Haiti's debts and the USA's benefit

This morning I received an e-mail from Avaaz.org about a new campaign to drop Haiti’s debt, which has already attracted nearly 300,000 signatures, including mine. I was horrified to read (in the e-mail, the same text is in the “Tell Your Friends” box at the web page) that

even as aid flows in to Haiti’s desperate communities, money is flowing out to pay off the country’s crushing debt — over $1 billion in unfair debt racked up years ago by unscrupulous lenders and governments.

There  was also interesting background which I had not been aware of:

After Haitian slaves rose up and won their independence in 1804, France demanded billions in reparations — launching a spiral of poverty and unjust debt that has lasted two centuries.

I decided to look into this in more depth.

In 1791, following the French Revolution, the slaves of France’s Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue rebelled against their white masters and seized control of a large part of the territory. Partly in response, in 1794 the French National Convention abolished slavery in all French colonies (it was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833), and eventually an uneasy peace was restored to Saint-Domingue. In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte, now ruler or France, reimposed slavery in some colonies, but not in Saint-Domingue. However, this move prompted a new rebellion there which the French government was unable to put down. So when in 1804 the colony gained its independence and took the name Haiti, despite what is often claimed this was not technically the result of a slave rebellion.

Saint-Domingue, with an area of 27,750 square kilometres, had been only a tiny part, much less than 1%, of the French possessions in the Americas. Within living memory France had claimed almost half of North America, known as New France. The southern half of this area was called Louisiana. But in 1763 the French were forced to cede all of New France. The northern part, Canada, became British. Louisiana east of the Mississippi also came under British control before passing to the United States in 1783. Spain took the part west of the Mississippi, as well as New Orleans.

Bonaparte (who crowned himself the Emperor Napoleon in 1804) dreamed of a new French empire in the Americas. So in 1800 he imposed a treaty on Spain by which the part of Louisiana which had been under Spanish control since 1763 was returned to France. However, Bonaparte never took effective control of this territory. And by 1803, facing the loss of Saint-Domingue and a renewed war with Great Britain, he gave up his plans for a French empire in the Americas.

So, when in that year the young United States sent negotiators to Paris seeking to buy the city of New Orleans, Napoleon offered to sell not just the city but the whole of his newly regained territory, Louisiana west of the Mississippi, which consisted of more than 2 million km² of mostly good agricultural land. The Americans quickly agreed to this purchase, for a price of 78 million francs or $15 million, that is, “less than three cents per acre ($7.40 per km²)”. According to Wikipedia,

The purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, comprises around 23% of current U.S. territory. …

Napoleon Bonaparte, upon completion of the agreement, stated, “This accession of territory affirms forever the power of the United States …”

Indeed it did, if not “forever” at least up to 2010. This area, sold to the USA at a bargain price for political reasons, has become the breadbasket of the world and a major driving force of US economic strength over the last 200 years.

(Of course all this land, Haiti as well, had earlier been seized with little or no compensation from its Native American inhabitants. But that’s another story.)

Contrast the French response to Haiti. This tiny former colony gained its independence in 1804, but France did not at first recognise this independence. Again according to Wikipedia,

In July 1825, King Charles X of France sent a fleet of fourteen vessels and thousands of troops to reconquer the island. Under pressure, President Boyer [of Haiti] agreed to a treaty by which France formally recognized the independence of the nation in exchange for a payment of 150 million francs (the sum was reduced in 1838 to 90 million francs) – an indemnity for profits lost from the slave trade.

In other words, the Haitians were asked to pay twice as much for the freedom of their tiny mountainous republic than the USA was asked to pay for the Louisiana Purchase, of an area 77 times larger than Haiti. The people of Haiti did manage to pay the 90 million francs, estimated to be worth billions of dollars at today’s prices. But, according to this 2009 article from the Sunday Times (linked to by Avaaz.org), it took them over a century to do so:

In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

It is no wonder that in recent years, as I discovered in this article, at least some

Haitians Demand Reparations
for the Ransom Paid for its Independence.

I can’t bear to summarise the picture of Haiti last year given in the Sunday Times article, of extreme poverty exacerbated by overpopulation and a series of rulers who have enriched themselves at the expense of their country.

Then into this ongoing disaster zone came this month’s devastating earthquake. Was this a natural disaster? Well, yes and no. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake was of course a natural event. But that was not the main cause of the loss of life. I have lived through a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in a major city, in Baku in 2000. (Well, they said at the time it was magnitude 7.0, but the latest data gives a figure of 6.8.) In that earthquake “26 people died as a primary result, but only three people in collapsing buildings”. The latest (28th January) confirmed death toll in Haiti is 170,000.

Why the huge difference? Yes, there were probably geological factors which caused the ground acceleration in Haiti to be higher than in Baku. But surely there is far more here. It must be the poverty and overcrowding in Port-au-Prince, and the poor standard of building work in a known earthquake zone, which have greatly exacerbated the damage and casualty rate. In addition poverty and poor infrastructure have hampered relief efforts.

That is not an attempt to answer the question of why God allowed this natural disaster. But it is intended to put the disaster in perspective.

