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Leadership | Of Donkeys and People

“One night it’s a donkey, another night it’s a person!”

So matter-of-factly stated an Afrikaner police officer to a colleague of mine, one 1990’s midnight in a North West Province, South African town.

My colleague had been driving a van full of visitors on a return trip to our hotel from a day outing to the luxury resort and casino, Sun City, aka Sin City, when he struck and killed a pedestrian.

Upon arrival at the nearest police station to report the incident, the on-duty officer in all probability simply tried to lessen my colleague’s anguished state of mind by making the “donkey/people comment,” yet in so doing unwittingly voiced his acquired perception of non-white people’s worth and significance:

1 Black Person ≤ 1 Donkey

donkey_blob

Sometimes it’s easiest and more effective to describe the essence of something by depicting its opposite, which is my intention with the donkey story in this thought piece on leadership.

Leadership (at its best) is an inner state of being that feels, perceives, and interacts with all persons as individuals of equal value and dignity to oneself.

Every imaginable leadership book title exists, including 7 Habits, 5 Levels, 6 Steps, 10 Steps, Leadership 101 and 21 Irrefutable Laws, to name but a very few, yet all of them, from my perspective, primarily focus on the external—style or method of leadership, and not leadership’s core essence.

Acquiring leadership expertise by means of habits or steps is enticing because it promises quick results and zero to minimal risk or vulnerability. For instance, seldom will a reader or conference attendee be challenged to say to a child, spouse, subordinate or superior, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

Nor will most “instant leadership” books or conferences ask you to contemplate what the other person must be feeling, or what their life circumstances must be like on a day-to-day basis. Rather, focus is on compliance.

Fortunately for those who aspire to a deeper level of leadership significance, whether work, family, or community, this is exactly the type “out of the box” transformational leadership style The Arbinger Institute advocates for in its two bestsellers—Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace.

We are frequently blind to, self-deceived, when it comes to daily patterns of personal thought, speech or behavior, which hurts people and poisons relationships.

In-the-box leadership operates from an unconscious, yet constant need to feel justified or always right. Feeling justified always requires that someone else be wrong, blameworthy, or a problem.  Only when someone else is at fault or a problem can one’s own life feel good or justified in thought, speech or act.

As Leadership and Self-Deception expresses it, “There’s a peculiar irony to being in the box.  However bitterly I complain about someone’s poor behavior toward me and about the trouble it causes me, I also find it strangely delicious. It’s my proof that others are as blameworthy as I’ve claimed them to be—and that I’m as innocent as I claim myself to be. The behavior I complain about is the very behavior that justifies me.”

How does one get “out of the box” of insecurity and self-justification toward others, and thereby demonstrate Leadership outside-the-box?

By developing a point of feeling for the humanity of all “others” who occupy your concentric circles of shared space, concern or influence. Because at that point of affection or emotion, you’re seeing him or her as a person with needs, struggles, hopes and worries, just like yourself, versus an obstacle, problem or inconvenience.

As nineteenth century Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John William Colenso, similarly stated, “It is not the outward form alone that makes the immeasurable difference between man and other animals. Wherever we find human affections, there we know we have got a human being.”

Habits, levels, laws, steps, or principles of leadership, therefore, are little help in resolving recurrent or deep-seated interpersonal conflict because they simply “provide people with more sophisticated ways to blame.”

People, whether our children, spouses, enemies or colleagues respond more to how they feel we view and regard them than they do to our particular words or actions toward them.

“Most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy, but failures of ways of being. . . . If we have deep problems, it’s because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution.”

In the spirit of The Arbinger Institute, then—Let’s get busy with the deep things!

 

 

 

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10 Statements That Shaped My Life | Perhaps They Can Yours, Too

Julian Fellowes’ superb historical piece drama, Downton Abbey, is chock-full of pearls of wisdom if you listen closely. A Season 4 episode has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) telling young Tom Branson (Allen Leech), “Life is all about solving problems and then you die!”

By no means exhaustive or ordered, I recently compiled 10 statements, which over time and through life’s ebb and flow have transformed into 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. “Focus on the grass”

To understand this statement a farming image and true story from Mooi River, South Africa, might be most helpful. You can then apply the principle to your personal situation.

How to turn a profitless, underperforming dairy farm in a tight economic market, into a competitive contender and revenue generating one?

