Theory and Practice

At the end of last week’s journal, I ended with the question:  What does it mean for me to think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice?  In continuing to think on that question this week, I’ve found wisdom in several sources: Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, Nicholas Wolsterstorff, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jeffery Sachs, and Paul Farmer.  I feel a bit like a movie announcer reading the cast of Oceans Eleven.  This is certainly a stacked cast, and I promise I won’t do them justice in my brief journal entry.  But I think all are relevant and have something important to say on this matter.

I just finished looking over a draft document of some of the critical barriers and gaps related to child health for our report.  As I mentioned earlier, my area of focus is child mortality and child health, which is closely linked to maternal health.  Both maternal and child health are intimately related to “socio-cultural practices such as early marriage, early pregnancy, violence, female genital mutilation, marginalization in decision-making regarding issues concerning women, the weak position of women in the African family, and the fact that women are not allowed to plan their pregnancies—all of these factors lead to maternal mortality, a problem [which] can be addressed and avoided if we approach it as a matter of human rights” (Maiga, Special UN Reporter for women’s rights in Africa, from Amnesty Intl document).  I found out that maternal mortality has declined 26 percent in Latin America from 1990-2005 and 20 percent in Asia during that period.  In Africa the decline was less than 1 percent.  In reading a book called End of Poverty, by Jeffery Sachs, I have learned a bit more about the rampant disease that has characterized Africa, in recent decades especially.  I have also learned a bit more about Africa’s prolonged economic crisis (although I’m still very much a novice).

In my work here, I have become increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of the factors that relate to poverty.  Earlier this week I wrote up a short synopsis of a USAID document on food insecurity in Burkina.  Reading about all of the factors that cause food insecurity, and then thinking about how food insecurity plays into child health and nutrition made me realize, to some degree, how vast this web of interconnectedness really is.  I also spent some time reading (in French) a critical analysis of a malnutrition project that is in place in rural areas of Burkina, and I took notes on the document in English.  Much of the document discussed reasons why the benefits of the program are not utilized.  Part of it comes down to geography—the health centers are too far away, or impossible to get to due to heavy rainfall, etc.  Part of it is due to cultural taboos, where people go to traditional healers first, and only to the modern center as a last resort.  Part of it has to do with ignorance and lack of information, or lack of understanding for warning signs so that by the time children are brought to health centers, they are in advanced stages of disease or malnutrition.  Part of it can be attributed to husbands who do not allow wives to go to the centers because they don’t trust them.  Part of it is due to people having a bad experience at a health center by a clinician who doesn’t seem to care.

In reading I found myself getting frustrated.  Part of me wanted to say:  Ok, these people have the opportunity for free treatment to prevent malnutrition and to protect their children from dying.  Why the hell wouldn’t they take advantage of it?  And if they aren’t taking advantage of it then what the hell else can I do?  After reading about husbands who won’t allow their wives to go to the health centers, I was ready go to punch some guys in the face. Jeffery Sachs quoted Bill O’Reilly having said that Africa “is a corrupt continent; it’s a continent in chaos.  We can’t deliver a lot of our systems that we send there.  Money is stolen.  Now when you have a situation like that, where governments don’t really perform consistently, where there’s just corruption everywhere, how can you cut through that?” (End of Poverty, 189).  While political corruption is something different than what I was frustrated with, I think this frustration does have some legitimacy—if aid money is given and squandered and if free treatment is available and people aren’t taking advantage of it, then you can’t drag people by the ear to the clinic.

Yet Sachs makes a perhaps simple but important point, “The most common explanation for why countries fail to achieve economic growth often focuses on the faults of the poor: poverty is a result of corrupt leadership and retrograde cultures that impede modern development.  However, something as complex as a society’s economic system has too many moving parts to presume that only one thing can go wrong” (End of Poverty, 56).  Sachs speaks of the difficulty of getting onto the first rung of the ladder of development.  But, while it takes a lot to accomplish such a task, it is very much achievable as Sachs outlines in countries like India and Bangladesh.  He also points out some of the West’s meddling in African politics including assassinations and support of corrupt tyrants based on their anticommunist leanings, and their support of US interests.  I can’t pretend to know all the dirty political details (though I must say, I would like to), but I have to agree with Sachs that dismissing these issues by saying there is nothing we can do is an incomplete understanding of the picture.

Sachs makes note in several places of the Millennium Development Goals, set with the deadline of 2015.  My project at SCC has been focused on MDG 4 to reduce child mortality by two thirds between 1990 and 2015.  Burkina’s under-5 mortality rate has been practically constant since 1990, decreasing from a horrifying 201 deaths per 1000 live births to 169 in 2006.  To reach the goal, that number needs to go down to 69 (This is all according to a resource I have been using called Countdown to 2015).  At times I feel a bit like a substitute on the North Korea world cup team being put into the match in the 75th minute against Portugal.  Fortunately, however, when the clock strikes 2015 this game will not be over (nor will I have to go home to Kim Jong Il).

But, as I have brought up before, what is my role?  Given who I am and what I believe is true about the world, what can I do? To answer this question I feel I should be able to effectively articulate the answer to another question, namely why should I do anything?  With this question in mind I turn to Nicholas Wolsterstorff. It was Wolsterstorff’s words that led me in the first place to the question that has been so central to my time here, yet until this week I hadn’t read a single book of his (I’m now up to a grand total of one). But in his book When Justice and Peace Embrace, he writes “But why care?  Why not simply teach the poor to cope?  Why not praise the virtues of poverty?  Why not preach a gospel of consolation as the church has done for centuries?  Why try to change things?  Why should poverty be on the agenda of the Christian, or of anyone else?”  A pressing question indeed! And one that needs a well articulated answer.  Wolsterstorff answers with simplicity, “Well could it be that God cares?  Could it be that God has taken the side of the poor?”  (p 75).  Wolsterstorff says on the first page, “My project in this book is to ask how Christians should insert themselves into the modern social order” (3-4).  It’s a good thing I got my hands on this book!

He speaks of World-Formative Christianity, with its Calvinist origins.  With an insightful critique of Weber in mind, Wolsterstorff points out that the protestant ethic was not simply one that aimed to prove oneself among the elect.  Rather, “Gratitude, obedience, and vocation—these are at the center of Calvinist social piety: obedience motivated by gratitude and expressed in vocation” (15).  He speaks of the necessity of a vocation serving the common good.  Yet “we live in a fallen, corrupted society: the structures of our social world are structures which in good measure do not serve the common good” (16).  I thought about this fact a couple days ago as I read an article on electronics manufacturing and supply chains for precious metals like tantalum that connect electronics production with the horrendous violence in the Congo.  Globalization offers wonderful opportunity for economic growth, but it also may connect us to things we don’t want to be connected to.  Wolsterstorff notes that the structures of our social world “spread misery and injustice, squelching the realization of what human life was meant to be.  In response to this we are not to avert ourselves from our social condition, seeking closer union with God by means of undisturbed contemplation, for God himself is disturbed by our human condition; rather we are to struggle to alter those structures and the dynamics behind them, so that the alienation is diminished and the realization advanced” (23).

It is a significant thing to acknowledge the brokenness of the social order.  It admits that something is very much wrong, but acknowledges that it can be better, and importantly that I can play some small but significant role in that.  It takes on the challenge of the complexity and frustration.  Importantly, it takes on responsibility.  Wolsterstorff says “There are those in this world for whom the bonds of oppression are so tight that they cannot themselves work for a better society.  Their lot falls on the shoulders of you and me.  For I write mainly to those like myself who live in societies where the space of freedom is wide.  To us I say: the Word of the Lord and the cries of the people join in calling us to do more than count our blessings, more than shape our inwardness, more than reform our thoughts.  They call us to struggle for a new society in the hope and the expectation that the goal of our struggle will ultimately be granted us” (22).

