Good News to our City: Economic Inequality

On the radio station I used to listen to growing up – Friday was “old skool” day.  So I thought I might continue that trend for a while (maybe even sporadically) and on an “old skool” Friday I will re-post an old post of mine that I think might still have some value.  So if you have read this before maybe ask yourself – has anything changed?  If this is new to you, I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions.

Good News to our City: Economic Inequality

Let us begin with a statement of fact – whites (including Christians) are (present tense intended) the benefactors of the apartheid system.  Yes, we all know that “all that discrimination” is in the past and that now we are all even (?!)  But to imagine that 40 years of institutionalized (that is even to ignore the fact that racial discrimination was crippling black people long before apartheid was on the statute books) can simply disappear overnight and that previous privileged and disadvantages are no longer valid is simply naive or ungodly.

Let us try an analogy: It is as if we whites and blacks have been playing a game of football and for the first half all the black players have one arm and one leg tied behind their back.  Predictably the score at half time is 28-0.  At half time the whites realize the error of their ways (best case motives allowed) and untie the blacks for the second half but do nothing about the score.  And when the black players, understandably, protest – the white response is anger, whilst pointing out the only now even (?) playing field.

That is Cape Town/South Africa today, we may be 14 years into our new democracy but whites have conveniently forgotten that blacks started this era of democracy 28-0 behind. In order for South Africa to work towards significant economic equality white people have to be prepared to give something up.  The question for Christians in Cape Town today is – where does the Kingdom of God fit into all of this?

Martin Luther once said: “If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.” (quoted in Ron Sider p52).

If you have any doubt as to whether this is one of the issues of our time here are some statistics:

According to the 2007 statistics on the City of Cape Town website results:

  • Unemployment in Cape Town is at 16,9% (2007)
  • 58.4% of people aged 20+ have an education level less  than grade 12. (2007) whilst a further 23,6% have Grade 12 as their highest education level.  Leaving only 16,8% of people aged 20+ with a tertiary qualification.
  • 8.4% of people 20+ have less than Grade 5 (2007)
  • 38.8% of households are living below the poverty line (2005)
  • 6.7% of households have no access to safe drinking water (2007), and 5.8%  no access to adequate sanitation (2007) and 2.8% no access to electricity for lighting (2007)
  • 108 889 – informal dwellings were serviced by the city in 2007 (this obviously does not include those that were not serviced)

According to the 2004 Study on Informal settlements:

  • Amongst those living in informal settlements only 16% have Grade 12 and this drops to as low as 2% among the unemployed.
  • 25% of those living in informal settlements are regarded as functionally illiterate.
  • 98% of these were Xhosa speaking with 92% having been born in the Eastern Cape.
  • 39,5% of adult residents were unemployed (34% men and 66% women)
  • 52% of the unemployed had never worked in paid jobs before
  • Average household income was R1315 per month (inclusive of state grants received by 41% of households). At the time of the survey the Household Subsistence Level was R1900.  More than 80% of households fell below this level.
  • 54% of households spoke of times when they had no food for the day.  Whilst 61% did not always have enough to eat.
  • On average 30 people were sharing one toilet cubicle
  • 83% of residents experienced serious problems with flooding around or in their shacks.

According to the Informal Dwelling Count for Cape Town 1993 – 2005 (June 2006),

  • The city had a backlog of housing of 260 000.
  • The 50 informal settlements in 1993 had grown to over 200 by 2005.  Khayalitsha for instance has a total of 13 informal settlements containing  42 170 shacks.  And Philippi with a total of 23 informal settlements containing 15114 shacks.
  • Since 1993 informal dwellings have grown from 28 300 to 98 031 in 2005.
  • Impacting the lives of approximately 400 000 people, almost 13% of the Cape Town population.

