Sunday, April 26, 2020

Universal Basic Income and the Pandemic

Amid the economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 Pandemic, calls for Universal Basic Income are becoming louder. From its origins as a fringe idea, UBI is starting to become an economic measure of choice among some on the economic left in several western countries.

The logic and the appeal of UBI in a time of crisis are easy to see. If during these remarkable times the state is going to throw eye-watering sums of money at supporting working people's incomes - not to mention direct support for the businesses that employ them - why not target that state aid where it will be most effective? By putting a regular amount of hard cash directly into the hands of every citizen without a process of application or means-testing (so the argument goes) the state's resources will both keep people afloat financially and stimulate the economy towards a strong and sustainable recovery after the crisis ends. The goal of directly redistributing wealth is seen as an additional positive outcome by those on the economic left.  

Original proponents of UBI such as Dutch writer Rutger Bregman insist that the actual amount given to every citizen should be generous enough to sustain the individual at a basic level of existence without the need for them to work - unless they wanted to improve their lifestyle beyond the basic.  British think tank Compass, on the other hand, has recommended more modest levels of state funding for its own UBI proposal: weekly tax-free payments of £60 to every adult, £175 for pensioners and £40 for each child under 18, accompanied by the abolition of the state pension and child benefit.

I share with the proponents of UBI the aim of a more equal society. I do not however see Universal Basic Income as an effective way of achieving that desired outcome. My concerns range from the theoretical to the practical. 

  • UBI confuses income with assets. Assets are items which can generate economic value - to a household or a business. Assets can be tangible, such as land, property, stock and equipment as well as less tangible such as shares, bonds, copyrights and trademarks. Proponents of UBI tend to frame the discussion in terms of income being used to pay for basic necessities such as food and utilities and as a way of simplifying the welfare state. Such an income may well be appreciated but does not in itself create fundamental structural change to an economy in which assets are not widely distributed. 
  • As a Distributist, I see the need for workers owning the means of production as being more important than them having a basic state income. A democracy built upon worker-ownership would see as many people as possible owning economically productive assets. This fundamental economic principle is key to establishing a more equal society. In that sense, I would argue for Universal Basic Assets rather than Universal Basic Income. Times of economic crisis such as the current pandemic should be used not to bail out corporations at risk of financial collapse but to nationalise them, stabilise them and then quickly re-distribute them to those who work in them.  
  • UBI breaks the connection between income and work. Some would argue that in the age of automation, that is precisely the point. Bregman for instance envisages a future society in which robots will carry out the vast majority of repetitive work tasks and humans will lead lives of creative leisure underpinned economically by UBI generated by the automated economy. Even if such a society were achievable on a practical level (it may be), I would have concerns for the breaking of the ancient association between labour and material gain. Such a connection has a deep psychological, cultural and even spiritual history. It is unclear how we would cope in the long term as a society with a sudden break in the association between what we do and what we gain. We may discover that UBI unintentionally becomes an example of the Alienation of Labour on steroids.      
  • UBI renders working people dependent on economic elites. Some argue that it is impossible to fund a Universal Basic Income. My own view is that it could be done through taxation. This means, in practice, that owners of the means of production along with those who choose to work above the UBI subsistence level, would fund those who choose a life of learning and leisure instead of the 9-to-5 working life. At one level, Bregman argues, this is a very liberating scenario. More profoundly, however, UBI dis-empowers people rather than empowers them by turning us all into donor recipients. Such donations would depend upon the political machinations of the state, lobbied by powerful corporate interests. Levels of UBI would therefore be constantly under review. Concerns about levels of public borrowing combined with efficiency savings would be used to justify keeping UBI at subsistence levels. Citizens would therefore become even more dependent on the largesse of the economic elites than we are at present - and even more so than our feudal peasant ancestors who at least owned the land from which they produced their livelihoods.    

Times of economic crisis are often catalysts for significant change. Processes that were developing at a certain pace can be accelerated overnight.  UBI may find that its time has come. My own view however is that we would do better to see a radical distribution of businesses and other assets as the preferred economic outcome of the current crisis. 

