Where Do We Go from Here?

I left off last week’s journal asking the question what can I do here?  What am I doing to serve God and the world that God loves?  Before writing another journal entry, I have to be honest and say that I don’t have a comprehensive step-by-step answer to those questions.  I really do think that they are questions I must constantly ask myself.  My internship in Burkina was a valuable time for me to think about my role in the world, but I hope that my thinking about how to serve the world is not limited to that experience.  I hope that God has much more to teach me, and I hope that a clearer vision for my vocation will take shape as I go through more experiences.

I discussed in my last entry some of the strangeness of coming back to Greenwich, and seeing a lot of wealth and extravagance around me, and the realization that I am perhaps more a part of that than I would like to be.  I have a tendency to look at my surroundings and secretly think of myself as better for understanding things that they don’t understand, etc.  And while I certainly need to be reminded that I am not any better than anyone for having spent five short weeks in Burkina Faso, I can perhaps share something worthwhile by speaking meaningfully and honestly about my time there.

But I do hope that I don’t think of the issues and problems that I was thinking about in my daily work with Save the Children (SC) as something that I am no longer a part of.  I was recently helping SC’s Westport, Connecticut office write summaries for other country plans for the EveryOne campaign.  I summarized the country plans for India, Pakistan and Nigeria.  And doing so reinforced the fact that child mortality is an enormous issue.  In one country alone, there are government actors, NGOs and individuals working hard to achieve these goals, often with unfortunate results.  And then there are so many other countries dealing with the same thing.  I think about the sad fact of rampant child mortality in so much of the world and I feel sadness about the brokenness of our world.  I long for a time when there will be no more disease and justice and peace will embrace, and broken social structures will not produce cyclical violence.  I watched the movie Crash the other night with my family, and throughout the movie felt a sadness for the brokenness of the world, and the sin that we are all a part of, the sin which we all partake in.  The movie constantly reminds one of how much the world needs forgiveness, how much the world needs Christ.  While watching I thought of Bonhoeffer, “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.”  I really do not know and cannot speak of what it feels like to be truly confronted with an enemy, someone who has raped your wife or killed your father.  In fact I cannot even speak of what it is like to witness a person confronting their enemy.  But as I hear stories about terrible injustice I can imagine how one wants nothing more than vengeance and death on the enemy.  As Bonhoeffer reveals, loving one’s enemy is not a happy thing that you feel good about.  It’s not a community service project.  It is deeply painful.  But this is why the world needs Christ.

Wolsterstorff speaks, as I have mentioned before, about the longing for another world.  He talks about how the church has often (tragically) taught a theology that doesn’t focus on this world.  As Christians, our longing for the kingdom of God is real and undeniable.  It should be.  But, “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” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers).  The Christian life and vocation must involve turning towards the world.  I spoke with a former U.Va. professor about the tension of academic work and more concrete work.  I do think that a proper concept of Christian vocation must take into account our desires and skills, and I think an academic vocation is not a cop-out from “real” justice work.  And yet, I have sensed already how easy it is to withdraw from the world into academia.  And I think that truly turning towards the world must involve a constant process of asking oneself how might I be withdrawing?

I spoke with a friend of mine who took a gap year and lived in parts of Africa and India during that time, and we talked about the many philanthropic efforts at our University.  And while a fraternity philanthropy event may do some good to raise money for an organization, etc., a true understanding of my own vocation must go beyond extra-curricular community service.  All of my work and study should be oriented towards that vision.  So coming back from Burkina may not mean that I get involved in more community service projects on grounds, although it might.  But I hope, importantly, that it makes me think about the vocation where I can serve God.  That process involves thought about my desires, no doubt.  And it is not a process that can be abridged into a quick answer.  But I hope it is a process that God will continue to lead me on.