According to the City of Cape Town’s Employment Status of Potential Labour Force (those aged 15-64):

  • The total unemployment levels in Cape Town are 19,4%
  • Of those Black Africans have a 34,8% (225473 people) unemployment rate, comprising 31% of the population
  • Coloureds have a  15,8% (147250 people) unemployment rate, comprising 48,13% of the population
  • Asians and Indians a  7,1 % (2072 people)  unemployment rate comprising 1,43% of the population
  • And Whites a 3,1 %  (11987 people) unemployment rate comprising 18,75% of the population

Thoughts:

1. In SA this is largely a black-white issue and this is how it is at best perceived and at worst intended.  We cannot get away from the reality that white people including Christians are the major beneficiaries of apartheid.  If we are serious about racial reconciliation (see part 1 of this series) then we must ask questions about an economic system that entrenches the divide not only between rich and poor, but often also between white and black.  If the gospel is to be good news that works to our city then it must be seen to overcoming these divides, uplifting the poor, changing the priorities of the wealthy etc.

2. White Christians (this is a generalization) need to give up their love affair with Western capitalism.  Out of the West and particularly the United States comes a form of Christianity which is often too closely wed to capitalism. Capitalism as an economic system is about the maximum profit for the minimum expenses.  As Christians in business, running businesses, endorsing and using businesses, this “raw capitalism” is most often at odds with the people-centred, looking after the vulnerable, type economics of the Bible.

We have to practice and endorse and look to encourage whatever form of economic system (in one sense that is irrelevant) best looks after “the poor and the widows”, the vulnerable, those who are without means and resources.  Whatever system best allows the greatest number of people to rise above poverty, unemployment, unsanitary living conditions, lack of access to proper healthcare and education is the system/policy/party which we ought to be endorsing.

The sad reality is that most of our decision-making and values are played out not by reading the for instance the Old Testament prophets but by the values which we inherit and endorse as those who are the (continuing) beneficiaries of an unjust economic system.  White Christians fail to critique or even see anything wrong with our capitalist economy mainly because we are the beneficiaries and propagators of an unjust system which continues to make the (white) rich richer and the (black) poor poorer

3. White Christians need to consider their living standards and priorities in the light not of first world countries but in light of Africa.  In a city where hundreds of our brothers (if we limit it to Christians alone for the point of illustration) regularly go to bed hungry how is it that rich Christians so easily justify the luxury motors, holiday homes, bigger and better homes, gadgets, television screens etc?  How is it that rich Christians have wardrobes full of clothes they never wear whilst their brothers and sisters have no shoes or warm top?

How can it be that those who claim to disciples of  Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom of God, have the same lifestyle as unbelievers just without the smoking, sex and foul language?  How is it that whilst are values are supposedly radically different yet our lifestyles are exactly the same?

4. Reformed theology has traditionally  had a defective theology of the Kingdom: we are obsessed with saving souls for heaven,whilst God is busy calling us to join with him in reconciling all things to himself.   While we are busy preaching a message which inadvertently has lowered expectations of life now (what is called under-realized eschatology), God is calling us to live now as citizens of his Kingdom of justice, peace, mercy, compassion, and self-denial.  We are exclusively concerned with personal holiness while God is calling us to lay down our rights, give away our excess, feed the poor and join with God in demonstrating the in-breaking effects of the new life of the resurrection now.

“For the first Christians, the ultimate ‘salvation’ was all about God’s new world; and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people, or being rescued from shipwreck, or whatever, was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate ‘salvation’, that healing transformation of space, time and matter.   The future rescue which God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present.  We are saved, not as souls, but as wholes.” Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope p211

5. As I alluded to earlier reformed theology has traditionally had a deficient theology of the church.  We are all about me and my personal salvation.  At best church is a collection of individuals who share common interests and values and who help each other out occasionally.  The biblical picture has at the centre of God’s working, not the individual but the people of God, the church.  We need a far more communal identity than we often practice.  The biblical picture is that of a family, a body, a building, a people belonging to one another, one new humanity.

A more biblical picture of church cannot accept a situation where we buy a new car, or a bigger house, or more shoes whilst our brothers and sisters go to bed hungry or homeless – and we don’t even care enough to pause and consider what we are doing!   “Our understanding of the poor, it seems reveals a lot about our understanding of God’s grace.” Tim Chester p29

6. This is not a call to give money to poor people.  That may come in time but what white and black, rich and poor need more than anything else in South Africa and Cape Town today is to meet and connect with one another.  As Christians we have to stop giving money to appeals or projects (to ease our guilty conscience) and we need to start giving ourselves.  Ask yourself this question, where would you find Jesus if he was living in Cape Town today?  Among the poor, in the townships, on the gang-ravaged Cape Flats, among the HIV positive crisis?  Where do you think he is calling you to be today?

