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East Africa, Guilt and Good Fortune

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I was hoping for murder, or at least adultery. Preferably deviant adultery. Sadly, when my friend said in church last week: 'I feel guilty', he was confessing nothing more than a day of being pampered at a luxury hotel: wonderful food, discrete but attentive service, beautiful surroundings. Luxury. 'And when we got home,' he said, 'there was the news about the East Africa famine.' As resident lefty and in-house shouter about justice and poverty at my church, I think I was expected to tell him how wrong he was to have accepted such a gift.

I didn't. I did worry a fair amount, though, about what kind of message I've been communicating. Because the danger of caring and campaigning about justice is that one can come across as judgmental, promoting nothing but guilt. It may come from a nobler place than the transparent jealousy that motivated some last week to howl in outrage at the couple who won a ridiculous sum in the lottery, but if we're not careful, our speaking out for justice can be almost as bad.

So let's be clear: your (or anyone else's) guilt does not change the situation in East Africa. Feeling guilty does not fill one belly in Somalia. In fact, feeling guilty will most likely lead many people to ignore the crisis in self defense, retreating into justifications that range from the lazy ('I can't do anything,') to the ignorant ('ah, they're just Africans fighting, like they always do'). Anything to avoid the guilt.

Actually, in situations like the crisis in East Africa, just about the only thing worse than trying to make people feel guilty is telling them not to feel guilty. That everything will spontaneously improve, that all will 'work out for the good' and therefore all good Christians need to do is pray.

Guilt is unhelpful, but all is not well. We bring home produce from around the world for Sunday lunch after church and we may give thanks for the way God has blessed us, but at exactly the same time, women in Ethiopia and Kenya bind their abdomens with ropes to minimize the pangs of hunger and parents watch their emaciated children slowly starve and cannot in good faith comfort them with words like 'it will all work out for the good.' And there it is again. The guilt. Should we also starve? Should we hate ourselves for being blessed? No.

But we should recognize where our blessings come from. We should acknowledge that the starvation in some countries is not unrelated to the mountains of food waste in others. We should give grateful thanks to God for the way he has blessed us while recognizing that it is not because we are particularly righteous or deserving as individuals or nations. We should recognize that blessings are there to be shared, our position of power and influence in the world is to be used for something more meaningful than voting celebrities off TV shows.

If we have the time we do for television, we have time to inform ourselves and work against global inequality. If we can afford that cup of coffee (or smartphone, or video game or new house) we can afford to give to a relief charity.

The classic defensive reaction (masquerading as 'good stewardship' in our churches) to this is: 'Yes, but where do we draw the line? If we're poor too, we can't help.' My response is: look around you. Does it look like we're in danger of giving too much, of living too self-sacrificially? And what would Jesus say to a phrase like 'too self-sacrificial' anyway? I suspect we could all do more, not motivated by guilt, but by love and a desire just to do a little better. This, I suspect, would please God a little.

When we feel guilt we should transform it into action, into giving, into speaking out - not to inspire guilt, but to remind people (and ourselves) that it's not just that we can do something about it, but that we must.

This post first appeared in The Baptist Times, 20/07/2011