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.