When I read that quote I made a note in pencil “Farmer would like the sound of that”.  I made a critique of Farmer in my journal entry two weeks ago.  But I fear that I didn’t do him justice.  Pathologies of Power is similar in many ways to Wolsterstorff’s book.  They both aim at describing the social condition of our current world, pointing out injustice where it is present and the ways that it is built into the system, and they both aim to articulate some answer as to what we can do about it.

Farmer explains, with frustration and authority, US policy in regard to Haiti.  He notes the discussions in the early 90’s of whether the US could “afford an open border policy” (64) for HIV positive Haitian refugees, who were denied asylum based solely on their HIV status, and detained in deplorable conditions.  “No need, apparently, to convince the Clinton people that the events on Guantanamo were an abomination and a crime: ‘cost-effectiveness’ is what matters” (69).  He notes the grounds for suspicion regarding US foreign policy to Haiti, “running hundreds of millions of dollars through the Duvalier dictatorship” and then supporting the post-Duvalier military, whose spectacular exploits included the torching of Aristide’s church during mass [Father Jean Bertrand Aristide led the pro-democracy movement in the 1990 presidential elections, winning by a landslide].  And even during the leaky, half-hearted embargo against the military regime that ousted Aristide (and was eventually found guilty of war crimes), the United States was providing training, on U.S. soil, to the officers of that very regime” (85).  Farmer makes note of the movements for social justice that often got identified by US press reports as “more ethnic strife” (94).  So whether we like it or not, we are part of a nation that often does not act in service of the poor and oppressed.  And if don’t open our eyes to that and attempt to change things, we share fault.

I noted a quote by Farmer two weeks ago, part of which I’ll repeat, “Allowing ‘market forces’ to sculpt the outlines of modern medicine will mean that these unwelcome trends will continue until we are forced to conclude that even the practice of medicine can constitute a human rights abuse” (138).  By standing by in the comfort of our prosperity, allowing our vocational role to be determined by forces beyond our control, we choose to remove ourselves from the arena of God’s work in the world.  To be present and involved in this arena is a challenge, no doubt, but it is a necessary challenge, and one that brings fulfillment.  “Theoretically, if the market ethos rules health care, ‘physicians would be justified in refusing care’ on the grounds that ‘patients are responsible for their own health’” (163).   A look at Jeffery Sachs’ map of malaria prevalence in the world reflects the fact that disease is not distributed equally.  (I say this as I swat at mosquitoes—I’ve killed 3 so far)  However I have the privilege of Malarone that I take daily to prevent getting Malaria—the Africans around me, however, frequently do not get treatment for the disease.  Farmer states, “We thus find ourselves at a crossroads: health care can be considered a commodity to be sold, or it can be considered a basic social right.  It cannot comfortably be considered both of these at the same time” (175).  And indeed progress has been made; Sachs speaks of lobbying to pharmaceutical companies that has vastly reduced the cost of treatment for curable disease.  In situations like that, we can rejoice for those individuals in the pharmaceutical industry living out a vocation for the common good.

My transition from Farmer back to Wolsterstorff and into Barth and Bonhoeffer comes with two quotes from Farmer.  In speaking of loyalty to a specific religious ideology he states, “Partners in Health and its sister organizations in Haiti and Peru are completely ecumenical.  At the same time, the flabby moral relativism of our times would have us believe that we may now choose from a broad menu of approaches to delivering effective health care services to the poor.  This is simply not true.  Whether you are sitting in a clinic in rural Haiti, and thus a witness to stupid deaths from infection, or sitting in an emergency room in a U.S. city, and thus the provider of first resort for forty million uninsured, you must acknowledge that the commoditization of medicine invariably punishes the vulnerable” (152).  He also states later, “Against a tide of utilitarian opinion and worse, we are offered the chance to insist, This is not how it should be done” (176-177).

What is our grounding for such normative claims?  I stand with Wolsterstorff in thinking that it is because, in fact, God sides with the poor and the oppressed.  It is because God desires justice and peace that we ought to as well.  And when the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom of God finally becomes the ‘now’ of consummation, justice and peace will embrace and shalom will prevail.  Wolsterstorff characterizes this state, “Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature” (Wolsterstorff, 69).  He claims that shalom is wounded when justice is absent.  But we cannot derive a “should” from nowhere.  Farmer is right in criticizing “flabby moral relativism”.  In fact, there is not a broad menu of approaches to truth.  We need firm ground on which to stand, because the daily task of living for justice and peace cannot be sustained without it.

Wolsterstorff quotes a famous passage from Barth (CD II.1), “the human righteousness required by God and established in obedience—the righteousness which according to Amos 5 should pour down as a mighty stream—has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans and aliens.  For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of His people, God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it” (73).  Wolsterstorff notes that before Barth, Abraham Kuyper made a similar claim, “both the Christ, and also just as much his apostles after Him as the prophets before Him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed” (Wolsterstorff, 73.  Kuyper, Christianity and the Class Struggle).  Wolsterstorff claims that it is against God’s will that some be poor (76).  He also says that “we share with each other the most fundamental unity of nature.  It is this fact—that we are each made in the image of God, mirroring him, rather than the fact that we each have some sort of inherent dignity—that is fundamental in determining what our attitude toward each other ought to be” (78).  Yet importantly, he states later, “I want to say, as emphatically as I can, that our concern with poverty is not an issue of generosity but of rights” (82).  This goes back to Newbigin’s claim that we must only speak of rights as they relate to the other.  Before the righteousness of God, we have no right to anything except damnation.  But since we are made in the image of God, and since God found in each of us something worth saving, we have a duty to one another.

Wolsterstorff offers a meaningful critique of nationalism and much concrete insight on the social structure of our world, but I cannot go into it in depth here.  But I find insight from Bonhoeffer helpful, “The Old Testament law puts the claim to rights, or justice, under the protection of divine retribution…It’s concern is to construct a just community, to overcome and identify evil, and to eradicate evil from the community of God’s people…For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil…the followers of Jesus who experience injustice do not cling to their own rights as if they were possessions  to be defended at all costs” (Discipleship, 133).  Later, from prison Bonhoeffer would say, “It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world; it is only when one submits to God’s law that one may speak of grace; and it is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts.”  Bonhoeffer’s statement is a turning towards the world, engaging it and struggling through the tension and paradox that exist in it.

Wolsterstorff states, “The neo-Calvinists have focused on the fact that Christian commitment involves ‘a way of seeing reality,’ and they have reflected seriously on the consequences of that fact for the practice of scholarship” (172).  Throughout the book he makes reference to the Christian’s mode of “being in the world” and while I don’t intend to launch into an analysis of Dasein (nor would I be able to even if I did want to), I will simply say that the “way of seeing reality” and the “mode of engagement in society” that he speaks of closely parallel the concept of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice.  Wolsterstorff’s book came out of a series of lectures on Kuyper, and he makes various references to him. “Thus it was parallelism of scholarly and social reform that Kuyper stressed, rather than scholarship in the service of social reform” (165).  He gives insight into the interrelation of theory and practice and the role that scholarship plays in social reform.  And I’ll affirm the necessity of both theory and practice, and the need for a well articulated telos, from which one can have a firm grounding for social practice.

