Quitting (Poverty) Porn

This week I wrote a piece on poverty porn and its harmful effects on the dignity of the world’s economically marginalized. The Good Men Project ran the post and you can find it here:
http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/quitting-poverty-porn-jvinc/

Victorian Prudes

Well, let’s just say it’s been a while since since I’ve been here.  I took a long hiatus from the blog, went totally MIA for over a year while I continued to work on the book I am writing. And besides that, it has been a really full season with starting a stand up paddle board business and an Airbnb gig out of house, as well as a spiritual direction practice, not to mention working non-stop on house projects, interviewing for jobs, and trying to get in the water to surf at least 3-4 days a week and having family & friends in town. Anyway, excuses aside, I am back.

As the Benedictines say, always we begin again…

I took a philosophy class in seminary taught by an eccentric, almost too brilliant for his own good type of professor named Dr. Carl Raschke. His lectures were a mix of complete, utter nonsense and some astounding philosophical logic (or perhaps illogic because that is how one feels when one leaves the classroom after listening to him talk for 8 hours: ill) thrown in. They made my head spin and left my brain feeling like it couldn’t handle even the simplest of tasks because it was chock full of terms like noumena, ockham’s razor, and weltanschauung. Ya know, words like that you hear at lunch with co-workers.

I love words. I love language. Having done a master’s degree in theology, I’ve used some words that are pretty far out there. But I felt like I had to learn a whole new, strange language just to read Derrida, Kant, and the rest of the philosophers or to understand dear old Raschke.

But there is something he said, in plain English for once, that I’ll never forget.

“We are Victorian prudes when it comes to language.”

The language that Christians use has become neutered. It has become impotent largely because so many try to honor God by overusing religious speech. How many times have you heard someone offhandedly throw out phrases like “praying for you,” or “just have faith,” or “her faith is carrying her?” Or heard someone say “It was a blessing?” Nothing is inherently wrong with using these words, of course. But overusing them, speaking in “Christianeze” has an impact on us and the people around us: language that once held power turns into religious platitudes. This ends up dishonoring God and other people and cheapening the gospel itself. As Carl said, we end up “dehumanizing by routinizing.”

Let’s look at the word “faith” for a minute. It has become a Christian catch-all for anything pertaining to belief. The problem is, that is not what faith actually is according to the ancient Christian tradition from which many of us come.  Faith in its original sense is not a simply a matter of belief. In fact, it has as much to do with doubt as belief. Faith can probably be better described by what it is not than by what it is. Yet so often, the word faith is used to signify certainty and security, or a means of getting what we want.

If I have enough faith maybe I’ll get that thing I’ve been praying about.

If I believe enough maybe God will answer my prayers.

Real faith takes going beyond the mind and into a different kind of knowing, one that relies on mystery more than certitude. The great philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that faith involves a leap into the absurd, into that which is unknowable.

The absurd
A leap
Embracing doubt

Wouldn’t it be such a breath of fresh air to hear these phrases at church next Sunday?

Christianity doesn’t need to be so congested with menial platitudes-it’s the greatest story ever told. Which means that we can let go of our inner Victorian prudes, that part of us that believes cramming as much god talk as possible into as many conversations as possible will make us better Christians. It won’t. And no one wants it or needs it. Sometimes less is more- and that’s the good news. We can stop trying to please God and other people with trite phrases. We can relax and be present with ourselves and others when we stop neutering our language and start being real. We can let the words we choose be those that contain the  gravitas that reflects the depth of the Christian mystery.

McMission and the Standard American Diet

The Standard American Diet—SAD— is about eating things that don’t offer any nutritional value, things that look like food but aren’t really food at all. All the processed stuff that goes into our bodies, the preservatives and the trans-fats, like Fruit Loops, Slim Jims, and my all-time favorite, McDonald’s french fries and chicken Mcnuggets—which the fast food behemoth just publicly announced are now being made of real, actual chicken meat. Now that leaves me wondering about what the Mcnuggets were made of before…

