In our previous episode, A Reimagining in Three Acts, our caller brilliantly shed light on her experience of being black in America, and particularly within a white evangelical church culture. (If you haven’t heard it yet, you really need to. She’s amazing.) And for many of us listening to her talk with Derek, you can’t help but hear her and think about how little time is spent in church amplifying crucial voices and experiences such as hers... And, for that matter, how little time the white evangelical church spends taking seriously issues of race within American society in general.
Which sort of, for me, brings up the issues we did spend a lot more time on in church. The places that we did see the need for practical work and action. The place that we believed wholeheartedly that we needed to show up, to be present, to move.
…It’s a complicated issue. On one hand, aide and relief work is absolutely essential. And there are Christian-based organizations doing incredible work, some of which many of us remain supporters of to this day – something we believed in that was never threatened by deconstruction. The best aide organizations are doing crucial work all over, and especially so within this very exploitative world economy that we find ourselves in today. It’s an economy which has kept imperialism alive, and which has allowed colonialism to persist, and even spread… and we will always need charitable work to be done so long as there are systems at play necessitating it. But that’s where we might hit a snag: it’s hard for many of us in the West to admit that exploitation that we benefit from is still very much at the root of the very injustice we now feel impressed to alleviate... And see, that part is sort of the "other hand."
So, if on one hand, missions work is absolutely essential to the world we live in... On the other hand, a lot of us – and I mean that broadly: whether we no longer believe, or still believe, or have no idea what the hell we believe – a lot of us, beyond any current difference in where we find ourselves on the spectrum of faith, have come to the same disquieting realization. It’s a realization that a lot of what’s called “missions work,” and short term missions in particular, can be little more than treating symptoms while refusing to even recognize a disease. Or it can become little more than poverty tourism. Cameras poised in the slums to capture people and their lack of things. All with underlying assumptions in place that are seldom challenged: the assumption that we have it better because God led us into this unsustainable consumerism that we frame as essential to life. Or the assumption that our way of life speaks to our being “blessed” simply because we’re more wealthy. Or the assumption that our fortunes have something to do with Godly principles applied within our society, and not the very exploitation we’re now showing up to soothe.
A lot of it can leave you wondering what it is that Christians really mean when they say, “We're taking the gospel to the nations." If charity is us caring for those who suffer due to our way of life, and offering them a nice afterlife… then our hands are lifting up the very people who were stomped on by our feet. In the 'biblical' sense, if you're an Egyptian, a Babylonian or Persian or Roman… It's tricky. Empire is tricky. It leaves you with an idea so pervasive that no one even has to say it out loud, and yet it’s constantly with you. This idea that, “Of course we have the good news. We bring wealth and power.” And even amongst the most conservative Christians who’d distance themselves from the term, there always seems to be a ton of “prosperity gospel” at play.
Effectively, a lot of us have noticed within Christianity that we weren't merely attempting to convert people to ideas about God or Jesus, but ultimately to the dominant socioeconomic and political narrative of our own empire. To the sort of world we aimed for and championed out of nationalism or militarism, where it was always "America First." For many of us as Christians, that was the true faith we carried so unquestioningly that we couldn’t help but evangelize it. We didn’t even have to remember to try. It followed us everywhere, and it entered the air wherever we drew breath.
In other words, you could go all the way to the other side of the world to pass out presents and do some drama presentations and maybe even lead some magic prayers... and in all of that, you could say, "Jesus is lord" …and yet still make it very clear to everyone you encounter... that Caesar is.
Because, for a lot of evangelicals especially, missions has been an experience of religious colonialism. A manifest destiny on the world stage with Jesus as its stated rationale... But it's a bait and switch. Bread and medicine offered to those who will hear the pitch. The agenda of some "eternal hell" lingering behind everything, motivating the here and now work of justice like that was some sort of lesser concern.
Perhaps the most eerie and ironic thing is that churches can talk about missions trips year round, and yet never honestly discuss what leads to the very conditions that require aide and relief in the first place. The greed of multinational corporations, wage slavery, the ethics of trade… These are not terms and phrases we hear much in white church. Instead, we were told that we were bringing the true remedy of the gospel to a greater sickness while seeing to the symptoms as well. But to many of us, in our unchecked ideas about Empire and who we are, we felt a gnawing sense that we were ultimately contributing to a sickness. All while the sickness went undiagnosed among our tribe of claimed doctors.
With one hand, we sign peace and hand out water… with the other, we oppress. With one hand, we speak of a better world in the next life… with the other, we contribute to this life remaining the way it is.
I'm barely scratching the surface here – this is a complex ethical dilemma without a quick fix. But so long as there are people who do believe, and people who don’t, and people who don’t know what they believe... and all of these types of people can recognize these things and speak and be the truth to a situation like this… then there’s hope. There’s hope because it’s going to take a lot more than just Christians, or just non-Christians, to move forward as humanity in any meaningful sense.
We don't usually offer statements like this to 'sum up' an episode with this podcast. But the reason I was reminded so much of this in contrast to last week is that I think it’s harder to see honestly in the distance when we’ve had such a culture of blindness up close. When it comes to love and justice, a people who run from it in their own home aren't going to be well-equipped to perceive it in some far off country. The church culture most of us come from has been very slow – at best – to recognize its complicity in racial oppression here in America… so it would stand to reason that the same culture is not coming to grips with its complicity in distant lands either.
That’s the connection.
For this religious culture, it’s a culture that wants to make a difference… but out there, not here. We’re meant to think that out there is where it’s needed. Only don’t go digging into WHY, because you might come to see the reason why is at work not just out there, but here also… that there’s discrimination and inequity at play even in how we’ve been told to engage justice.
I think that ultimately, maybe it’s easier for white evangelicals and white non-evangelicals to play the role of white savior in some distant spot on the planet than it is to admit we have some deeper questions to ask and deeper systems to uproot. That this is all connected, and we could greatly change our presence on earth all over. Whether here or there.
On either side of the world.
ABOUT THE AIRING OF GRIEF:
The Airing of Grief is a podcast featuring conversations and correspondence about spiritual de- and reconstruction.
There are some great podcasts in production which tackle specific church and theology-related issues at the core of any given episode. And while many such issues arise in our calls and written correspondence, The Airing of Grief itself is not an issues-driven podcast. Instead, our particular focus is the human experience. We look for conversation more than interview, and our themes are derived from the personal stories and perspectives shared by our guests.
Our ultimate aim is the re-congregating of those who might otherwise feel disenfranchised, cut off, or alone. In processing experiences of religion and spirituality, we hope to learn that we all remain connected, and that there is a strange new community of others who are rooting for us, celebrating us, and sharing the burden of our stories. Regardless of where anyone might land on the spectrum of belief and faith, we recognize a common bond forged in our seasons of pain and disillusionment. As the old saying goes, “A joy shared is doubled, and a grief shared is halved.”
And our desire is to craft a safe place for that. We hope to cultivate real estate for the resonance and empathy which is found when we have the opportunity to invest in one another’s experience. There is empowerment in speaking the truth of our stories – not only for those sharing, but those listening as well.