So we can contrast here the continuing poverty of Haiti with the wealth of France which enriched itself from reparations from Haiti, with the wealth of my own UK which continued to enrich itself from slavery in the Caribbean for decades after the French liberated their slaves, and with the wealth of the USA which benefited so much from France letting them buy Louisiana at such a bargain price. These are some of the roots of continuing injustice in the 21st century world.

So I urge all of you to support the Avaaz.org campaign:

Petition to Finance Ministers, IMF, World Bank, IADB, and bilateral creditors:

As Haiti rebuilds from this disaster, please work to secure the immediate cancellation of Haiti’s $1 billion debt and ensure that any emergency earthquake assistance is provided in the form of grants, not debt-incurring loans.

This should be done not just as an emotional response to the earthquake but as a way of putting right the injustices of the past. And it should be a step on the way to cancelling all the debts owed by poor countries to the rich ones who have exploited them in the past and continue to do so.

Honour, not asserting authority

Some Christians are always going on about asserting authority – the authority which they claim to have as pastors over their congregations, as parents over their family, as husbands over their wives, etc.

This morning I heard a talk which turns this completely upside down. On a DVD, Danny Silk, from Bethel Church in Redding, California (where Bill Johnson is senior pastor), was talking about a Culture of Honour. Indeed he has written a book with this title (in the American spelling) – and like so many books these days it has its own website, which features the foreword by Bill Johnson, endorsements, and some video clips. I presume the series of talks, of which I have so far heard only the first of three, covers the same material as the book, which I have not yet read.

One thing which Danny said in the talk sounded shocking:

God is not in control of everything.

Really? Is this guy an orthodox Christian at all? Is this his response to questions like why God allowed the Haiti earthquake? (The DVD was in fact recorded a few months before that.) No, I don’t think so. Danny’s approach can help to explain such disasters, but that was not his main focus. After a pause he continued with this explanation:

He is charge, but doesn’t want to control. You can’t make someone love you. … God doesn’t want a bunch of obedient robots.

Indeed. Danny didn’t quote Psalm 32:9, but he could well have done, especially as he showed the major part of this astonishing video of a woman riding a horse not “controlled by bit and bridle”.

Now undoubtedly God has authority over everything, over the material universe which he created and over the whole spiritual world. But he chooses not to exercise that authority where it is incompatible with love – with his love for the people he created and with his desire to receive their love in return. Instead, as Danny put it, he shows honour towards human beings, as illustrated by the story of the woman taken in adultery.

The main point of Danny’s teaching, as I have heard it so far, is the application of this principle to ourselves. As Christians, who should we honour? In the New Testament (these are relevant occurrences of the Greek timao and time) we are taught to honour our parents (Matthew 15:4 etc), God and Jesus (John 5:23 etc), one another (Romans 12:10), governing authorities (Romans 13:7), widows (1 Timothy 5:3), elders (1 Timothy 5:17), masters (1 Timothy 6:1), the emperor (1 Peter 2:17) and (also in 1 Peter 2:17, but here for some unaccountable reason many translations avoid the word “honour”) EVERYONE.

So the Bible teaches us not just to honour those who expect honour because of their position or authority, or who deserve honour because of their good works, but to honour EVERYONE, whether or not they deserve it, even those in the lowest positions, even those caught in sin, like the adulterous woman whom Jesus honoured and forgave.

In this talk which was intended primarily for leaders, Danny defined honouring others as elevating the status of those around us, so that people feel valuable in our presence. He contrasted this with the attitude of trying to protect one’s own power. In particular, he saw ordering others around by using explicit or implicit threats as bringing dishonour into relationships, because it is based on fear rather than love. He quoted 1 John 4:18: “Perfect love casts out all fear”, because in love there is no fear of punishment. Thus, he said, honour is displayed when we elevate the status of those we have power to punish.

What does this mean in practice? I shared the scepticism of some parents who watched the DVD with me about how Danny seemed to apply this principle in passing to parenting of young children – is it possible to get them to behave well without punishments and threats of it? But as a model for relationships between adults in the church this makes a lot of sense, and has a good biblical basis. It ties up well with the model of leadership which Jesus taught:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45 (TNIV)

Yes, there is such a thing as authority in the church, in the kingdom of God. But it is not something to be asserted or used arbitrarily. God has given this authority not to tear his people down but to build them up (2 Corinthians 13:10). The way to build people up, to elevate their status, is to treat them with honour and with genuine love.

I will finish where Danny started his talk: Jesus said (John 13:35) that people will know us as Christians, as different from others, not by our teaching or the signs and wonders we perform but by the way we treat one another, that is, by our love.

Monks' brew linked to crime wave

I just found an astonishing report at the BBC website. For over a century the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon have been making their Buckfast tonic wine. One might expect this “Tonic with a smooth, rounded taste” to be a favoured tipple of retired clerics. But, according to the BBC, this drink has been linked to no fewer than 5,638 reported crimes, over a four year period, in the Strathclyde region of Scotland.

One in 10 of those offences were violent and the bottle was used as a weapon 114 times in that period.

