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.