The Rebel Jesus opposed Oppression, not the Rich

By Gary Johns from “The Australian,” December 22, 2011

ONE of my favourite Christmas carols is The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne. The backing is provided by the wonderful Irish folk band the Chieftains. It stirs the emotions.

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus.

But emotions are no substitute for reason. The inference in Browne’s words, shared by so many Christians, is that someone causes poverty, usually the rich, and that if the rich gave money to the poor, all would be well. This is just not so.

From the safety of a liberal democracy, those “interfering in the business of why there are poor” are not crucified. Indeed, they are feted. Our latter-day saints Bob Geldof and Bono, the debt forgiveness crowd, the Make Poverty History crowd and a sizeable slice of Christian churchgoers are all in the same camp.

The pagans join the Christians in the West’s obsession with solving poverty, especially in other countries, through philanthropy. The mistaken belief has placed a heavy burden on Jesus’ shoulders. That burden is an ideology that has cast Jesus as Che Guevara, taking from the rich to aid the poor.

In his recent visit to Australia, Microsoft’s Bill Gates reinforced the wrongheaded view. He badgered the ultra-rich to give to the poor. But does it work? Gates’s billions, invested in productive activity, which is where it mostly is, is much better at saving the poor than his philanthropy. Gates’s gift is his software, not his philanthropy. Except as emergency aid, giving does not help the poor as much as investing in productive capacity.

Development economist William Easterly’s great insight into foreign aid is that poverty ends when people have individual rights: freedom. They are then able to find their own solutions to poverty.

Giving rarely ends poverty. Despite the transfer of more than $4.6 trillion in official development assistance to developing countries from 1960 to 2008, a substantial amount of the world remains in extreme poverty amid economic stagnation. Part of the reason is that since the early 1990s the share of aid going to corrupt countries has increased. Donors continue to allocate aid to corrupt and unfree countries.

Freedom House, which has tracked the freedom of nations since 1941, this year counted a total of 47 countries that were deemed not free. They represent 24 per cent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under these conditions stood at 2.4 billion, or 35 per cent of the global population. More than half of them live in China.

The worst-rated countries represent a narrow range of political systems and cultures. North Korea, of course, is a one-party, Marxist-Leninist regime and a client state, first of the Soviet Union and now China.

Central Asian countries Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are ruled by dictators with roots in the Soviet period. Libya, having recently deposed Muammar Gaddafi, holds some hope that freedom and widespread prosperity will follow. Sudan is ruled by a leadership that has elements of radical Islamism and a traditional military junta.

The remaining worst-rated states are Burma, a tightly controlled military dictatorship; Equatorial Guinea, a highly corrupt regime with one of the worst human rights records in Africa; Eritrea, an increasingly repressive police state; and Somalia, a failed state. The worst-rated territory in the survey, Tibet, is under Chinese jurisdiction. China has a great deal to answer for. It is lifting many of its own people from poverty, for which they and we are grateful. But the cost in terms of freedom is huge, not only to the Chinese but to Koreans, the Burmese and Tibetans.

How wonderful it would be if the Chinese government withdrew support from North Korea and asked South Korea to run a unified Korea. Liberty alone would ensure that 20 million Koreans would work themselves out of poverty. In turn, trade with China would be a powerful boon to China’s economy and lift millions more from poverty.

At the celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is important to keep in mind where evil resides in this world. I prefer to think that Jesus may have fought those who destroy freedom.

Nearly 40 years ago, more than half of the world was ruled by one form of autocracy or another; many millions lived under totalitarianism. Most now live in democratic states.

Jesus was not an opponent of the rich. Among other things, he was an opponent of an oppressive regime. A rebel in a very different cause.

Merry Christmas.

(Dr Gary Johns is Associate Professor at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane.)