Similarly, the typical North American diet of cross-cultural mission is a fast food style, in and out type of approach—a paradigm that has its foundations in our culture that is driven by results and outcomes and obsessed with achievement and accomplishment. Generally speaking, mission is very task oriented. At its worst, it becomes a mode of Western imperialism on a small scale. Many projects in the Majority World started by North Americans mirror our culture far more than the gospel. And to be clear, Christians aren’t the only ones implicated in this, either. The hordes of people traveling overseas for “voluntourism” and secular service work are not any wiser in their ways. The ubiquitous use of the phrase “giving back” sheds light on how much we use the poor as objects of our compassion, as a means to reduce our guilt. The psychological payoff is enormous. We go “help” and paint houses and dig wells and build schools and in doing so set ourselves free while unwittingly propagating neo-imperial patterns that do nothing to catalyze real transformation in communities that are economically marginalized.  We go in, work on a project for a few days or weeks or months and leave feeling good about what we did and excited to share the photos we took with our new “friends” with our loved ones back home.  But nothing really changes. We continue to tell ourselves the same stories about how happy the poor people we served were and how much they smiled. But we continue to see “them” as helpless and in need of “us” to help them, serve them, rescue them. In the end, everything stays the same: the marginalized are still marginalized and we persist in telling ourselves the same narratives about who they are—the ones who need help—and who we are—the ones who can rescue.

But at its healthiest, mission is about something else entirely. At its best, it can result in mutual transformation, both in the lives of the economically poor being served and the economically wealthy traveling to do service work. Perhaps we can be catalysts for bona fide transformation and ameliorating poverty, but not unless the narrative shifts. Not unless the SAD American diet of mission shifts into something more sustainable and more holistic. We don’t get fit and healthy overnight. It takes time, effort, guidance, hard work, and persistence. It’s slow and painful and it’s the project of a lifetime. The same can be said for service work overseas. We need to slow down. We need to reflect on the stories we are telling ourselves about the people and communities we visit. We need to stop trying so hard to accomplish and achieve and “make a difference” and begin to enter the difficult inner journey of engaging our assumptions, biases and beliefs. Without crawling about in the cave of the unconscious and bringing our shadow toward the light, we’ll forfeit the hope of leaving our inner colonialist behind and actually participating cross-culturally in ways that are good for us and those we want to see flourish.

We don’t have to keep stuffing our faces with the Standard American Diet of mission. Real food is there for the taking. But like the organic meat and produce in the grocery stores, there is a premium to be paid. It costs us something to dive into the dark abyss of our souls and be honest about what is there, to be real about what payoffs we get from doing mission work. About where we have hurt ourselves and others in the process of trying to do good by consuming the SAD of mission that leaves everyone hungry and unwell.

But that high price we pay will be worth every cent, because it will escort us into a space where the sustenance of honesty awaits, where we receive the nourishment of a plain look at the reality of our inner world. This is the process of leaving the fake chicken nuggets behind for the nutritive, sustaining food of life, of saying goodbye to the McMission drive-through window and encountering a more authentic, vulnerable, and just way of entering into economically marginalized communities.

Small Seeds and Soldiers: A Morning in El Salvador

It’s 10am and sweltering hot inside the little black Nissan Sentra where I am sitting. Through the windshield I can see six heavily armed soldiers in full camoflouge right in front of us. The guns they carry are the biggest I’ve ever seen. They make an AK-47 look like a little kid’s bb gun. The soldiers have a tense look written on their faces. They are patrolling this gang infested neighborhood in San Salvador that we just entered. As they walk past the car, I turn my head and watch them approach two young men standing around idly. One of the soldiers motions them to put their hands on a cement wall adjacent to where they are. Two of them pat down the men, searching for guns. A few years ago, the police and the military never entered this neighborhood due to fear of the gangs.

A hundred feet away is a school called Semillitas, Little Seeds in English. Inside, 30 young children age 4-6 are coloring and drawing. Their bright white collared shirts somehow are still sparkling clean. Two teachers and an assistant accompany them in the classroom. The room is inundated in the energy of youth, the children laughing and smiling with a glorious innocence.

The classroom looks like it could be any other in Latin America. But there is one major difference: the children here are the daughters and sons of gang members. The gang that controls the community where the school sits is considered one of the most violent and ruthless on the planet.

The teachers know not only the kids, but their parents–the gang members and their partners. The teachers live right there in the community where they work. Their life is here, amid the violence and chaos of this place where soldiers with gigantic guns patrol 24/7.

