For the last week and a half, I have been working as a manual laborer in a secluded area called Lake Basin.
Lake Basin is at a high elevation, distant from any major urban centers, and was in pre-Independence times “settled” by Europeans who treasured the region for its lack of malaria-carrying mosquitos, its ancient and verdant forests, and its fertile soil, perfect for coffee, tea and sugarcane. Later, in the 1960′s after Kenya gained its independence, the region was acquired by the government and sold to a group of Quaker missionaries, who constructed a state-of-the-art agricultural training center on a choice, 300-acre plot at the peak of the region, overlooking the surrounding valleys in a 360-degree vista that continues as far as visibility will allow. Kenyans from miles around came to stay in its posh dormitories, eat in its grand dining hall and bathe in its elaborate bathrooms, all while they received free training on how to become better farmers (and incidentally, Quakers).
But things fall apart. Where Lake Basin once possessed its own generator and electric infrastructure, only one, solitary pole remains, stripped of all its metal components. Where a pump once supplied the entire complex with fresh water, it now lies in disrepair, and moreover no one can remember where the pipes it supplied are buried. The road is overgrown and is only identifiable by the stunted height of the plants that cover it. A mechanic’s bay and workshop, now infested with wild bees, is the only evidence that farming here was once mechanized; otherwise one would assume that the corn, sugarcane and cows that cover the landscape have always been planted, cultivated and harvested by hand, as they are now. All of the buildings – long abandoned – look like the ruins of an ancient civilization, many having already lost their roofs and walls, and most sheltering lizards, bats and monkeys rather than the people for whom they were built.
How did this happen? How, in thirty years’ time, did a successful mission project become a testament to the unrelenting forces of erosion and decay?
The story, as it was told to us by an old man in a nearby village, goes as follows: Sometime in the 1970′s, the Quaker missionaries who founded the training center were unable to secure funding for its continued operation, so they turned it over to the control of the East Africa Yearly Meeting. The Kenyan Quakers, now at the helm, were initially able to secure funding from the government, but when that too dried up, they were forced to raise capital by renting out their land and facilities to a corporate firm called the Lake Basin Development Authority. Corruption – which is ubiquitous in Kenya and does not stop outside of the Church – motivated those same Quaker leaders to eventually shut down the training center entirely and cease all maintenance, in order that they might maximize the amount of rent money they could pocket. By the mid-1980′s, the whole of the Lake Basin property was openly and shamelessly being run as the personal fiefdom of the church elders.
In the early 2000′s, the incumbent church leaders, now of the Lugari Yearly Meeting, were ousted, and a new generation of leaders were elected to renovate the area with the aim of benefitting the whole church rather than its leaders. Funding was solicited from outside Kenya, and with the help of British Quakers a new project was undertaken – the construction of a “cattle dip,” which is a structure that is used to regularly wash cows, thereby preventing parasitic infections. Unfortunately, the structure was very improperly built, was never finished, is currently falling apart, and most of the funds raised for its construction were stolen by that newer generation of leaders, who proved to be just as untrustworthy as their predecessors.
Once again the leaders were ousted, and a new group of leaders – this time composed of younger Kenyans who (I am told) do not fatalistically accept corruption as part of the Kenyan identity – were placed in charge of the facility. However, no foreign organization has been willing to donate funds to the Meeting ever since these repeated experiences of embezzlement and misallocation, and only in the last two years has the organization with which I am working, AGLI, solitarily stepped forward to try one final time to reverse the fortunes of this beautiful but fallen Eden.
I was at first very discouraged when I heard these reports, and I questioned why I should spend three and a half weeks doing back-breaking work to renovate an area that could very well be wrecked again by the short-sighted greed of church leaders. I have since put that worry behind me. It is my goal for this week’s entry to explain why.
I begin with some review. Last week, I concluded that a Christian is beholden to no hard-and-fast rules, yet simultaneously that rules are extremely useful as precedents, guides and indicators of what Christian love – properly practiced – might look like. A good example of this is found in Luke 18:22, where Jesus advises a rich man to “sell everything you have and give to the poor.” As Clement of Alexandria wryly notes, this command cannot be extrapolated into a universal rule; “For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, XIII). This is not to invalidate Jesus’ suggestion, however; it is quite possible that the rich man in question had no other way of purifying his heart, for “nothing is more pernicious to the soul than uninterrupted pleasure” (XLI). But as we read Jesus’ words we must use our best judgement to determine its applicability to our own life, for “[w]hat corrects my lack of love may only make your situation worse” (Bondi, To Love As God Loves, 11). This is why Jesus asked us to “[b]e as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matt. 10:16, emphasis added).
Using the above analysis, we can conclude that Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:42 to “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” is not an absolute one. To illustrate: a starving Christian should not be expected in all times and in all places to surrender whatever food he or she has left, as soon as it is asked for, especially if he or she is supporting children and the one who is asking has no real need for the food. Of course this is an absurd, extreme and totally hypothetical case, but it serves to demonstrate that Christian love does not always obligate our unquestioning charity to anyone who asks. Thus, my dilemma regarding the Lake Basin can framed as follows: if charity is not in every case obligatory when requested, then can I refuse to give my labor to the Lugari Yearly Meeting, since my work might well be wasted and my contributions looted?
