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The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

religion-dm-500

Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

Last week I heard of a local church planning several mission trips to East Africa in 2013.  As a child of missionaries, myself, I’d like to speak to the immense popularity of mission trips among “Christian America,” recognizing and risking that readers might take exception to my perspective.

Mission trip promotional poster

Typical mission trip promotional poster

I acknowledge that this is not a thorough and researched treatise, as it were, on church mission trips. Rather, it’s a short, somewhat atypical perspective, which I hope will provoke at least a modest questioning and rethinking about mission trips.  I do not disparage any and all “good,” which might result from such trips, but I’m unconvinced “the good” outweighs “the bad.”

It seems to me that the underlying, oft-times unconscious purpose of many, if not most church mission trips, especially short-term and itinerant ones, could be typified as: 1) Self-enrichment; 2) Finding self and a life meaning; 3) Growing my church and “the kingdom”; and 4) Holiday-with-a-social-service add-on.  These, in contrast to an altruism of commitment to the well-being of “the different and distant others,” who according to Desmond Tutu, we should consider as “family.”

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, professor of global studies and sociology in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as author of White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, made two observations about Christian missions, which I agree with.  Although he wrote in the past tense of the 19th and early 20th centuries, regrettably, I believe little has changed today.

whiteonblack

First, missions were (are) engaged in, at least in part, as a rejuvenating cure for the home church’s faltering spiritual and numerical decline.

Secondly, fund-raising for overseas’ mission ventures was (is) dependent upon conveying a “demonized image of the heathen under the devil’s spell, and on the other the romanticized self-image of the missionary in the role of saviour.”

The two stereotypes were (are) interdependent, in that, “The glory as well as the fund-raising of the missions were (are) in direct proportion to the degradation and diabolism of the heathen.”  Btw – I could easily corroborate the continued practice of this second point simply by sharing verbatim from several recent emails in my Inbox.

My postgraduate mentor was insistent in telling students that language is formative in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions toward people different.  For example, he especially disliked the term “non-Christian,” because it implies a standard of value measurement, in which “Christian” is the absolute or sole source of good and truth, while any and all things and persons “non-Christian” are less-than. Instead, when possible, use an expression like “people of other faiths.”

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

In the same spirit, he warned students not to use “uneducated” in their semester research papers, because that too communicates a less-than-me attitude toward someone different and less economically fortunate.  Rather, in referring to a person(s) who lacks a school education, say something like “s/he lacks formal education,” but don’t ever say “uneducated” because many “uneducated people” of the world are without question some of its most intellectually brightest.

One example is the Khoi and Bushmen of Southern Africa’s Khoisan language compared to the relative simplicity of the English language. An early explorer’s impressions of the Khoisan language, as taken from Lancaster’s Voyages, states, “Their speech is wholly uttered through the throat, and they cluck with their tongues in such sort, that in seven weeks which we remained here in this place, the sharpest wit among us could not learn a word of their language.”

A San family

A San family

Many recipients of “Christian humanitarianism” of the 18th through 21st centuries, experienced “mission” in a less-than self and culture-affirming manner (*the enmeshing of Bible and Christianity with imperialism, colonialism, and present-day globalization is well-known, and succinctly depicted by historian Brian Stanley’s book The Bible and The Flag) .  

Bible&Flag

The coupling of so-called “good news” and reigning political and economic power is evident in a well-known statement attributed to Kenya’s independence fighters, the Mau Mau, “Formerly we owned the land and the whites had the Gospel. Then the missionaries came, they taught us to pray and close our eyes, and in the meantime the whites took our land. Now we have the Gospel and they have the land.”  

Despite advocates who argue that “mission” is a neutral term, citing its popular and frequent use in the corporate world of “mission statements,” from my perspective “mission” persists in conveying power, control and militaristic imagery, and communicates the idea that somethings or someones need “saving” or “saving from.”  It’s a tacit admission that “they” and “them” need “us” in order to experience a happy and fulfilled life, find God, and obtain a “get-into-heaven” pass code.

If you question my evidence for the historical and continued militaristic conveyance of “Christian missions,” spend some time researching church and missionary archives such as the Congregationalists’ American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  You will observe that young boys and girls were organized into local “Mission Crusader” clubs, all with the express purpose of “fighting for Christ and His Kingdom . . . against the Evil one and his Kingdom.”  In the mid-1840s, the analogy of Napoleon’s conquests was utilized as incitement and preparation for overseas missions.

American Board missionary to Syria, Eli Smith, in an address to members of the Society of Inquiry stated, “They forget that the object for which the church is organized, is not so much the maintenance of fortresses already taken and garrisoned, as for universal conquest.”  Later he described foreign missions as a “foreign war.”  Furthermore, each issue of The Missionary Herald (mission magazine) contained sections entitled “Recent Intelligence” and “Foreign Intelligence.”

Although a missionary was supposed to be a spiritual herald of good news and an ambassador of God’s love, his primary vocation, according to the American Board’s own “mission commander,” Rufus Anderson, was as soldier to the cross.  Their order was to “make conquests, and to go on . . . ‘conquering and to conquer’. . . the idea of continued conquest is fundamental in missions to the heathen.” Elsewhere he wrote that the “idea of spiritual conquest is the predominant and characteristic idea of the [mission] enterprise.”

bibleflag

Concluding thought:

What prompted this blog’s topic, and what disturbs me most about the popularity and fondness of Americans for overseas mission trips, is the absence of much, if any, suggestion or emphasis on reciprocity – i.e., the idea that American Christians need “them” (the religious and cultural “different others” targeted by mission groups) as much as, if not more than they need us.

Church mission trips, from my perspective – with some exceptions, of course – persist in demonstrating and communicating a singular, single stream attitude and perspective: We save them, We help them, We give to them, We pray for them, We teach them, We heal them, et cetera.

As former Columbia University professor, Edward Said, persuasively argued in his book Orientalism, identity is a construction, and as such, it is “bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.”  What I have discovered through years of exposure to mission groups is that by and large Christian Americans are seldom conscious of how entwined with their nation’s own Super Power status their faith and worldview is.

It is disappointing that churches are quick to organize, promote and engage in overseas mission trips, yet upon questioning them, one often finds their awareness of and involvement in their very own residential backyards (communities/cities) unknown and unmet. The movie Blind Side depicted this side of Christian America, in that many of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) rich friends were aghast that she involved her family in the life of a young black man from a poor, crime ridden section of the city.

Meanwhile mission trips and their participants repeatedly convey to the world’s poor and struggling people of Americans’ economic and political power / dominance by spending billions of dollars on airfare, visas, travel inoculations, 3 to 5 star hotel accommodation, food, travel accessories, clothing, and most times a final several days’ “safari” – a great percentage of which monies, could arguably have been spent on direct aid to people and communities in need.

I’m not necessarily advocating eliminating church mission trips.  But I do think, at minimum, they should be re-named for what they are.

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

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