The Salvadorean run organization that we are visiting facilitated the birth of this community based project. In my mind, this project epitomizes what mission is about: run by local leaders, grassroots, sustainable, bottom up, small. Hidden almost, barely perceptible amid the chaos and guns. I am certain that a project such as this could never have been started by a foreign missionary. It would be impossible for someone from outside this context, even outside this neighborhood, to come in and create a thriving program such as this; no NGO or missionaries needed.

Because this is real mission.

These leaders are birthing the gospel in radical ways. They are choosing to participate in the dire realities of life here with creativity. They hope against darkness. It makes me wonder what kind of imaginations they have have, one that can hold the thought of new life, hope, and love despite the crudeness of spilled blood. This is what living missionally is all about. This is what mission done well looks like.

Katie and I were given the opportunity to bear witness to what can be when the assets, relationships, expertise, knowledge and integrity of local people is leveraged for the work of transformational development. In the midst of a community torn apart by poverty and violence, there exists an image of beauty and transformation in Semillitas. It is real and enfleshed. You can see it, touch it, feel it. You can sink your teeth into it. It’s alive and active and animated.  It is the gospel narrative enfleshed into the now and here. It is a story of peace and hope amid violence and chaos.

It is the small seeds of the Kingdom, even with the soldiers still out front.

Mission Pills

Certain pills are tough to swallow.

You look at the thing and it’s just plain huge. Like the antibiotics the doctor sometimes prescribes for that acute case of sinusitis.  It seems impossible that the pill could ever make its way down your throat and into the stomach to dissolve, and then catalyze very specific biochemical responses that can treat what ails you. It simply looks too big, like it’ll get stuck somewhere on the way down and block your air passages and make you gag and need to run over to someone who can perform the heimlich maneuver.  Not so pleasant.

Certain topics come up when we start having conversations around what healthy mission practice looks like that appear kind of like that pill.  Pretty big and burly, like it’ll get stuck on the way down. That it won’t contribute to our health but make us sick and confused, wishing we never put it in our mouth.  I’ve had to swallow a lot of pills of recent years, not many for sinusitis luckily, but a good amount of the ones relating to how I have engaged in global mission.

Here is one of those pills:

Mission trips are mainly about the people going, not those being served.

When we talk about going to serve the economically marginalized, we often speak about our willingness to suffer on behalf of the suffering other, to sacrifice our lives for those who live in the anguish of poverty. This is indeed a profoundly holy desire. I would even argue that it is rooted in that which is paradigmatic of the gospel—healing, setting the oppressed free, abundant life. Yet, the means by which we seek to fulfill this end always carries a shadow side. It is this shadow with which we must engage if we are to participate in cross-cultural work in a mutually transformative way.

To get to that place we must engage our own stories and look at our deeper motivations for doing what we do.

Witnessing poverty and disease and oppression affects us, all of us. The most common experience is a sense of compassion for the individuals who are encountered living in squalor and inhuman conditions. Often this feeling is combined with a strong desire to do something, to alleviate some of the suffering. These emotions and the desire they give rise to are a very good thing. The desire to bring justice is a profoundly sacred desire that wells up from deep within. They can lead to acts of mercy and a commitment to expand one’s concept of the truly cruel nature of many people’s existence. This is the very spot where the issue I am seeking to engage with becomes pertinent: the energy moving within the “helper” to alleviate suffering, though good, most often turns into an action that unwittingly results in two consequences. First, it may unintentionally create harm to the vulnerable population. But it does more than just that. At a psychospiritual level, participating in mission relieves the helper’s guilt, and sets their own psyche free through the declaration that “I did my part. I helped someone who needed it badly. I bought medicine for a sick man. I bought a meal for a beggar. I held babies at the orphanage. I helped build a house for a poor family.”

It is all about “me”.

The helper is now free from a psychological standpoint. They feel good about themselves. Their ego is satisfied. Back at home in North America, they are wondering when they can get their next week off of work or when their next church mission trip is, so they can go back to Nicaragua or Kenya and see the people who they “fell in love with”.

This has been a tough pill for me to swallow.

It took some deep wrestling and struggling on my own and with my wife,  in therapy, and with conversations with friends to come to grips with the fact that a lot of my hidden needs were being met by living overseas, participating in humanitarian aid and community development projects. But I am so glad I swallowed that pill and entered deeper into the journey of coming to know myself more fully. The real me. The light and the shadow.