One other important point that Wolsterstorff makes, and which elaborates on the Christian’s ‘mode of being in the world’ is the notion of Christian worship.  He poses the question as to what is “significantly distinctive about the Christian’s way of being-in-the-world” (147) and finds his answer in worship.  While reading, I thought of Bonhoeffer’s Life Togetherwhere he explains Christian being in the world in terms of worship.  And what Bonhoeffer and Wolsterstorff both rightly emphasize is the need for both worship and social action.  And further, that neither of these should be inward per se.  After mentioning worship, Wolsterstorff humorously says, “I expect some of my readers who are Christian will already be feeling acutely disappointed and uneasy.  You were hoping that I would mention something important, something significant, something that you could point to without embarrassment when engaged in discussion with, for example, the Marxist and say: ‘Here on this important point of practice we differ’” (147).  And part of me wants that; in fact a little while ago part of me wanted to figure that out through this internship (It was largely Newbigin’s insight that set my sights in a more true and more meaningful direction). Yet there is significance to worship.  “Worship is ontologically grounded” (Wolsterstorff, 151) as Bonhoeffer also makes clear.  Work and worship are both firmly rooted in gratitude as the neo-Calvinist understanding articulates so well.  And the interplay between work and worship bears on the interplay between theory and practice, scholarship and social action, so that we cannot think with a Christian mind without speaking with a Christian voice, and the reverse is also true.

I’ll close with reference to Farmer.  Addressing the medical community Farmer says, “The problem here, explored throughout this book, is that our practice has not kept up with our rhetoric.  In arguing that health care is a human right, one signs on to a lifetime of work dedicated to erasing double standards for rich and poor” (Farmer, 201).  In thinking about my own place in this world, I must be careful that my rhetoric doesn’t outrun my practice, and that my practice remains firmly rooted in the truth that my rhetoric seeks to articulate.

A Trip to Mali

Well, I returned from a trip to Mali.  I’m journaling a bit un-chronologically, but I will speak about the trip itself momentarily.  But upon returning to Ouaga at somewhere around 11 at night I stepped off of the bus into a totally different bus station from the one I had departed from.  There are many stations around the city, and I guess they use different ones at different times.  There was one taxi driver outside who asked if I needed a ride.  I said I was going towards Zone du Bois, and asked the price.  He responded, 4000 CFA.  Before I came to Burkina, the pastor of my church at home, who lived in Mali for a number of years told me I would be seen as a walking checkbook.  I’ve experienced that sense in other countries before, but I think that in West Africa, that sentiment is especially prominent.  For all the friendliness and hospitality of Burkinabé, I must say that as a white person, I am an immediate target for getting ripped off.  And nowhere is this more obvious than with taxis.  During the day the real price of a taxi from my office downtown for a Burkinabé would likely be somewhere around 200 or 300 CFA.  At night taxis are a bit more expensive.  I would have paid 1000, but after some negotiation, he wouldn’t go lower than 2000.  So I decided to be stubborn.  It was the principle that bothered me.  I don’t like the idea of paying 3 times what an African would pay.  So, having no idea where I was, I asked what general direction Zone du Bois was and started to walk.  After walking for 15 minutes I started to regret not taking the taxi.  But it was about at that time that a guy on a moto stopped and asked where I was going.  I ended up hopping on the back and he drove me all the way home.  It was a sort of humbling evening.

Today, I returned to the soccer field (although ‘field’ is likely deceptive because there is no grass on it anywhere) outside of my apartment for the first time in a week and a half or so.  To my surprise, there was another white guy playing keeper for one team.  I greeted him as well as a few of the other guys who I had played with before.  One guy, whom I recognized, greeted me with an enthusiastic “Rogé!” as I shook his hand.  I couldn’t remember if his name was Jean Paul or Jean Patrique (I realized it was just Patrique), but later during the game I said to him, “Patrique, so what happened, after I left you guys found another blanc?” (Blanc is the term for a white guy—nothing derogatory, but perhaps the French equivalent of gringo).  He laughed and shook his head saying “ha ha, Rogé”.  He responded as if we had been friends forever, as if my comment was a classic Roger joke.  But I appreciated it; it made me feel as if, in some sense at least, I have a place here.  And I’ve realized, now towards the end of my stay, that I do have some sense of belonging in Burkina, and that thought is refreshing.

My trip to Mali was one of great welcoming.  I hopped aboard a bus in Ouaga headed for Bobo Dialoso (a city in Burkina on the way to Mali).  I felt slightly chilled from the air conditioning, which is something I certainly didn’t expect, and I had a two- person seat all to myself.  I felt a little uneasy driving past poor villages on my ivory tower of a bus, but I was thankful for the comfort.  I ended up changing buses in Bobo, and the second bus was a bit more what I had expected, but not too bad at all.  I somehow managed to cross the border without a visa—I gave the border guard a hard time about making me pay, given the fact that I had brought limited funds for food, etc, and I think that may have had something to do with it (I ended up having to buy a visa on my way out of the country anyway though, so my plan didn’t exactly work out).  But then finally, twelve hours after leaving Ouaga I arrived in Koutiala, Mali.  I found my way to the Protestant Mission base, an organization called YWAM.  Fortunately I had my own room ready for me, so after briefly watching some soccer with a guy named Dieudonné, I was off to bed.

I was shown tremendous hospitality in the next two days while I was shown around the neighboring school (and got a front row seat for performances by each grade), a mother and children’s hospital in Koutiala and a trade school a short distance away from the YWAM base.  I also watched with lament on my last night there as the US soccer team lost to Ghana, but fortunately I could lament in good company, since I watched the game with a group of other Americans.  While I wish my team could have pulled through, it was fun driving home and seeing the happy spirits of everyone who supported the only African team remaining in the World Cup.

In going to Mali, I was excited about the idea of seeing some more projects and efforts to serve the people there.  I didn’t want to go into it with an eye to analyze these Christian aid initiatives and contrast them with the non-Christian aid initiative I had been working with.  It is not as if YWAM’s reach of success is greater than Save the Children’s because they are a Christian organization.  But it was interesting to see simple ways that the Christian service projects attempted to identify themselves as Christian.  In the hospital there was a TV that played videos of Bible stories for children to watch.  At the trade school there was a Bible study every Wednesday.  Through examples like these, I was able to see some of the intentional ways that these projects or initiatives attempted to speak the gospel while trying to serve people’s physical needs.  Neither physical needs nor spiritual needs can be dispensed with, and neither can submit to the other.  Need in this world covers a range of physical and non-physical needs, and loving one’s neighbor involves presenting both the bread from heaven and the bread from the local bakery—each one at its appropriate time.

I can imagine that, just as I have experienced frustration in my brief work, any missionary must experience frustrations about his/her work.  I don’t think I can quite enter into that frustration or struggle, but I have struggled before, here and elsewhere, about how I can really get another person to see the truth of what I believe.  I have read a bit about the different religious consciousness that exists in Africa.  Missionary Leslie Newbigin states, “Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words.  The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion” (Foolishness of the Greeks, 4).  Douglas W. Waruta states in an essay entitled, “Who Is Jesus Christ for Africans Today,” “I contend that Africans have every right to formulate their own Christology, their own response to who Jesus is to them.  Such a response should reflect their consciousness as to who this Messiah really is.  I also contend that Africans understand Jesus Christ in the context of their own religious consciousness” (Faces of Jesus in Africa, ed. Robert J. Schreiter, 53).  As I ponder the question of what it means to speak with a Christian voice, insight from missionaries is helpful.

Undoubtedly, part of speaking the gospel to a any culture entails understanding that culture.  As Newbigin reminds us, it also involves understanding one’s own culture.  John S Mbiti gives a valuable survey of African religious thought in his book African Religions and Philosophy.  He makes note of the African conception of time, which is different from that of the West—the concept of distant future is largely absent from many African societies, which poses a problem for any sort of eschatology.  He states, “we have already pointed out that within traditional life, the individual is immersed in a religious participation which starts before birth and continues after death.  For him therefore, and for the larger community of which he is a part, to live is to be caught up in a religious drama” (15).  In describing an African conception of God, he states, “for most of their life, African peoples place God in the transcendental plane, making it seem as if He is remote from their daily affairs.  But they know that He is immanent, being manifested in natural objects and phenomena, and they can turn to Him in acts of worship, at any place and any time.  The distinction between these related attributes could be stated that, in theory God is transcendental but in practice He is immanent” (33).  It seems that there is inevitable tension between discerning what is unorthodox and incapable of meshing with the gospel, and what is a cultural nuance that, while different from a Western understanding of the gospel, can fit into a truthful understanding of the gospel.  One can see this tension played out in Byang H Kato’s criticisms of Mbiti—especially criticisms of universalistic tendencies.

