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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.