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump's Syrian Ban: the Politics of Fear Originated in the Republican Mainstream

Two facts (they're important, right?) on Trump's ban on Syrians entering the US.
1. Syrian refugees have been the most heavily vetted group of individuals to ever enter America, with vetting procedures by four separate US Federal agencies, plus the UN refugee agency. The process takes 18 months to two years.
2. The drive to ban Syrians originated in 2015 among a group of right-wing Republican state governors who announced that they would ban Syrians from living in their states. Donald Trump clearly wants to win political support with these individuals - several of whom were early contenders against Trump for the Republican Party Presidential nomination.
Taking this action (banning Syrians) should be seen therefore as a political step taken by Trump aimed at strengthening his political support among a Republican Party which all but disowned him during the election. The ban bears no relation to any objective risk or any security issue.
Shame on these governors for originally stoking this populist fear, which the President has capitalised on, at the expense of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Inauguration of President Trump: State Capture in the Age of Anxiety

As Donald Trump takes the oath of office and is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, I am reminded of the words attributed to District Attorney Jim Garrison by Kevin Costner in the film JFK:  

"If you let yourself be too scared then you let the bad guys take over the country, don't you? And then everybody gets scared."

Trump's candidacy, campaign and eventual election have been critiqued endlessly over the months - on the grounds of his character and temperament, his lack of political experience, his outrageous statements, Trump's nativism and anti-immigration stance, and his populist rhetoric devoid of meaningful policy substance. 

Meanwhile, comparatively little attention has been paid by Trump's detractors to what may well prove to be the overwhelmingly significant issue of the 2016 election: the capture of the United States government by corporate forces bent on their own economic agenda. 

Of course, the powerful role of big business is nothing new in American elections. The influence of corporate-funded lobbies and the power of the military-industrial complex have been well-recognised elements in American political life since at least World War 2. The election of Donald Trump, however, has taken this trend to a new level of intensity, such that State Capture is not too extreme a term to describe the consolidation of the rule of corporate interests in the American political system. 

This underlying fact - the consolidation of an elected plutocracy in one of the world's historic democracies - will prove key to interpreting and understanding the policies of the Trump Administration in the coming months and years. Promises made during the election about immigration, trade deals and draining the swamp of Washington insiders were merely the rhetorical devices used by Trump to secure his election, aided by a virulent campaign against his main opponent - a campaign which may well have been supported by the Russian intelligence services. The actual substance of Donald Trump's rule will be pro-big-business activity that benefits him personally as well as other billionaires who have supported him. 

The new President's cabinet reflects this distortion towards super-rich corporate elites. With personal net worth greater than the GDP of over fifty smaller countries, the new executive team are estimated to own about $11 billion in personal assets. Writing in the Boston Globe, Matt Rocheleau notes that:

President-elect Donald Trump boasted about his wealth during his campaign. Now he’s surrounding himself with people who have similarly unimaginable riches.

Collectively, the wealth of his Cabinet choices so far is roughly four times greater than President Obama’s Cabinet and nearly 30 times greater than the one George W. Bush led at the end of his presidency.

In 1952, Charles E Wilson, former CEO of car giant General Motors and later Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower, revealed the following belief:

For years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist.

Replace General Motors with the name of their own corporations, and Wilson's statement would be a fair summary of the political paradigm of the new incumbent and his administration. Their agenda will be dominated by creating conditions for large businesses to prosper. This will be the thread that runs through domestic and foreign policy. Economic decisions, environmental regulations, healthcare, education policy and relations with China, Europe and Russia will be created, maintained or reformed according to the extent that they facilitate corporate deal-making.   

Against such a backdrop, we should expect little room for those areas of governmental activity that cannot be easily commodified - human rights, environmental protection, police reform or race relations. 

It is indeed a scary time. 

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Star Dust: Being True to our Clay-like Calling

Human beings are made of dust.

This is both scientific fact and theological proposition. 

Our physical bodies are 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen and about 4% "other" - as illustrated by the pie charts below, courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Sand or soil, meanwhile, are composed of many of these similar substances, albeit rearranged in radically different proportions and states. 

The bible affirms our dust-likeness in numerous ways:

  • Adam is made by God from the dust of the earth - his name being derived from the Hebrew word for ground, earth or clay. 
  • Following his fall, Adam is told that death awaits him in the future -  "for dust you are and to dust you will return."
  • King David celebrates God's mercy towards mankind - "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust."
  • The apostle Paul, meanwhile, portrays the relationship of the believer towards God as that of clay in the hands of a potter - dependent on the creation and shaping of the skilled craft-worker.
  • The glory of the new covenant is expressed by Paul as "treasure in jars of clay" - contrasting the magnificence of God's salvation with the mundane nature of its recipients.