Stop fearing the consequences. Stop worrying about the future.  Stop thinking about all the logical reasons why you should maintain your comfortable middle-class white bubble.  If you know where Jesus is calling you then why aren’t you following?  That is the only question worth answering!

“It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are all invited to devote our lives to the subversive cause of the mustard seed that is destined to redeem a people and transform a world.” Tom Sine: Mustard Seed vs McWorld p27

 

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9 thoughts on “Good News to our City: Economic Inequality

  1. Pingback: I am the 319 576 092 richest person in the world! « a missional life

  2. Mary

    Hi

    Thank you for your concern in this post. You make some good points regarding how we spend our money and our time and what this reveals about our priorities.

    However, I see that you make the common mistake of conflating capitalism and consumerism. Capitalism is not the problem. In fact, if you want to know “(w)hatever system best allows the greatest number of people to rise above poverty, unemployment, unsanitary living conditions, lack of access to proper healthcare and education”, it’s capitalism.

    I recommend reading the writings of Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams – neither of whom is white – for a better understanding of the subject.

    Regards,
    Mary

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    1. John Post author

      Mary, thanks for the recommended reading. I am, however, not convinced that I have conflated capitalism and consumerism. I would be interested to hear you back up your point. And yes I agree with you that capitalism is not the problem it is the heart of man that is the problem.

      In any case the point I was attempting to make is that we often have an unquestioned acceptance of capitalism and it’s out-workings. I suspect that if we questioned some of our assumptions against the character of God and his Kingdom we may find capitalism (and every other system to be fair) lacking in its motives, goal and fruit. I am not anti-capitalist or pro – any other system – I honestly do not know enough about economics to be fair. However I suspect that some of our lack of counter-cultural Kingdom ethos in economics is because we unthinkingly accept both capitalism and consumerism, and hence do not hear the radical call of biblical “economics”, which because it is not capitalism must at least at some points challenge the presuppositions of capitalism.

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      1. Mary

        Hi John. Thanks for the reply.

        Glad to hear that we agree that the human heart is the problem.

        Of course there are some economic systems which are more in accordance with biblical principles than others. Capitalism is more in accordance with biblical principles than the alternatives. To be sure, I’m not advocating laissez faire capitalism. There does need to be some regulation. But studies have shown that nations that move to a capitalist model enjoy much higher standards of living across the board, lower infant mortality rates, higher average life expectancies, etc. Socialism involves a form of forced “giving” which is unbiblical (really stealing from A to give to B to make oneself feel generous) and which merely brings people down instead of lifting them up. On the other hand, I recommend looking at what has been achieved in countries such as Chile which has moved to a capitalist model and has seen phenomenal growth and a dramatic improvement in the standard of living.

        I think that in the church (particularly in SA) there is far more likely to be an unquestioned acceptance of socialism as “what Jesus would advocate”, when He most certainly would not. Jesus suggested we give our own money, not others’ money to the poor, for example. In many respects, the church has abdicated its mandate to the government.

        It’s true that capitalism ON ITS OWN is going to be lacking. But it’s the fairest, most biblically compatible base model we’ve got, on top of which we can apply Christian principles of love and generosity.

        I think Christians need to think about these things far more deeply. Having studied economics myself, and subsequently having come across writers who make the connection between faith and economics I’d love to see Christians apply themselves in this area.

        I really do recommend Thomas Sowell (not a Christian, from what I can tell, but certainly not anti Christian). A lot of his material is available for free at http://tsowell.com/.

        From a Christian perspective, I recommend Jay Wesley Richards’ “Money, Greed and God”, as well as Wayne Grudem’s “Politics – According to the Bible”, which are both excellent books.

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    1. John Post author

      No offence but that logic is as faulty as calling me sexist because I call people men and women. Or a homophobe because I use the language of gay and straight. Or an anti-Semite because I speak of Jews and Gentiles. Racism is not about the words you use but about the attitudes you carry towards others – these of course work out in your use of words – but to call someone racist with no context for his word usage is to make some dangerous assumptions.

