Monday, January 17, 2005

Tsunami thoughts

Like everyone else I’ve been encouraged by the response in the UK to the horrific tsunami in South East Asia. Peer pressure is usually used with negative connotations, but the past few weeks illustrate its positive aspects. It’s become expected that businesses and websites should collect funds and publish the contact details of the DEC. Between Christmas and New Year that callers were contacting Radio 5 Live to ask how much supermarkets were donating in the crisis. A spokesman from Tesco was hauled onto the programme and held to account. The ‘moral economy’ has been re-emerging for a few years now, but this is another boost as it continues to gather pace.

In the same way, politicians have been assessing the political importance of the public sympathy for the tsunami. For the first time, commentators are arguing there are votes ‘in’ international aid. In fact, there’s been some votes in international aid since the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Local MPs are always willing to meet church groups that are campaigning on aid, because they know that they are likely to vote. However, the government won’t see the tsunami’s political import purely in terms of votes. During the Jubilee 2000 campaign Gordon Brown urged campaigners to keep the pressure on him to act. Public pressure is one way to create political capital for politicians with the right ideas, but who need to clear ‘blockages’ of vested interest in the system. Hence the chancellor’s and the UN’s recent attempts to divert some of the political capital from public sympathy over the tsunami to assist in the Aids, debt and trade problems of Africa.

I’m not convinced this will work, because I think one of the reasons (although not the main one) that the British public were so generous in response to the tsunami is because no one was to blame. Debt, unfair trade and poverty in Africa are man-made problems. Their root causes lie with exploitation by the west of these nations and our consciences are touched with guilt at the thought. Even disasters caused by droughts or floods leave a niggling feeling of doubt in our minds as the spectre of man-made pollution and global warming springs to mind. If it’s our fault something is happening responding requires a change of behaviour on our part to restore justice. The politics is messy and repentance is costly. The tsunami gave the opportunity for grief, generosity and empathy unbridled by guilt.

Such emotions are God-given. Responding in this way makes us, as a nation, more like God wants us to be. The church needs to find ways of fostering and encouraging this into gifts that we practice regularly in the UK. In a couple of weeks the tsunami and it’s devestating aftermath with disappear from our screens. What ways can the church find of keeping interest alive, of providing a valid outlet and opportunity for people’s interest and feelings? I don’t yet have answers to that question, although the possibility of churches initiating links with churches or other faith groups in affected areas springs to mind. If churches across a UK town had the courage and vision to make links with a town in say, Sri Lanka over time it should be possible to draw in schools, businesses and local Councils into a connection that could be fruitful for all involved.


  1. Welcome to the land of blog mate. Loved the 2 post already- good points made on the whole jerry thing. look forward to making regular visits to your new blog.

  2. Hiya Jon
    nice to see the virtual-you!

    Are you suggesting that it is only churches responsibility to foster this generosity? or that it is only churches who can truly foster it for effective transformation? Both positions i would personally argue against. Would be interested to hear your response.

  3. Mark,
    Thanks for the comment. My thinking isn’t developed enough to answer your second question, hence the elliptical final sentence. But three places I’m starting from:

    1) I’m actively involved in a church and therefore when I think of ideas I tend to think about how they might grow from a church context. This doesn’t mean that ideas/projects can’t grow successfully out of other groups/organisations, but that my initial ‘prism’ is likely to be the church.

    2) Faith groups, including church are one ‘sector’ of civil society. Others include businesses, community groups, the voluntary sector and trade unions. These groups where association is voluntary need to play a more prominent role in UK society than they do at the moment. One local Labour politician said: ‘when the voluntary sector do things well they can do things a lot better than the state and statutory agencies. When they do them badly they can do them a lot worse than statutory agencies.’ We need to invest in, equip and encourage all civil society organisations and people within them to ensure that the quality and quantity of civil society in the UK increases. (ways to do this belong in another post!)

    3) Churches have the potential to be one of the best long term agents for transformation in our society. They are clearly not the only agents for change – good governance is important, as are good schools, outward looking families and responsible small businesses. People should be the best school teachers, civil servants, businessmen/women that they can be. God equips people for different roles within society through which they can honour Him.
    However, most churches, even the inward looking and exclusive view seeking God, relationship building, community and learning as important and attempt to practice them. These are great foundation stones for transformation, although many churches fail to build on them.

    So, in answer to your first question it is not only churches responsibility to foster this generosity. Other organisations/people can foster generosity to foster transformation. In answer to your second question, I don’t know what ‘true’ transformation is, but I think society needs a healthy, outward-looking church to begin to find out.