by Njoki Mahiaini, 22nd February 2016
“I don’t need anybody’s money. It’s nice…I’m really rich”.
No prizes for guessing which US presidential candidate spoke those immortal words. I hasten to add, I am not critical of Trump solely because of his fabulous wealth, indeed, in light of the presidential race I consider it one of few commendable things about him. Yes, despite numerous unwise statements and myriad personal failings I have concluded that to a degree, Donald Trump has a unique advantage in the integrity stakes. We know who he is beholden to (hint: Donald J Trump), we know who pays his bills (hint: Donald J Trump) and this grants him an inevitable advantage over candidates such as Hillary Clinton – ironically one of many senior US politicians to whom Trump has previously donated funds - and even the departing President Barack Obama.
The recent ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign which began at the University of Cape Town but reached its media zenith at the University of Oxford is one such example of the reality of compromise. This was the very same university which had endured criticism for refusing to host a debate in November 2014 on the motion “This house believes that abortion culture harms us all.” Oriel College decided, after receiving an “enormous amount of input,” to keep erected a statue of its controversial alum Cecil Rhodes; the British imperialist noted for his white supremacist views and the dubious honour of being dubbed the ‘founding father of apartheid’. The Telegraph revealed that some of this “input” arrived in the form of furious letters from wealthy donors who stated in no uncertain terms that their support would be withdrawn should the statue fall. The college was hamstrung, its present position – upheld in the name of free speech – perhaps more honestly attributable to the potential loss of over £100m in pledges.
In the Bible Joseph fled Potiphar’s wife’s advances despite the favour it might have granted him in the household. He knew that even though no-one would see them, an affair would compromise his loyalty to his master and ultimately his service to God. “‘My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’ And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.” (Genesis 39:9-10) As we know, far from his integrity being rewarded, the scorned wife accused Joseph of assaulting her and he was thrown in prison. An ironic and ancient reminder that in this life at least there can be truth in the lament that 'no good deed goes unpunished'.
It’s not always easy to do the right thing. Recently I’ve been challenged on the compromises I make both consciously and subconsciously. In a world where personal choice is king, it’s difficult to hold oneself to too high a standard because, generally speaking, everything is acceptable as long as it doesn’t appear to harm anyone else. Yet how much effort have we made to understand where harm might occur? How deep are we willing to delve? Our politicians may bemoan the rise of ISIS but does knowing they were once largely funded by illicit arms money change Britain’s trade relationship with Saudi Arabia? Not in the slightest. On a more personal level we might relish cheap clothing and the thrill of fast fashion but how likely are we to resist a bargain until we can vouch for its ethical standards? I thought so.
In a bid to force myself to more actively scrutinise the unjust systems in which I may be complicit I have given up online shopping for lent. As I’m more likely to shop for clothes and non-essential goods online than in-store this small step is already making me much more aware of how far removed we are from the source of many supply chains and the environmental impact of our web buying habits. I hope that once the 40 days have passed I’ll be more likely to think twice about every purchase I make not just when it comes to clothing but food and electrical goods too. Obviously there is a point at which Christians have to draw a line of acceptability in the knowledge that we live in a sinful world with a thoroughly imperfect economy. Nevertheless, in doing so we must first consider the message our actions send with regard to what we value and whom we serve.
“Better a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.” Proverbs 28:6