One more sip of the coffee


Sandy Grant is a man of integrity.

Back in the early days of Sola Panel, I wrote a post about the fad of Christians supporting the fair trade coffee movement, in which I basically suggested that while the sentiment of wanting to help poor third-world coffee growers was noble, trying to do it by a centralized price-fixing mechanism would probably do more harm than good.

There was, as you might imagine, a pretty lively debate in the comments, and Sandy was one of the Sola Panelists who politely begged to differ with my perspective. (And he was indeed polite.)

Now flash forward: if you were Sandy, and you happened to come across some evidence that cast significant doubt on the effectiveness of the fair trade movement, what would you do? Ignore it? Bury it? Or email it to the guy who you were disagreeing with and say, “Maybe you were right all along”?

Needless to say, being the kind of man he is, Sandy did the latter. He sent me this link, which argues that the fair trade movement is a well-meaning failure.

Now I am not nearly as godly as Sandy, which is obvious by the subtle ‘I told you so’ manner that has already begun to creep into this post.

But I have often reflected back on that first post, and one or two similar posts since, and wondered whether I managed to communicate what I was trying to say.

I think it was this: biblically-driven agreement about desirable ends or goals in our world does not entail agreement about means, methods and proximate goals. Christians should expect to agree about the former, but extend freedom to one another in differing about the latter, because means, methods and strategies are complex, difficult, and largely a matter of situational wisdom.

Thus, we might all want the best for third-world farmers, but differ on how to go about this (for practical and wisdom reasons). We also may want the best for indigenous health and welfare, the best for the global environment, the best for refugees, the best for educating our children, and so on. But we may very well disagree on the best means of getting there.

Generally speaking, the kinds of solutions offered to these various secular problems will fall into two camps: a collectivist, centralizing, bigger-government solution, or an individualist, market-based, smaller-government solution (usually labelled as left-leaning and right-leaning respectively). So the fair trade movement is a left-leaning response to the problem of third-world farmers; a right-leaning response might be to offer micro-credit loans to allow the farmers to diversify into what the market has decided are more lucrative crops. Likewise, a left-leaning response to education is for the government to run it, and to organize our tax system accordingly; a right-leaning response is for individuals and private corporations to take more responsibility for education, and to structure the tax system accordingly.

Both left-leaning and right-leaning approaches have things going for them, and express truths about the human condition; both have weaknesses and can lead to harm and even disaster. And we usually favour one approach or the other more out of family background, educational culture and social peer pressure than out of a deeply thought-out analysis of the issues.

Now my point is not that we should adopt one approach over the other—in fact, we may find that one sort of approach works better for some issues, and the other approach for other issues (e.g. even the most right-leaning person would normally agree that the defence of the nation ought to be handled by the the state).

No, my real point is Christian freedom. We need to extend to one another the liberty to make these pragmatic judgements as best we can. This means that we should not declare the ‘Christian’ position to be pro-fair trade, or pro-private education, or pro-unionized labour, or pro-anything that is a pragmatic matter of left-leaning vs. right-leaning. We shouldn’t tie our views on these matters to the gospel, to our churches, or to our preaching, as if to believe the gospel or be part of our church means that you should support fair trade or any other particular cause or policy.

And as for the higher moral ground—let us leave it occupied by Christ.

8 thoughts on “One more sip of the coffee

  1. Thanks Tony, I largely agree with you on this issue.

    But let me think aloud for a minute.
    Acknowledging uncertainty in this area doesn’t mean we are committed to a kind of relativism, in which we can’t make a moral judgement at all because we’ll never be able to know everything about the siutaation. And we must add the freedom to disagree must have its limits. Otherwise- can we have any moral insight about our world at all? Will there ever be a case in which the evidence coming from the world around us is so compelling that we just have to say ‘no’? What weight has our dicernment in this?

    Just say for example that the case for human induced climate change was overwhelming to the point at which it would be seriously dishonest or wilfully ignorant to deny it. Would we be wrong to insist on that truth as far as it is possible for human beings to know any truths?

    Perhaps it is a poor example, or too controversial. But: what do we make of our need for moral discernments, and at what point do we say, the gospel istelf (which teaches me to say no to ungodliness) compells me to take this stand?

  2. A couple of problems:
    1.  The political goals we have, and their relative importance, are also framed by our political understanding. All our political parties want a “prosperous Australia”, but the Liberal and Green picture of what it looks like would be quite different.  I fear it is simplistic to assume we can agree on political end-goals Biblically.
    2.  There is an entire Christian subculture across the river from me who sincerely believe that God votes Liberal.  They won’t accept that politics is a wisdom issue unless my wisdom is the same as theirs. What’s the appropriate response?

