There’s a sad and tragic Washington Post story of an Iraqi teenage boy who struggled with cancer for years and sought treatment at an Iraqi cancer hospital built by the U.S. for over $100 million, touted by then First Lady Laura Bush. The noble American intention was to ensure Iraqi children had first class cancer treatment. The result was that corrupt Iraqi officials and contractors siphoned off millions of dollars, depriving the hospital of needed equipment, medicines and personnel. The doctor eventually told the boy’s family they could find the needed treatment only outside Iraq. But the family had already spent all their meager resources. The boy died. And his family in his grief.
As the Post noted, Iraq’s Ministry of Health is well-funded and will spend $1.3 billion this year just on hospital construction. But the “ministry is dominated by the party of populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who emerged as the winner in national elections in October, and is a cash cow for those who run it.”
Corruption at the expense of the needy is not unique to post-U.S. invasion Iraq. Among his countless other crimes and thieveries, Saddam Hussein infamously siphoned $1.8 billion from the United Nations food for oil program intended to feed malnourished Iraqis. Such graft and exploitation by ruling cliques are common to varying degrees in especially in poorer Global South countries, even more so under dictatorships. Western aid plays a big role in bankrolling this graft. It’s also common in somewhat wealthier but authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes like Putin’s Russia.
It’s an old story that dates to the start of humanity. The powerful steal and the powerless suffer. The possibly avoidable death of an Iraqi teenager, despite the over $100 million spent by America to help young cancer patients, shocks us. In America, such a scandal is unlikely. We are wealthier, yes. But such brazen corruption and thievery by public officials is far less common. There are typically oversight, transparency, and accountability. Public officials skimming funds from hospital construction in the U.S., resulting in needless tragedy and death by suffering children, in most cases would be challenged by colleagues, lower level whistle blowers, journalists, bloggers, various other levels of government, local and federal, amid litigation. It would become a national scandal. In Iraq, and in much of the world, it’s mostly just another day. Presumably the Iraqi dead boy’s parents won’t sue Moqtada al-Sadr. Largescale graft is the widely accepted reward for rulers, and their tribes with other supporters. Why shouldn’t they?
America and Western countries have far lower levels of systemic graft, but it’s not because Westerners are intrinsically more virtuous. Human nature is universal. But there is an ethos in the Christian-shaped West that makes flagrant public thievery, especially at the expense of children’s lives, less acceptable. The accountability and challenge of democratic rule and free speech enable exposure, opposition and consequences in response to corruption.
This culture of accountability that is less deferential to power required centuries of moral capital to accumulate and for democratic governance to evolve. It was not an easy or straight line across so many years of struggle, nor is that struggle ever over. The strong by nature are always to prone to exploit the weak. But the central theme of Christianity, especially proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that Christ the Slain Lamb is a suffering Servant who protects the weak from the avaricious and Who ultimately will dethrone despots and makes the last first and the first last.
This social and political reordering is not just eschatological but, providentially, unfolds incrementally in the course of human events, as Gospel influence disseminates, directly or indirectly. The West by some standards is increasingly, “secular,” which is itself a Christian concept, even as Christian-originated assumptions about fairness and human equality are more potent than ever.
In his National Review Christmas article on how Christianity transformed the world, George Weigel notes that Jesus desacralized family, tribe and state, elevating the individual and his or her direct accountability to God. Each individual was invested with sacred worth, dignity and equality demanding equal justice. Each individual also was recognized to have conscience, aware his or her thoughts and actions were always known to God. There was no hiding from Him or escaping His justice, no matter status in society. Indeed, kings and queens would be judged far more exactingly than the lowly because they have more. Christianity created not just the church but the richness of civil society apart from the state that is empowered to challenge the powerful especially in the state. Weigel asks:
Could the democratic West as we know it have emerged without the Christian desacralization of the state and the Christian insistence on the independence of the church, or the Christian concept of the universal applicability of rational norms of justice, or the Christian affirmation of voluntary, self-governing, free associations, or the Christian habit of rigorous self-examination?
The answer is mostly no. Weigel concludes:
The democratic project as we know it did not develop in Hindu, Mogul, Confucian, or African cultures, nor had it developed in the cultures Europeans found in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th century. The West — its science, its economics, and its democratic project — developed in cultural soil enriched by biblical and Christian ideas, convictions, modes of life, and practices.
In his accompanying National Review piece, Joe Loconte notes the particular Reformation contribution to individual human rights and challenge to authority, quoting Alec Ryrie in Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World: “This was the true and enduring radicalism of Protestantism: its readiness to question every human authority and tradition.”
In this spirit, most Americans, and other Westerners, among others most influenced by Western civilization, do not passively accede to exploitation by aspiring despots and expect rulers to be accountable to them. They expect their children to get decent medical treatment without fear of needed resources routed to corrupt officials. Most persons living in the shadow of Christendom expect that corrupt officials who engorge themselves on the sufferings of others can and will be challenged. And most of us in America and in our civilization expect people will receive approximately equal treatment regardless of their tribe.
Americans in funding children’s cancer hospitals in places like Iraq expect their generosity and good will to be honored with integrity. But other cultures often have very different expectations and standards. And human nature is such that great generosity often fuels greed, especially when unchecked by viable law and social expectations. The challenge for Christian Realists is to discern how to advance the good to the furthest extent without bestirring additional demons. This search for justice and decency is never simple or easy, but wisdom and divine mercy can point the way.