Monday, April 6, 2009

Why I think “Christian Missions” are a big Cow Stinky.

If you know me, you might find that title strange. Although I grew up as an alien in a foreign land, I’m not one of those who were scarred by absentee parents who barbarously ventured out into the world to preach the Gospel According to America, sacrificing their children’s development on the altar of good intentions. Mine was a fairly idyllic youth spent in a stable, loving community of people who were in Peru for a purpose the value of which I have never really questioned – the translation of the Bible into other languages. While the attitudes and methods of individuals in that community may have at times reflected the imperfection of their respective natures, I still feel that the principle is sound.

So why am I taking the time to write a note about how “Christian Missions” are a big Cow Stinky? Well, I’ve recently participated in what many have called a “Missions Trip” to Haiti – you can see some pictures of it in the appropriate album – and it has gotten me thinking about my growing discomfort with the idea of the thing as it has been and is being enacted by Protestant North America. As a result, I have come up with two basic issues.

The first is more of a semantic quibble. The term “Missions” was bugging me, so I did a little online etymology search and found that it does, indeed, have military connotations, having originated in 1598 with the Jesuits, who were a militaristic order. I’m not trying to hate on the military here. I do not believe in easy answers regarding the use of military force. There is always a difficult tension there – to explore it further, I suggest watching “The Mission” with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, a film that really gets into the blood and guts of the issue and will probably make you cry. Nonetheless, I consider myself to be a “qualified pacifist”, and do not like associating any work purporting to spread the word about the sweet-action awesomeness of Jesus with the use of violence. I think people in “Christian Missions” continue to use that terminology partly by default and partly because the American psyche has infected North American Evangelicoprotestantism with an aggressive, power-grubbing attitude that is antithetical to the words and works of Christ.

Like I said, that is more of a semantic quibble and far less nasty and systemic than my other issue, which fits neatly under my Hobby-Horse Rant Topic of the false sacred/secular dichotomizing that infuses the Western Church with stinkiness. I am not enough of a scholar to trace the origins of this nasty bit of incorrect thinking, but to paraphrase a whole lot of irate thought I’ve got on the issue I will say that I think that for a variety of reasons and in a (foolish, fated) attempt to control what the Truth is and how people experience it, the Western Church has absorbed and adopted the anti-Christian attitude that the world is divided into things spiritual/eternal/good and things bad/fleshly/secular.

They’ve taken the ball that Paul (who wrote a lot of the New Testament – primarily the problematic stuff) threw them when he used the Platonic language of the Greco-Roman culture in which and to which he was speaking and falsely transposed it into our post-“Enlightenment”, overly-rationalized mindset. It’s a doctrinal tragedy of unparalleled proportions, and to my mind has been a key factor in the way much of mainstream North American Evangelicoprotestantism has abandoned Orthodox Christian thought and accommodated their theology to their corrupt economic practices and purposes.

That’s a bit heady and obtuse and off-topic, though, so I’ll bring it back to everyday reality by saying that a real, human result is that we end up wandering around feeling guilty that we’re not doing enough of the “good, spiritual” stuff, or feeling smug because we have done some of that stuff, or even feeling OK about not doing that good stuff because other people are off doing it anyways, with or without our support. It’s the sort of thing that leads people to rob themselves of the abundant life God proposes to give them because to be consistent they’ve got to see things like Sleep and Good Food and Friendship and Solid Conversation and Romping Sex and a whole lot of other marvelous things as less good than Praying with Words in a Rational, Ordered Manner and Reading the Bible and Going to Church.

When it comes to “Missions Trips”, they pay lip service to the idea that all of life is a mission, but still separate (both implicitly and explicitly) stuff like going to Haiti and giving beanie babies to orphans from stuff like breaking bread with friends. This is devilry! And I mean that literally – I honestly believe there’s devilry afoot here. We should be looking at ALL our lives as sacred. That’s the point of Christ, isn’t it – that he redeemed the whole world from poopiness?!? All trips are “missions” trips, in the gentlest meaning of that term, as are all staycations and forays into the dreamworld and interhuman interactions.

Going to some other country is a trip like any other, on which I either do or don’t lay my pride and selfishness at the feet of the Truth in which I might or might not choose to live. Don’t get me wrong – I think doing good things for orphans is what it is all about. James 1:27 says that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. I think that if you want to follow the Truth you’ve got to love on orphans and widows and all the other people getting stepped on by the dung-soaked hobnailed boots of the world.