The New Beer Summit and a Game of Hearts

During Bono’s infamous 2006 Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, he remarked, “I was cynical… not about God, but about God’s politics.” Several images speed through my mind when I reflect on this comment, the first being God sitting at a roundtable having a beer with Barack Obama and George W. Bush.  I also picture Henry Louis Gates and his policeman friends knocking at heaven’s door looking for the “beer summit,” and being redirected toward the White House by President Obama, who promises to join them shortly.  After Gates and company leave, I hear God initiating a dialogue between the incumbent and former presidents, booming, “Listen guys, can’t we all just be friends?”  Maybe that sounds more like something Santa Claus would say (admittedly, in my mind, God has a big white beard too), but to me, God’s politics are pretty simple: Love your neighbor as yourself, and love your enemy. That said, I believe God to be a-political.  If His message is love thy neighbor as thyself and everyone were to do just that, honesty would actually be the best policy, love would easily triumph over hatred, and politics, as we know it, would cease to exist.  However, like Bono, I am cynical about the Christo-political melting pot that has been simmering in America for well over a century.  So a more appropriate version of God’s question might be, “Has religion in America really been reduced to a political weapon wielded by those seeking to establish clear boundaries between political lines and to create ideological enemies?”  Many people would contest the notion that George Bush and Barack Obama, and for that matter, conservatives and liberals, are enemies, instead arguing that heated debate is a necessary and natural part of the democratic process.  This may be true, but the only reason that Obama and Bush are seated at my fictitious roundtable in the first place is to engage God’s question in a heated debate to prove the role religion plays in preventing friendly bi-partisan relationships in politics.

As I have said before, ONE is primarily an advocacy organization, meaning that changed is achieved by holding world leaders accountable for the commitments they have made to fight extreme poverty, campaigning for better development policies, and for more effective aid and trade reform.  ONE staff and members engage in politics everyday through advocacy, so politics are invariably tied to ONE’s effectiveness.  And as I have also mentioned, my role at ONE is primarily advocacy in the faith relations department, where I am asking church leaders and members to engage with these same politicians.  Therefore, I have become extremely interested in the particular ways that faith and politics interact.  I have also learned that there is an inseparable, and often times, tense bond between religion and politics that extends throughout American political history and holds firm today.

Historically speaking, the Right in America has held tight to its useful monopoly on the language of faith to propel its political agenda and to garner support from religiously minded constituents.  Many politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan, have used the language of faith to mobilize a group that has been termed “the religious right” to advance a variety of political causes such as pro-life, pro-equality, and even pro-rich.  The Left hasn’t fared any better, largely ignoring the undeniable connection between faith and politics by continually separating moral discourse and personal ethics from public policy, and by isolating pro-life, categorically religious voters. As Jim Wallis puts it in his book, God’s Politics, “While the Right argues that God’s way is their way, the Left pursues an unrealistic separation of religious values from morally grounded political leadership. The consequence is a false choice between ideological religion and soulless politics.”

Two Blue Moons later (in passage of time and type of beers consumed), it seems that the only thing President Obama and former President Bush can agree on is the usefulness of religion in garnering political support.  In fact, both men admit to using religion as a means to attract a very particular contingency of voters that have traditionally aligned with the more conservative candidate.  During his campaign in 2004, former President Bush made a statement to an Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, claiming, “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”  Actual job performance and sincerity of belief aside, Bush was appealing directly to religiously minded constituents, connecting his ability to do his job with a belief in God.  Similarly, in an interview withChristianity Today prior to his democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama confessed, “Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”  In that same interview, he also pointed to the moral repugnancy of using religion as a political weapon and denounced those who would play the Machiavelli card.  But given the historical connection between religious views and voting tendencies, it does not seem strategically sound to deny the use of religion to gather support, particularly in swing states.  And history seems to align with Jim Wallis’s argument that calls the separation between religion and politics “unrealistic.”