Professor Brian Cox explains the science of our dust-like qualities in this classic clip from the BBC's 2011 series Wonders of the Universe

Our dust-like existence has some important consequences: 

1. We have a profound connection with the physical soil 

Our original calling as human beings was to "work and take care of the garden"; every seed-bearing plant and every fruit tree are our staple diet. As Satish Kumar puts it, we are to be about agriculture not agri-business. 

Such an eco-theology may seem hopelessly naive in the digital age of globalisation and genetic science. However, the original calling of men and women to work the garden has not been removed; we remain stewards of the soil from which we were made and to which we will return.

2. We have confidence before God because of his grace

Our frailty, our humanity and our vulnerability do not disqualify us from God's plans and purposes. On the contrary, God remembers that we are dust. He knows our frame. Therefore, we can learn to live with our limitations - and indeed to see them as the context and setting for God's glory to be displayed and revealed. 

We are not crushed by the magnitude of God's glory and power, compared with our own physical, spiritual and psychological weaknesses. Rather, we are honoured and included in his great plan and purpose.   

3, We are to be submissive to God's shaping of us

Shall the clay tell the potter what to do? There is an inner peace that can be experienced by submitting to the hand of God in our lives. Whether he chooses to make us for "noble or ignoble purposes", we can find dignity in our relationship with him.

Furthermore, we can celebrate that whatever the differences in our day-to-day circumstances and existence, our clay-likeness is shared by all human beings. There are no real super stars - just a glorious God who is at work in all of his creation, shaping and working towards the fulfilment of his eternal purpose - bringing all things in  heaven and earth together under Christ. 

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and the Rise of Poor Loser Syndrome

It's interesting to think about the reasons for the rise in "Poor Loser Syndrome which has been so clearly manifest since Friday morning's announcement that a majority of British voters had chosen to leave the European Union. 

I can't help thinking about the different ways in popular culture that winning and losing is currently framed. In some sports, especially those with a large TV audience, the concept of losing (especially a cup final or league title) has become massively inflated - both in emotional and financial terms.

If we were to view videos of the final minutes of FA cup finals from the 1950s to the present day, I suspect that, along with the improved production qualities, we would also see an increase in the severity of emotion expressed by losing teams.

The media have played a part in encouraging this mindset of over-reaction (since it has a popular entertainment value). as has the presence of big money into some sports, which has the capacity to induce strange and unseemly behaviour in otherwise stable and moderate people.

This drift towards the "awful-isation of losing" can also be seen in popular television game shows such as Million Pound Drop, where the failure to win large sums of money is framed - for entertainment purposes - as an unmitigated disaster.

Behind these trends is a growing idolatrous attitude towards money and power. The rise of grievance politics, in which the perceived failure of the individual to achieve personal political self-actualisation is presented as the lowest form of human oppression, adds to the toxic mix.

It seems rather prosaic, but perhaps a simple but significant contribution that many people could make to what Thomas Aquinas described as The Common Good is to simply express publicly the dignified habit of losing well.

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Saturday, May 07, 2016

Politics and Sport: a Bristol Tale

Today has been a day of politics and sport in my home city of Bristol.

I started the day by listening to a talk by Tim Dobson from Woodlands Church on Reaching your City. Tim argued that for the church to reach its city, it had to be actively involved across all the spheres of city life, a dynamic presence in the heart of politics, sport, the arts, education, rather than acting as a separate entity alongside them.

Later that day, having failed to get tickets for the sell-out match, I was listening on the radio to the last Bristol Rovers game of the season. If other results went their way, and if Rovers won the match (against already relegated Dagenham and Redbridge), then the Bristol side would win automatic promotion to League One of the Football League. Glorious as that would be, even more magnificent was the prospect of securing promotion for the second season in a row - a feat never before achieved by Bristol Rovers. 

Meanwhile, in the minutes before kick-off, as Rovers made their final preparations for their vital end-of-season encounter, the results of Bristol's mayoral election were trickling through. Second-choice votes were being counted, but it looked to informed observers as if Labour Party candidate Marvin Rees had won the contest, replacing incumbent Independent Mayor George Ferguson who had been elected in 2012. As Lee Brown tapped in the 92nd-minute goal which secured Rovers' promotion,  the results of the Mayoral election had been confirmed. The Gas were going up; Marvin Rees was Bristol's new elected mayor.  