Whether or not spending the resources on a week-long trip for a bunch of wealthy American high schoolers (and their teachers) is the best way to go about that is a question that deserves another essay entirely, but my point here is that the criteria of submission to the Truth can and should be applied to any activity a person purporting to please the big J-Man might undertake. I am of the opinion that almost ANY activity could be redeemed into something more closely resembling the Awesomeness from which it has been tweaked by our general messed-upness, but if the activity is such that it is really difficult for us to undertake it in the right way, then that ought to be identified and we ought to change our hearts/minds and/or drop the activity immediately. If a cruise ship trip or a trip to Haiti or a trip to the Apple store is causing you to live in a lie – dump it!

Take every choice, every trip, every attitude captive. Think BIG thoughts. Do things that matter. Make EVERYTHING matter. Love ridiculously in whatever you do. Ponder your place in the world, and the responsibilities your wealth entails. Grow to a place where you spend your wealth, your time and yourself to advance the Upside-Down Kingdom. Keep loving yourself, but bring your love of others up so that it matches that love in intensity, and as much as you are able… LIVE that love!

Calling it a “Missions Trip” is a big Cow Stinky. It is a copout intended to get you off the hook from living the painful, self-sacrificing, gloriously fulfilling life for which you were made. Stop creating division by splitting your world between good and evil, and start Jesufizing EVERYTHING!

10 comments:

  1. It's kind of tripping me out that I used to babysit you and your siblings.

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  2. I mean "the." THE way you think.

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  3. Followed your link from Jamie's . . .

    'Going to some other country is a trip like any other, on which I either do or don’t lay my pride and selfishness' . . . I think that says it all.

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  4. Thanks, Deborah. I think we often construct these elaborate cultural/religious structures just to make ourselves feel superior and in control... a fool's errand.

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  5. Following your link from VWM...
    Is it silly to make my comment include one of your comments?? Cuz here goes...
    "That’s a bit heady and obtuse and off-topic, though, so I’ll bring it back to everyday reality by saying that a real, human result is that we end up wandering around feeling guilty that we’re not doing enough of the “good, spiritual” stuff, or feeling smug because we have done some of that stuff, or even feeling OK about not doing that good stuff because other people are off doing it anyways, with or without our support. It’s the sort of thing that leads people to rob themselves of the abundant life God proposes to give them because to be consistent they’ve got to see things like Sleep and Good Food and Friendship and Solid Conversation and Romping Sex and a whole lot of other marvelous things as less good than Praying with Words in a Rational, Ordered Manner and Reading the Bible and Going to Church."
    This paragraph is stellar!
    Compartmentalizing Jesus makes me crazy and I just refuse to do it anymore.

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  6. Thanks, Freebie. I appreciate that. I feel as though there is a lot of refusal going on these days, and it makes me happy. It was for freedom that we were set free, right?

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  7. I have been perusing your site a bit and invite you to read a few of my refusals to compartmentalize. Just because I think we think some of the same thoughts...and that is refreshing...and terrifying ;-)
    PS...love the art. Tell me about Naive.

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  8. Yeah. I think there are a lot of us weirdos out there, Freebie. The internet gives us the unprecedented opportunity to encourage ourselves in our weirdness. The critical mass is growing... but for what? An adventure, to be sure.

    "Naive" is "Evian" spelled backwards. It is an appropriation of an early masterpiece by Baroque Spanish Court painter Diego Velasquez called "The Water Carrier of Seville." In the original, there is an ironic contrast between form and content. That is, that the artist has used oil painting (which at the time was generally reserved for nobility) to portray a peasant manual labor. In portraying the peasant with dignity, he raised questions about what nobility really is.

    I took his painting and made it my own, tacking on an image of an evian water bottle to explore a different contrast - the one that exists between the more primal life of the past (linked, as it was, to the earth) and our more plasticized present. Are we really so advanced, I ask, when we spend money for things we can get for free and then dump the container in the ocean or in landfills?

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  9. encouraging ourselves in our weirdness...HA!
    Thanks for telling me about Naive. (did you have that paragraph at the bottom the whole time and I missed it? sorry.)
    When I saw that painting I was in a mindset about mission work and my distaste for much of how it is done...so I looked at the plastic water bottle and I was struck by how clean and sanitary his offering was. How it looked like he was offering a "better way". And how Naive that action was...on so many levels.

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