This subject hits close to home, particularly now that I am trying to gather support for ONE by mobilizing faith inspired congregations to take action on behalf on ONE’s political goals.  So in a sense, I am also guilty of perpetuating the use of religion to yield political results.  I am part of a project that has the expressed goal of asking a variety of different faith congregations to get involved in politics in an attempt to secure a hefty Global Fund replenishment.  Again, the Global Fund is an effective mechanism for giving aid to those living with HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis worldwide, the continued success of which depends on pledges from world governments, particularly the United States.  While I am not trying to win votes, I am encouraging faith inspired individuals to take political action by writing letters to their local representatives concerning the urgency of the situation in developing nations: AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria patients are dying every day because of lack of access to treatment.  In light of this realization, is it really morally repugnant to reach out to people who are already attuned to the message of social justice and humanitarian action to gain a strategic advantage?

To clarify this question, I would like to introduce another figure to my fictitious roundtable: the former Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu.  Today, July 21, 2010, the New York Times published an article written by Tutu himself, imploring President Obama to reconsider his pledge to help individuals with HIV/AIDS in Africa.  While Tutu speaks to the number of individuals whose lives have been spared thanks to aid programs like the Global Fund and Pepfar (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the most interesting thing about the article is its pointed focus on the contrast between funding provided during the Bush Administration and the pledge made by the Obama administration.  Mr. Tutu points out that during the Bush Administration, about 400,000 Africans received treatment every year, and that President Obama’s current strategy would reduce that number to about 320,000.  This seems counterintuitive, given that democrats are much more likely to support aid for overseas development.  But even more than that, here is one of the most influential clergy members of all time leveraging the inherent conflict between Bush and Obama, and therefore, between conservative and liberal efforts, to [hopefully] push President Obama to reconsider his rather meager pledge to fight preventable disease in Africa.  At this point, Mr. Bush looks up from his game of hearts (or is it spades?) across the table at the former archbishop Tutu with a distinct smirk, and President Obama looks rather put out.  Mr. Tutu exchanges a cursory smile with God, and then all four return to their card game, which comes closer to resembling Hearts the longer I observe.

Through my observation of a very interesting and dynamic roundtable discussion, I have learned that religion is not a weapon, but it can be a useful tool.  A weapon is used to shed blood, but a tool is used to build and construct.  Given the inherent and undeniable connection between religion and politics, it actually makes sense to encourage faith minded individuals to take action on behalf of humanitarian goals, even those proffered by the government.  Religion should NOT, however, be used by politicians to manipulate voters and to divide constituents along distinctive partisan lines, nor should it be the deciding factor when voters determine their political affiliations.  Contrary to popular belief, a person can be a Christianand a democrat.  I am not so naïve as to think ingrained social and political dynamics will change overnight, or that there are certain aspects of party affiliation that incline religiously minded voters to associate themselves with one party and not the other, such as views on abortion.   But if religion and politics could learn to co-exist, we might all be a little less cynical.

And by the way, God won the game of Hearts, in case anyone was curious.

From Grief to Action

If I asked anyone that considers themselves a Christian, no matter what denomination, what they thought the most unanswerable and difficult question in the Christian faith was, I would bet that nine out of ten people would answer: “Why do good people suffer?” or some variation of that concept.  Similarly, if I asked anyone of faith what the mostly commonly asked question was, both among people who are already believers and people who are inquisitive about Christianity, the poll would probably reveal suffering as the theme of the question.  Suffering is one of the most widely debated and least understood topics within the Christian faith, and the source of many chasms within the church.  The same holds true for an individual’s relationship with God.  For a nonbeliever, or for someone who is considering becoming a Christian, suffering can be a reason to initiate a relationship with God, or it can be the reason to believe God does not exist.  For a believer, suffering can strengthen one’s relationship with God, or it can drive one to believe that God is a calloused, transcendent being who takes no interest in our daily lives or our happiness.  Believer or not, if we are honest with ourselves, suffering generally damages the status of our relationship with God, because a) it is extremely difficult to find joy in suffering, and b) humans, particularly Christians, tend to frame discussions about suffering in a very cynical and antagonistic manner.  Here’s a look at some typical Christian explanations for human suffering, and varying reactions:

  • Free Will: God created humanity with free will; therefore we are free to rebel against God if we choose. Since we are told in Romans that God’s will is perfect, anything contrary to his will is imperfect and evil.  Suffering is the result of making evil choices inside of free will.  On the other hand, free will is perhaps the easiest way to dismiss the existence of God and to deny his presence in our lives.  Most likely, we will blame God for allowing suffering, rather than taking responsibility for our own sinful nature.
  • God has a greater plan: If God is truly omnipotent, as Christians believe, than he is capable of using suffering as part of a greater, eternal plan.  Human suffering can carry greater significance for our lives beyond what is readily and immediately apparent.   Alternatively, we can choose to narrow our focus to the present, and become extremely cynical about how and why God uses suffering.
  • For discipline, instruction and glory: God can (and did, as is evidenced by Sodom and Gomorrah) use suffering to teach his followers a lesson about rebellion.  We can subsequently, during and after suffering, proclaim God’s glory and continue to follow his instruction.  However, we will generally ignore any lessons God may be trying to teach us and use suffering as an excuse to curse God and harden our hearts.

It seems that our individual reaction to suffering largely depends on three factors: whether or not we are able view suffering in the long term context of faith, our own perception of God (whether or not we believe he interacts with the world), and the degree of our suffering.  Given that these factors seem to determine individual reactions to suffering, do they also determine our reactions to the suffering of others? Furthermore, do Christians tend to view the suffering of others with the same antagonistic cynicism that we view our own?

Not really.  When it comes to ourselves, the longer we have felt the effects of a ‘greater degree’ of suffering, the more likely we are to become cynical about God and his presence in our lives and react dismissively.  However, when it comes to others (with the exception of Pat Robertson), when we observe the long terms oppression of an individual or group that has suffered to a great degree, we tend to react, at least initially, with a great deal of sympathy and compassion.  We may be frustrated with God for not appearing to have a strong presence in the lives of those people, but we aren’t cynical so much as we are eager for God to make his presence known.  This was my initial assumption in constructing an Action Guide for my major project at ONE entitled: The One Sabbath “Action Guide.”

In collaboration with Joel Griffith, a student from Fuller Seminary (who did the majority of the theological inference and writing… he is fantastic!) and fellow intern traveler, we produced an action (note: NOT study) guide to mobilize various faith congregations to take action around the movie TheLazarus Effect on behalf of ONE.  The choice of the word ‘action’, rather than ‘study’, describes our intention in producing such a guide, namely, that faith motivated congregations, who tend to be sympathetic, will convert feelings of sympathy into tangible actions that will provide relief to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.  Since ONE is primarily an advocacy organization, our suggested action will be signing up members and asking that they subsequently write a letter to their local congressman, or sign a petition to ask our government leaders to replenish the Global Fund, which provides grants to low GNP countries to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Joel and I focused the action guide for Christian congregations around two sources: The Lazarus Effect documentary and John 11, the passage in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  The connection between the title of the film and the John 11 passage is obvious, but we wanted to do more than exegete scriptural implications from the film; we wanted to inspire action. Interestingly, we identified the first step toward action as grief.  Often times, we are quick to bypass grief because sympathy is a more natural reaction when dealing with individuals or groups that we aren’t intimately familiar with.  We are also quick to want to take action on behalf of others thinking that we, as privileged Americans, know best, but never take the time to fully understand their situation.  But when one observes Jesus’ reaction to hearing of Lazarus’ death in John 11, the first step toward action is clear. It comes from John 11:35, the shortest sentence in the whole Bible.  “Jesus wept.” Before taking action, Jesus simply weeps for Lazarus.  We are also told that Jesus loved Lazarus several times throughout John 11, and in tandem with his initial reaction of grief.  The first step toward action is grief, because sometimes, as Constance, a woman in the Lazarus Effect points out, “the grief is too much” to deal with on your own.  It is also an effective and meaningful way to demonstrate love, because people with HIV/AIDS are not accustomed to love, but to scorn and ostracism.