After Marvin's unsuccessful attempt at becoming elected Mayor in 2012, he was interviewed by Andy Flannagan of Christians on the Left about the intersection between his Christian faith and his political vocation. Rees cites the biblical idea of the Year of Jubilee - the releasing of debts and the proclaiming of liberty - as the overarching narrative that defines his understanding of his own politics. 

Meanwhile, wandering down the Gloucester Road after the match, which was heaving with the blue and white shirts of thousands of Rovers fans, I saw some of the uglier side of our city's life. A Muslim women, fully veiled in a Niqab and with a young daughter and a baby in a pushchair, was waiting at a bus stop as hundreds of the fans streamed past, many spilling onto the busy road, cheering and shouting. Several white men, middle-aged, bald headed, flashed Nazi salutes as they marched past the family. The sight of such hostility and prejudice was shocking, but gave me an insight into what may be a semi-regular feature of life for some of our Muslim neighbours in a society where racism and Islamophobia seem to be on the rise.    

In the pre-match build up, I saw this clip about Bristol Rovers chaplain Dave Jeal. His story of transformation from football hooligan to football chaplain is an inspiring tale of restoration. He now serves as the chaplain at the stadium from which he was once banned. 

I think Tim Dobson was correct. The church has much still to do to be be present, prayerful and authentic in our witness to God's kingdom, a reality which still has the answers to the real issues in our city. 

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Problem of Suffering, Christian Faith, and the Hebrew Mind

When confronted with the twin realities of evil (destructive human action) and suffering (destructive natural phenomena), the Christian believer often feels under pressure to "explain" them in the light of God's goodness, love and sovereignty. We are in fact at the receiving end of nearly 2,000 years of reflection, philosophy and apologetics within the Western Christian tradition that seek to address these issues and respond to the (atheist) question: how can a loving god allow this to happen?

Those of us who are Christian believers may have our various responses to the questions raised. We may have refined and developed them over the years to a point where we at least feel reasonably satisfied with our own explanations.

It is worth reflecting, however, that the Hebrew mind, revealed in the Scriptures, often approaches the question in a different way. Instead of seeking explanation, we find the writers asking questions without apparently seeking to provide answers.

Taken together, this question-asking approach develops into a type of literature that has come to be described as "complaint". It's not "having a moan", but rather asking "why" in an engaged and personally involved way.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of this type of literature.

Speaking thousands of years ago, the God-fearing Job demanded similar answers to those asked by Stephen Fry and other prominent atheists. His questioning of the character of God is breath-taking and audacious. Think about this series of "complaints" for a while, recorded in the Bible for all time for our edification:

"How then can I dispute with him?
How can I find words to argue with him?"

"Even if I summoned him and he responded,
I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
He would crush me with a storm
and multiply my wounds for no reason.
He would not let me catch my breath
but would overwhelm me with misery."

"He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When a scourge brings sudden death,
he mocks the despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it?

"Why does the Almighty not set times for judgement?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?

"The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
Lacking clothes, they go about naked;
they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
They crush olives among the terraces;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
But God charges no one with wrongdoing."

The emotional intensity and challenging, almost accusatory tone of this line of questioning may lead some to see it as the speech of an unbeliever. Nothing could be further from the truth. Evidently, the Hebrew mind allowed for the possibility of challenging questions to be put from a position of faith, as Job did, not only from a position of unbelief. 

In a follow-up post, we'll consider what the Hebrew mind does next with these questions, and how it prioritises wisdom (knowing what to do in different circumstances) over watertight philosophical answers in the face of evil and suffering.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Alvin Plantinga on "Augustinian Christian Philosophy"

For those interested in exploring the relationship between Christian faith and philosophy, a good starting point may be Alvin Plantinga's lecture on Augustinian Christian Philosophy.

Justin Taylor provides a helpful summary of the presentation here. For those with 54 minutes to spare, the whole lecture is available below. 

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Donald Trump and Identity Politics in Eighteenth Century England

Is Donald Trump a Whig?

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, there was a strong and popular association made in England between Roman Catholicism and the idea of Absolute Monarchy. Spain and France were regarded as the prime illustrators of this connection.

