Thursday, 20 November 2014

Trying to think as a Christian about Band Aid 30

Here are a few unordered thoughts about Band Aid 30, attempting to think about it as a cultural phenomena... (the video is on their official YouTube channel, here; the original from 1984 is here).
  • Anyone who can watch the original 1984 video without being deeply moved must have a heart of stone.
  • There's a touching naivety and innocence about it too - Africa has no food; we can raise money for them and "feed the world"; then they can eat, and be grateful for our goodness. Isn't life simple?
  • Of course, when you're trying to fund-raise, you want a message that's readily comprehensible. To interpret a 5 minute pop video as the whole message would be over-interpreting....
  • ... however, this has limits. Nobody's making a particularly astute analysis now to point out, after 30 years, that the depictions within it contain gross, crude over-generalisations. In Africa it never rains and nothing ever grows; the solution is Western largesse. In Africa the sun is burning hot - no snow for you, boo hoo. (I never met anyone in Africa who was sorry about the lack of snow. And yes, we all know that there's snow on Mount Kilimanjaro, you very clever clogs - have a gold star!).
  • I can't help finding the 30-years-after-the-fact armchair criticism of some of the newspaper commentariat to be revoltingly smug and self-referential, as if the main point was to praise oneself for making these points now that they've been made for decades, instead of to do something useful for dying people. If you think Bob Geldof is wrong in his approach, then smug armchair criticism is only likely to persuade him of the opposite.
  • Commentators who see Band Aid as an opportunity to take pot-shots at pop stars' legal tax arrangements, or to question whether they're doing it for the publicity or out of genuine concern, or whether they should give more of their own money instead of telling others too, are saying nothing useful. Government is not a charity, and so maximal legal tax avoidance (to be contrasted with illegal tax evasion) is not a moral fault; motive-mongering is a sin; and I have no idea how much of their own money they give - which is a matter between themselves and God, and only a matter for moral censure if there is verifiable evidence (rather than Internet gossip) that they are hypocrites.
  • Bob Geldof is not a Christian. We can't expect him to think or act like one.
  • Not being a Christian, he's ill-placed to accept that the most influential (not only) factors in famine in the 20th century were corrupt human government, and human greed.
  • Neither is he able to perceive the ultimate solution to the problem of famine, in the heart-and-nation-changing gospel of Jesus Christ - which is also the ultimate solution to his own desperate problems, and those that have plagued his tragic family. Jesus Christ makes us new, and puts us back together again - he, alone, puts the world back together again.
  • Nevertheless, the fact that Bob Geldof was and still is appalled to his core at the plight of the people he is trying to raise money for, is because of God's common grace at work. Grace is grace, even when bound up with human confusion and sin.
  • And of course, the immediate solution to starving people is, in fact, to give them some food. The problems of aid, corruption and dependency only arise in conjunction with the attempt to do the main thing that needs doing, and how it is handled.
  • For some Christians, the whole scene of pop culture is corrupt, and we should never even speak about these subjects. I disagree a) that we should never speak about them or b) that speaking about them either endorses or minimises the obvious sin and corruption. We are not discussing what the so-called "stars" of Band Aid 30 get up to away from the microphone, or proposing them as role models by discussing them. They exist, and their song exists: pretending they don't is silly. There's some middle ground between "it's 100% great" and "it's 100% evil". The world of sin and grace that we live in isn't so simple. Christian growth involves learning to navigate through some of these things.
  • The controversial line "tonight, thank God it's them instead of you" was always intended as a piece of ironic moral commentary on the West - and when properly understood, has a lot to say to us. In my view, it's a sign of the Twitter age, that any line that might be instantly slated as it gets crudely misinterpreted had to be dropped - and that's not a good thing, when viewed broadly (though I fully understand that the immediate aim is to sell more records and raise more money to help in the ebola crisis).
  • As Moody said, I much prefer what Geldof has been doing to what the legions of armchair critics have not been doing. The world is a very messy place, and often perfect solutions don't exist. But we can identify the non-solutions pretty easily....
  • ... and I can say that, even whilst I think that aid dumps do vast harm in the long run, and need to be handled extremely carefully to minimise harm - and I think that Western charities routinely don't do this.
  • I can't help noticing, though, that Band Aid 30 has deliberately tried to respond to the criticisms of Band Aid 1984. It speaks of West Africa and a specific crisis, rather than singing about the whole of Africa as if it were a permanent situation.
  • I think that generous aid can be the right response to a crisis situation. The main problem with the imagery associated with Band Aid 1984 was the idea that continual aid is a major solution to Africa's problems - when, in fact, it can actually be fuel on the fire.
