The Great Cretan Gaffe

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A few weeks ago, N.T. Wright responded to a few of his critics on the debt relief issue here. A more detailed interaction needs to wait for another time, but I want to put a few thoughts up now. As Wright himself put it, “I don’t have time for a full answer, but I hope this will be a start.”

First, I wish that Bishop Wright would quote and name the critics he is responding to, because it really is hard to know who he is representing, and if he is representing them well. He said, for example, “As for the suggestion (made by one of my critics, tipping his hand after some fine-sounding phrases) that Africans are basically lazy . . . well, it’s hard to think of anything kind to say about that idea.” Now I had said in one of my responses to Wright that the citizens of Zimbabwe were not capable of self-governance (as demonstrated by them not doing so). Was Wright’s comment here an extension from that? Or was he representing, or misrepresenting, another unnamed critic? And if he was representing the comments of another critic accurately (i.e. the critic really did say that), shouldn’t an assertion like that be discussed and debated, not just dismissed out of hand? Wright says, “No doubt some are, no doubt some aren’t, just like the rest of us.” Now I did not make the point that Africans are lazy, and I am not arguing for it. But I do think a cavalier dismissal of the point — in a way that indicates it was dismissed because political correctness demands it be dismissed — neglects an important biblical possibility.

Suppose the apostle Paul had said something like, “‘Cretans are evil beasts, lazy gluttons, and liars.’ This testimony is true” (Tit. 1:12). Just suppose, all right? Would it be to the point to say, “some are, some aren’t, just like the rest of us”? Different cultures sin differently, even though we live in a time when it is almost illegal to state the obvious. Some cultures are laid back, some of full of cussedness, some are grasping, and some are lazy. I don’t know that Africans are lazy, and that has formed no part of my argument. And if it did, I would have had enough sense to keep it to myself, all right? Just kidding. Ha, ha. There are at least three layers of irony here now, so I should be safe.

But to come up with a quota for lazy people, insisting that we must find the same general percentage in every nation, seems to me to be counterintuitive. If Paul had committed the above gaffe today, instead of in the first century, would Wright have come to Paul’s defense — like he does so charitably for Rowan Williams from time to time? Or would he have sent a letter of support to the angry Cretan demonstrators gathering outside the Israeli embassy, finding it hard to say anything kind about that particular Pauline idea?

In another place, Wright clearly appears to be talking about me when he says, “The suggestion of one of my critics that to drop the debt is to condemn poor people to even worse conditions is straightforwardly contradicted by the evidence.” But I didn’t say that — I said that to drop the debt without safeguards, conditions, and protections would have this effect. And Wright appears to agree with that point, kind of. He says, “There must indeed be conditions for debt relief, but the crucial ones are those involving transparency and accountability.” I was arguing this way because the choice appears to me to be between irresponsible subsidy of gross corruption in Africa, or some form of neo-colonialism (another phrase describing that neo-colonialism being “transparency and accountability”). That was the point I was pressing.

And so Wright has come down in favor of conditions, but what kind of conditions? We might call them the “but not really conditions.”

“The problem with the current conditionality regime is that it is both undemocratic and damaging. Conditions are imposed on indebted countries, often in the face of opposition from their governments, parliaments, and people. They are all too often used to prise open poor country markets for the benefit of rich country corporations. And there is no right whatever of appeal to independent adjudication.”

This is a farrago of tangled assumptions. “Undemocratic.” Do the people whose money was initially loaned get to vote? Is it undemocratic to exclude them? “Conditions are imposed.” Well, yes. That is what conditions are. Imposed. “Opposition from their governments, etc.” Yes, corrupt governments and parliaments would oppose them. Isn’t that the idea? “Prise open markets.” A book needs to be written here, but suffice it to say that we can’t have globalization and not have it. “Independent adjudication.” I don’t know, but I am beginning to get that creepy feeling I get whenever someone brings the United Nations into anything. Where on this planet is Wright going to find genuinely independent adjudication?

And so because Wright’s conditions appear to be not really conditions at all, we are back to my original assertion — that debt forgiveness without accountability will just make things worse, a sentiment I stand by. You will always get more of what you subsidize and less of what you penalize. Wright offers a few anecdotal examples to show that debt relief works, and he says that “governance has changed for the better, and markedly so, in many African countries.” In fact, his description of the situation in Africa was remarkably chirpy — I was surprised because when I was reading his earlier descriptions, Africa was being crushed by this massive debt load.

One last round, and I am done for now.

“There are indeed ‘tyrants and bullies’, but in contrast to the situation which applied thirty years ago, they are in a minority.”

Okay, but given Wright’s appeal to the straight across application of the parable of the Good Samaritan, what are our responsibilities with regard to those tyrants and bullies? Do we love our neighbor, or do we pass over to the other side of the road? I have pressed this question before, and I would appreciate an answer. Given a Good Samaritan, life is simple ethic, does the West have the moral responsibility to remove Mugabe? A simple yes or no will do, and crossing over to the other side of the road counts as a no.
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