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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

DavidErik

My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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Two Words Affecting How People Different Are Viewed and Treated | God and Salvation

Among “Christian America,” a person’s understanding of who God is, in particular, but also what salvation is influences the way s/he views and interacts with the world and its diversity of peoples, cultures, and ideologies.

This is to say . . .

How we see and treat people distinctly different from ourselves is (largely) a result of our understanding of God, and whether or not we see “the others” as equally favored and forgiven by God.

Corroborating my assertion is a 2011 national survey, “The Values and Beliefs of The American Public,” which concluded that “four gods” dominate North Americans’ consciousness, namely: authoritarian, benevolent, critical, and distant. A co-author, Paul Froese, stated, “If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It’s a central part of worldview and it’s linked to how you think about the world in general.”

It’s a no-brainer, I think, to state that where collective consciousness (or unconsciousness) of an authoritarian, critical, ever-vigilant, and prone-to-punish personage predominates – human or divine – there, too, resides a pervasive and underlying fear and insecurity, which often results in a 24/7 self-comparative (and End Time) mindset, lest one somehow be disqualified and Left Behind.

For example, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” is both early 1700’s sermon title, as well as sociological footnote on America’s past.

While God is probably slightly less angry than he was 300 years ago, I believe perceiving people first and foremost as “lost” (particularly Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who predominate in the so-called and least “Christianized” 10/40 Window), and God as residing in a sterile, sin-free holy of holies somewhere in the heavens, and whose “righteous anger” needs satiating, is still a widely held belief of “Christian America’s” view of God, and correspondingly of “the different others'” fiery eternal future.

Rabbi David Hartmann aptly observed of America’s religious consciousness, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

My early faith story as example . . .

I grew up Southern Baptist, which if you don’t know anything about is the largest (conservative) Protestant/evangelical group in North American. “Salvation” lingo was as common as talking sports. During my 3rd grade, I recall my dad entering my room one evening, sitting on the floor alongside me, and after asking me a few “eternal type” questions, me soberly confessing both my sins and inherent sinfulness, praying the “sinner’s prayer,” culminating with asking God “in Jesus” to come live in my heart.

My point?

Salvation as I, and many of you experienced it, is like a peddled (spiritual) product, which aspiring saints procure using a Christian multi-step formula (usually it’s referred to as the “Four Steps to Salvation“): confess, believe, repent, accept.

We are assured that our profession and prayer of the 4-steps will appease/satisfy God’s righteous anger against both our past sinful acts, as well as our inherent sinful nature, and that He will reward us by forgiving our sins and allowing us access to heaven.

I see at least three problems with this view.

One, it assumes, based on a selective choice and interpretation of scriptural texts – and corresponding exclusion of dissonant ones – that the “salvation formula” is an absolute and “biblical” mandate from God; one uninfluenced by culture or socio-economic/sociopolitical history. John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are prime examples of texts frequently wrenched from their social contexts and used in evangelistic and mission “campaigns.”

Secondly, “salvation-American-style” is de facto more an individualistic and cognitive act/rebirth, with minimal distinguishable-from-secular-society life effects.

Thirdly, it’s exclusionary, thereby creating scores of “Jesus (only) Camp” communities, and disregarding completely God’s concern and love for all humanity (and creation).

My later life faith story . . .

Through sharing life experiences with the cultural and religious “different other,” salvation became more a discovery of an abundant (and balanced) wholeness of life (John 10:10), as I sought and found the image of God in “the other.”

As Samir Selmanovic confirms, “We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.”

Salvation comes with the responsibility to love God whole heartedly, but as importantly to love neighbor as self, extending hospitality and respect to strangers, and avoid bearing false witness against the “different other.”

Salvation is not merely or even mostly some pie in the sky, as I was raised to think, which we acquire and partially experience in this life, but fully experience in the next. Therefore, salvation/life isn’t really all about me, but about “us.” To the extent that a majority of the world’s people still live in abject poverty and suffer unspeakable injustices, to that extent “my” salvation is incomplete and partial.

As Selmanovic again aptly remarks, “So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Like former 19th century Bishop to Natal/South Africa, John W. Colenso, I discovered via postgraduate studies that “all human affections have a religious character.” Among the many interfaith people with whom I have been fortunate to share studies and life, I discovered a common and shared humanity inclusive of varied yet shared affections, in which they, like me and my “kind,” were trying to find meaning and give expression to the inexplicable in life such as birth, suffering and death.

Salvation, then, through my experiencing God in and through “the other,” has thankfully become unshackled from an exclusionary 4-step process, in which in order for me to feel saved for eternity, other people have of corresponding necessity to be damned for eternity.

Regarding this tenacious Protestant/evangelical “Pharisaical mindset,” which takes pleasure in quick-step solutions to life and living, like “The Four Steps to Becoming a Christian,” Colenso stated that they (American missionaries in SE Africa) ask these type questions “not because they are impelled to it by that human love which fills the breast, and makes us hope, that, if possible, all may be saved at last, but from a desire to find a clear warrant in the doings of the invisible world for that system of exclusiveness, which they have begun to practise here on earth.”

Conclusion . . .

For about 20 years, my primary and controlling image of God might be likened to a tightrope. I was the tightrope walker, who daily and precariously traversed life’s landscape solo, clinging to my balancing pole, always looking directly ahead to what I was absolutely certain the Bible informed me about the future of the world and of “non-believers,” always looking down at, but never into the faces of the billions of people whose existence and life didn’t measure up to my socio-economic status or Christian beliefs, mindful that a misstep of my own (adultery, lust, etc.) could jeopardize my secure standing with God.

It wasn’t until postgraduate studies that I was forced (by assignments) to risk my faith, as it were, and engage cultural and religious difference first-hand.

Despite frequent discomfort at experiencing life from “the others'” perspective and narrative, only then did I become aware of and personally experience an alternate, life-affirming, yet feminine controlling image of God – that of a mother with her infant securely wrapped/strapped to her back.

My wife with one of our children.

My wife with one of our children.

It’s an image I hope will offset the millenniums’ old dominant perception of God as male, authoritarian, punitive, distant, unmoved, angry – yet, somehow contradictory, also loving.

A mother’s love is all-embracing, all-accepting, all-loving, and all-forgiving. I can think of no greater, more cozy cocoon in which to discover and come to terms with life’s struggles and self’s identity, than this. After discovering that you are first and foremost an individual of immense and divine creative value – and not first and foremost a sinner – you’ll experience the freedom to engage life alongside the scores of “different others” to mend and heal a fractured world.

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The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

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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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