The second step is action.  John 11 connects nicely with ONE’s focus on advocacy, because just as individuals with HIV/AIDS have advocates in organizations like ONE, Lazarus had advocates in Mary and Martha.  They explain to Jesus that, had he been by Lazarus’ bedside earlier, Lazarus could have perhaps been saved.  Of course, Jesus was getting ready to perform an even greater miracle, so the advocating Mary and Martha did was limited to human understanding and ability (i.e. most of us can’t raise people from the dead…weird).  However, they were ready to speak to Jesus, someone in a position of ability, on behalf of Lazarus, just as we should be ready to speak to those positioned in the government to enact change on behalf of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.  To put it more clearly than I ever could myself, I will borrow the words of Princess Kasune Zulu, a mother, author and Zambian AIDS activist (not to mention ONE supporter), who said, “By lifting our voice for the voiceless…we become the essence of our faith.”

Counting My Blessings

I’m now back in the U.S. of A.  I was only home a couple days when I received an invitation to come to Washington for a week-long program called Civitas, put on by The Center for Public Justice in D.C. Upon return from Civitas week, I shared a seat with a man who had a slight accent.  We talked a bit and he mentioned he worked at the French embassy’s department of culture—it was a nice coincidence to be able to speak some French again.  We ended up talking for some time in French about art and theology mostly.  I had a heck of a time trying to explain my understanding of the different philosophical underpinnings of Christianity and Buddhism.  I imagine that I probably sounded a bit like Borat.  But we exchanged emails and he said he’d put me on the listserv for the culture department.

I tried to say that, in my very limited knowledge of Buddhism I sensed that it is essentially focused on the individual’s efforts where Christianity hinges on the efforts that God has made in Christ.  He brought up the verse, “Prends courage, j’ai vancu le monde” (John 16:33, “Take heart, I have overcome the world”—interestingly enough, a verse that I looked at this morning).  But, he said, that means that we can overcome the world to some degree.  I made a mention of Calvinism, and tried to say, in my broken French, that what we do in the world matters greatly—our efforts at constructing culture—which this man seemed so passionate about—really do matter in the world.  And similarly, our work for justice really does matter in the world, and does not simply fall away when the new heaven and the new earth are created.  This past week has been a strong dose of Calvinist/Kuyperian Reformed Theology.  The title of the week was “Graceful Politics”, and its central question was how to engage the world through the political sphere with a Christian worldview.  This involves reaching across the rifts which so characterize Washington, D.C. to think and speak gracefully with a Christian foundation and develop specific prescriptive policies to the issues facing us today.

In the week’s discussion, there was much talk about vocation.  I heard from people working at NGOs and think tanks, people in ministry and academia and public policy, as well as musicians.  Each day opened with worship, and during that time on one day, the minister for the week made reference to Wolsterstorff’s book I just read.  Wolsterstorff describesshalom that characterizes God’s city, and consists of a harmonious relationship between self and neighbor, self and God, and self and nature.  It is a state characterized by justice as well as beauty.  So the artist’s vocation is not simply of utilitarian value.  Music and art are a real part of God’s city.  Yet I listened as people spoke of the tension that can be felt, especially by artists, between beauty and justice.

The word ‘justice’ came up plenty over the course of the week.  One speaker said, “justice is a privilege and a responsibility”.  I thought of Newbigin’s quote that I mentioned in an earlier entry.  If we were treated justly by God, we would be in bad shape.  Living under the laws of justice and mercy is a privilege as Wendell Berry and Paul Farmer point out.  But we can—and should—still speak of rights in terms of ‘the other’.  As Christians, we live as ones who have been shown mercy, and it is our duty to love God by loving “the least of these” whom God loves—not because of their inherent value according to their merit, but because they bear the image of God, and because he was willing to die that they may have salvation.  Grace is costly.  “But just wherein it was costly, that was wherein it was grace.  And where it was grace, that was where it was costly” (Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, 49).  The grace we have been shown demands a response to work for grace and for justice in the world.

