Confessing the Sins of Others

Shrove Tuesday is a day for confessing our sins, for re-establishing a right relationship between ourselves and God and anyone we may have offended, but the headlines are busy with the sins of others — the scandal enveloping Oxfam, to name just one. Why are we so keen to confess the sins of others? Is it because they turn the spotlight away from us onto others, and there is nothing nicer than a glow of moral indignation when we are a little uncertain of our own propriety? (irony intentional)

In the case of Oxfam, there are several elements at work. There is the horrible realisation of an abuse of trust and the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people, apparently covered up or, at the very least, downplayed by those who should have known better. The analogy with the way in which many Catholic bishops have handled the scandal of clerical abuse will not be lost on readers. Then there is the  undignified scurrying to try to ensure that Government funding for many of Oxfam’s projects will not be forfeit. One head has rolled, will there be more? Behind all that is the even bigger question about the way in which the aid agencies in general function and their effectiveness, or lack of it, in dealing with emergencies and helping with development. In the meantime, however, there is the pleasant prospect of uncovering some lurid detail about what went on in Haiti or Chad, or what is alleged to have gone on in some of Oxfam’s shops, and damning a whole organization because some of those who worked for it were completely amoral.

For the ordinary person, who does his/her best to respond to appeals for help and is a regular donor to charities, large and small, there is a growing sense of unease. Can we be sure that this is the best way to help those least able to help themselves? Are the organizations to which we give money well-run? Are individuals within them feathering their own nests at the expense of others? Is anyone really getting to grips with the particular problems of NGOs? The revelations about the Kids Company’s misuse of funds certainly raise grave doubts about the Charity Commission’s regulation of the voluntary sector. Those of us who run small charities are acutely aware of the administrative burden placed upon us, but it does not seem to affect the bigger organizations.

So, we return to our cataloguing of the sins of others, but perhaps we should pause and consider what the likely consequences will be. It would be a huge shame if the revelations about Oxfam were to result, not in a better-managed and more transparently moral organization, but in a drying-up of funds and the cessation of development projects that are sorely needed*. There is a further point connected with what this day is about for those of us who profess to be Christians. Pointing the finger at others is easy but has a way of exposing our own shortcomings. We may not have acted as some Oxfam employees did, but have we always been truthful, honest and kind in our dealings with others? Have we lived lives of unimpeachable integrity, never gossiping, never giving way to rash judgement, never exploiting others? The questions we ask about aid agencies are, in a sense, the questions we need to ask about ourselves. Thanks to Oxfam, Shrove Tuesday just got a little more personal.

* The whole question of development aid is one that needs to be addressed. It is significant that many countries which have been the beneficiaries of such aid in the past are not keen to receive any more. Emergency aid, by its very nature, poses different questions.