Being an extra in a story Jesus told

Photo by redjar

In response to my post Fairtrade: Coffee, Chocolate & Bananas Heather commented:

…it will do nothing to convince the group that I most often encounter: those who don’t believe that what they do could possibly change ‘the system’. That’s the main point I find myself trying to argue with people.

Oh, you silly people! I’ve always tried to change the world, but, since I was three I’ve recognised that usually I have little success. I have a blog, it’s quite popular, I regularly write posts trying to change the world. However, there are nearly 600,000 websites that are visited more often than my blog. Realistically I stand little chance of saving the world :(

Happily I don’t have to. That post is already taken. What I do have to do is to try to change my little corner of the world. If I persuade five of you to change your buying just habits on just one of these three  products: Coffee, Chocolate and Cocoa, or Bananas then at least one family’s life will be changed for the better. If two of you five persuade five others, we have a snowball, and snowballs do change the world…

But, for the moment forget about snowballs, because Jesus told a story that featured a couple of possible world-changers:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  (Luke 10:30-32)

Priests are always trying to make the world a better place, and preaching to change the world is a Levite’s job…

Fairtrade: Coffee, Chocolate & Bananas

Photo by anthony_p_c

Some of you, I hope many, do not need to read this post. Sadly those who flick past will probably be mainly those who DO need to read it :(

When I posted a recipe for some nice Chocolate Muffins (which are actually a sort of moist and juicy cross between muffins and brownies, but that’s another story) on Repentant Carnivores Heather commented suggesting that I should have recommended that people use FairTrade chocolate and cocoa. To my reply that “I just assumed that people would (at least try to) use Fair Trade” she wrote: “Wow! You must move in very different Christian circles from me! I know relatively few Christians who think that such buying decisions have anything to do with their faith (even Christians who are very aware of and concerned about the Majority World)

Fair trade is a Christian issue:

God hates rapaciously greedy oppressors. The prophets and the Old Testament laws had loads to say about the evils of injustice and how God cannot tolerate people who oppress their neighbours. Jesus had some interesting things to say about who our neighbours  might be. Put these together and if our buying in the market (or even supermarket) is done at a price that does not allow the producers to live a decent life we are acting in a manner that God abhors. Whether or not there is any truth in claims that: “God hates fags” it is abundantly clear that God does hate rapaciously greedy oppressors.

The world trade system is rapaciously greedy: Unless it is moderated by consumer choice or government legislation the world trade system in which we operate is rapaciously greedy. (In this post we will ignore legislation, that’s someone else’s business.) Take coffee,  a high proportion of coffee is grown by small farmers,1 they get usually a tiny proportion of the price that the big coffee companies charge for the end product2 these prices hardly cover the cost of production.3 Buying “normally traded” coffee therefore is oppressive and unjust.

For Chocolate and Cocoa the issue is different, there much comes from large plantations, whose owners (Western companies or local elites) make good money, but pay a pittance to their workers, or even if many stories from reputable sources including the US State Department are to be believed use child slaves imported for the work from neighbouring countries. Buying “normal” chocolate products is therefore oppressive and cruel.

For bananas there is a third problem, here most production is from large estates, the monoculture practices of these companies require the use of dangerous chemicals, the companies have often bribed government officials and legislators to ensure that they can continue to expose their workers to these chemicals (and so not lose their commercial edge). Buying “normal” bananas thus endangers the health of the people who worked to grow your banana.

You CAN now (at least in NZ) often find FairTrade coffee at the supermarket – there is no excuse to buy anything else.

You CAN now (at least in NZ) often find cafes that sell FairTrade coffee – there is no excuse to go anywhere else.

FairTrade chocolate and cocoa are less easy to find, a few supermarkets stock them, but often you have to go to a TradeAid shop, or buy online: NZ, or search Google.

Some supermarkets stock fairly traded bananas.

If your supermarket does not stock these products do some Social Media Activism, “social media” is a hot notion among marketers, supermarkets want you to “friend” them on Facebook. Do so. And then post on their wall asking them to stock Fair Trade products. If enough people post on Pak n’ Save’s FB page, they will stock Fair Trade… it’s up to you!

  1. 70% from properties of less than 10Ha. []
  2. Typically less than 10%. []
  3. In 2010 the price was around US$2/pound  according to the International Coffee Organisation. []

Downfall of a dictator, or is Google making us REALLY stupid?

US President Richard Nixon and Mobutu 10 October 1973 (National Archives and Records Administration, 194548 via Wikipedia)

People write books about what turned Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu from a charismatic young man riding a wave of popular support, encouraged along by the guns of his men, into the office of president after his second coup1 into a broken failed dictator at the end hardly even feared. But, though the proximate causes are multiple and complex, the heart of the answer is simple.  Insulation.


Mobutu lived the Life of Riley, or at least of an African despot, he did not mix and mingle, people came to him not he to them. He received only the information that his circle of paid sycophants chose to offer him. Few offered information that would trouble or annoy him. Would you tell a croc that it looked ugly, or a lioness that she needs dentistry?

As a result he was cut off, out of touch. Living in a fantasy world in Gbadolite (his “presidential village” in the back of beyond – though with its own international airport and huge cellars of champagne) or on his boat.