The answer? Focus on the means of increased milk production–grass. Everything on the farm took a temporary secondary position to the primary. The farmer increased his time, effort and resources on pasture. Good grass meant happy cows, resulting in increased milk production and a healthy profit margin.

*I wrote at greater length on this in Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”.

2. “Walk on the grass but don’t make paths”

You’ve seen the signs on groomed landscapes–“Keep Off The Grass.” Who would have ever thought they convey a life message? This is the response I got from my South African PhD mentor when I asked him to tell me his philosophy of life.

Transliterated–

“In your search after life’s meanings and truths, courageously risk veering off from your too-familiar life path, and into a pathless wilderness, which might appear at the outset murky, messy, even ominous. Risk the journey, whether it be into the depth of human thought, or the much more unsettling kind: face-to-face encounters with people different.”

3. “Writing is in the editing”

On my Research, Writing and Teaching seminar’s first day, my professor was wise to warn us, “Start your term papers early, because if you want an A-letter grade, good writing only happens in the editing.”

If truthful, we each and all aspire for instant success. It’s not mere vanity, but reflective of our daily struggle to balance life’s demands over and against a 24-hour clock.

In life, like in writing, we want each first act or draft to be near perfect. This is even more true for anal-retentive persons.

So no matter how much we might pursue instant success in life, relationships, vocation, politicking, et cetera, remember that like writing, life is in the editing, in the falling down and getting back up, or in the dogged determinism to keep taking one step forward, even though you know it frequently will result in two steps backward.

4. “Do no harm!”

Fact–In life there are assholes too numerous to count or categorize. This realization and personal experience prompted Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

The important point here is that you don’t have to be an asshole! And the way to avoid being perceived as or labeled one is to live, think, love, speak and act by the credo, “DO NO HARM”–to yourself, to others, to the environment.

5. “Think and hope the best of people, but be prepared for the worst”

Aka, Mental Health 101. It’s a truth that has helped me avoid incarceration when my life has been persistently frustrated by Robert Sutton’s subject matter above!

People are essentially good––definitely, at least, “more good” than bad. What “evil” they are or possess is much more reflective of nurture (environment and neuroplasticity) than of nature. In fact, it is this positive perspective of human nature that enables one to think and hope the best of people, yet be prepared for the worst.

6. “You can’t parent or love well if all you have to give are your leftovers”

Everyday and ever-present is a ghost of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Industrialization initiated many new mechanized and now technological wonders, but one intangible yet irrefutable feature it brought to all peoples is a rapid change of pace and way of life.

We seem to learn only after fallouts and break-ups that meaningful life relationships take an immense quantity of time, effort and shared experience. If you’re in the process of falling out but haven’t quite yet fallen down, then please read statement #6.

7. “For every new responsibility or relationship you take on, you will have to sacrifice another”

North Americans have a very “can do” mindset. It’s reflected in the slogan of the U.S. Army, “Be All That You Can Be,” and in our willingness to work excessively hard and long hours so as to attain and maintain an accustomed way of life.

The hard truth is this: With too full lives already, for every single new event, role, responsibility and relationship that we choose to involve ourselves in or with, some previous event, role, responsibility or relationship will suffer neglect.

8. “All you need is 20-seconds of insane courage”

You likely will recognize this statement from the movie We Bought A Zoo. It was Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) explanation to his children of how he found the courage to walk up to a total stranger at a cafe and introduce himself. She later became his wife and the mother of his two children.

Every day and in many ways I’m reminded that it only takes 20-seconds of insane courage and action to change negative circumstances, contexts or dour moods into positive ones, and even if the change is small and less-than-transformative, at least it might be big enough to help you re-engage life and its struggles for one more moment or day.

9. “Break the overwhelming into bite-size pieces”

Likely you’ve heard the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Like focus, this, too, is an especially hard statement to put into practice. College graduates remember only too well the first day of the academic year and perusal of each course’s curriculum requirements. Panic!

Every professor seemed to think s/he was our only class. Professional work pressures soon made college expectations seem like child’s play. Yet the same lessons learned apply–break the overwhelming into bite size, daily tasks, and you’ll pleasantly be surprised how much can be accomplished.

10. “What’s the worst case scenario? Can you live with it?”

Aka, Mental Health 201. Fear is a, if not the greatest paralysis. While this statement of question likely provides small comfort to someone given a terminal diagnosis (at least initially), it does provide a modicum of relief for that “punched in the solar plexus” feeling, which makes for a grievous and sleepless night, and which likely resulted due to unwelcome and unexpected news, such as a termination letter or a lover’s betrayal.