One speaker who works with International Justice Mission (IJM) spoke of the tension between justice and mercy in her organization’s work.  In issues of slave labor, human trafficking and prostitution, people are victims of other people, not social/political/economic forces (although as people like Farmer point out, there are in fact people behind those social/political/economic forces).  But I was struck by this presentation especially, because it seemed so black and white.  During my time in Burkina, I felt at times that I wanted to fight poverty and disease, but it seemed so difficult to find where the enemy really was.  In much of IJM’s work, it seems there is a clear enemy.  (I’m sure that in the real work that they do, there is more gray area—especially in trying to work with a government that turns a blind eye to that sort of injustice and oppression).

But even when a factory owner using slaves is arrested, and one feels a sense of victory over the enemy, I imagine there is still a tension between justice and mercy, between persecution and redemption, between consequence and grace.  Righteous anger is a good thing, and God hates injustice and oppression.  But we must remember that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  Paul called himself the chief of sinners, and a proper Christian approach to justice must acknowledge that the self is not an innocent party—and yet in witnessing the reality of hateful oppression, I can imagine that the only thing one would want to pray for is vengeance on the evildoer.  I think of Bonhoeffer’s statement, “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” (Letters and Papers from Prison).  And perhaps as we see the grim reality of wrath and vengeance hanging over our enemy’s head, we can have some idea of the mercy that we ourselves have been shown.

On a slightly similar thought, one speaker spoke of the day-to-day work to love God’s world, and said, “we don’t know until we do”.  This again made me think of Bonhoeffer, “Only those who in following Christ leave everything they have can stand and say that they are justified solely by grace” (Discipleship, 51). It is only after a life of pursuing justice and fighting for it that we realize it is a gift. It also made me think of the possibility that recognition of one’s own sin can follow works of service to one’s neighbor.  It is tempting to think, then, that our work and efforts in this world don’t matter, but in fact our work towards beauty and justice—building towards shalom—do matter and our works are not simply disposed of in the new heaven and new earth.  But one positive effect, I think, of this line of thinking is that it reinforces our solidarity with our non-Christian brothers and sisters.  It emphasizes God’s sovereignty, and reminds us that our own efforts are “small and flawed” as Gideon Strauss has said.

Well besides my week in Washington, coming back home has been a bit of an odd sensation.  When my plane arrived I was just finishing Jeffery Sachs’ book The End of Poverty.  He talked a lot about countries’ geography, and as I flew into New York and drove home (and then the following day drove up to Vermont), I took note in a way I haven’t before of the natural waterways, and the lush greenery and the bridges, tunnels, roads, buildings and all the infrastructure which makes our country function.  My first night back, my parents made a steak dinner, and it was delicious and much appreciated.  But I’ve felt guilty to some degree returning to such comfort.  As I watch BMWs and Maseratis wind through the roads of Greenwich, Connecticut, I think occasionally how many vaccines they could buy.  And seeing such extravagance makes me frustrated and sad to a degree.  But my greater sense of frustration and sadness comes when I look at my own life back here and see how much I am a part of that extravagance that I’m so quick to criticize.  Yet guilt is not constructive—using my blessings to work for a better social order is.  I don’t think God wants me to feel guilty about the opportunities I have, but he certainly wants me to use those opportunities and gifts for His glory, to contribute to His kingdom.  I do, however, want to distinguish between those blessings that can be used for God’s glory—such as a good education—and those luxuries that I might call ‘blessings’ that only serve me.  I think that in any financial decision I make, I should make an analysis of how else that money could be used.  That’s not to say that I can’t ever enjoy a luxury; but my financial decisions—and indeed my whole mode of being—should be rooted in gratitude, as Wolsterstorff says.

In mentioning my internship to people, I have gotten the response several times, “wow, it makes you realize how lucky we are, huh?”  And it certainly does make me remember how lucky I am, but there is something deeply unsettling about the idea that now I can come back and have my glass of cabernet taste a little bit better because I’m reminded how lucky I am.  I mentioned a quote from Wolsterstorff in an earlier entry that I think is relevant here. “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).  If I came back from Burkina very thankful for all the blessings I have, and simply went about my daily routine, the experience would be a complete and utter failure.