  • I read one singer of African descent writing that he did not want to be part of Band Aid 30 because it did not portray a positive image of Africa - and that he'd had many nice holidays in West Africa. He was glad he wasn't in a production that started with a clip of an ebola patient being carried off to die. Well, yes. It's a song about the ebola crisis. What are you expecting? This piece, and others, seemed to be examples of people who realised, 30 years too late, that there was something problematic about Band Aid 1984, and that they needed to parade their hindsight now rather than never. Apparently, 50% of those who had work before the crisis began in Liberia now don't. That sounds like very widespread misery, doesn't it? Is it wrong to point that out, because it fails an arbitrary test of not being "positive"?
  • This is not to say that none of the problematic overtones remain. The West is going to feed the world, when its superstars get together? This is always delicate, as works of poetry (which songs are, whether good pieces or bad pieces) are often open to broad interpretation. (And the false cultural guilt of relativists who are embarrassed by the prosperity that came in the West because of its Protestant roots is nothing to be worried about).
  • The criticism that largely Islamic countries probably don't care if it's Christmas time misses the points that a) Britain today celebrates Christmas as a cultural festival, rather than a religious one, and b) If Bob Geldof sees the future of West Africa as being Christian, then I for one applaud his vision. ;-)
  • Whereas there's plenty of commentary about the naive view of the world promoted in 1984, it should also be recognised that a) this isn't very long ago, and was very widely shared (read some of the accompanying articles about the original Band Aid on Wikipedia to get a sense of the mood) - shouldn't this humble us rather than making us proud? and b) Is the 2014 West's view of the world any less simplistic? Our elite, our political leaders, appear to believe that peace and joy will be spread this Christmas, not by a gigantic aid dump, but by bombing tyrants out of power. If we just displace the leaders and/or disrupt the power structures of, say, Libya, or Egypt, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria, then a new era of secular democracy (the long-awaited millennium, all hail!) will spontaneously dawn across these lands. Won't it? Perhaps if we try it one more time, it will work? Do you think? Remember: this is not the stereotypical knee-jerk Daily Mail reader who is pushing these opinions and acting on them. It's the elite who are thinking this, the ones who give us so much evidence of sneering at the hoi pollo.
  • If the 1984 video and appeal was full of the naive spirit of modernism, then is the West now better off in  the cynical spirit of post-modernism? No. This is not moral progress, but just the replacing of one very wrong outlook with another.
  • Should you give to help with the ebola crisis? That is a difficult question. You should certainly pray. Money given to the wrong places will just line the pockets and entrench the power bases of the corrupt. I have no idea who the Band Aid 30 money will go to or through. The perfect should not become an enemy of the good, of course. Each must decide whom they trust to deal with their funds. It's funny, though, how little thought in the consumerist West we give to spending more money on ourselves again and again, as if this was morally unproblematic in comparison to giving to foreign aid. My main recommendation is to give through Christian organisations which have accountability and meaningful oversight, and which are willing to speak clearly about the huge problems of causing local dependency - evidenced by a track record of dealing firmly with miscreants. (Anyone who doesn't know how at least half of their money would get siphoned into corruption in most of Africa, and who hasn't had to deal with corrupt individuals to deal with that, is probably seeing more than half go down the drain today). It is not easy to discern these organisations - but why do we want it to be easy?
  • The finger of death, evidently, does not only touch people in Ethiopia or West Africa. Look at the videos, and see how Bob Geldof and Bono have aged. That's the touch of death, right there. Life is not young, or vigorous, any more. It's written across their faces as you look from 1984 to 2014.
  • The finger of death is also seen clearly in how many of the singers live their lives. (I confess, I don't know who all of them are). Spiritual death: the obvious indications that they do not know, or love, their Maker, or having a saving relationship with him through Jesus Christ.
  • The finger of death touches us all. There's only one way to ultimately heal the world - through the life-giving, resurrection-bringing gospel of Jesus Christ - which is desperately needed across all nations.
  • Sin is worse than ebola. Those singing about freedom from ebola can be the slaves of sin, and liable to a fate worse than death by raging fever. The "clanging chimes of doom" are ringing for all of Adam's children who aren't in Christ.
  • So, this Christmas time, don't indulge in smug armchair criticism. Care for the orphan and widow, as God told us to - whilst discerning how to avoid encouraging sloth or causing long-term dependency - and preach the gospel, looking for world-wide spiritual fruits to come through spiritual means.
I'm sure there's plenty in there for everyone to take objection to. As I say, they are somewhat unordered thoughts; I only ask that you weigh them up against the Scriptures.