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Speak Your Mind | A Tribute

Bumper stickers not only entertain, amuse, and sometimes offend. They also educate.

I came across the following bumper sticker in the parking lot of Austin State Hospital several months ago: Speak Your Mind, Even if Your Voice Shakes.

Apparently the words originated from Maggie Kuhn, an elderly Presbyterian educator and activist, who I had no knowledge of until I googled her. After a forced retirement at 65 she went on to found the Gray Panthers, an advocacy initiative focused on social issues specific to the elderly and women.

Wikipedia notes that in her social gospel advocacy, she refused to give any of her seminarian students a passing grade unless they each one risked venturing out and away from their respective comfortable confines of neighborhood and church–to seek, find and involve themselves in local impoverished communities.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame records this of Kuhn–

“Her advice to activists interested in creating social change shows the strength of her convictions: ‘Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.'”

This blog isn’t about Maggie, however. It’s about my friend Will who passed away this week. Nevertheless, Maggie and Will evidently shared at least two commonalities: feistiness (scrappy/determined) and candor (speaking one’s mind).

I won’t sugar coat what is likely the truth about any individual who is feisty and candid: They’re not going to win a popularity contest–not on planet earth, anyway! That’s not to say they aren’t liked or loved, because Will will have more people attend his funeral than I’m sure will be at my own.

Let’s just say that Will had a will! He, like Maggie, was an influencer, a mover and a shaker, a seeker of the real and meaningful in life (versus platitudes and popular culture), an advocate of equitable and wellness of life and opportunity for all people.

One thing that endeared Will to me, but might repel you, was his unabashed use of expletives, especially when confronted by today’s all too common and pervasive gobbledygook religious and political perspective and power, which over time has assumed a venerable, yet erroneous inviolability as “truth-Truth with a capital ‘T'” (what I wish I hadn’t overheard one church-going man tell his four religious brothers at a Panera Bread table yesterday morning).

I’m going to miss my hour-long chats in his “office”–a patio situated just outside the back door, looking out on a small but beautifully landscaped garden with a loaded Meyer lemon tree.

I regret that I never shared a smoke with Will, similar to what close friends J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis did customarily with their pipes.

You’ll be greatly missed, always loved, and forever remembered my friend!

 

 

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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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Till We (All) Have Faces

I wish it were possible to somehow insert an additional line into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech –

“I have a dream that one day we will be a nation and communities of faces.”

A New York City speaker at a 2003 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked if anything positive came from 9/11.  His response resonated with me.  He replied that if anything good came from 9/11, it was this:

For the first time ever, New York City’s 8 million residents became a “city with faces”—referencing the pictorial wall of remembrance, in which pictures of some of the 2,977 victims from more than 90 countries were posted by grieving friends and family members.

A collage of 9/11 victims' faces.

A collage of 9/11 victims’ faces.

I’ve thought a lot about faces and memories of faces since that evening.

As a child, church was seldom an option for me and my siblings. Living in Kenya this frequently meant we attended a remote, mud-bricked and mabati (tin) roofed church.

In early 70’s Kenya, particularly in rural areas, black-white encounters were still relatively uncommon.  As a young boy, who would rather be fishing or playing ball, it was bad enough I had to attend an hours’ long service.  Time was made worse by Kenyan children’s intense curiosity with my white person’s hair and skin.

Typically my parents would allow my siblings and me to leave mid-service and either play outside or sit in the car and read a book.  Sitting in the car was a reprieve from listening to long, Swahili-Luo translated sermons, but it came with a price – persistent children’s faces, often streaked with snot and pestering flies, pressed against the car’s window, and when left partially open for air, young black arms sneaking in for quick touches, squeezes, followed by giggles.

An Afghan child looking into a car

An Afghan child looking into a car

These many years later I sometimes wonder why that bothered me so?  After all, my best friends back home in the town of Kisumu were Oginga and Ogoro – Luo boys, themselves.

Were the frequently un-wiped noses and bloated malnourished stomachs simply too much of a discomfiture for an 10 or 11-year-old boy? Would my discomfort be mediated had I known their names and shared more in common with their lives? Would I have been as bothered if they were young white arms reaching in? Perhaps it was the proximity of these young faces.  They were within easy arm-reach, too close for comfort.  Too intimate.

