Wednesday, February 8, 2012


"Whenever cannibals are on the brink of starvation, Heaven, in its infinite mercy, sends them a nice plump missionary."  -- Oscar Wilde

I love this quote because it speaks to the ignorance and pride that have historically dictated mission work as we know it.  Missionaries, aid workers, and activists alike have, unfortunately, earned a reputation (and rightly so) of being nitwits.  Missionaries are known for their Bible-beating ways, bumbling around the world with the goal of "converting" people (whatever that means) and enticing the "unsaved" to believe in their blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus who speaks English.  Or if they are aid workers who are not focused on the Jesus angle per se, they are often equally guilty of inflicting their save-the-world-philosophy-of-the-day on unsuspecting souls followed by a prompt cut and run...  1/2 built hospitals, empty clinics, a pile of mosquito nets with nobody to distribute them...   Not ok.  In fact, not just not ok, but harmful, shameful, and detrimental to all parties involved.  Let's face it, American missionaries and aid workers have been the cannibals - tearing up countries, eating up resources, and then walking away fat and happy with themselves.  So, I've been pondering how to not be a nitwit.  Pondering how to live a radical life of cross-cultural service without inflicting my western assumptions onto all I come into contact with.  Here are some thoughts about things that may be important to keep in mind:
  • Mutuality/Partnership/Relationship - When we work for social justice, we are not lone rangers.  We are not the workers and they the receivers.  In fact, it's not an "us and them" scenario at all.  We are all in this together.  We share vision, we work side by side, we partner, we listen to one another.  We all give, and therefore, we all receive.  This is one reason that I love the Mozambique Initiative (MI).  The MI establishes relationships over a long period of time, and we share the burden and share the work and share the vision.  There are more Mozambicans on the MI staff than Americans, and this is how it should be.
  • Solidarity - We are not working on behalf of the poor.  We are the poor.  We are becoming poor in spirit and sacrificing those things that keep us removed from the plight of those who are suffering.  This is about consciousness raising and not buying into the lies our western world tells us.  This is about awareness.  This is about radical choices.  This is about truly "being with" through sacrifice, not just "being for" through convenience.  
  • Evidence-Based Practices - It is our job to work responsibly.  To check the research.  To find out what works, what doesn't, and why.  This doesn't mean that everything we do will have a rich foundation of evidence because science isn't there yet, but our actions cannot be based in ignorance.  Ignorant action is not just.  
  • Cultural Relativism vs. Cultural Universalism - Attention Americans: our ideas are not the only ideas.  And they might not even be the right ideas.  Cultural relativism is about understanding people's beliefs and activities in light of their culture, and realizing that there is not one, absolute way of understanding.  We are not in the business of inflicting our culture onto others (this includes our theology).  We understand people as coming from a unique, individual, cross-section of heritage, family, experience, and ritual.  It's not our job to rob people of these things that make them who they are.  It's our job to understand and foster these things.
  • Humility - I have a whole lot to learn. I need to remind myself of this everyday and remain open to each person that I meet.  "And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
For more interesting thoughts, check out Laura Seay's blog post about what she calls "badvocacy".  She is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches courses on African politics, conflict, and international affairs.

Please post thoughts, comments, questions, concerns... like I said, I have a lot to learn.


  1. perhaps another concept to ruminate on is a "both/and" approach to mission, as opposed to "either/or." when i was in dc, a lot of organizations stressed that service should include, using the example of hunger, BOTH feeding the hungry today, AND working out how to improve the problem systemically such that there are fewer hungry people tomorrow.

    too often we feel like we are only suited for one or the other, and that's all we have time for. responsible service must include both. if you don't feel you have the skills to approach the problem from a micro AND macro level, this is where your concepts of relationship, community, and humility come into play...knowing that we can't fix it alone and seeking out folks to help us fix it.

    been thinking about blogging about this over at soon...we should cross-pollinate (twss).

  2. i LOOOOOOOOOOVE Oscar Wilde and think that is my new favorite quote - just because a good chuckle makes my day. :)))))

  3. My favorite line? "I've been pondering how not to be a nitwit". That is one of my everyday pondering s too. And I loved everything else about this post.

  4. Becuase you don't have anything to read right now, I'd like to suggest to you a book about Las Casas, a Spanish priest who had a change of heart along the lines of your concerns as he evangelized during the colonization of Central America.

    In Defense of the Indians: The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolome De Las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapa

    I'd just lend my copy to you, but I think its in a box in a basement in St. Charles.