected to emphasise justification by grace. I was preaching “law and not Gospel” as one person from a Lutheran background put it.

I find it difficult to keep cool in the presence of such people who seem to read every passage of scripture through a lens comprising a doctrinal system, thereby deflecting the stark moral challenge of the text. Perhaps that is my own “blind spot”, and why it is so important to read scripture with people of different persuasions and backgrounds. But the emphasis on faith in the Western evangelical traditions, as opposed to obedience to Jesus’ actual teachings, has led to terrible acts (from Luther’s rants against the Jews to twentieth-century defences of apartheid and discrimination against blacks and women) which have prevented many thoughtful, morally sensitive men and women from turning to Christ.

Stanley Jones was an American Methodist missionary-scholar who spent most of his life in India and was a personal friend of Mahatma Gandhi. After his death in 1948, Jones wrote an “interpretation” of Gandhi for Christians. I quote from that book: “Mahatma Gandhi did not see in the Cross what the convinced Christian sees, namely, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself and that He was bearing our sins in His body on the Tree. Gandhi did not see that. But what he did see, namely, that you can take on yourself suffering, and not give it, and thus conquer the heart of another – that he did see in the Cross and that he put into practice and put into practice on a national scale. The difference, then, is this: we as Christians saw more in the Cross than Gandhi and put it into operation less; Gandhi saw less in the Cross than we and put it into practice more. We left the Cross a doctrine, Gandhi left it a deed.”

We should neither pay lip-service to John Stott nor idolize him. Perhaps the best way to honour him would be to imitate his integrity and teachability.



August 2011