Kato includes a quote from George Peters which I liked, “it (the Biblical Approach) accepts the absolute predicament of man in a realistic manner, acknowledging on the one hand man’s rebellion against God, his enmity with God and his flight from God, hiding himself under the fig leaves of man-constructed and designed religion and culture—man’s barricade against all that threatens him including God, ever seeking to perfect this covering and to control the power above and beyond him to the furtherance of his selfish ends.  On the other hand this approach takes account of the fact that man lives as a creature with an awareness that he is away from home, separated from true reality and life, with a ‘feeling of dependence upon the ultimate,’ with a guilt complex and a consciousness of deserved judgment.  Thus he seeks, gropes, longs to be restored to his rightful creature relationship and household membership, makes attempts to appease God, the gods, spirits, or powers to reconcile himself to or submit and control that which threatens him” (Kato, 44-45).

The theological debate on soteriology is a complex one, and one that I won’t address at length here.  I do feel a draw towards Mbiti’s statement that Kato quotes, “There is not a single soul, however, debased or even unrepentant, which can successfully ‘flee’ from the Spirit of God (Psa. 139:1-18).  God’s patient waiting for the soul’s repentance must in the end be surely more potent than the souls reluctance to repent and turn to Him… (2 Peter 3:9).  The harmony of the heavenly worship would be impaired if, out of the one hundred in the sheepfold, there is one soul which continues to languish in sheol of the ‘lake of fire’” (Kato quoting Mbiti, 87).  Yet I also feel the truth of F.F. Bruce’s statement that Kato quotes, “The doctrine of ultimate universal reconciliation is so obviously one that every Christian would wish to believe if he could, but the fact that many Christians find it impossible to accept suggests that it is beset with serious difficulties.  We know that God has pledged His word to bless and save all those who repent of their sin” (Kato, 88).  I also appreciate Kato’s distinction between animistic worship as an expression of man’s awareness of God, and animistic worship being worship of God in itself (114).  I agree with Kato that the latter is a dangerous theological position.

In the end I find Newbigin’s position most appealing which advises us as Christians to speak truly, but do so with humility, acknowledging that we are not God and we cannot see our neighbor’s heart, so we do not know where he’ll go when he dies.  But that question—as to where the neighbor will go after death—is not the right one to ask. “…the dialogue will not be about who is going to be saved.  It will be about the question, ‘What is the meaning and goal of this common human story in which we are all, Christians and others together, participants?’ ” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 182).   We must speak truly, pointing out with humility where the neighbor might be rebelling against God.  And we serve alongside that neighbor, actively pursuing justice and mercy, and attempting to worship God in word and deed, driven by a spirit of gratitude.

Anna Gilbert Concert

Occasionally, ONE sponsors established artists to play concerts to raise awareness and to sign up new members.  The list of established artists could include Chris Daughtry, Switchfoot, and U2, conveniently led by front man Bono, a co-founder of ONE.  In fact, Bono is rumored to occasionally drop by the Washington, D.C. office to meet with David Lane, ONE’s CEO, and is even more rarely introduced to lowly interns such as myself.  The chances of this are probably one in a million (think Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re saying there’s a chance?!”), however, Bono recently had back surgery and is on bed rest in Ireland, so I guess my 15 minutes will have to occur at some unspecified time in the future.  Half past never sounds good/probable.

That being said, ONE also sponsors emerging artists, who may have a small, yet dedicated fan base who can hopefully be persuaded (see: coerced) into signing up for ONE membership, or inspired (see: coerced) to action.  Actually, coercion isn’t really necessary to raise awareness.  The difficulty lies in inspiring individuals to take action.  This past week, I was asked to help schedule a concert that would bring Anna Gilbert, an emerging artist from Portland, Oregon, to D.C. to play an awareness (and hopefully action) raising concert for free.  ONE paid for her travel expenses, but she played the show for free, and on less than 4 hours of sleep, so it could be argued she did play for a price: 6 cups of coffee to stay awake X $2.50 per cup=$15 dollars and extreme jet lag.  And let me say, if anyone’s music could inspire people, particularly Christians, to take action, it would be Anna’s.  She has a beautiful voice, complimented by inspirational lyrics and three very attractive men to play bass, drums, and electric guitar.  She has so far recorded three albums, the third being the most musically diverse and upbeat.

One of my favorite songs was called, “Nobody Told You.” The lyrics read, “Sometimes harder is much better, sometimes pains the remedy, and when you think you’re getting weaker, find strength in peace.  It’s ok to bleed, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to ask why, its ok to wonder sit in silence have no answers, cause when the morning brings the day, there will be another way to try again.”  To me, these lyrics were a reminder of something that we all tend to forget: the importance of silence in determining the right course of action.  Too often, alone time is sacrificed to a hectic day, and action is taken before the ‘why’ is actually determined.  Dietrich Bonheoffer acknowledged this tendency, writing, “The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech.” The right silence can produce right community.  This seems paradoxical, especially when you imagine a community together in an auditorium trying to plan an action that will serve to better others, and no one is speaking. But this isn’t the awkward silence generated by a bad blind date.  It is an inner reflection that generates a decisive and effective community.  In this case, silence is golden.

La Coupe du Monde

In the spirit of humor, I have to share an anecdote.  I mentioned the first week that Burkinabé can be jokesters.  Well one day this week I was waiting for Jean Paul (the same guy who was messing with me on my first day) to finish making copies so that we could drive to sort out an issue with my flight home.  He told me that Dianne, who works next door, had told him that when I say hello I don’t really wave my hand—instead I just keep it stationary the way you would wave to a car that just let you go.  I certainly hadn’t noticed anything, but Jean-Paul said (with a slight grin), “Dianne really likes that.  You should do it more.”  Somewhat confused, I looked at another girl working in the room, who furrowed her brow and shook her head.  They finally explained to me that raising your hand at someone, the way I had apparently been doing to Dianne, is a symbol for placing a curse on them.  Fortunately, no harm was done; I went to Dianne and told her sorry and that my hand gesture was a pretty normal way of waving in the States, and we had a good laugh.  But I guess you never know what cultural nuances you might unexpectedly come across. (Jean-Paul’s first question to me the next day was whether I had said hello to Dianne yet).

Well, I’ve been reading two books on cultural observations in Africa.  And one thing they both have emphasized is that, although Africa is an enormous continent with incredible diversity (in everything from culture to climate to language) there are some things common to all of Africa.  I have often joked with a friend of mine (currently in South Africa on a research grant) about the country, Africa.  If someone makes reference to “Africa”, one of us will occasionally ask the other, “wait what’s the capital of Africa again?”  And I think there is a tendency for us in the West (and I’m guilty of this as well) to view the “dark continent” as a single entity.  I can recall telling someone at U.Va. that I’d be in West Africa this summer and they said “wow, you’re gonna be in Africa for the World Cup!”  I imagined an American getting excited about their close proximity to a World Cup in Brazil.  (In fact I’m reminded of just how far I am from Johannesburg every time I see people shivering in thick jackets while watching the games).  But in fact, there is an undeniable sense of African identity that I’ve noticed.  And perhaps the easiest way to see that is in the World Cup.  There is strong support for Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon especially, and some for South Africa.  Largely missing from the picture is Algeria, which, while on the African continent, doesn’t really participate in that sub-Saharan African identity.

