A Christian Mind and a Christian Voice

I didn’t know what to expect when I started formulating ideas for this project, and now that I’m in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I still don’t.  I’m here for about seven weeks, interning for an organization called Save the Children.  When I applied for this opportunity, I found my starting point in a quote by Nicholas Wolsterstorff: “the Christian scholar participates as Christian in those social practices that are the disciplines. Those practices are not a project of the Christian community, nor are they the project of some anti-Christian community. They are human; they belong to all of us together – just as the state is not for Christians nor for non-Christians but for all of us together.  And now to make my opening point again: the mode of the Christian’s participation in these on-going, ever-changing, social practices is to think with a Christian mind and to speak with a Christian voice.”

This passage articulated my feelings as I have begun to look at the world through a theological lens.  While here Wolsterstorff is specifically talking about academic disciplines, his insight extends further (although ‘academic’ discipline should not be left behind—to engage the world theologically, I’ll absolutely need to use my mind).  My special interest in this project is in development work.  It’s a broad arena, with plenty of non-government organizations involved, and governments as well. It’s a complex arena, where there are likely plenty of motivations, many of which are very genuine and authentic.  And it is an arena which belongs not solely to Christianity, but to humanity.  So what does it mean to be a Christian in this setting?

Another person that puts it well, I think, is Leslie Newbigin, who points out with clarity that “our dialogue [as Christians] with people of other faiths must be about what is happening in the world now and about how we understand it and take our part in it” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 179). In Newbigin’s terms, what I am hoping to do here is to discover what is happening in Burkina Faso now, understand it (to some degree) with a theological mindset, and take (some small) part in it.  I am in the health and nutrition department of Save the Children, working (along with a peace corps worker) on Save the Children’s EVERYONE campaign.  (The first thing I’ve learned from development work is that there are a lot of acronyms… a lot.)  The campaign is oriented towards achieving Millenium development goal 4, which seeks to reduce under-5 mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.  Much of what I have been doing is reading a French report for one region of Burkina—the Cascades—located in the far west of the country, and using that information and other resources to try to answer questions from the EVERYONE campaign outline (in English).  The language issue has been a challenge, but hopefully will be a good challenge, although it can be draining to always have to work to communicate.

One important thing I’ll certainly have to keep in mind is the fact that I’m here to learn, not to teach—perhaps living with a member of the Peace Corps who has been here for over 19 months will be a helpful reminder that my 7 week stay in an apartment with electricity, running water and a refrigerator is comparative luxury.  I ought not complain too loudly…although on a hot night like tonight when the power goes out, sleeping without a fan will be difficult.

ONE Freedom

I have always admired loners.  You know, those people who hear the inexplicable call of nature and unwittingly follow. They are the people who are entranced by, as the great American author Walker Percy so aptly described, the prospect of “the search.”  They are the individuals who escape from the confines of ‘sick’ and ‘perverted’ society and venture into the ‘real’ world alone, embarking on a quest of self-authentication and discovery at any cost.  They are free.

I am speaking in particular about Chris McCandless, the young man whose life was documented in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild.  McCandless was from Virginia and studied at Emory University, got degrees in both history and anthropology, and then traveled across the country alone in a journey that can only have been motivated by a reckless need for self-authentication and a disdain for an increasingly materialistic society.  This is not a criticism, but praise.  McCandless seemed to have reached an intellectual level surpassing that of the majority of individuals who unconsciously exist in a society without questioning its morals, its values, or its flaws.  He not only questioned society, but ultimately gave his life attempting to exist outside of its loose morals, lackadaisical values, and irreconcilable flaws.  His story has always intrigued me, but until recently, I was intrigued mostly by his recklessness, his critical nature and his thirst for adventure.

In that unique spirit and under the pretense of being a loner, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I recently took a long bike ride alone.  I decided that I would temporarily remove myself from the demands and questionable morality of a society intently focused on consumption to cleanse my spirit and think with the clarity of a free mind.  Truthfully, I was hoping to have some sort of revelatory spiritual experience, and shared this desire with some friends earlier in the day.  While I was riding, I pulled my bike over to the side of a particularly daunting slope, promising myself I would get in better shape for the next ride to avoid having to walk my bike shamefully up hills. While I was catching my breath and nursing my aching quads, I sauntered into an open field and sat down.  Comically, I sat down directly on top of a large, cross-shaped piece of white wood.  As I bent down to pick up the cross shaped wood, I sensed the irony of the situation as I literally picked up my cross in the middle of field after having expressed interest in a spiritual experience just hours before.  At this moment, I sensed another irony.  Though I had temporarily left Charlottesville to be alone and receive whatever revelation God or nature would give me, all I wanted to do was share this experience with my friends, and show them the cut on my leg from the jagged piece of wood.  But there was no one to share with.  I was alone with nature. I was free?

The real freedom in McCandless’ experience is not his break with sick society and his glorified loner status, but in the last discovery he ever made.  This can be observed through the notes he took in the margins of his many books, particularly the last note he ever made before his untimely and tragic death.  In the margin of Tolstoy’s book, Family Happiness, McCandless, wrote “Happiness is only real when shared.”  Despite his attempt to remove himself from an immoral and materialistic society, and his willingness to abandon his relationships with his family members, McCandless’ last and most important realization was that people are meant to exist in relationship, and can achieve “happiness” only when they can share their experiences with others. This has been true since God created Eve to give Adam companionship in the Garden of Eden.  Though McCandless’ story is not a theologically informed one, and happiness is ultimately an elusive and unfulfilling pursuit, the message is clear and true: as human beings, we are meant to participate in community and be in relationship with others for ‘happiness’ to exist as a reality.

This is what initially excited me about the ONE campaign.  Historically, the name ONE refers to the percentage of GNP that countries spend on aid for development, which is less than 1%.  However, the name ONE also suggests a community of purpose.  As a ‘secular’ organization, ONE mobilizes individuals from a variety of different religious backgrounds behind the common purpose of ‘happiness’ as a reality for those suffering from extreme poverty and AIDS in Africa.  To be clear, I am not speaking of the elusive concept of happiness dictated by society, which tells its members that in order to live a fulfilling life, one needs to be rich, thin, intelligent, popular, and English speaking.  Nor am I speaking about happiness as a need to remove one’s self from the numerous I am speaking of happiness in a biblical context, which could be more appropriately named, JOY.  I am also speaking about happiness in the context of development, and human dignity associated with deliverance from extreme poverty, the overarching goal of ONE.  Finally, I am speaking of the responsibility each one of us has to participate in the fight to eliminate extreme poverty, and to restore basic human dignity to the suffering.  In this context, we strive for ‘happiness’ for those who are downtrodden as ONE in shared humanity, regardless of religion, gender, class or political affiliation. The ‘real’ challenge is working within society to correct its flaws, not running away from the prospect of malaise and suffering toward the call of a countercultural quest for self-authentication.  This is ONE, and this is freedom.