Rich world, Poor world, God's world

Sermon preached at Brailsford benefice service, 29th February 2004

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If I say the words ‘Third World’ to you, what comes to mind?   Do you think of starving children in Africa?   Petty dictators who impoverish their people?   or children working in Asian sweatshops instead of going to school?   The reality is much more complex.   Indeed the very phrase ‘Third World’ is itself loaded – originating from a time when the world was sharply divided into the so-called capitalist ‘First World’, the communist ‘Second World’, and the poor ‘Third World’.   These demarcations are now no longer adequate – and not just because of the demise of the communist bloc.   If you go today to what would once have been called a ‘Third World’ country, you will almost certainly be surprised by the diversity of lifestyles, and a striking mix between poverty and progress.


This became very clear to me when my family and I visited India almost two years ago.   We had been invited to stay at the United Christian Institute, a group of schools in the Punjab region, near Pakistan, which the Derby diocese had supported through the 2001 Harvest Appeal.   We were therefore able to see both a major Asian city – Delhi – and some of the outlying rural areas.   Delhi in many ways epitomises the colossal economic forces which are shaping this country of one billion people.   Vast areas of squalid slums, people living in shacks and doorways, even on the waste land between railway lines, sanitation basic or non-existent.   Bullocks and rickshaws competing for space on the dual carriageways with battered buses and brightly-coloured customised lorries.   People trying to hustle you into their taxis or pressing you to buy their handicrafts at a ‘special price’; also the ubiquitous beggars, many of whom had lost one or more limbs.   But also some magnificent examples of modern architecture, monumental in scale and visionary in design.   Internet caf és, businessmen making deals by mobile ‘phone in the street, some very fashionable women – and McDonalds.   The Delhi McDonalds restaurants are extremely popular, and not just among tourists; although you may find it difficult to imagine a McDonalds that does not serve beef, and has a security guard standing outside.


Western influences, then, are very evident in Delhi.   Those I asked about the effect of westernization were generally quite positive towards it:   it brought jobs – often good quality jobs, and new communications technologies such as the internet and mobile telephone, which were bringing the people of that vast country together in a way unparalleled since the British introduced railways in the 19 th century.   Western companies usually had better working conditions than locally owned companies.   There was concern, however, that some Indian-owned companies were being forced out of business by western companies; although some people could see that the superior technology which such companies brought with them was on balance an advantage to the country.   Not all western companies, though, have a good record in India, particularly those like the American company Enron which has been accused of heavily overcharging for the electricity it supplied.  


In the rural areas which we saw, by contrast, westernization is far less marked.   The west tends to be represented by Coca-cola, and otherwise life remains very traditional, although an occasional family might have a television.   We were struck by how much farm work is done by hand:   I was asked to bless the wheat harvest, before a gang of a dozen men with sickles began the task of harvesting a series of huge fields by hand.   Sugar cane was similarly harvested by hand.   The people in the rural village which we visited lived mainly in one- or two-roomed houses, with open sewers running down the street, and far more bicycles and bullocks than cars to be seen.   But one thing which particularly impressed us was that the local priest arranged a church service to welcome us – and a congregation of around one hundred people gathered after having been given only two hours’ notice.


I’ve spoken at some length about India because it helps us to picture more clearly much of what is happening in the developing world today.   Some countries – and some areas in particular in those countries – are experiencing very rapid economic growth and modernization.   On average, income per head in India has grown by around four per cent a year over the last decade – a total increase of around 50 per cent.   The increase in China has been more than double this.   Even in Mozambique, which was ravaged by civil war some years ago, income per head grew by about 50 per cent over the 1990s.   In many developing countries people are now living much longer than they were a few decades ago, fewer babies and young children are dying, and substantially more people can read and write.  


So there is much that is encouraging.   You will be expecting the next word, however – which is ‘But…’   Many people in many countries remain desperately poor.   The number of people living on less than one dollar a day – just over 50 pence, currently – remains stubbornly above one billion, or one in six of the world’s population.   In recent years economic growth seems to have virtually passed by many African countries, and now many of them are being devastated by HIV/AIDS.   Life can still be brutal and is often short in many countries:   in Sierra Leone, for example, you can expect to live on average around 35 years – less than half of the average life span in most western countries and in China.   And   even where countries have experienced rapid economic growth, in some cases the fruits of this growth have not spread to more than a small elite.   Brazil is a striking example:   The richest 10 per cent of the population receive almost 50 per cent of the country’s income, while the poorest 10 per cent receive less than 1 per cent.   (In the UK the richest 10 per cent receive around 27 per cent of national income, and the poorest 10 per cent get around 2 per cent.   In India, the poorest 10 per cent actually receive a higher proportion of national income than in this country – 3.5 per cent – but the richest 10 per cent receive around 33 per cent).


But perhaps the most disconcerting illustration of inequality emerges when we compare the United States and some of the world’s poorest countries.   Average income per head in the US is around $35,000.   This is around 70 times what people receive in the poorest African countries, such as Tanzania and Sierra Leone. In this country we receive around 50 times the income of those African countries.   I am not presenting   all these figures in order to make you feel guilty,   but they do remind us that we have much for which we should be thankful.   It is not surprising that many people wish to come and settle in this and other western countries, in view of the enormous differences in living standards around the world.  


So what can we do, and what should we do?   For many years now, people around the world have been trying to wrestle with the root causes of global poverty.   Unfair trading structures;   unpayable debts; inadequate aid, and aid which does not really help to relieve poverty;   excessive arms sales to developing countries, and the resultant conflicts to which they contribute; poor health care and education provision; corruption.   Tremendous energy is spent on trying to rectify these problems, by the United Nations, by various campaign groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, and by certain governments.   Our own government has gone some way towards pushing for a fairer regime for world trade, and for the writing off of some debts owed by the poorest countries, although we still give substantially less than half of one per cent of national income in overseas aid.   The United Nations has set various ‘millennium targets’ for the relief of poverty by 2015, but these appear more and more unlikely to be met.   There are, unfortunately, many vested interests which prevent more progress being made, both in the western world and in developing countries themselves.   But that is no reason for giving up, and we in the Church should continue to play our part in supporting those organizations which are trying to build a fairer world.


Our churches must also not neglect to make use of the international links which we have in order to make a difference to those who live in poverty.   This is the aim of the Bishop’s annual harvest appeal, which I co-ordinate;   it is also an element within our links with the Diocese of Patna, in North India, and the churches here have raised enough money to reroof a hospital in a poor outlying area of the diocese.   This summer the Diocese of Derby is leading an appeal for tools for certain countries in Africa, including Sierra Leone and Tanzania, which I mentioned earlier.   I am sure Louise Doble, who is very involved in this, will give you more details nearer the time. So our contributions do help, and I have seen this now several times through the   projects which we have supported in North India.


But we can always do more – and we should never allow ourselves to say, complacently, ‘job done’.   Among the central teachings of Jesus is his command that we should not be enslaved by our money and our possessions.   He did not teach that material things were inherently bad.   But when we cling too zealously to them, when we rely on them too much for our security, God is dislodged from the centre of our lives, and we turn to worship of self rather than true worship of God.   The more I re-read Jesus’ teachings on money and wealth, the more I believe that radical generosity, beginning with material things but flowing out into a giving to others and to God of one’s very self, was what he was urging upon his hearers.


We may not solve the world’s problems by our giving; we may not always know whether what we give will be used well.   But the essence of it is the generosity, the offering of our own resources that God may use them to help our neighbour whom we do not see as well as the neighbour whom we do see.   May God show us how to play our part in making a difference to a world where many today do have new hope, but where that hope, for many others,   still seems far off.