Speaking of the World Cup though, I was walking back on Sunday from the office (had to use the internet) lamenting that I didn’t have any way of watching the games.  I had unfortunately missed the USA game against England, despite efforts to find it streaming online. But as I was walking home I came across a little phone boutique that had a TV set up on the counter, facing out.  A few guys were crowded around watching Germany play Australia.  Thrilled that I could finally watch a game, I decided to stay for a bit.  I ended up talking to a few people and stayed for the entire game (it had barely started when I arrived).  Since then I’ve gone every night to watch the 6:30 game and caught the tail end of one of the 2 o’clock games.  So far, there have been anywhere from 7 guys to 15 or so, sitting on benches or on their motorbikes or just standing.

At different times, some of the men will get up and go behind the boutique to pray. Two of them own the store and a couple others work just across the street.  Most of them have prayer rugs, although on the first day, one man just had an unfolded cardboard box that looked like it had been used as a rug for some time.  I was so into the game that the thought of God never really crossed my mind.  I’ve thought of myself as pretty well disciplined reading my Bible in the mornings these past few weeks, but this certainly went beyond that.  I remember first being struck last summer, while in Morocco, by the devotion of many Muslims.  Seeing these men made me think of a Newbigin quote I referenced last week, “There is something deeply repulsive in the attitude, sometimes found among Christians, which makes only grudging acknowledgement of the faith, the godliness, and the nobility to be found in the lives of non-Christians.  Even more repulsive is the idea that in order to communicate the gospel to them one must, as it were, ferret out their hidden sins, show that their goodness is not so good after all, as a precondition for presenting the offer of grace in Christ.  It is indeed true that in the presence of the cross we come to know that, whoever we are, we are sinners before the grace of God.  But that knowledge is the result, not the precondition of grace” (180).

While I don’t think that all paths lead up the same mountain, and while I do think Christ is the only way, truth and life there is, there is something real about these men’s devotion.  The God of the universe is at work in their lives, and it’s not for me to speak about the conditions of their souls.  It is my job to speak truth, as I know it, and to act in love.  Yet I do still wrestle with how, in the concrete moment, I can do that.  What does it really mean to live theology?  What does it mean to think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice?  I continuously return to this question.  And as I think about returning home, I realize that this question is just as important there as it is in Burkina.

Mentally Overcoming the Holistic Nature of Poverty: The ONE Focus

The last problem I mentioned, that is, the tendency to be overwhelmed by the holistic nature of poverty, can lead to inaction and an apparently lackadaisical attitude.  This is issue is one of compartmentalization, where an individual is unable to focus their attention on just one aspect of poverty.  When I first arrived at ONE, I was simultaneously excited and overwhelmed by the vision of the organization, which at first glance seemed to be ‘end poverty.’  ONE presents its volunteers, employees and the general public with an extremely holistic vision–the elimination of extreme poverty and preventable disease–that would overwhelm the operating capacity of the organization if ONE didn’t compartmentalize itself.  While organizations need to look at extreme poverty as a comprehensive problem that affects all aspects of life, (education, health, housing, policy, socio-economic status, and self-perception), focusing organizational resources on particular aspects of development ensures efficiency and effectiveness.  Despite the overarching vision, which of course represents the ultimate goal, ONE actually focuses its efforts on a particular aspect of development: accountability.

Every year, beginning in 2005, the ONE campaign has issued the DATA Report, which monitors the progress of monetary commitments that several countries made to Africa at the G8 Gleneagles Summit.   The G8 countries include Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union.  The report publicizes the original commitments each country pledged to Official Development Assistance (ODA) in Africa in terms of percent of Gross National Income (GNI) and projects the percentage of that commitment each country will have actually given to Africa by the end of 2010, when the commitments are due.  The overarching purpose of this report is, of course, to hold countries accountable to their commitments and to make recommendations for commitments to be made in the future, particularly at the upcoming G8/20 Summit in Ontario, Canada from June 25-27, 2010, and at the United Nations Summit in September, 2010 to review the Millennium Development Goals.  For example, between 2004 and 2009, the United States promised to give $3.784 billion in ODA to Africa, which represents a modest portion of GNI.  The DATA Report Estimates that by the end of 2010, the United States will have given 158% of their commitment, or $5.384 billion in real dollar amount.  The report then recommends that the United States set a more ambitious target as part of a comprehensive national strategy on global development.  On the other hand, Italy set an extremely ambitious target, committing 0.51% of its GNI to ODA by 2010. The report projects that Italy will not only fail to meet that target, but will also renege on their original commitment, decreasing ODA by $235 million to -6%.  As the report highlights, for ONE, and for donor and African countries, accountability is a key component of global development.  Existing and donor commitments must be tracked to maximize transparency, results orientation and clarity, while African leaders must be held accountable to their citizenry with regard to public promises concerning improvements in health, education and agriculture, which have thus far been only partially kept.

I had the privilege today of attending a conference held in D.C. regarding the ONE DATA Report, led by the CEO of ONE, David Lane (who is also a UVA grad, WAHOOWA!), former President Bush’s Chief of Staff, Joshua Bolten, and the head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Pearl-Alice Marsh.  All three leaders commented on the need for increased accountability and transparency among both donor and African countries.  Mr. Lane also described the “Bono moment,” which references the moment the co-founder of ONE and lead singer of U2  realized that greater acknowledgement of African policy is a key part of the development process.  On a political level, this calls for G8 countries to support good policy coming from African governments, rather than imposing G8 crafted policies on African countries, or treating Africa like a basket case in need of western salvation.  Mrs. Marsh also commented on the need to reinforce good policy, and challenged the audience to consider this process atechnical issue, rather than a moral one.

This statement is concise and profound, especially from a theological perspective.  When I heard Mrs. Marsh’s challenge, my initial thoughts revolved around the simplicity of the statement, even to the point where I heard myself whisper, “obviously” to my co-worker sitting next to me.  But upon reflection, it hasn’t always been obvious to Western governments that policy making is a collaborative and intricate process that needs to occur alongside African countries, rather than apart from them.  The U.S. Farm Bill of 2002, which directed approximately $16.5 billion dollars toward American agricultural subsidies per year, is a perfect example of policy created in the West designed to provide aid to Africa that ended up devastating individual country’s economic and agricultural progress.  Likewise, it wasn’t always obvious to Western individuals that African individuals are just as moral (or alternatively, prone to sin) as they are.  Let’s not forget that for 300 years, westerners considered slavery an acceptable and moral institution, justifiable by the fact the African individuals were treated as biologically and morally inferior, and therefore deserving of forced enslavement.  If, as a Christian, my initial response to Mrs. Marsh’s profound statement is “Obviously,” then I obviously have some mental adjustments to make.  How many times a day do Christians judge people based on a false sense of moral superiority, and then retreat to an insular Christian community to stew in cultivated suppositions?  For many Christians, these judgments have become second nature and are made unconsciously.  But in order to participate in the world, as we have been biblically instructed to do, we must refrain from judgment and acknowledge the collective sinfulness of humanity.  Far too often, in an effort to live in the world, but not of it, we cultivate a sense of piety and retreat to what is comfortable.  But when one examines scripture, particularly Romans 12:2, there is a clear call to participate in the world.  In Romans, Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  A renewed mind means an agreement to love one’s neighbors and enemies equally, and is not a command to form exclusive Christian communities.  In order to test and approve God’s will, we must hold ourselves accountable to our mental iniquities, which will hopefully translate into an action oriented accountability and participation in the regeneration of the global community.