This drink “made up just 0.5% of Scotland’s alcohol market”, but of one group of young offenders who had been drinking before they offended, as many as 40% reported that they had been drinking Buckfast.

Why should this be? Buckfast does contain high levels of caffeine as well as alcohol, but then so does rum and Coca-Cola, or fine wine followed by coffee. So it doesn’t make sense to claim that this mixture is causing crime. More likely it has simply become the fashionable drink among the particular section of Scottish society which are anyway most likely to offend while under the influence of alcohol.

So the monks can hardly be blamed for the problem. Banning the drink would hardly help as young offenders, who are under 18, are already not allowed to purchase any alcohol. But perhaps greater efforts should be made to keep this concoction, and any other alcoholic drinks, out of the hands of people too young and irresponsible to handle them.

You Cannot Pastor for God and Mammon

Essex vicars Sam Norton and Tim Goodbody have both posted about the difficulties of their tasks as Church of England incumbents. Sam memorably compares his job with piloting a plane and trying, not always successfully, to avoid crashing it. Tim, apparently facing similar issues, writes of the stresses of balancing “great new ideas” for the work of a parish with the preferences of “the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.”

Tim also speaks of this as “the paradox of collaborative ministry”. But I disagree. I tried to disagree with a comment on his post, but Tim quite reasonably responded

Sorry mate, I reserve the right to be the only one who rants here; if you want to rant feel free to do so at GW

I wonder, would he have allowed Jesus to comment on his blog? Certainly not along the lines of Matthew 23! But I am taking his advice and responding here at Gentle Wisdom, and in more depth than in my rejected comment. Judge for yourselves whether this is balanced or a “rant”.

This is how it seems to me, from the limited details which they give and from my own experience of life in various Anglican churches: the problem which Sam and Tim have, and which probably nearly every Church of England incumbent (i.e. pastor in charge of a church) has, is that they are trying to reconcile the wishes of those who genuinely want to serve God with the wishes of people who do not. The latter are people who, while claiming to serve the true God, are in fact serving other gods like mammon (materialism), their families, their culture and traditions, or their personal comfort. For example, it is clear that Tim’s “elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been” are not serving the God who makes it his business to make all things new.

Now this is not a peculiarly Anglican problem. Many other church congregations are mixed multitudes of the same kind. But it is perhaps especially serious in the established Church of England because of its parish system and its claim to represent in some way all the people of England. These make it all the harder for a vicar to suggest that a difficult congregation member find a different church where they might be more at home.

Of course I realise that it is not possible to divide congregations neatly into those who serve God and those who put other gods first. Any attempt to do this is bound to fail, not least because many people are genuinely torn between two different allegiances. Indeed we all need to examine ourselves to check that we are not slipping in this way.

Nevertheless there must be something wrong when an incumbent gets to the position that Tim is in, in which he has to reject “great new ideas” “because he knew he would get it in the neck from the elements of the congregation who make it their business to keep the church the same as it has always been.” Of course not every great new idea is from God. But if Tim is finding himself rejecting ideas which are from God to avoid criticism from people who quite clearly do not have in mind the things of God, then I would want to suggest that he has abandoned serving God for serving the gods of his congregation members. This is not at all to single Tim out, for his point is that this is what the Church of England system more or less forces incumbents like himself to do.

To put it bluntly, what is happening here is that the servants of mammon and of other idols are being given a veto over the work of God in his church. This cannot be! As Jesus said, it is impossible to serve both God and mammon, and that applies also when that service is directed through their worshippers. So every pastor, in the Church of England and elsewhere, needs to decide which they will serve, the true God or the idols of their congregation members. If they try to serve both, not only will God’s work be thwarted, but also a plane crash is inevitable.

Yes, of course a pastor needs to show love and be pastorally sensitive towards those difficult or unbelieving congregation members. But that is quite a different matter from allowing them to control the church. Jesus was pastorally sensitive to individual Pharisees like Nicodemus and Simon, but he didn’t bend an inch to their model of religious practice.

So I call on Tim, Sam and all others in similar positions to take a stand for the “great new ideas” which they really believe are from God, and ignore the protestations of the “keep the church the same as it has always been” brigade. Or if they are unable to do so because those people have a majority in the PCC or whatever, or because those in higher authority, bishops etc, intervene, then they should accept that their position is untenable and resign. Perhaps they will be forced to conclude that the Church of England is not the place for them if they are not to compromise their position.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
17 Therefore,
“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
18 And,
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 (TNIV)

P.S. In case any of you wonder why despite this I remain an Anglican, I will point you to this post. I wrote it nearly two years ago, but I stand by most of it now. The main change since then is that there is now a greater chance of me moving on from my current congregation in the rather near future.

Normal service may resume shortly

Lorenza and I are safely home from Italy. In fact we have been for a week now. More about the trip later, perhaps. But it has taken that week to get back to a semblance of normal life, especially with things here being disrupted by snow and ice – which arrived, or returned, only after we did.

So I have no more good excuses not to blog. But I’m not sure if this blog will ever get back to normal service, of the kind my readers got used to before my wedding.. However, I am working on a post more like what I used to post, so watch this space!