Robin Hood ethics: should I rob the rich to feed the poor? – by John Bavington

Poverty and wealth next door to each other in BrazilI work in a boarding school where the fees are nearly £28,000 pa (or only £19,000 if you come as a day pupil).  “It’s not the real world”, some would say.

But they are wrong.

This is a part of the real world.  The world in which rich and poor co-exist, as they did in the time of Jesus, and in every age.

Pakistan, Kings Cross and Brazil

I grew up in Pakistan and attended a fee-paying school along with Karachi’s elite. There I saw shanty houses of cardboard built up against the mansions of my school friends.  They also were next door to my own, admittedly more modest, mansion.

Years later, I worked for five years as a youth worker for a church in Kings Cross in London.  Most of my work focussed on one of London’s poorest estates – yet Tony Blair lived only a few streets away.  Geographically it was so close, but it in terms of wealth and opportunity it seemed to be another planet.

Like the picture above of a Brazilian slum right next door to a luxury apartment block -this is the real world in which we live.

From poverty to wealth

Most of my life and ministry has been spent in the inner city, both in London and Bradford, surrounded by poverty. Here, in this school, I find myself surrounded by wealth. What does Christian ministry mean here?

Well, one thing it means to me, is to speak up for the poor and the marginalised. There are various ways I am able to do this. But my favourite opportunity comes each year at Christmas, when the final week of term is filled with chapel services and concerts.  I have been able to arrange things so that at each event there is a collection for Tearfund, and I have the chance to say something about those who are affected by poverty.

Robin Hood ethics

The Chapel “services” are run by the chaplaincy (my department), but “concerts” are run by the school’s music department. Imagine my concerns a couple of years ago when it was agreed by the school’s management team that half the money given at these concerts would go to subsidise school pupils on a music tour to Italy, instead of going to Tearfund. These concerts typically raise about £800, so from my point of view, the poor would be losing £400.

I have the opportunity every year to be Robin Hood. You see, I count the collections after they are all taken in, and I take the money to the bank. To steal from the rich and give to poor would be easy for me. It would just mean transferring some of the money from the “Concert” collections to the “Service” collections…

What do you think?

Robin Hood was a hero for robbing the rich to feed the poor.  But would I be a hero for this sort of redistribution of wealth? Or would I be grossly abusing my position of trust?

Please vote on what you think I should do in the poll below.

Its worth considering: If Robin was a hero, why is it so difficult to persuade society at large to follow this same line of thinking in a larger-scale and more effective way?

All comments welcome!

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9 Responses to Robin Hood ethics: should I rob the rich to feed the poor? – by John Bavington

  1. Isn’t it obvious that spending the money on the Italian tour is an abuse of trust? Or do people already know that half the money they are giving to Tearfund is being channeled into the Glee Club?

    • John Bavington says:

      Sorry if this wasn’t clear in the original blog. At the concerts people are told that their money is being divided between Tearfund and the school music department. So I am trusted to count it and bank it as given. The possible abuse of trust would be to redistribute it so that more of it goes to Tearfund and less to the music department.

      I have had people come up to me afterwards and say that they hadn’t taken in that some of the money was going to the music department, and would I make sure their money went to Tearfund.

  2. Jon Kuhrt says:

    Thanks for the post John. Robin Hood (whether a fictional legend or not) lived in a time of mass injustice. He is presented in most of the films as being forced to undertake violence revenge because the overall context was so unjust and unfair.

    Your article made me think about whether the overall context of your school, the fees it charges and the inequality which underpins such a level of fees, is where the real justice issues lie. Of course, giving money to an organisation like Tearfund is good – but how much is it just the smallest of tinkerings at the edges of the problem?

    I would be really interested in how, as Chaplain, you also work against the feelings of superiority and elitism which can so easily become part of such a context?

    Readers might also be interested in this previous article and poll on R&R on Christian views on private education – http://resistanceandrenewal.net/2012/05/10/should-christians-send-their-children-to-private-schools/

    • John Bavington says:

      Of course you’re right, Jon. The issue of what to do with a few collections pales into insignificance next to the wider issues of justice in society and the world.

      Education is about producing adults, not exam results. Our school has a Christian foundation, and a committed Christian as headmaster, so together we try to create a community in which social responsibility is generated through teaching and example.

      I chair the charity committee as part of my role, and although it may seem a small amount in comparison to the fees, this year we sent £1700 to Tearfund as a result of our Christmas collections, and in total the school community will raise over £10,000 for a wide range of charitable causes each year. This includes supporting an orphanage in Mombasa, Kenya, and a range of other things. We have run a sixth form conference on philanthropy, and I guess I accept that many of our pupils will go on to well-paid positions in the future, but I hope they will take a desire to make some impact for the poor with them.

      The “way of the world” is for the rich to seek ways to preserve their wealth and privilege. I suppose there are a variety of minor ways I hope to subvert that world-view, not least by trying to bring all to Christ to have their hearts changed. Tinkering at the edges of society, I guess. Not very radical. “The poor you will always have with you.” Until the Kingdom comes.

  3. Alan Bolchover says:

    Effectively it would be stealing and there can be no justification. However as the school has a chaplain the school has committed to a christian ethos and it would be only right to write to the management committee, teachers and governors to state your concerns that in this time of great poverty and suffering, they have conveyed a message to pupils and parents alike that self-interest trumps the belief in helping those in need.

    In environments such as private schools it is easy to be shut away from the realities of poverty and social problems around you. Surely a school such as this has a moral imperative to educate its gifted pupils of the importance of letting self interest give way to a responsibility for the world they live in.

  4. K says:

    The key reason it would be wrong for you to redistribute the money is, as your poll suggests, because it would be a huge abuse of trust. You would be unlikely to convert any of the pupils or staff to a more egalitarian view of things via such actions.

    On the other hand, if you were to leave your position at the school, and then access the money by some other means in order to act as ‘Robin Hood’ this would seem closer to the spirit of the original. A more ‘honest’ act of stealing, if you like.

    It also makes a difference because it’s a school where you are presumably to a greater or lesser extent a role model. If you were secretary to a team of highly paid bankers with a similar potential for ‘wealth re-distribution’ it would be easier to make a stronger moral case!

  5. nickgraves1 says:

    Traditionally Robin Hood only took back the equivalent of that which had been taken violently or under duress by the sheriff of Nottingham. Not sure that this situation should be likened to Robin Hood’s own predicament. I agree with my honourable former neighbour, Mr Kuhrt that perhaps the real injustice here lies in inequality which in my opinion is the fact that the financially are able to buy a superior education.

  6. John, do you have your own blog? I like the post and I’d like to see more of this kind of insight. :)

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