Whig Protestants (especially Anglicans) sought on the basis of this association to significantly limit the political freedoms of English Catholics. Many of these restrictions remained in place until the Roman Catholic Reform Act of 1829. One restriction - the prohibition of the monarch being a Roman Catholic or marrying a Catholic - was only repealed as late as 2013.

The tendency to treat entire religious groups as sharing in a particular political ideology is a long-standing one. Donald Trump's generalisations about Muslims is a continuation of this political Whiggish tendency.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

The Hajj Tragedy, Victim Blaming and the Gospel of the Kingdom

Of the many tragedies our world has suffered in 2015, the death of over 700 pilgrims at the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia must be one of the most pitiful. The idea of hundreds of devout worshippers, having saved their hard-earned money to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime event, being crushed to death at a time which should have been at the pinnacle of their religious faith journey, is a true tragedy.
Along with the death of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean this summer, and the desperate experience of those affected by the Ebola outbreak in recent years in west Africa, the Hajj calamity is a human tragedy on a grand scale.

With tragedies come recriminations. Reports suggest that some Hajj pilgrims are blaming the Saudi police and authorities for the stampede in Mina. Saudi spokesmen, meanwhile, are reported as blaming African pilgrims for not following instructions. Iran is blaming the Saudi Royal Family.  

When faced with a tragedy in his own lifetime, the mainstream view confronting Jesus of Nazareth appeared to be that the victims themselves were to blame for what happened.  Jesus responded to this popular assumption by analysing the self-righteous motives of his contemporaries who were not directly affected by the tragedy, and turned their complacency upon themselves by warning them of their own impending doom. 

"Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:4)

Although fewer in number, the victims of the Siloam rower collapse were also the objects of criticism by the self-righteous of Jesus' day. The world-view of the critics is not difficult to detect: a high view of God's sovereignty, meaning that all that happens does so ultimately by the permissive or directive will of God, and a covenant theology which saw unfaithfulness to God resulting in judgement, combined to interpret the death of these 18 as the result of their morally dubious state.

Victim blaming today seeps through much of the analysis of contemporary human tragedies. It is implicit in the European Union's decision in 2014 to not support Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. The claim was that such a humanitarian initiative would act as a "pull factor" in emboldening migrants to board unseaworthy vessels and attempt the perilous crossing from the north African coat to Italy or Malta.  Victim blaming was present in the Sun newspaper's coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy - an editorial decision for which it has publicly apologised

The focus of Jesus' few words on this Siloam tragedy is not on explaining "the problem of evil" in abstract, philosophical terms. Nor does he align himself with those who cast aspersions upon the victims. Instead, he turns the tables and points to those of us who would pass judgement:

"Unless you repent, you too will all perish."

It is highly unlikely that the words of Jesus were intended to predict further tower collapses or similar calamities. Rather, his focus is on something much worse.

To "perish", in its New Testament usage , often means to come under the judgement of God - in this age and the one to come. The apostle Paul, for instance, is quite willing to distinguish between "those who are perishing" and "us who are being saved." (1 Corinthians 1:19) and elsewhere describes those who "perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." (2 Thessalonians 2:10)

Evidently, the Son of God saw it as imperative that people "repent" of sinful patterns of thought, attitude and action. This theme of repentance is present, implicitly or explicitly, throughout the gospels and other New Testament writings.

The tragedies of the Hajj, of tsunamis and of plagues are not to become opportunities for hard-hearted self-righteousness, but occasions to express sorrow and sympathy with the victims, their families and their communities. They also provide a stark opportunity to examine ourselves by asking some uncomfortable questions: have I repented? Am I to perish?

For those who embark on such a process of self-examination, the words of the gospel truly come as good news:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. " (John 3:16-17)

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Foreign Policy Realism and the Prophetic Summons: Jeremiah, Syria, Ukraine and the West

Fools rush in to apply Biblical principles to the complexities of contemporary foreign policy - an exercise which often results in the espousing of bizarre and impractical opinions, and a lack of critical analysis, making the word of God look ridiculous.

It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I offer the following analysis of Jeremiah 27 and apply it retrospectively to the current situation in Ukraine and Syria. 

In the passage cited, the kingdom of Judah finds itself invaded by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who has defeated the army and entered the city of Jerusalem. Having deposed the king (Jehoichin) and replaced him with a puppet ruler (Zedekiah), the Babylonian tyrant then forcibly removes from Judah the economic and social elite of Judean society, taking them into exile, and leaving behind "only the poorest people of the land." (2 Kings 24:14). Nebuchadnezzar, who was personally present in Judah during this military campaign, also removes the royal treasures from Jerusalem, as well as the precious metal artifacts from the Temple. 