Before continuing, it is worth noting that many Christians have come to be very discerning with their charity, narrowly defining the Biblical term “brother” as fellow Christians, as fellow countrymen, or as people who adhere to some set of arbitrary standards held by the believer. For instance, it is very rare that Kenyans give anything to the street children I mentioned in my first post, even when asked with tearful ardor, because the perception is that anything they are given, even food, will be sold, with the proceeds being spent on glue. Most homeless people in the United States are similarly derided as drunks or addicts, and many fundamentalist Christians balk at charitable outreaches toward Muslims. Relatedly, the NGO with which I am volunteering advises that no food, money or gifts should be given to anyone who asks, because it “encourages a begging mentality.”
I can’t help but feel unsatisfied with these rationalizations against charity. Of course I myself have ignored plenty of solicitations at home and in Kenya, employing the exact same reasoning I just condemned, but doing so always leaves a pit in my stomach, and causes me to remorsefully recall Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). Indeed, when one ponders how Jesus interacted with, loved and lent assistance to prostitutes, tax collectors and thieves, one can only conclude that unique and defining characteristic of Jesus’ ministry was the boundless, limitless nature of his love, which reached out even to those who, according to worldly standards, did not deserve respect or charity. To the downtrodden he gave hope; to the sinners he gave a second chance; he fed the hungry, healed the sick and in no case did he ever tell someone that they were beyond redemption or unworthy of our love. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the perfect encapsulation of this message: no one should be given up on, and no one can run out of second chances. Roberta Bondi puts it wonderfully: “[T]o love the people in our lives to whom we are naturally related, including our friends, this is not the full intention of the command of the gospel to love. Rather, we are also to love strangers, people we know to be criminals, the difficult neighbor, people who mock what we stand for, even our enemies. We are to love them, not out of a superior attitude, but with a real love that sees them as human beings, beloved of God, and yet flawed just as we are ourselves. And we are to love them, not just at a distance, but up close, as separate individuals, and in concrete ways, involving our actions, as the gospel requires. We are not to say ‘You fool’ to them, or ‘He does not deserve my care‘” (33, emphasis added).
Thus, accepting the possibility (or even likelihood) that the Lake Basin renovations will go to waste and be consumed by corruption, I have resolved nevertheless to put my shoulder to the plow over the next two weeks, digging trenches, repairing the road, reinstalling the water system and renovating the buildings, simply because of the possibility that my efforts will effect a positive change in the fate of the area. Matthew 5:48 commands us to “be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and insofar as the perfect Jesus poured love equally upon Peter and Judas, the Jews and the Samaritans, the meek and the strong, so too should we, in emulating His perfection, distribute our love unconditionally. It is the goal of Christian living to love as God loves, and, although there is room for prudence in deciding how to help someone in need (to give cash to an addict is to literally love him or her to death), we should never turn our backs completely on a person, no matter how “undeserving” they allegedly are, because “love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).
One final thought: I asked a few weeks ago why a non-Christian should desire a conversion to Christianity. The answer, in my opinion – and the one sustains my own faith – is threefold. First, Christianity allows the practitioner to disregard temporal and materialistic measures of success, which non-Christians should envy given the impermanence and insecurity of worldly accomplishments. “[S]tore up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20). Second, Christianity provides the practitioner with existential ease, as I described in my entry entitled ‘Happiness,’ for “[m]y yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Thirdly and finally, Christianity provides converts with a vehicle for the cultivation of love, as I have attempted to elucidate in this entry, and such a boundless love is, I would contend, universally recognized as a virtue, although an impractical one according a world which demands individual success often indirectly or directly at the expense of others.
In short, the appeal of Christianity should manifest in the lives of Christian practitioners. Non-Christians should be moved to convert because they see something in practitioners that they want for themselves. Therefore Christians who don’t take seriously the command to “be perfect,” and who don’t cultivate their love, exhibit their contentment and renounce their greed do a great disservice to the faith, because one of their primary functions should be living as a testimony to the power of the Incarnation.
On both the subject of love without limits and the subject of living testimony, we can learn much from the example of the martyrs:
“Early Christians did not regard martyrs as victims, but as people who manifested the power of God. When faced with Rome’s coercive threats, the martyrs held fast to their freedom and their relationships within their Christian community. They would not surrender these to an oppressive power. Rome chose to kill them, but they chose to preserve life in paradise.They had already experienced paradise in their earthly life, and they knew death would not take that from them. Their witness encouraged others to trust that violence in the worst forms imaginable could not separate them from their beloved community or cut them off from their source of life and power. A martyr’s death was a paradox; in refusing to submit to unjust power, the martyr witnessed to the true power that generated paradise on earth. The martyr’s testimony to the power of God exposed the impotence of Rome. Historian Peter Brown notes that martyrs turned cities into religiously contested spaces. Both the empire and the church viewed the contest as a ‘public clash of gods.’ Unlike contemporary ideas of martyrs as lone, heroic individuals, early Christian accounts did not emphasize ‘their purely human courage.’ Instead, their heroic deaths revealed that they had a ‘mighty God in them,’ and demonstrated the impotence of the ancient gods of the city. Brown asserts, ‘Those few who died for Christmade the power of their God seem overwhelmingly present to the many’” (Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise, 66, emphasis added).