Make Poverty History

I have noticed in my teaching about international development as a dimension of Christian mission that some of my students express uneasiness with the way I discuss this topic in my Christian World Mission course.  The uneasiness likely comes from a number of different sources.  Let me explain.

Students at Palmer Theological Seminary get a fair amount of exposure to what might be called liberationist and ”postcolonial” perspectives in their systematic theology and ethics courses.  These courses are usually taken before they enroll in my course.  Students affiliated with Palmer’s Sider Center sometimes come with such perspectives already well-established from courses they took during their undergraduate courses of study.

One source of the uneasiness then is that I simply take a different tack in my course.  Some years ago, Sojourners magazine sponsored a conference entitled “Make Poverty History.”  I did not attend, but the conference theme struck me in a different way than the sponsors no doubt intended.  I try to “make” (learn, teach, and write about) poverty history.  I do this for a variety of reasons, one of which is my belief that many bad solutions to the problems of poverty in this country and abroad have been created out of a frenetic but insufficiently thoughtful desire to “do something.”  The history of poverty alleviation efforts is a lesson in humility.  That is always hard to learn.

My students who are or will be Christian leaders in many different congregations will have ample opportunity – if they choose – to engage their congregations in promoting international (and local) development efforts through countless NGOs engaged in poverty alleviation work.  It is my hope that this awareness of the history of poverty alleviation around the world will not only give them a sense of humility but will also help them to be more discerning of efforts in which they choose to invest their and their congregations’ time and resources.  An additional source of uneasiness seems to emerge when I mention that ostensibly well-intentioned and currently popular efforts may, in fact, do a fair amount of harm.

A final source of my students’ uneasiness is perhaps one I share most strongly.  When introducing the topic of international development as a dimension of Christian mission I choose to mostly tell the story of bilateral (government), multilateral (UN, World Bank) and nongovernmental organization engagement with poverty alleviation efforts during (mostly) the last fifty years.  Obviously, I do not provide an exhaustive overview.   I readily admit that this is also a “view from above” rather than a view of poverty from the perspective of poor persons which varies considerably with context.  I stress that understanding large international organizations is nonetheless important even if our attentiveness to “the grassroots” may be emotionally and even theologically more appealing.  I explain how efforts at poverty alleviation are enmeshed in US foreign policy decisions which are not always altruistic in nature.  Many – and sometimes conflicting – motivations are at play.  I have no truck for theological platitudes masquerading as true insight nor for rhetoric which romanticizes the poor and the ugliness of absolute poverty.  I do not want to overstate my students’ uneasiness, however, with this historical analysis of international development organizations.  Many students genuinely appreciate this overview even if it does cloud over the sometimes starry-eyed rhetoric to “make poverty history.”

I will continue to take the title of that Sojourners conference literally.  I wish more students, pastors, and scholars were engaged in learning lessons from history by literally learning, teaching, and writing poverty history.  We surely need more people – myself included – who are actually doing the work with the poor.  My own focus on teaching and writing poverty history does not make sense unless others similarly focus on grassroots work.  My prayer is that my students’ uneasiness with this topic in my class or the way I choose to discuss it will propel them to action in a way that is true to their vocations.

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On the Church and Mission

The Autumn season is upon us with its crisp evening air, changing leaves, and ramping up of church and school programs.  On the latter I have been thinking a fair amount recently as it pertains to the nature of the church and how I talk about the church in my classes.  Missiologists like myself like to quote (perhaps too uncritically) Emil Brunner’s famous phrase, “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.”  Somewhat less frequently quoted is Ivan Illich’s remark that missiology is the “study of the church as surprise.”  I like these quotations.  I use them frequently in my classes.  While one should always be wary of building theology upon “soundbites,” quotations such as these are good reminders for a people (myself included) who get too attached to programmatic thinking and institutional maintenance such that we lose sight of God’s larger mission in the world.

I wonder, however, if the words of Lesslie Newbigin in an often overlooked book, The Household of God (1953), are equally necessary in an age where it is so very easy to be flippant or even derogatory toward the church as an embodied institution.  I wonder how my remarks about the church are received by my students.  I wonder if my use of the Brunner and Illich quotations mentioned above unintentionally reinforces an unhealthy anti-institutionalism or an attitude whereby the church is merely instrumental to a wider, more glorious end.  Newbigin writes,

This life in Christ [which the church seeks to embody] is not merely the instrument of the apostolic mission, it is also its end and purpose.  The Church can be instrumental to the divine purpose of salvation only because she is much more than instrumental – because she is in fact herself the Body of Christ.  In other words, just as we must insist that a Church which has ceased to be a mission has lost the essential character of a Church, so we must also say that a mission which is not at the same time truly a Church is not a true expression of the divine apostolate.  An unchurchly mission is as much a monstrosity as an unmissionary Church.

It may be that Newbigin put too fine a point on things in his effort to keep a vibrant tension in his thinking about the Church and mission.  In my classes I will continue to stress the dynamic images of the church as fire or the church as surprise as exemplified by Brunner and Illich.  But Newbigin’s ecclesiological and missiological insight remains an important articulation of a valuable tension in Christian theology.

