The Weight of Responsibility

The family in whose home I’m now a lodger in London says they will eventually move more of their books out of my room …

The family in whose home I’m now a lodger in London says they will eventually move more of their books out of my room once bookshelves are built in the living room. I like books, though, and could only bring a few of my own with me, so I don’t mind too much if the books don’t disappear before I return to the States in December.

Drawn as I am to books, I peruse the shelves pretty often. Now and then, between putting on my socks and following with my shoes, I pull out a book to skim through. One day I picked The Bloomsbury Pocket Encyclopedia of the World. I looked up a few other countries before going to the entry for the United States of America. The last sentence caught my attention: “It is the richest and most powerful nation in the world.”

That’s not really a novel statement, but it has different weight when read outside the U.S. It’s a sobering sentence inserted so quietly and confidently into a little book of country summaries. The statement suggests weighty responsibility.

Intentional Chaos

During my travels in Africa last year I made a quick but impressionable overnight trip to Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the smaller Republic of the Congo, also called Congo-Brazzaville). Bunia, located just across Lake Albert from Uganda, has experienced some of eastern Congo’s terrible massacres over the past decade. Even now, the region is seeing on-going and again-increasing violence between government and rebel troops, displacing desperate civilians.

My missionary hosts were the first representatives of their organization to begin living in Bunia again after everyone was evacuated years ago. Over supper Joey and Suzanne described more of the region’s history. By the time I arrived at their table, I had noticed that tribal affiliation seems very important in much of Africa. I was beginning to recognize that some tribal groups seem to be dispersed between several countries. And I was confused: which is more important, the fact that you’re Luo or the fact that you’re Kenyan or Ugandan? The American in me struggles to understand the concept of tribal identity at all.

Joey and Suzanne explained that colonial powers (who sometimes thought they were helping Africa) deliberately created national boundaries that divided tribal lands and collected people from different tribes into countries together. This was intended to keep colonies so unstable that there could never be enough unity to overthrow the colonial parents. It seems this was a masterful—if troubling—strategy, if the on-going tribal conflict plaguing the politics of many African nations is any indication. It’s generally acknowledged that Africa’s modern challenges are due in part to the never-ending meddling of outsiders who want access to the continent’s wealth. (Check out King Leopold’s Ghost to learn more about Congo’s history.)

It Seemed Like a Good Idea—Perhaps

In Haiti this July, I heard another impression-making story. With world-wide food shortages fresh on our minds, a regional director for a development organization explained that the land around Haiti’s Artibonite River used to produce lots of rice, a product whose price has sky-rocketed and prompted riots in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city. However, he explained, years ago the U.S. began importing rice from American farmers, in an apparent effort to help the people of Haiti. Unfortunately, because of government subsidies and technology that produces higher crop yields, the market price of imported American rice was lower than that of local rice. The Artibonite Valley farmers couldn’t compete and were shut down. Now hardly any rice is grown in Haiti, which made the effects of the food crisis even worse there. (The Seattle Times offers a good synopsis of the situation here.)

Haiti usually earns news coverage only when something terrible is happening there. So we heard about Haiti this past August and September, as hurricane after hurricane crossed the country. In nearly every article I read, Haiti was identified as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere.”

In college I wrote a research paper on Haiti and its then-leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unfortunately, I remember very few details beyond names of key players and that the U.S. was involved politically. At the time, I thought the involvement was kind American assistance to our poor neighbor. Now I’m less certain that’s what it really was. My conversations in Haiti taught me that the U.S. has meddled for a long time in much more than just rice supplies. Our ostensible help for Haitians is always endorsed publicly as being good for them. But after being on the ground in Haiti, I’m left wondering whether the people creating some of these helpful plans are terribly short-sighted, have best intentions that are always thwarted, or have other agendas entirely.

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Adding It All Together

All these impressions, first-hand experiences, and second-hand stories have joined the jumble of information tumbling around in my head and left me asking questions about how we Americans do foreign policy and foreign aid. For now I’m not even talking about the big doozy foreign policy questions, only the little everyday ones (I’m currently neither pro- nor anti-war, so this isn’t a hidden nod in either direction; the jury’s still out for me on that whole terrifically complex topic).

Basically, it seems these things I’ve heard don’t jive with how Scripture teaches us to care for other people. For starters, here’s the “most powerful country in the world” doing things for our own benefit that seem to have negative consequences in the “poorest country in the western hemisphere.” Did we know about the negative consequences or were they accidental? Either way, it seems like “poorest country in the western hemisphere” probably qualifies as “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40, check it out in context), and we should be genuinely caring when we meddle there and in other “least of these” places.

All of these things are so complex, and this little essay is really more about inviting you to ask questions with me than about offering answers. I’m not on a down-with-American-farmers or end-all-subsidies campaign, and I’m not in the America-is-evil camp. I also can’t advocate that our government make decisions and policies that actively work against our country’s interests. However, neither can I sit comfortably with the idea of promoting our interests, the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, when they have real negative effects on the poorest countries in the world. I can’t find justification for that in the Bible, but I’m not sure how you ask a country of nominal or non-Christians to ask their government to be more biblical in their international dealings.

My last semester of college I learned that the Hebrew word for “to know” used in our Scriptures isn’t about just acquiring information. Instead, in the Hebrew understanding, knowledge of something bequeaths responsibility which then requires care. Knowing is active rather than passive. Now that I know these stories from places like Congo and Haiti, I can’t just store them away to be pulled out at dull moments in dinner party conversations. Knowing means caring. It means acting. And the first action step for me is to wrestle with the questions.

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