I don’t know if it’s “natural” or not – it is disrespectful and shameful – but have you noticed how people of one race tend to view people of another race in a one-size, “all look-alike” category?  That is – among whites, anyway, it’s quite common to hear the following type comments about Asians, for instance: “I can’t easily tell them apart! They all look so alike.” or “I just call them by their ‘English names’ because their mother tongue names are too difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.”

During my post-graduate research I came across the story of a white Union army commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was assigned the task of leading an all-black regiment.  He confessed that initially he was unable to distinguish the soldiers from each other, yet “as one grows more acquainted with the men, their individualities emerge; and I find first their faces, then their characters, to be as distinct as those of whites.”

black soldiers

Similarly, an American missionary woman, Carrie L. Goodenough, stated of the Zulus in a letter of 1883 from Natal, South Africa, “At first I thought their faces all looked alike, but I see difference now, both in features and expression; and after one is accustomed to the Zulu type of features, many of the faces are really pleasing.”

Culture and media have combined to promote a sense that beauty is outward.

What about the many, however, who are born without a model or actor’s face, or even worse, perhaps, born with an attractive face and it’s then yanked away by an act of violence or disease?  Many U.S. soldiers have experienced acute facial disfigurement due to IEDs.

One publicized example of disfigurement is Charla Nash, a 56-year-old single mother, who, several years ago, went to help a friend contain a pet chimpanzee and ended up having her face and hands ripped off.  She later underwent a complete facial transplant.

ap_charla_nash_jp_120628_wblog

I just googled “the wonders of the face” and got nothing, zero.  Just a listing of links to various “wonders,” including the seven wonders of the world, the seven wonders of Egypt, wonders of Africa, et cetera.

Doesn’t anyone but me think the face should be classified as an eighth wonder of the world – even those disfigured?

I realize the face is quite daunting and intimidating if you prefer to live a life void of intimacy, which men, in particular, might opt for (but only as an act of bravado). Men such as Tommy Lee Jones’s character “Arnold” in the movie Hope Springs; the story of a 31-year marriage in an acute state of disrepair.

Arnold and Kay (Meryl Streep) sleep in separate bedrooms. They tell their last-ditch, marriage saving therapist, Steve Carell, that they last had sex five years back.  Carell assigns them homework, one of which being to have sex.

It’s painful to watch, but eventually lying on a rug beside a crackling fire they almost succeed in culminating a rekindled passion.  Unfortunately the moment and mood is spoilt by Arnold’s inability and unwillingness to look directly into his wife’s eyes and face while making love – apparently a long-held, intimacy avoiding trait, which is almost the undoing of their marriage.

I simply felt like drawing attention to “faces” today.  I don’t know what your particular “take away” will be from this blog, if anything, but I hope you risk looking more deeply and intimately at and into the faces of friends, family, and even day-to-day acquaintances, whether it’s the check-out person at your local grocer, your librarian, teacher, colleague, even that person who frustrates you to the 100th degree.

Perhaps like Arnold, if you persist in trying and looking into the faces of those within your concentric circles of relationships, you’ll experience a newfound, even heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the others in your life – maybe even call them by name.

 

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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.”

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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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Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the “F-word”

In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity.  An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post.  I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office.  I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.

For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa.  The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa.  Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.

Neighboring Shangaan women sitting at a post office.

Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.).  In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”

A Venda woman's respectful posture of greeting.

A Venda woman’s respectful posture of greeting.

The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”

One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum.  I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions.  I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.

Venda hands in greeting.

Venda hands in greeting.

Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).

As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”

A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail.  My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate.  I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.

Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.”  By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work.  Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.

On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”

My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa.  My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be.  They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.

A Kisumu roundabout.

A Kisumu roundabout.

When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?”  It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing.  I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now.  Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.

During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy.  Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture.  For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.”  Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport.  What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.”  So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”

When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country.  He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English.  I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi.  Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs.  We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria.  Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”!  Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.

One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were.  His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them.  I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American.  Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is “beyond repair.”  So Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed, were the culprits responsible for destroying my water hose attachments.

About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto.  These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration.  One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko.  Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed.  I answered the phone “Hello?”  She replied, “Scott?”  I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?”  She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.”  I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity.  Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”

Thoko, fourth from right

Thoko, fourth from right

I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)?  And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?


			

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