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Dear Oxfam: 3 pieces of advice from a Christian

Jonty Langley writes an open letter to Oxfam in the light of the sexual abuse scandal currently being highlighted by the press

Hey Oxfam,

First of all, let me say that I love your work. Second, I’m sorry. The attack you’re coming under in the media is awful and the reasons are upsetting. Naturally you’re upset. You want to do better, be better (I know you do, I’ve met many of your people and they are like my people: true believers trying their best to make the world a better place). And the revelations in the media make you feel like you’re in some way a failure. You’re not. You’re a scapegoat, a symbol of something good and therefore a target.

That is not to say you’re perfect or you get everything right. Heck, love you as I do, as an evangelical Christian I have to say that your work lacks something fundamental in terms of the hope you can offer people. But you’re not a mission agency and even if you were you’d still make mistakes. I think, on the whole, though, you deal with them well.

So, as someone from a group that understands being occasionally vilified (by right and left) because of the behaviour of some of our people, I would like to tell you that it’s going to be okay. As a member of a worldwide organisation of very different people in different contexts that holds and acts on views that sometimes run counter to what is popular, I would like to encourage you to hold fast. And as a member of a community that has been making mistakes for 2,000 years, I’d like to offer some advice:

1. Attack is a good sign you’re going in the right direction

Most evangelicals know that the enemy comes against you when you’re doing the right thing, making a difference. Not everyone in Oxfam will resonate with the idea of a personal force of evil in the world (though many will), but trust me. We get this all the time. Do something good, get baptised, make a decision to live better and watch the sudden coincidence of tough things that suddenly start to crop up in your life. People who oppose you, seemingly out of nowhere. You might call it bad luck. We call it attack. It passes.

Assess your life (as individual or organisation) for areas in which you need to repent, but don’t let it weaken your resolve. Oxfam, you are challenging the systematic injustice at the heart of our world that keeps people suffering and in chains. The timing of these attacks is no accident, coinciding as they do with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s latest attempt to woo the media and his party by demonising the mercy and justice at the heart of foreign aid. The fact that they are reaching for a scandal you admitted to in 2011 smacks of desperation and a co-ordinated campaign. The fact it has been taken up across other media suggests a desire to make people forget about your latest report into global inequality and the fact that poor people aren’t poor by accident, but because of decisions taken by the rulers and principalities of this world.

Oxfam, you are challenging the systematic injustice at the heart of our world that keeps people suffering and in chains

This is the way it always happens. Speak truth, get accused in half-truths, exaggerations and matters you’ve long ago repented for, dredged up to make you powerless with guilt and shame. It happened to God himself. It’s a sign you’re going the right way. It’s a sign you’re doing God’s work.

2. Don’t expect to be perfect

There’s a lesson we’ve had to learn over centuries in the Church. Jesus knew it straight away, but as people we are slow. The lesson is this: you can’t make all of your members perfect. It’s unrealistic. You can try as hard as you like to educate your people, to pick ones with the right attitudes, who are fully bought in to doing the right thing, but most of them will fall short of your standards. So will you. That doesn’t mean abandoning those standards or failing to hold people accountable. But you cannot police people’s lives, every hour of every day. And it would be unhealthy to. When we do that, we cease to be churches and become cults.

Oxfam workers do all sorts of things abroad and at home in their spare time that you’ll be disappointed or even horrified by. You need to remember that workers from oil companies, banks, the military and the press are doing the same because, in our words if not yours, all have sinned and fallen short. This fact does not make your organisation fundamentally flawed. It makes it human.

3. Beware the twin dangers of licence and puritanism

I’ve met Oxfammers. Most of you are true believers in the way many of my people are. You don’t leave your beliefs at the door when you leave the office. In all of your life you’re probably wanting to apply the ideals of equality, creation care, justice and mercy (however you express those things). And that’s great. But attacks like these will bring out two potential responses – attitudes you see in every church and which, in some unfortunate cases, become obsessions. The first is licence – the response to any wrongdoing that says, “hey, we’re doing something good here, so we should be cut more slack than other people”. This will only lead to abuse. Trust me – churches that embrace it lose their impact and cease to be salt and light – so, while it hardly seems necessary to say, knowing Oxfam as I do: guard against it.

The bigger danger is puritanism – the idea that somehow you can expel all unrighteousness from your ranks by making your standards for righteousness ever tighter and your acceptance of anything but perfection less and less likely. A natural reaction to external attack is to become internally intolerant. But not only is it ineffective on your own, it always spills out into the way you treat the world. We call it fundamentalism. We call it a terrible witness. And if you went that way, most of us would call that a pity.

And finally…

As you deal with this trial, you may come face to face with some harsh truths about yourself. Use that, Oxfam, to be better, but don’t accept the narrative of condemnation. You’re imperfect, yes, but you are being used to make a difference in the world, and many of us are praying for you.

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