If we can swallow some difficult pills by asking ourselves hard questions about the unspoken ways in which we benefit from mission, shifts begin to occur inside of us. Space opens up. We inhabit our own selves with a bit more truth and honesty, and take a plunge deeper into the gospel. We begin to see how we can participate in mission in ways that are mutually transformative, that heal us as well as those we want to help.

Thoughts? Feelings? Reactions? As always I would love to have you engage further with what I brought here. Please add your voice to the conversation by commenting below.

 

How Not To Be A Savior

I recently came across the website of a North American NGO working toward access to clean water in the Majority World. Something about this organization’s website really struck me. Apparently, they were holding some sort of contest to win a trip.  Here is what it said:

2014 CONTEST FOR A TRIP TO AFRICA

Have you longed to travel to Africa?

Would you like to change people’s lives forever?

How about saving lives?

A six-night all-expenses-paid trip to Africa and a rainwater-harvesting tank with YOUR name on it!

Yes, people in many areas of the African continent, particularly south of the Sahara, do not have clean water. There are some stellar organizations that are doing incredible work to change this, work they have learnt to do well because they understand the particular contexts in which they are working and they partner directly with local leaders. I am not very familiar with the in’s and out’s of how the organization running this contest approaches in clean water projects. But their marketing strategy reveals a lot about the story we tell ourselves about Africa and Africans:  it’s a place of miserable poverty that needs saving. And that we can save it, all the while getting credit for it with our name put on the side of the water tank that we raised money for.This marketing material is playing directly on our deepest needs to be desired, to have meaning and purpose in our lives, even to love and be loved.

The message this organization is giving is “Hey, this is your opportunity to be the savior of Africa.” (The use of the word “Africa” to describe a place or a people is like using the word music to describe the Mozart’s 5th, it simply is lacking—but that is a whole other issue for another post). Maybe then we can finally feel good about ourselves. Maybe then we can finally feel safe, have a sense of meaning and purpose in our empty lives. Maybe then we will matter. Maybe then we will feel good about ourselves.

And it’s all a façade. A water tank with our name on it cannot fill our deepest needs.

We can’t save lives here in North America. We can’t be a white savior in our own white culture. The nagging sense of purposelessness that haunts us is given the analgesic of the opportunity to rescue, to save, and thus to matter. It makes us feel better about who we are. This advertisement is doing what any other form of good advertising is doing: touching a deep human need and promising fulfillment of that need through the product being offered. Except in this case, it isn’t that drinking a certain type of beer will make a man desirable to a beautiful women or the new car that will bring a sense of adventure and freedom from the daily grind.

The words here are far more dangerous. They promise that we can attain a sense of self-worth through becoming a savior of Africa.

What do you think about our unconscious attempt to gain self-worth by rescuing others? Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you.

The (other) Great Commission

Most of us have been taught that mission work has something to do with saving, one of the three commonly used evangelical mission categories (what I like to call “The Three S’s”—serve, sacrifice, save). We go to a place where people are in need in some way, in need of saving. Depending on our theological paradigm and stance toward mission, that may mean a lot of different things. For some of us, it may mean evangelizing so someone’s soul will be saved from forever and ever punishment. For others, it might mean using medical skills to save people from disease, or helping people get clean water, or rescuing girls who have been trafficked. Global mission means many different things to different people. In general, most mission work holds saving as a primary category. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all need salvation, and none of us can save ourselves. But what do the Gospels have to say about where the rubber (of mission) meets the road (of salvation)?

The author of the Gospel of Luke suggests that Jesus can be understood as a prophet who was concerned with reversal of the structures of society that kept people locked in oppression. The essence of the book of Luke is that God came for the poor, the outliers, those living in the margins. This sounds like what a lot of us missional type Christians are always getting our underwear in a bunch about, which of course can be a very good thing indeed!

Luke reveals his stance about who Jesus was through his narrative of Jesus’ ministry. In this section of the text, Luke continuously uses language surrounding the idea that Jesus came for the outsider. Over and over Luke uses words like “rich and poor” to show that Jesus is proclaiming a radical message of reversal to the marginalized. Luke is concerned with salvation insofar as it has to do with reversing the oppression of the marginalized in society, a very present sense of being saved in the here and now.