      In my country those words were used to exclude and oppress people with differing pigmentation and cultural background. You may choose to ignore this reality and simply “wipe the slate clean” but in South Africa to ignore the realities of a race- dominated past and act like everyone is now suddenly equal is not racist it is irresponsible.

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  3. John Post author

    Mary,
    I think I need to concede defeat in my knowledge of economics 🙂 I suspect that your original intention in commenting may have been for me to recognise my ignorance, and I agree that perhaps I speak from emotion and perception rather than a good grasp of economics.

    I still stand by most of what I have said and the heart of the post. But that point no doubt weakens the entire post. So while I do not think I confuse capitalism and consumerism, I do think that perhaps the entire post could be stronger if I rework that point to speak about consumerism (it would not be a big jump) rather than capitalism it may even strengthen the argument. And reserve my thoughts/comments on capitalism, in particular, until I have done some more research.

    Thanks again for the resource suggestions. I love your comment that Christians have abdicated their responsibility to government and I wholeheartedly agree. But surely part of our responsibility as good citizens is to provide good government and hold government accountable? And if that is true then some of your comments about socialism being unbiblical and stealing from others are unfair? The government’s money is my money, and if I (and a whole lot of other citizens) ask the government to use it to benefit others rather than myself – how is that unbiblical?

    I suppose my take on SA is we have a consumerist (?) drive that loves capitalism when it benefits me (when I am getting ahead!) and loves socialism when I am not (the government should give me). But driving it all is me and mine getting ahead…

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    1. Mary

      Hi John

      Thank you for your thoughtful and gracious reply. 🙂

      Regarding the responsibility of government, I agree that it is part of our responsibility to provide good government and to hold government accountable. I’m not sure I see how you make the link between that and a perception of my being unfair in my criticism of socialism. We need to consider what roles should be attributed to government. I do think that when it comes to thinks like national security and roads, this needs to be dealt with by government. Otherwise we end up with what is termed by economists the “tragedy of the commons”. But I don’t think that charitable giving is the role of government. It’s only charitable if we voluntarily give what is our own, not if we mandate that the government gives what belongs to others (and in many cases today, what belongs to future generations yet to be born, since many governments are racking up increasing debt). Governments are not going to be able to please everybody, so already some choice is taken away from the individual as to how those funds are allocated. Governments are usually going to be inefficient as compared to private agencies (since the government is a monopoly and monopolies are by nature not driven by market forces to efficiency). Moreover, since they are not Christian in focus, they’ll subsidize problematic behaviours (see the riots in the UK for how that turns out) and they’ll give to causes I find deeply objectionable. For example, it really bothers me that my taxes are used to pay for abortions. I’d rather they burn my money than use it for such purposes. There are a thousand better ways for me to allocate the money. In light of this, why ask the government to administer funds for us which we can better allocate ourselves? I would submit that it is negligent and that we actually do the poor a disservice by our laziness.

      I do agree with your heart on the matter, which I think is a concern with the manner in which Christians have bought into consumerism/materialism and an underlying selfish mindset, and I do agree that your post would be stronger with such a focus.

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      1. John Post author

        Mary,

        Again I plead my economics ignorance so while I perhaps cannot argue with you on those grounds. And while your reasoning is sound and mostly I would agree with it. There is an unease that perhaps I can not adequately articulate in economic terms with the separation between individuals and government. While I am not advocating we view SA as a theocracy I do think there ought to be more emphasis placed on both our private giving (as you well articulate) and our corporate responsibility. The Bible does not allow such an easy distinction in our actions. I agree with you it is definitely a both and situation. To expect government to do it all is irresponsible. However to expect the government to not have any responsibility is equally irresponsible.

        Because we live in a democracy – we elect our government – so if we elect a government that has a pro-poor bias, and that we (so myself and the majority of my fellow citizens) elect on that basis and expect them to give our money in responsible ways to the poor (all of this conveniently excludes the sinful hearts of men I know) then it can hardly be said that the government gives what belongs to others. That is as you pointed out a flaw in democracy that it cannot please everyone but it can please most of us. So rather than only be upset about where democracy works against our values but where we can we could also make it work for our values surely? Is my ignorance showing? 🙂

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