 The best-preserved image of King Nebuchadnezzar II, standing next to one of the ziggurats built during his reign. 

Against this backdrop, the prophet Jeremiah (born c. 642 BC) addresses the new vassal king of Judah as well as the envoys of the surrounding nations - Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. These foreign secretaries have gathered in Jerusalem to discuss a possible coalition against Babylon, the new dominant power in the region.

Jeremiah's message to this would-be coalition summit is unambiguous: he urges them to abandon their plans and to submit to the king of Babylon as vassals. The following is typical of the prophet's approach:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Tell this to your masters: With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.

The consequences of pursuing the planned rebellion are severe, according to the prophet:

“If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the Lord, until I destroy it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ They prophesy lies to you that will only serve to remove you far from your lands; I will banish you and you will perish. But if any nation will bow its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord.”

On the one hand, Jeremiah is preaching a message of God's sovereignty in the rise and fall of governments and nations. At the same time, he is urging what could be seen as a "realist" approach to international relations - a recognition that the practical consequences of rebellion will be far worse than the consequences of submission and vassal status. 

It is far too easy to engage in armchair politics and analyse contemporary and complex situations from a safe distance. Nonetheless, to the extent that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are directly impinging upon Britain - military intervention against IS, trade sanctions against Russia, and the vast numbers of displaced peoples resulting from the upheavals -  it is important to have a view on our nation's policy in these conflicts, not least of all in order to be equipped to respond to future scenarios.   

Initial support from some western countries for anti-Assad groups in Syria and for pro-western factions in Ukraine before and during the Euromaiden demonstrations are matters of record. In both cases, ideological motives combined with claims that such western support would reduce the numbers of civilian causalities affected by the two upheavals. An important question to ask therefore is whether, on balance, the civilian populations of both countries are better off or worse off as a result of these rebellions, and whether on humanitarian grounds alone, western support for them has been justified, quite apart from ideological considerations.  

In Syria, the statistics of the five-year war are staggering: 

  • a quarter of a million people have been killed 
  • 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced 
  • 4 million of these have fled the country - a number equal to about 20% of the pre-war population 

The conflict has also seen widespread human rights abuses on all sides, massacres of civilians and combatants, and the rise of Islamic State who have made brutality a defining hallmark of their rule.  

Although overall casualties in Ukraine have been far lower, the displacement of over one million civilians within Ukraine, and the involvement of Russian "irregular" forces in the east of the country and the Crimea make the Ukraine crisis the most serious military situation in Europe since the Balkan Wars.    

Jeremiah's position was that submission to the tyrant provided better outcomes for the subjugated nation as a whole than armed rebellion. This claim had several related strands:

  1. The "realistic" view that it was Babylon's time to be a world power - a reality wrapped in the mystery of God's sovereignty.
  2. The "realistic" view that the minor nations of the near-middle east were going to come under Babylonian domination by the will of God
  3. The claim that subjugation by Babylon was not the same as annihilation. It was in Babylon's interest to extract wealth from its subject kingdoms, not to massacre them or render them economically bankrupt
  4. The time-limited nature of Babylonian domination. This prediction was fulfilled by the defeat of Babylon by the ascending Persian Empire under its ruler Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.

Looking at the carnage in Syria, and the fragmentation of Ukraine along nationalistic lines, it is difficult to argue against the view that. on practical grounds alone, the outcomes for the citizens of these two different countries would have been better if armed rebellion against a tyrant (in the case of Syria) or the forcible removal of an elected President (in the case of Ukraine) had not taken place when they did. Furthermore, it is hard to argue that the west's support for these developments has turned out to be in the best interest of the populations most affected by them.

Aristotle taught the virtue of slow revolutions in political life. Not all fundamental political change has to be sudden. The al-Assad regime could not have lasted for ever. The strengthening of civic society within Syria and Ukraine may have been a less dramatic but potentially more sustainable and judicious approach to supporting the democratisation of these nations.

Hard-nosed, biblically-informed realism should not be ignored when formulating policy in these complex arenas. The well-being of the people, combined with a measured assessment of the risks and outcomes, must be central to western responses. Ideology alone will deliver more pain, not less. 

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