So the question I come to now is, what can I do here?  That question is one that I will have to continue to wrestle with.  Part of it will certainly involve working hard towards a vocation with which I can glorify God.  But it must certainly not be limited to that.  My prayer is that I will not be content in complacency, and that I will be able to constantly ask the question what am I doing to serve God and the world that God loves?

Why We Should Do It

I have to confess that when I wrote last week’s journal entry, I hadn’t quite finished Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty.  Upon finishing it, I was a bit unsatisfied.  And I think it is important to explain briefly why.  First off, I think Sachs’ book is an extremely valuable one.  He presents a challenge to the world, namely to eliminate extreme poverty by 2025.  He explains, with case examples, many of the sources of poverty and speaks of concrete ways to address them.  He calls on the rich world, and the United States especially, to hear the call of the poor who ache in extreme poverty, which could realistically be eliminated with .07% of the rich world’s GNP.  In general I got the sense that Sachs is knowledgeable and experienced, and genuine in both his desire to help the poor and his hope of the attainability of his goal.

The second to last chapter of The End of Poverty is entitled “Why We Should Do It”.  At one point he quotes the National Security Strategy of the United States in 2004.  “Including all of the world’s poor in an expanding circle of development—and opportunity—is a moral imperative and one of the top priorities of U.S. international policy” (p 336).  My ears perked up at the mention of ‘moral imperative’.  That phrase carries weight.  And the National Security Strategy may have explained that term further, but not so in the quote that Sachs offers.  Indeed it simply does not seem right that poor people should be inhibited from development because they lack the ability to get themselves onto the first rung of development of which Sachs makes note.  There is something that doesn’t sit right in the stomach.  And I don’t want to take value away from that.  Stott wrote of simple, uncomplicated compassion; and I affirm without a doubt that authentic care and love does not necessarily need a well-articulated normative justification.  But even in my absurdly short five week internship, I already sensed within myself the presence of cynicism—often for good reason.  And I think that to rely on a feeling to motivate me to care about the poor is to build my house on the sand instead of the rock.

Steve Garber notes in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness that “without an intelligible telos, the possibility of forming a meaningful praxis, personally and politically, seems a cruel joke…”  And as a Christian, part of speaking with a Christian voice is being able to articulate where one’s foundation and motivation lies.  Peter tells us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1Pet 3:15). We must have a real understanding of why we do what we do (and of course this implies that we need to, in fact, be doing something as well.  We are called by Peter to have hope, making people want to ask questions.  And indeed, if one’s theology does not correspond to real action, then perhaps it ought to be reexamined).  But, as Garber affirms, sustained and meaningful praxis requires an intelligible telos.  It was for this reason that I read Sachs’ chapter Why We Should Do It with special attention.

It was not until the following chapter—the last of the book—that Sachs gets at the essence of his normative philosophical grounding for social action in the world.  He starts off making reference to Enlightenment thinking: “Yet with the early glimmerings of a new scientific and technological age, bold and brilliant Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe and the emerging United States began to envision the possibility of sustained social progress in which science and technology could be harnessed to achieve sustained improvements in the organization of social, political, and economic life.  All of us who work toward a brighter future are intellectually indebted to the awe-inspiring geniuses of the Enlightenment, who first glimpsed the prospect of conscious social actions to improve human well-being on a global scale” (347-348).  I am ok with Sachs so far.  We are indebted in many ways to Enlightenment thinking and to the scientific and technological innovation that grew out of that tradition, which has such potential to be a force for development (and indeed has been).  I also need to be wary of the tendency within myself to think of more recent philosophical thought as being inherently more correct.

