A recent post by Jamie the Very Worse missionary helped got me thinking more about the problems that we see in misisons.
It’s no secret that I believe the North American Church has really screwed the pooch when it comes to missions as a whole. Honestly? The more I study and read and learn from more experienced missionaries, the more strongly I feel that the majority of the “work” we’re doing around the world in the name of Jesus has little to no value, or worse, is actually causing harm to the people we’ve set out to help/reach/bless/save/whatever.In our efforts to do good and share the good news, we seem to have lost our way.
Somewhere along the line, we began to exploit poverty and suffering as a means to evangelize, and the result is a short-sighted, self-focused, arrogant, and wasteful intersection where the Christian faith meets the planet Earth. Humanitarianism took a wrong turn in the hands of sincerely well-meaning Christians. Poor people became “a ripe harvest field”. Meeting basic human needs became “bestowing God’s blessing”. Tragedy became “opportunity”. And the world groaned under the weight of our good intentions.
I’d like to echo what Jamie is saying about how we have used tragedy as “opportunity.”
My biggest concern in missions isn’t that we are evangelizing people, and it’s not that we are westernizing them per se (although that is linked to what I am saying). My biggest concern, rather, his how we are using the far east and other third world countries as part of our bigger “project” to create global peace and a perfect world.
I want to back away from missions for a moment and talk about modernism.
The modern assumption is that we can do anything. And with this comes the attitude that everyone else needs the west to make their world peaceful and great. Or at the very least, we need the rest of the world to have peace so that we can have peace. Either way, we are worried about the lack of peace in other places.
Even if the west could fix the problems of the entire world, it comes with a very dangerous cost when other nations start stepping on the toes of other nations.
Nietzsche expressed this problem best of all when he described what it means for history to be circular. (Source)
It works like this:
- 1) We order the past in dates and events to tell the story we want to tell (ex: “God gave us North America to colonize”)
- 2) Using the history that we are telling, we envision the future we want to create (ex. since “God said,” we can colonize America where all people are endowed with equal rights, except for those who don’t have them)
- 3) We use technology to get us there. (ex. hypothesis, science, trains, steam boats, weapons, education for first nation peoples, war, etc)
- 4) We build new horizons, new peace, new joy, we will it all. (ex. social programs, hospitals, human rights, great transportation, etc)
- 5) Then when a new problem comes up, we go back to #1 (ex. now we are sick from the super foods we created, so we use technology to create better cures)
Nietzsche’s critique of modernity wasn’t that modernity doesn’t work. His critique is that we are ignorant of it. We don’t see the circle (in fact, we think it’s a straight line of progress, but we are actually going around and around again), we don’t see the control, we don’t see what is going on around us.
“Ignorance” describes modern missions because missions has become ignorant to the fact that they are going around and around in the modern circle.The modern edge is working all around us. Technology is creating new horizons everywhere, and missions is sucked right up in the vacuum.
In short, missions becomes a tool to will peace and joy all over the world.
Suddenly, as Jamie says, tragedy becomes opportunity. And that is how we see it. All the evil all over the world becomes our opportunity to take the world and make it better, a western kind of better.
Modernity hasn’t existed for 250 or 300 years for nothing. It has done great things. But the irony of it all, says Nietzsche is that we never create anything new new.
We will new directions and new peace and new joy and new horizons, but ultimately, all we are ever doing is reordering the past. (Remember: #1 starts with telling the history we want to tell to take us where we want to go.)
And that’s at least one reason why the world isn’t actually getting better on a global scale. We get better in one way (I need to be careful here to say that I do think the west has improved in many ways, human rights, for example), and get worse in another because the ideas are always in tension against each other. (Aka, America wills this, and the middle east wills that, then we go to war, and justify 11 years of blood shed after we kill the man responsible for invading us). Progression is an illusion because we become progressive in one way (great hospitals, social programs, etc) and barbaric in another (war, blood shed, evangelizism at the expensive of the needy, etc).
Again, this is not to knock down the social services in the west, nor to say the west has a bad quality of life.
But I have traveled to the far east, and never once did I wake up and say, “Well, gosh, it’s a lot better in America.”
And that’s what scares me about missions. We slap “needy” and “tragedy” on entire groups of people in order to will our joy and peace and life into their countries, never stopping to realize the implications of what we are doing. (And if you think joy and peace is not the goal of missions, start interviewing missioanries. The first thing they will often tell you is that they are there to give peace to the world.)
I remember when my Asian friend ate nothing but Roma noodles for a week in order to donate her last pennies (read, she gave the rest of her paycheck and lived on no cash for a week) to send her neighbor’s baby to the hospital. All the neighbors donated, and they all live on pennies. (On a side note, when people say it’s cheaper overseas, what they don’t realize is that “cheaper” actually means “options for the poor.” American’s food bills would be cut down, too, if they ate nothing but noodles or beans and rice.)
I am not saying these people don’t technically need better health services. Because they do. But there is power in community overseas that I have never ever experienced in the west. People ban together, and stick it out together.
Again, we live in the illusion that we westerners are creating new truths and values. But we are not creating new truths and values. Even the poor know them – in fact, they probably know these values better than we do.
So if we are going to be missionaries, the first step in the whole dang journey is to admit 1) we aren’t the greatest and 2) we got a whole lot to learn from the locals 3) ban together, eat outdoors, eat with the neighbors, live generously, and be merry 4) don’t carry on about how you are sacrificing by giving up the great, mighty west.
Then we can talk about Jesus.