Between January and August this year, 100,000 migrants landed on the Italian coast in search of a better life.
Typically they will have raised around £1,000 (a small fortune for every one of them,) to pay for the precarious crossing from Libya, where the UN estimates that thousands of refugees and migrants are held in jails and internment camps, in deplorable conditions. More refugees trek overland from Asia, and yet more reach Europe by commercial airline flights to any one of the major hubs across the continent.
In desperation, they flee their homes in search of work, security and safety. They crowd into accommodation, whole families and more to a single room, and they take work wherever they can find it, regardless of whatever professional qualifications they might have gained in their home countries. Lawyers become factory workers; university lecturers become taxi drivers, nurses become maids and cleaners. They are the have-nots of the world, seeking to grasp the bottom rung of the ladder, in the hope of clambering up and occupying a place in society.
We look at this, and we know it’s wrong, and when we apply the panacea of WWJD? – we realise that what Jesus would do probably looks a lot like what our humanitarian operations are doing: tents and blankets, medicines and food parcels. I am not a Bible scholar, but I think that the only economic solution Jesus ever advocated was the redistribution of wealth. Some countries tried that with Communism, and it didn’t work. Some countries tried to implement Adam Smith’s idea that economic prosperity is generated by the rational self-interest of individuals, but the disastrous result of this policy is that we now see the overwhelming share of wealth being concentrated in a tiny percentage of very rich people.
As Christians, we can salve our conscience about the inequalities of wealth by supporting charitable operations that address the symptoms of these inequalities. And yet, at the same time, we continue to uphold systems that are blatantly unjust. And there’s the rub! We are like doctors, just doling out Paracetamol for a raging fever without diagnosing the cause. Christian society continues to tackle the symptoms, and not the problems.
And it’s not about one policy being better than another. Society has moved beyond the simple trade and agricultural structure of two thousand years ago, and even then, Jesus didn’t set out a preferred economic policy. We now know that economic progress can come through many disciplines.
In Israel the deserts have yielded harvests and small industries have thrived from the effectiveness of socialist communes. In Britain the Industrial Revolution was born out of, and driven by the Protestant work ethics. But neither the idealism of Marxism, nor the theories of Adam Smith, have been able to hold back greed, selfishness and the lust for power.
Both the politicians and the oligarchs like big shiny cars.
Both Communism and Capitalism can be viable models for increasing the living standards of everyone if they are implemented with the over-riding principle of justice. A more accurate phrase would be the over-riding principle of unconditional love. Love is all you really need, and it does make the world go around. Without love, society is infested with the cancer of greed, that polarises rich and poor into extremes of wealth and of poverty that are both equally obscene.
We will not change society by giving alms to the poor; we will not change society by stripping the rich and successful of their wealth. We will only change society by changing the way we operate the economic model. It doesn’t matter whether we choose to be left-wing or right-wing. If we are motivated by selfishness, we will never progress, but if we are motivated by unconditional love, we can change the world.