  3. Thanks Michael. Two quick ‘think aloud’ responses of my own:

    1. I think the Bible itself guides us in discerning what are matters of freedom (about which we might agree to disagree), and what are matters of righteousness, about which we might urge and exhort and rebuke one another. (Romans 14 for example; 1 Cor 8-10 etc.) As a good Anglican I would only ever want to bind the conscience of a believer on something which can be proved from Scripture.

    2. Your climate change example I think adds weight to my original point. So even if everyone agreed that human-induced climate change was happening, and that the consequences would be significant—even then, the discernment about what to do about it is a matter of wisdom and practical judgement, about which honest people will have significant disagreements. (So it would be quite possible, for example, to agree that climate change was very likely, but also to think that a carbon tax for Australia at this point was an unwise or imprudent course of action.)
    As citizens we might have an opinion about which of those approaches will be the most effective/efficient, but I don’t think this is part of our moral discernment, or our pursuit of godliness.


  4. Hi Ellen

    Thanks for the comments. You’re quite right of course—what goals we think are worth pursuing will be decisively shaped by our view of the world, by our core beliefs (not just our political understanding, but our theological understanding). I was more referring to the fact that as Christians we might share the same moral principle (to pursue justice, for example), but find ourselves disagreeing about the best way to do that in terms of public policy.

    On your second point, how do you respond to people who turn matters of freedom into matters of righteousness? I would say be patient and accepting of them as ‘weaker brothers’, and keep trying to educate their consciences.


  5. I couldn’t agree more with your first sentence, having worked with Sandy for a few years.

    I wonder if you’re arguing for what people used to call “separation of church and state” (before the phrase became cliched and abused to mean something like “separation of God and government”)?

  6. OK, so there’s a difference between a matter of principle on which Scripture gives us no real option (ie, we ought to be generous to the poor) and a particular tactic in response (Free Trade coffee). To often the latter is confused with the former.

  7. Wish I could have said it so succinctly, Michael. It’s the problem of legalism more generally—confusing a particular instantiation of a principle with general obedience to the principle, and giving them equal force.

    It’s also important to emphasize that the principle should continue to drive us, even as we find ourselves possibly disagreeing over tactics, or finding that a tactic has failed. The difficulty of tactics does not absolve us from the imperative of the principle.

  8. Obviously, I’m very late to this party. And, I know that the broader point of the post was not about fair trade as such, but about “means and ends” and legitimate Christian disagreement about the one (fair trade) in the midst of agreement about the other (reducing poverty). However, undaunted:

    The Financial Post article you link to seems to make selective use of the original research. You can find the paper, “Profits and Poverty” here: profits & poverty.pdf

    The original research is not particularly positive about the effects of organic and fairtrade certification (not only fairtrade as the article and this blogpost imply), but it is also not as negative as seems to be suggested.

    First, it’s a household survey covering a small number of producers in one part of Nicaragua. It shouldn’t be dismissed on that basis, but does mean that more research needs to be done to see if these findings hold up for other groups or on a larger scale – a point the authors themselves make.

    On the pro-F/T side, the research points out that organic and organic/FT producers did relatively better than conventional producers during the crash of coffee prices (1998-2001).

    On the anti-F/T side, the research points out that they have done relatively worse during a time when world coffee prices have been increasing.

    Why? It seems possible (even likely) that the higher labour requirements for families that were already poorer and more vulnerable and working smaller plots of land reduced their profitability. But the authors themselves say they “cannot rule out the possibility that the results are inluenced by selection bias.”

    So, in fact, no very strong conclusions there.

    But if some certified farmers have experienced increased poverty levels in this region, then F/T schemes need to look in detail at that. And try to fix whatever factors are at work.

    Like micro-credit and micro-enterprise, F/T can increase household income, but it can also leave people either no better off, or possibly even more vulnerable under some circumstances it seems.

    So, in short, I agree with you that as Christians we need in general to work for close agreement on ends as far as possible, but retain flexibility about means, as these will often be highly context-dependent.

    I think the last thing worth noting is that Nicaragua’s coffee trade continues in a global system in which the richest countries provide the largest subsidies to their producers, and over-production is still driven by the export-oriented policies imposed on so many poor countries by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

    How you choose to consume (fair trade or not) within a rigged system may not, in the end, make all that much of a difference to the victims of that system.

    Though I suggest that the other aspects of most fair trade schemes I know of (support to the poorest producers, guaranteed minimum prices, support for education and training) are worth supporting even in this less-than-second-best world.

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