For a full PDF of the DATA Report, please visit:

LOVE in Song

This new Switchfoot video, inspired by John Perkins, the great civil rights leader, was sent over the ONE email list serve today…

I have heard that Lived Theology’s very own Charles Marsh connected Switchfoot with John Perkins to collaborate on this video. Furthermore, the Switchfoot band members also happen to be very big ONE supporters.  So in honor of the world getting smaller and more aware of justice because of all these fantastic connections, I have decided to do a post about modern depictions of love in song.  Specifically, I’m going to look at how popular music, while catchy and endlessly entertaining, has perverted the biblical meaning of love.  Walker Percy, in his novel The Last Gentleman,questioned countercultural sentiments of love, arguing, “Make love not war? I’ll take war rather than what this age calls love.” How did we go so wrong?

Let me begin with “Love Story” by Taylor Swift.  I may make many people, most of them 15 year old girls and college age fraternity guys, angry with this criticism.  And by the way, I am not saying I don’t like this song–I do. It’s catchy, and is exactly what every girl dreams of when it comes to love. I mean, read the lyrics and tell me this isn’t fairytale perfection. “Romeo take me somewhere we can be alone; I’ll be waiting all there’s left to do is run; You’ll be the prince, I’ll be the princess; It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”  Wow. Yes, yes, I say YES.

Unfortunately, this is a highly inaccurate picture of love.  I’m no expert, but love isn’t supposed to be easy, and there is much more to it than just saying yes (although that helps).

Moving on to “What is love?” by Haddaway.  This 80s classic should make you think of Will Ferrell and Chris Katan wearing ugly fluorescent suits and bobbing their heads simultaneously side to side in a van.  The lyrics to this one aren’t so much complex.  It goes, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.” If the only definition of love is that no one gets hurt, than I would say that this is almost as unrealistic as the fairytale brought to us by T-Swift.  I know it’s just a four-minute song, but this is a really limited portrayal of love.

Next up is “Love in this Club” by Usher.  If possible, the chorus to this song is even less creative and even catchier than the Haddaway classic.  It goes, “I wanna make love in this club, yea; make love in this club, yea, in this club.”  Ok, I have to admit, I like this song. In fact, I have spent many long car rides blasting this song in an effort to stay awake or entertain myself for 6 hours.  Basically, this song equates love to sex.  For Usher, and most of the pop culture world, love is drinking one too many cosmos, finding someone random in a club and taking them home.  This depiction is neither a fairytale, nor is it any way to form a solid relationship.  This is the kind of love that Percy was criticizing when he said that he would rather take war over the contemporary understanding of love as sex, and I happen to agree.

Finally, we have Love is a Battlefield by Pat Benatar.  This song comes the closest to an accurate depiction of love yet.  The lyrics suggest that love is a fight, and we have to accept heartache, because it’s just as much a part of life as love.  “We are young, heartache to heartache we stand; No promises, no demands; Love is a battlefield.”  Right on.  But there is one thing that bothers me.  No promises? No demands? Love is a promise and a demand, theological context or not.  In fact, a marital relationship is a promise to love your spouse until death, no matter what.  This is accompanied by certain demands, like sharing of the remote control for the TV, communicating issues, and nurturing children.  From a biblical perspective, God promises to love us unconditionally, and commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Almost Pat, almost.

Ultimately, I prefer love as Switchfoot and John Perkins see it.  And my agreement with Walker Percy is even more emphatic if he imagined war as Perkins does.  The theme of the Switchfoot video is “Love is the Final Fight” in the context of globalization.  The introduction to the video features John Perkins saying, “we wanna make a United States, and there will be people from every nation under God would have liberty and freedom for all.”  This message is amazingly similar to the publicly projected message of ONE, which seeks freedom from extreme poverty for all suffering individuals, particularly those in Africa.  ONE wants individuals in Africa to enjoy the same freedoms and liberties that Americans enjoy and take for granted on a daily basis.  The best way I can think of to characterize the fight for freedom from oppression is LOVE. And if love is the final fight, then we are currently engaged in the battle of our lives-and I’m anticipating that love will prevail.

The Lazarus Effect: Bringing the Dead Back to Life

In Revelation, believers are promised new life in the passage of the first earth, where God will dwell among men, and there will be no more pain and suffering.  Alternatively, if we choose not to believe and pursue desires of the flesh, we are ensured a “second death.”

Revelation 21 reads:

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

6He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

At ONE, the ultimate goal is to facilitate a second life. As mentioned before, there are many dimensions of poverty, and thus, many different components that need to be addressed in order to restore life.  One such component, that is quite literally killing millions of Africans, is lack of access and affordability of medication to treat HIV positive individuals.  Currently, ONE is working on a campaign to raise awareness and support from Congress for continued funding of GAVI, which provides ARV’s to HIV positive individuals in Africa to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child.  The tagline of the campaign is concise and powerful: “No child born with HIV by 2015”. Without ARV’s, HIV positive individuals are practically the living dead, unable to perform daily tasks such as walking to the market for food, without feeling weak.  Many are confined to their beds, and wait for death.  However, with consistent ARV treatment, these individuals get a second chance at life. This process has come to be known at ONE as the Lazarus Effect, coined by Spike Jonze in his moving documentary about Antiretroviral (ARV) administration in Africa, particularly in the country of Zambia.  Just as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, ARV’s raise individuals from a state living death to a place where they can function normally without pain and weakness.  In the Lazarus Effect documentary, a woman named Concillia, described the experience of finally getting access to ARVs as being “resurrected”.

Upon watching the Lazarus Effect, it occurred to me that there is a complex dimension to hope in the ‘new life’ described in Revelation, that presents a unique opportunity for Christianity, and for Christians.  Many individuals with HIV know what it feels like to be alive, but not really living.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if these individuals were presented with a second life, through the widespread distribution of ARV’s and the gospel? It seems the promise of Revelation, life in death, would carry particular significance for people who have experienced near death in life.  It would also seem that Christians, who posses clear directives from the gospel, should take responsibility and ownership for the distribution of ARV’s as a source of life for a hurting community.

My role at ONE thus far has been to work on ONE Sabbath, a campaign that encourages faith based communities to take responsibility for facilitating a second life.  This campaign is still in the planning stages, but so far, the Faith Relations team has concluded that the most effective way to simultaneously promote awareness and trigger action based responses would be to show the Lazarus Effect Documentary to a variety of inter-faith congregations (the awareness) and then encourage the action based response of letter writing to district congressmen (the action) asking for continued support for ODA (Overseas Development Assistance).  But more to come on that subject…once the plan has progressed past a rough draft.

To watch the Lazarus Effect online, go to:

Truth as Foundation and the Privilege of Justice and Mercy

After a night of vomiting and lying in my bed most of Friday, I find myself reflecting on my experience.  Over the course of this past week, I’ve learned a bit more about how Save the Children works here.  I’ve realized that most of the ‘action’ doesn’t take place in the office where I come to work—at least not action in the hands-on sense.  SCC (Save the Children Canada—which is the branch of Save the Children International that I’ve been working under) has two field offices in Burkina, one in Kaya and one in Banfora.  The two offices are oriented towards slightly different approaches; one based more on immediate care and one more focused on advocacy and prevention.  I have learned that SCC works with different CBO’s (in French, OBC-E’s), or Community-Based Organizations.  These include an organization to combat AIDS (SIDA in French), one to improve the status of women, and others.  I’ve also learned that much of development work related to health and nutrition takes place in CSPS (Centers for Health and Social Promotion). These small centers, located all over the country are the places where most women learn of the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, and how to prevent disease among children, and where people can obtain vaccinations, and plenty of other services.