Luke presents Jesus as someone who is for the poor and oppressed, which he used as a means of illustrating the reversal of oppressive structures he saw Jesus catalyzing. Luke writes, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Salvation for Luke was all about freedom for the orphan, the prostitute, the widow.

Scholars tell us that Luke was referencing the Gospel of Mark as he wrote these words, somewhere between the year 75-100, that later became part of the New Testament canon. Luke ends his Gospel with what has come to be widely known as The Great Commission—except it looks much different from the same text written in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels. In Matthew this text reads, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The same text written in Mark reads, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’” (Mark 16:15-16). But Luke saw it a bit differently. His emphasis was on something distinctive than that of Matthew and Mark. These three authors were thinking very differently from one another about the locus of Jesus’ identity and message, and thus how mission and salvation were related. The same passage in Luke reads,

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:45-49).

Matthew and Mark emphasize immediate movement into the world: Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Preach. The passage in Luke curiously omits these words. Instead, Luke puts emphasis on remaining, on staying, on witnessing.  Luke was on about being over doing. He was convinced that prior to the disciples heading out on their mission, they needed to be transformed, and that this would be the work of the Spirit who would soon arrive. Perhaps they needed to further journey into the process of salvation prior to offering the message of Jesus to the world. Maybe they needed their community a bit longer. Maybe they had something more to learn before they could go teach.  And unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke doesn’t mention condemnation. He doesn’t discuss belief.  Maybe he wasn’t convinced that it needed to be talked about. Because something else mattered more to him, something having to do with

Witnessing to life in the spaces of death

Remaining in the resurrection space

Staying present with people

Expecting transformation from the divine breath of God

It makes me wonder if reading Luke can shape the ways we are thinking about mission and can form the questions we are asking about what it means to serve down the street or across an ocean. Like Luke, a lot of us believe Jesus was—and is—all about reversing the structures that catalyze suffering and death, especially among the economically poor. And as we think about what it means to be reversers of oppression, perhaps we can also enter Luke’s invitation to remain, to expect, to witness, to be transformed.

The Call is Not Enough

A few years ago I visited a project in Haiti started by an American doctor. He had quite a bit of experience living in different areas of the world, using his medical skills to treat the sick. His desire to serve was clear and forthright. Yet, his project in Haiti ended up failing after a short period of time. There are innumerable instances such as this, where someone goes off somewhere to help solve a problem or alleviate some form of suffering. They make their best effort and try all they can, their hearts on fire for the place and people in need. But what was meant to help ends up hurting, both themselves and those they hoped to serve. They return home in anger and confusion not long after, their hope and vision having gone to pieces.

Mission falls apart.

A few years back I had a therapist who often spoke of vocation. I remember him saying, “The need does not necessitate the call.” In essence, he was saying that the existence of an issue—be it social, political, humanitarian—in the world does not mean a certain individual is called to engage it or help solve it. The unique ways in which we are each made informs how we are designed to be in the world, how we are meant to live and serve. And just as the need does not necessitate the call, the call does not necessitate the readiness. Or put differently, even when we are we called, it doesn’t mean that we are prepared to go.

The call isn’t enough.

There is no doubt that many of us experience an authentic draw within ourselves to engage in service with vulnerable people in the Majority World, whether it be in the context of short-term mission, community development, global health projects, human trafficking or some other form of justice work. Our desire and willingness to travel to difficult places inundated in poverty is a great place to begin pursuing these opportunities overseas where our hearts feel drawn to. But it is a starting point, not an end point. It is the leading edge of a journey, both inward and outward, that is meant to be a catalyst for mutual transformation of the self and the other. The call activates something deep within that pulls us forward to pursue this vision of healing and restoration.

Whether we are going to participate in a ten day mission trip to Haiti or move our families to Cambodia to advocate of behalf of trafficked girls, this call we feel is a beautiful and essential thing. It is the space from which mission flows. It is also an invitation to reflect deeply within ourselves. But the call into mission is about way, way more than just buying a plane ticket. It is an invitation into the psyche, the heart, the soul. The call to mission bids us entry into our own pain, to engage with our own brokenness and wounds that have remained untended. If we haven’t engaged our own pain, we cannot be fully present with another in their pain.

The call is an invitation into the self as much as it is an invitation into the world.