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.