When riches corrupt a nation
We are witnessing an entire country in freefall in which nine out of ten people cannot afford their daily food and where health care has collapsed to such an extent that experts warn of imminent epidemics of malaria and dengue. Inflation is frightening at 1,370,000 % pa measured two months ago up. No surprise, then, that people are leaving en masse; more than 10% have recently fled the country. We are talking about Venezuela. There is an excellent piece on this morning’s BBC news website: All you need to know about the crisis in nine charts:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-46999668 The political situation is dire. In fact, the crisis began with a revolution which went terribly wrong when Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998. The country was already corrupt and badly run and I thought at the time – as did Jeremy Corbyn – that this was what the country needed. However, Chávez forced his reforms through by muzzling parliamentary democracy and his economic maladministration remained unchecked. Things went from bad to worse when in 2013 Chávez was replaced by his foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro. Today his position is being contested by the US and the EU. However, underlying all this is the astonishing fact that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, some 300,878 million barrels, well ahead of Saudi Arabia with 266,455 million barrels. A potentially rich country experiencing destitution. Here we have the curse of oil. Countries with plentiful natural resources, especially oil, strangely underperform, sometimes in a big way. This was documented some 25 years ago by American economist, Jeffrey Sachs. There are all kinds of explanations for this sad phenomenon but eventually they all boil to the same thing, the human heart. Riches corrupt; “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) This comes as no surprise to those who know their Bible. As the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah points out: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Sadly we cannot handle untold wealth, both as nations and as individuals. Witness Will Freeman, played by Hugh Grant in the 2002 film “About a Boy.” The beneficiary of substantial royalties left to him from a successful Christmas song composed by his father, he lives a meaningless existence devoid of any responsibility. Certainly from my own experience those people I have known who are hugely talented right-across-the-board simply do not make it in real life. No struggle and no need to try. Success, however measured, requires perseverance. And that applies to churches as well. If you want to destroy a church, then give it £1million. It will be dead in a generation. Only this last week I came across a church, not in this area, which had substantial reserves, a lot of money just sitting there. It wasn’t that the congregation were saving for some project; it was just-in-case money. Clearly members of the congregation knew about the cash because their weekly giving was pitiful. In fact, now I think about it, I knew of another church some 20 years ago which inherited some £1million – and the wardens wanted to keep it a secret! Their vicar told me that even he would not give very much to his own church until this money was spent. For the key to Christian growth is dependency, relying on God for our daily bread. Here we have the manna, day-by-day, principle. Anything which undercuts our need to depend will stunt our spiritual growth. That applies to money, of course, but it also applies to ability. Once we are confident we can do it ourselves, no need to ask for God’s help, we’ve lost it. The apostle Paul knew this only too well – that’s how he lived his life. Tom Wright in his excellent biography of Paul talks of a terrible experience in the province of Asia between writing his two letters to the Corinthians. “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” (2 Corinthians 1:8) This was to have a powerful effect on his ministry, showing him even more clearly his need to rely on God’s faithfulness. “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (1 Corinthians 1:9) His attitude to hardship, to any challenge, was transformed. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) Here we have a man who was both multi-talented and privileged. A Roman citizen by birth with an education in his country’s top institution, he had everything going for him. Until Jesus intervened.
And so in hindsight Paul can write of all this as garbage. “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:9) To live a life on dependency on God is our only sure course. So the appalling crisis in Venezuela may act as a terrible wake-up call, that his nation may realise the need for honest and transparent leadership at every level. We pray for the Christians there that they may be both salt and light.