In addition to working with these small community organizations, SCC also gets funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the US Department of Labor and ECHO, a large European-based development agency.  As the middleman in a grand effort, it’s easy to feel a little bit lost.  And as an American intern whose French is very far from perfect, it’s easy to feel very lost.  This week I had a meeting with Sara, the peace corps rep that I’m working with, Dr. Bonzi, head of programs, and Karine, who works in between Ouaga and Kaya, and is Bonzi’s second in command.  We went through the campaign plan, and organized our responsibilities and deadlines. Sara’s and my primary responsibility is to find critical barriers and gaps to achieving MDG-4 in Burkina.  If the meeting was in English, I think I would have been confused at times; seeing that it was in French, I was confused quite a bit.  As I rehashed the meeting with Sara, I was reminded of my Western mentality, which desires efficiency and division of tasks (I was also reminded of the limits of my French).  Fortunately by the end, I finally had an idea of my role in the process, which for the last several days has been to go through a vast array of surveys and find statistics relevant to the EVERYONE campaign.

In talking about children under age 5, I think I ought to recount one story. In Burkina, most women carry their babies on their backs in scarf-type garments that they wrap around their bodies.  Today though, while playing soccer, the ball went out of bounds and rolled right near a girl who could not have been more than 4 or 5 years old who was carrying a baby on her back.  As she handed me the ball, I looked for a mother but there was none to be found.  Periodically throughout the game I would look over to see if anyone else was with this girl, but no one came, and she stayed watching the game for what was probably close to an hour.  The mother very well may have been close by and I just didn’t see her, but I couldn’t help but feel a strong sadness for this 5-year old girl left to care for her little sister.

In learning more about the conditions that affect Burkina’s immensely high under-5 mortality rate (204 out of every 1000 live births), I feel very small.  Of course I didn’t expect to come save a bunch of lives with my presence, but I wonder what impact, if any, my presence is making.  In reflecting, I came across another Leslie Newbigin quote (if you read my previous week’s entry, you may have noticed my affinity for Newbigin quotes).  He says, “This [the gospel] is our story, and it defines who we are.  Just as character can only be truly rendered in narrative form, so the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ can only be given if we ask ‘What is my story?’ and that can only be answered if there is an answer to the further question, ‘What is the whole story of which my story is a part?’  To indwell the Bible is to live with an answer to those questions, to know who I am and who is the One to whom I am finally accountable” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 100).  So to begin to understand my place in this vast world, I must begin with an understanding of what God is doing in it.  Later Newbigin, quoting John Hick, defines salvation as “’the transformation of human experience from self-centeredness to God—or Reality—centeredness’ (Myth, 23).” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 169).  We must begin with reality, with truth.

This brings me to reflection on another figure that I have been influenced by, Paul Farmer.  His life and work, so far as I have seen through my reading of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Pathologies of Power, is an extraordinary demonstration of love, caring and passionate desire for justice.  In fact, learning about Farmer was part of what influenced me to come work with Save the Children.  While I really have no background in medicine or global health, Farmer’s insistence on the systems of injustice that exist around the world convicted me of the enormous need in the world related to health. Pathologies of Power opens with a quote from Wendell Berry, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”  While my own reading of Berry is very limited, I am informed by sources that I trust that he is one of the wisest voices in our world today (and I’ll return to his quote).

Throughout the book, Farmer criticizes social structures, constantly reminding us that “evil not only is present in the hearts of powerful individuals who muck things up for the rest of us but is embedded in the very structures of society, so that those structures, and not just individuals who work within them, must be changed if the world is to change” (143).  He challenges us out of our comfort, reminding us that in doing nothing, we share guilt for the plight of the oppressed.  Later on in the book, Farmer praises liberation theology because it “adds something not found in any discipline, including Marxist analyses.  It adds this constant interrogation: how is this relevant to the suffering of the poor and to the relief of that suffering?” (138).  He continues, “This helps to explain, perhaps, why I put medicine first in the title of Part II.  Scholarship, including anthropology [Farmer’s own discipline], is not always readily yoked to the service of the poor.  Medicine, I have discovered, is…A preferential option for the poor, and all perspectives rooted in it, also offers a way out of the impasse in which many of us caregivers now find ourselves: selling our wares and services only to those who can afford them, rather than making sure that they reach those who need them most.  Allowing ‘market forces’ to sculpt the outlines of modern medicine will mean that these unwelcome trends will continue until we are forced to conclude that even the practice of medicine can constitute a human rights abuse” (138).

It is difficult, and even perhaps counter-intuitive, to not hop aboard the bandwagon in support of what Farmer is saying.  For his own life and work give authenticity to his words.  I am reminded that he has done more to battle injustice than just about anyone else I can think of.  I ought to remember my place.  Yet I do wish to make a humble critique, while still acknowledging the value of Farmer’s words.  I have been reminded consistently by a source of wisdom in my life that ideas have legs.  And I think that statement is beautiful in its simplicity and its truth.  In reading Farmer (especially his section entitled “Health Healing and Social Justice: Insights from Liberation Theology”), it’s easy to discern that he is seeking some sort of system that will be “readily yoked to the service of the poor”.  And I’m convinced that such a desire comes out of passionate authentic care for the poor.  But as a Christian, seeking truth as revealed in God’s word, I have to note that truth cannot be dependent on human action.  Or put another way, we cannot derive the idea from the legs.  I hope that I make this point delicately, because any proper theology should absolutely add the constant interrogation “how is this relevant to the suffering of the poor and to the relief of that suffering?”  Yet we cannot justify a theology on pragmatic grounds; our proper starting point must always be the question of what is true.  And our starting point for determining that ought to be in what God has revealed to us through his word.  Newbigin affirms the need for “somewhere to stand.  And that means we must be committed to some belief not merely about what we personally desire (our ‘values’) but about what is really the case (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 162).  We cannot work backwards from our ‘values’ to truth.  Those values may be rooted in a very real, very passionate love for one’s neighbor, but values cannot yield truth; they must flow from it.

In this sense, speaking with a Christian voice (as Wolsterstorff mentions) means first, speaking truly.  This week I read a book by John Stott calledChristian Mission in the Modern World.  I think that Stott affirms with clarity this need to speak truly.  He points out Paul’s anguish for the souls of his brothers who do not know the Lord (Romans 10:1) (CMMW, 56), and challenges us to weep for our brothers as well.  Yet he also says “If our enemy is hungry, our biblical mandate is not to evangelize him but to feed him (Romans 12:20)!” (45).  In taking Christ as example, Stott notes that “it would be impossible in the ministry of Jesus to separate his works from his words” (39).  Works and words are united in a deep way. “Thus social responsibility becomes an aspect not of Christian mission only, but also of Christian conversion.  It is impossible to be truly converted to God…without being thereby converted to our neighbor” (81).

Berry called it a privilege to live under justice and mercy.  And Newbigin states (in a place I unfortunately can’t find at the moment) that we ought never to speak of rights unless we are speaking of the rights of another.  Because before God, if we were judged justly, according to what we deserve, we wouldn’t be in good shape.  Yet it is the privilege of humanity to live under justice and mercy; and loving the world that God loves, and the people in it that he died for, means fighting for justice and for mercy.  “Unless we are truly delivered from a slavish conformity to tradition, convention, and the bourgeois materialism of secular culture, unless our discipleship is radical enough to make us critical of establishment attitudes and indignant over all forms of oppression, and unless we are now freely and selflessly devoted to Christ, church and society, we can hardly claim to be saved, or even to be in the process of being saved” (CMMW, 158).  Stott’s position on this matter is very much in line with Newbigin’s, who speaks of the “tension of confidence and awareness of the abyss that lies beneath” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 178).   In speaking of salvation we need only to be aware of our utter insufficiency and God’s unfathomable grace.

Newbigin states, “There is something deeply repulsive in the attitude, sometimes found among Christians, which makes only grudging acknowledgement of the faith, the godliness, and the nobility to be found in the lives of non-Christians.  Even more repulsive is the idea that in order to communicate the gospel to them one must, as it were, ferret out their hidden sins, show that their goodness is not so good after all, as a precondition for presenting the offer of grace in Christ.  It is indeed true that in the presence of the cross we come to know that, whoever we are, we are sinners before the grace of God.  But that knowledge is the result, not the precondition of grace” (180).  There remains more to be said about knowledge of sin being the result, rather than the precondition of grace, but that is for another time.