Maybe the reason I am drawn to Newbigin’s ideas here is also the reason why I especially like the moment in the Lord’s Supper liturgy when we say together as the Church, “We give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.  Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others…”  Our life in Christ is powerfully made manifest in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and our call to mission is there as well – through the flaming fires of Pentecost and in the “surprise” of the Incarnation.

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On living between techne and poiesis

Because of slight changes in my course syllabi necessitated by some additional travel last semester I found myself grading book reviews by students on two different books which stood in rather odd juxtaposition to one another in a way they never had before.  Shusako Endo’s Silence and David Livermore’s Serving with Eyes Wide Open were the two texts students wrote on for my “Church in Mission through History” and “Christian World Mission” courses, respectively.  The absurdity emerged as I wrote comments on papers about “short term mission” and encouraged students to think more deeply about what has become a very popular – even trendy – form of being involved in mission while in the same sitting also responding to students’ heartfelt questions about what apostasy meant for tortured Jesuits in 17th century Japan and what it means for ministry in light of the cross today.  Both books speak passionately of mission.  To be clear, I am neither terribly interested in dismissing short-term mission efforts as wholly unhelpful, nor am I wanting to romanticize the brutal persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan or anywhere else.  Both books have their place and have much to teach.

And yet it is hard to escape the fact that the picture of Christian mission in these two texts is so very different that it stretches the definition of “mission” in challenging ways.  I was reminded as I graded these papers on Endo’s book of similar feelings I had reading novels and short stories by Albert Camus in a course I took with Elie Wiesel at Boston University.  At the end of one of those novels (I think it was The Rebel) Camus writes that one ought to learn to “live and to love and to refuse to be a god.”  Camus might rightly affirm the Jesuit protagonist in Shusako Endo’s Silence for living in that way.  By contrast, what disturbs me too often in reading students’ papers on short term mission and even in reading my own comments on their papers is that too much talk of mission today stays so very close to the surface of life and stuck in a programmatic or techne (as opposed to poiesis) way of thinking.

I recently shared with students a lot of statistical information about the status of world Christianity while working with the World Christian Database in class.  After demonstrating the wonder of such a statistical tool I was uneasy.  I warned them to not use these statistics in such a way that they thought too highly of themselves in being able to “capture the world with numbers.”  This, after all, is quite a danger for many people – perhaps especially those who are trained as economists.  I have never forgotten the warning in Herman Daly and John Cobb’s book, For the Common Good, where they noted the dangers of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  For as much as I enjoy teaching with these statistics and having students tell me what they found surprising about them I still, at the end of the day, desire to stress more the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium and affirm “the mystery of the church.”  Maybe it is just a more ecclesiological way of expressing what Camus intended.

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It has always struck me as odd that some people find cemeteries to be uncomfortable places.  I grew up mowing a cemetery – the same place for which my father remains the caretaker at age seventy-five.

This summer I visited two new cemeteries that I found especially meaningful.  The first was the burial ground for the Roman Catholic religious order, the Society of the Divine Word (SVDs), in Techny (near Chicago).  They are the largest missionary order in the Roman Catholic Church.  I visited the grave of anthropologist Louis Luzbetak along with a colleague who visits his old friend each year as an expression of friendship across the vale.  I had seen Professor Luzbetak just two times at the American Society of Missiology meetings before he passed away in 2005, a few months before I started teaching at Palmer.  Now, he was resting peacefully next to fellow priests of the Society of the Divine Word.

The second cemetery I visited this summer was on the outskirts of Rome, one of several catacombs where thousands of early Christians were buried.  Coincidentally, it was a site that brothers and priests in the Society of Divine Word have responsibility for running – at least to the extent that they were taking care of guiding around pilgrims like myself.  Our guide mentioned in passing how a linguistic shift had occurred for the early Christians in the term they used to describe these burial places.  Instead of using the pagan term “necropolis” which means “city of the dead” they used the Greek term “koimeterion” which means rather “sleeping place.”  This term is the etymological forbear to the English word “cemetery.”  Far from a mere romantic euphemism to mask the realities of death, the term koimeterion rather is packed with theological significance.  Those interred in that place were now “sleeping” but nonetheless part of the church triumphant.

In my teaching about mission and Methodism as a historian I have, over the past several years, become heartily convinced of the truth of William Faulkner’s famous quip:  “The past isn’t really dead.  It isn’t even past.” Faulkner was writing about the ugly legacy of racism in America when he crafted those words.  I think about this quotation in a more positive light.  My learning about the etymological origins of “cemetery” amplified for me just how important the historian’s task is and how Faulkner’s quote might be altered to also say something about a Christian’s view of history:  “The dead aren’t really past.  They aren’t even dead.”    I suppose I started to learn about this behind a lawnmower in the Mt. Hope cemetery in northeast Iowa.  It is also what those early Christians sought to teach one another in changing the term from “necropolis” to “koimeterion.”  This word change is a simple yet powerful expression of hope.  Hope through history:  I think that is at least one of the vital points I try to get across in my teaching.  It is, I admit, more easily caught than taught in a culture of tweeting.  But I try.

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Welcome to my Mission and Methodism blog

I intend this blog to be a place where I mostly make posts that refer to my vocation as a teacher of missiology and Methodism, but no doubt there will be other themes which emerge here as well from time to time.  Students, of course, are warmly encouraged to join in the conversation!

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