My disappointment came with a different passage.  “A fourth overarching Enlightenment vision joins Jefferson’s vision of human-made political systems, Smith’s rationally designed economic systems, and Kant’s global arrangements for perpetual peace: that science and technology, fueled by human reason, can be a sustained force for social improvements and human betterment” (349).  While I admire Sachs’ hope, I fear that on this important point—that of telos—he has fallen into optimistic faith in human reason.  He notes that “Condorcet, like Kant, believed that reason could lead to a reduction of warfare: ‘The most enlightened peoples, reclaiming the right to expend their blood and wealth, will gradually learn to see war as the deadliest scourge and the greatest of crimes’” (350).  History however, has proved this statement wrong.  This so-called enlightened humanity developed advanced scientific methods for killing one another, and constructed arguments justifying genocide.  ‘Enlightened’ humanity demonstrated it’s utter brokenness by collapsing into world war.  And while perhaps upper level Nazi bureaucrats had in fact only misapplied Kantian ethics—suggesting that those ethics with their faith in human reason are still legitimate—history has proved that human reason is not sufficient to save the world.  We are far more sinful and far more broken than that.  And I believe, similarly, that enlightenment reason cannot provide the fuel to sustain a life of service and love for the poor.  There obviously remains much to be said here, and I am not qualified to be the one to say it.

Sachs does briefly address the critics of the enlightenment, making reference to world wars and the Holocaust.  He states, “some pundits argue today that ‘progress is an illusion…’ ” (352).  He states that such a claim is wrong, and dangerously so.  “They are wrong empirically because progress in many crucial forms—scientific, technological, fulfilling human needs—has been real and sustained over the course of two centuries…” (352).  Sachs’ notion of progress is a far cry from Comte; and in fact Sachs constantly reiterates the necessity of action and the fact that progress is not inevitable.  Yet I think he makes an error.  As I have mentioned before, John Stott speaks of humanity’s need being more than physical. And I agree with Stott in holding that a rise in the standard of living or GDP does not mean a step towards salvation.

Sachs mentioned several examples of people who persisted in a life-long effort towards justice.  Two of the three he mentions are William Wilburforce and Martin Luther King Jr.  He speaks of their persistence in the continuation of what I have heard Charles Marsh refer to as the ‘un-sexy’ work towards social justice.  Wilberforce’s tedious labor in parliament can be captured in a few moving minutes on the big screen, but it’s easy to forget that those years must have been full of despair and doubt.  The irony of Sachs’ citing these two men is that their foundation for social action was absolutely not Enlightenment reason; it was strong Christian faith.  The third man Sachs cites is Gandhi.  And actually Gandhi is a person I have been perplexed by.  I think it would be disturbing not to rejoice in Gandhi’s service of the world.  And I have asked myself, how could he not be a Christian?!  Dietrich Bonhoeffer had tremendous respect for Gandhi and likely struggled with similar questions.  My answer to that question is a somewhat unsatisfying ‘I don’t know’, but, as Newbigin reminds us, Gandhi and other non-Christians who authentically love the world, are created and loved by God, and it is not for me to make claims on the state of their souls.

To return to Sachs argument, I must be honest though, I do wonder about whether it would be better (a vague term, I know) if the rich world were to take action, with enlightenment rationality in mind, and give .07% of their GNP and actually eliminate extreme poverty from the world.  I suppose this is a question as to whether one always needs the aforementioned telos.  Should we rejoice in good that is done for the wrong reasons?  I don’t think that a hungry mother with hungry children cares at all what your motivation is.  What she cares about is whether her children get fed or not.  And I think we should rejoice—though perhaps incompletely—in good that is done for the wrong reasons.  And yet, ultimately, any system of meaning and any foundation for social action other than that which is true will not sustain us.  Faith in human rationality will break down at some point under the reality of human sin.  And the effects of such a breakdown will be hopeless cynicism (Stanley Hauerwas speaks to this point).  So I rejoice in Jeffery Sachs’ book, and in everything I can learn from it (there is quite a lot).  And I must recall my duty to work beside the Sachs’ of the world (though as an intern, I think my place is more likely under the Sachses of the world, but you get my point), and in serving the world with my brothers and sisters who share the Imago Dei, I must persistently take up the task of uniting thought and voice to the service of God and his world.