Bono, poverty and responsibility

Stephen Shearsby examines why the Millenium Development Goals are important.

Its the 16th November 2006, AAMI stadium, Adelaide. U2 are half way through the long anticipated Australian leg of their ‘Vertigo’ tour and they’re playing an old classic from the Joshua Tree album, Where the Streets Have No Name.  Edge’s guitar cuts the air, criss-crossing the crisp Adelaide night sky.  All the flags of African countries are scrolling down the giant LED screen as lead singer, Bono exhorts the crowd  ‘from the heights of Mt Kilimanjaro to the heart of Australia…from Drop the Debt to Make Poverty History, the journey of equality goes on!’  Bono’s binding the globe together, trying to throw his arms around the world.  Africa and Australia.  We’re far away, but Bono’s bringing us so close. 

Streets has very simple lyrics, yet both its sentiment and music have justified keeping the song in the U2 set since 1987.

  ‘I wanna run, I wanna hide
I wanna tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I wanna reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name’

A street can determine your status.  Your postcode boxing you in, determining how people treat you, and what potential your life may realistically hold.  Bono knew this from his upbringing.  You may know it from yours.  But what about the people of Africa?  Bono is a co-founder of DATA, an organisation that aims to raise awareness and spark response to the crises of extreme, large-scale poverty that is affecting many Sub-Saharan African nations.   DATA describes Africa as struggling under a triple crisis that keeps its people poor and its nations weak; the burden of unpayable debt; the epidemic of AIDS and unfair trade policies.   Bono states that in Africa 6,500 people die needlessly every day from AIDS, TB and malaria.  That’s ‘two 9/11’s a day’ but without the tears, or ‘fifty-one gun salutes’, he says.  Why? ‘Because we don’t put the same value on African life as we put on a European or an American life … we say we can’t get these anti-retroviral drugs to the farthest reaches of Africa, but we can get them our cold fizzy drinks.  Deep down we don’t believe in their equality’.   Where you live determines your status.  Where you live determines your worth in the eyes of the Western World.  So ‘streets’ do matter.  Streets are the basis of our assessment of each other’s worth. 

This ‘journey of equality’ that Bono expounded at each concert of the Vertigo tour is not about putting ipods into every person’s hands.  It’s about more basic thresholds:  whether someone lives or dies.  Whether they have what they need to function as a human being in society.  Bono has often argued that the campaign to halve extreme poverty by 2015 is not about charity but about justice.  The justice that says an African (or Asian) person is just as valuable as an Australian person.  The justice that says God will hold us to account for how we treat each other.  Make Poverty History is not a difficult campaign to understand.  Yet one common misconception of the campaign is that it’s about you and me giving more money to charity.  On the contrary, MPH is about halving extreme poverty without individuals spending another cent.  What we are being asked to do is to speak up and encourage our governments to use the money they already have from us to put right something that is wrong.

Many Australians share a deep-seated cynicism toward government and world leaders in general.  It is easy to be apathetic. We expect those in leadership to abuse their powers and be self-serving.  Is it vain to expect the leaders of our world to work collaboratively, to achieve something for the common good?  One might expect that the teachings of the Bible would re-enforce such cynicism and encourage the conclusion that human leaders are pointless, and that the UN is nothing but a wasteful, godless institution.  On the contrary, the Bible encourages a more positive even hopeful view of leaders and their efforts to work for the common good.  

The Bible views human leaders in the wake of God’s leadership. According to the Biblical narrative, God sent His Son Jesus, to reclaim the world that was estranged from Him.  In Jesus’ death God judged the world; he punished our wrong.  When Jesus rose from the dead a new context was created and made available to all: forgiveness and freedom.  Jesus now claims an authority that surpasses all earthly power.  But instead of sidelining human authorities, Jesus redefines and redirects their power.  Governments are expected to exist for judicial purposes and not behave as though their power determined a community’s identity.   In light of Jesus’ claim, they should denounce hubris and see their power as gesturing towards His rule until He comes.  As such, governments exist to stand in our place, pass judgements on our behalf and create better contexts for us to live in.  Governments can do this by making decisions that put wrong – right again.  Though many governments may not consciously acknowledge their redefined role, nonetheless this is the reality a Christian Worldview envisages.

Interestingly, the expectation that governments should rectify wrong was not lost on our newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.  In his recent ‘Sorry Speech’, Mr Rudd acknowledged the responsibility of the government for its role in the injustices perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of Australia.  He said ‘It’s time to recognise the injustices of the past.  It’s time to say sorry.  Its time to move forward together…Today’s apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting past wrongs.’

By signing the Millennium Declaration in 2002, which seeks to halve extreme poverty by 2015 – the issue of global poverty has become a justice issue for our nation

The responsibility of government to make wrong-right in matters pertaining to their nation is relatively clear, but why should a nation like Australia, located so far from the African continent, be held to account over poverty issues there?  Is it our fault that Africa is in a mess?!  By signing the Millennium Declaration in 2002, which seeks to halve extreme poverty by 2015 – the issue of global poverty has become a justice issue for our nation on account of international law.  International law is invested with authority on the basis of ‘natural right’.  

One might wonder what, if any binding force such judgements have since the UN is not a world government, has no representative authority over any nation and consequently holds no power to enforce the judgements it makes.  Indeed, the UN’s ability to exercise authority depends on the ‘common will of states to act in concert’.   However, it is the threat of international strife that makes judgements of ‘common will’ necessary. As Professor Oliver O’Donovan argues, the UN’s role is to shape the international community’s universal moral conviction into a functioning international practice.   Consequently, the authority of its judgements is located in the natural right of God. That is, we are to authorise one another to do what ‘God’s law has clearly imprinted on the conscience of mankind’.  

The Millennium Development Goals provide a reference point of order outside our country’s introspective interests.  They call on us to recognise the value of people’s lives outside our own backyards.  Since the Bible reveals God to be a God of ‘order’ not ‘chaos’ and holds out the hope of a day when there will be one peaceful community under His Son, the idea of nations working co-operatively to order the international affairs of our world should be seen positively rather than cynically.   We should be glad for the potential of the UN to line up, consciously or not, with God’s activity of judgement in the way it orders conflicts and disasters ‘within a framework of human lawfulness’.   If the nations of the UN conceive what judgement requires regarding extreme poverty and freely bind themselves to these judgements but fail to complement it with action then Bono is right – God will hold them to account.   But the buck doesn’t stop with our leaders.  Each of us has the obligation of standing up for the oppressed when authority fails to fulfil its obligations, lest our silence be ‘a kind of consent’.

Stephen Shearsby is an ordained Anglican minister who works with children.  He is married to Heather and has three daughters.