A final quote from Stott: “Yet the reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or a credibility it would otherwise lack, but rather simple uncomplicated compassion.  Love has no need to justify itself.  It merely expresses itself in service wherever it sees need” (CMMW, 48).  I praise God for Farmer’s simple, uncomplicated compassion, and for that of my coworkers at Save the Children, be they Christian, Muslim, Agnostic or whatever else.  God is God of the universe, and he cares for the people in it more than I ever could.  And he is at work in every person’s life in one way or another.  So, as Newbigin states, “And, once again, the dialogue will not be about who is going to be saved.  It will be about the question, ‘What is the meaning and goal of this common human story in which we are all, Christians and others together, participants?’” (182).   And this is a question I undoubtedly come back to in trying to make sense of my specific time here in Burkina.

Happy to Be Apathetic?

I know what everyone is thinking: easier said than done.  ‘Happiness’ is not really just a mouse click and $50 dollar donation to charity away.  After all, the nature of poverty is cyclical, where each contributing factor facilitates and affects others.  For example, take a child living in extreme poverty.  Because she lives in less than sanitary housing conditions and her parents can’t afford to feed her nutritious (if any) food, she is more prone to illness.  And if her parents can afford to transport her to school, she is often too tired or sick to participate. These factors–education, health, housing–all interact and affect one another, making it difficult for the poor to experience upward mobility.  There are also larger structural factors that contribute to poverty, such as corruption within government institutions and a struggling economy.  The concept of poverty is so overwhelmingly complex that just thinking about it is enough to make a person feel depressed and helpless. And when someone in the position to help feels helpless, the tempting attitude is one of apathy, because it is much easier to avoid problems than to solve them, especially when they don’t direct affect one’s own quality of life.  So the real question that anyone in a position to help must ask themselves is:  What is the source of apathy?

In his book, A Hole in our Gospel, Richard Stearns, the current president of World Vision, highlights one major source of apathy for Christians.  As Stearns sees it, Christians have mostly ignored the charge Jesus gives to his believers in the Beatitudes to help the poor and the downtrodden because of the focus on the next life.  Christians see the Beatitudes as a promise to the poor in heaven, rather than an actionable reality that will be ushered in on earth.  Stearns refers to the reduction of the gospel to an eschatological focus as “fire insurance,” in which Christians are covered for the afterlife, and must therefore accept poverty as an uninsurable worldly affliction.  This view facilitates an apathetic approach to evangelism, in which the right words can absolve Christians from the dual responsibility of word and action. John MacArthur noted the disparity between word and action in his observation that, “Hell will be full of people who thought highly of the Sermon on the Mount.  You must do more than that. You must obey it and take action.”  Similarly, St. Francis of Assisi noted, “Preach the gospel always, use words only when necessary.” Both men note that words should be accompanied by action; otherwise, the Sermon on the Mount is just a moral suggestion.

There is perhaps another, more institutionalized source of apathy, noted by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman in their book, Enough, that exists on a global scale and threatens to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.  Kilman and Thurow embarked on a journalistic quest to discover why the poorest people on earth starve when there is actually enough food produced to feed them.  On this quest, they interviewed several Ethiopian farmers, each of whom expressed frustration over the fact that Ethiopian grain couldn’t compete in the market with the price of grain from subsidized farms in the United States.  Since the Ethiopian government can’t afford to subsidize Ethiopian farms, U.S. grain monopolizes Ethiopian markets, causing a surplus of homegrown grain to go to waste.  Changing Americans policies to accommodate the growth of markets in Africa would be admitting that our policies designed to provide food aid to developing nations were actually detrimental to fledgling markets.  Perhaps the United States government appears apathetic to the expressed needs of African farmers because we are either unwilling or embarrassed to take responsibility for faulty policy. The United States is hardly calloused to the idea of foreign aid, but long term growth in developing nations requires a reevaluation of the policy that we impose on other nations, and collaboration with those countries to support organic growth.

So why don’t more people engage the directive given by Jesus in the Beatitudes?  It seems that the answer to this question lays partly in the idea of compartmentalization. Most people in the world aren’t callously apathetic to the idea of poverty, and would consider “the elimination of extreme poverty” a worthwhile cause.  But many of these people, like me, are big picture thinkers, meaning, they are excited by the vision, and can see the desired outcome surrounded by a shimmering, ethereal light at some point in the future, but are too overwhelmed to actually address the issues.  On numerous occasions, I have found myself thinking about what it would be like to live on less than $1 per day, as 1.2 billion people do, and have become too overwhelmed to even think about ways that I could help.  Poverty is such a holistic problem that it is difficult to identify the best and most effective means to help.  There is a poster that hangs in almost every division within the ONE office that quotes Margaret Mead, and reads “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  This quote speaks straight to big picture thinkers who struggle with the overwhelming number of avenues through which to pursue the fight against extreme poverty and calls them to commitment.  If you commit to a cause, truly put thought into the details of that commitment, and are willing to put long hours into making excel spreadsheets (I speak from experience on that one), apathy will succumb to action.  Let me put it another way: if we succumb to apathy, we are disobeying a clear, biblical directive.

Arriving in Burkina Faso

Well, I arrived in Ouagadougou in the middle of the night.  I’ve never been in an airport quite like this one.  It consisted of two desks—one for people to pass through and get their bags and one desk for visas.  The floor was dirt, there was no baggage carousel, and it had to be close to 100 degrees.  I’ve been in a few different airports and wasn’t expecting JFK international, but this was still a surprise.  I realized I didn’t have any photos of myself to get a visa, nor did I know the address of where I would be (poor planning on my part), but fortunately after quite some time I got my bags and walked outside.  Much to my dismay I didn’t find any representative from Save the Children waiting to meet me.  I envisioned spending a night sleeping outside the airport, but fortunately a taxi driver had heard of the organization and knew where the office was.  I didn’t have any local currency (CFA) so I exchanged an American twenty with a friend of the driver for what he told me was the equivalent…I didn’t have many other options.  But I later found out that it was the correct exchange rate, and I’ve since learned that Burkinabé are some of the most honest and friendly people in the world.  Needless to say, I made it to the office, surprised the night guard (who I ended up talking with for quite some time) and fortunately ended up sleeping in a bed that night.

I found out the next day that I’d be having a female apartment-mate, which was a surprise—though I’ve become very thankful of the company, and for her experience in this country.  I’ve started playing soccer with a group of guys who play across the street from my apartment as well.  I felt a bit like the kid left out on the playground the first couple times I watched them play from my window, but I finally just approached and asked to join, and they acquiesced without hesitation.  One thing that has surprised me, to say the least, is the almost ridiculous friendliness of the people here.  I have been asked several times by young guys for my phone number and address, and while at first I felt a bit like an American girl in Italy, I have come to realize (through reading and speaking to people) that in general, Africans simply value having many acquaintances, and an American friend (or potential pen pal!) is quite a novelty.  I’ve also realized that Burkinabé in general like to joke around.  When I first came to the office I was given a tour by a guy named Jean-Paul, who introduced me to some of the employees.  First was an older man who he said was the youngest guy in the office. Next was a woman younger than him who he said was his mother. Jean-Paul also makes fun of me for wearing shorts—I found out it’s not rude for someone to wear shorts, more just funny.  And even though it seems far away from home, I was talking to a man at church last week who has lived here for a number of years, and I found out we went to the same high school.  It was a bizarre discovery, to say the least.  Next week I’m planning on going to church with a woman from the office.

Well without a doubt, it has been difficult to be on my own, without many people my age who speak my language.  But it has been fun as well.  My time here will be interesting, and not without challenge, but I pray it will be a time of growth and clarity.

A bientot