Although Congo/Zaire is a country the size of Western Europe, with few roads that are passable by Landrover, his downfall came almost as fast as his opponents could walk from the border to Kinshasa (1600Kms), in November 1996 his government ordered Tutsis out of Zaire, on May 16th 1997 he was the ex-dictator.

What has this to do with you and me, and Google? Well Google filters its search results, offering each user a prioritised selection according to their interests (and what will win Google most advertising revenue). This is great, if you are interested in Medieval history and not 20th century weaponry a search for “saracen” will not lead to (too much) information about armoured vehicles. But it is a disaster if you want to know what is real and true about the world we live in.

For all our other media are already censored and selected to tell us what we want to hear – TV is renowned for its triviality and superficiality, preferring celebrity scandals to mass starvation any day. Newspapers have their backs to the wall trying to find new revenue streams while fighting tooth and nail to protect the old ones, do you think they can afford the luxury of telling you anything except what you want to hear? So, without the Internet we live in a media bubble as pernicious and dangerous as the one that sheltered Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga.

But if we discover the Internet using a tool like Google, which tailors the results of our searches to our “interests” that tool too has failed us. Our knowledge of what is really happening in our world is a circumscribed and as biased as any tin-pot dictator’s.


  1. After the first he gave power back to the politicians. []

Good news and the recession

Dr Vinoth Ramachandra

At a time when “everyone” is tightening their belts, or having real trouble finding a job, when European nations are near bankruptcy and the people in most less affluent parts of the world have to wonder where the money to pay basic medical expenses will be found, it is “nice” to hear some “good news”.

Apparently just like the bankers whose stupidity caused the recession the top executives of big businesses (major beneficiaries of the largess that governments have had to dole out as they have sought to stem the bleeding) are not being stinted by stingy boards. A recent study (HT: Chuck Jones) shows “that the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million. That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009.”

Now, all of you Materialist Capitalists who believe that unfettered capitalism is the best way to organise society for the good of all (or claim to, for perhaps it is all a “big lie”) can you explain this? How are such obscene salaries “justified” in the face of the European worker on the dole, or the Asian mother who cannot afford the treatment her child needs, or the African parents who can even feed theirs.

So, all you good Atheists (Christians to a man, yet unless the market is your god, to believe that somehow the free flow of capital will make things well is surely an atheist belief) who ran to support The Income of Ralph Norris when Mark Keown posted about that wrong, how will you defend this one?

Meanwhile Vinoth Ramachandra1 is more optimistic, he imagines Christians across the Western World taking to the streets in Direct Democracy like the rather braver Muslims across the Arab world have been doing.

Fat chance, the principalities and powers that rule this age are too good at the bread and circuses routine. As long as the dupes have cheap food (and what does it matter to us if farmers in the rest of the globe get ripped off as long as our supermarket prices stay low) and “reality TV” what chance is there anyone will seriously challenge the powers of this dark world?

  1. His blog describes him thus: “Dr Vinoth Ramachandra was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he also had his secondary schooling. He holds bachelors and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of London. Instead of pursuing an academic career, he returned to Sri Lanka in 1980 and helped to develop a Christian university ministry in that country. In 1987 he was invited to serve as the South Asian Regional Secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).” []

A workman worthy of their wages, or a monstrous blasphemy?

Is he? Or is the heart of Hillsong a monstrous blasphemy?

A few days ago Mark Keown posted on The Income of Ralph Norris which generated lively debate, on Facebook though not on his blog. (Has FaceBook, just as the press is reporting users leaving in droves, ironically taken over from blogs as the locus of in/semi-formal discussion?) What galled Mark, and many others, is a huge salary being paid to a Bank CEO at a time when banks are seen as failing institutions gouging the less well-off to make money for the rich.

There is no debate, from Mark, or his commenters, that the notion of a worker being worthy of their wages is not only biblical but good and right. What is being questioned in that case is the scale of the wages (Tens of millions seems excessive by most people’s standards!) and the nature of the society (for banks do seem to epitomise Western capitalist societies). I’ll quote one line from Mark’s conclusion before moving on to the church:

Jesus said you cannot serve God and money, our culture serves money.

Now to another salary… a student in my prophet’s class pointed this one out. The Hillsong site contains Bobbie’s and My Finances… A letter from Brian Houston. This letter, dated last year1 reveals that Brian and Bobbie Houston earn roughly Au$300,000 plus a few perks like cars and homes and things. Roughly half comes from a trust they set up to manage their ministry activities beyond Hillsong, and roughly half from Hillsong.

The letter seeks to convince its readers that this is right and proper. I’ll again quote a one liner that perhaps sums up what I heard in the tone of Brian’s letter:

We are blessed and I would want the same for anyone else in our position and stage of life.

Is he right? Is this huge salary indeed God’s blessing on a good and faithful servant? Is it what other good and faithful servants at his stage of life who are blessed to pastor huge churches deserve?

Or is this a blasphemy against the Lord Brian Houston claims to proclaim?

I know where I stand, but then my salary is in the top 10% worldwide, and so is that of most2 readers of this blog…

Jesus said you cannot serve God and money, our culture serves money.

  1. So, of course, it may be out of date. []
  2. Except those who have temporarily dropped their earnings to study or for other reasons. []