07/17/13

Missions and Margaritas

I went on several mission trips to Mexico in my teens and twenties. During each, I experienced something of a culture shock as I saw firsthand the comparative poverty of the areas we visited. The “mission,” of course, was to convert people to Christianity through a variety of means, ranging from building projects to children’s workshops to passion plays, which dramatized the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The last trip I participated in was in 2003, and rather than drive over the border, we flew into Central Mexico. We spent most of our time in Tepic in the state of Nayarit. After we spent a week or so there, we had the opportunity to spend a night in a resort in Puerto Vallarta before returning home. A couple friends and I decided to leave the resort and go to dinner in town at a place that was recommended to us. On the way there, it began to pour. It seemed like the water was coming down in sheets and it continued to rain all night. It took some trouble to find the restaurant, and it was on a block so steep that the cab had to take multiple tries to get up the hill to it.

450px-Blended_MargaritaIt was worth it though. We entered the second-story restaurant soaked, but had an excellent meal out on a covered balcony overlooking the city with live music playing in the background and margaritas that grow in size each time I tell the story. (They are currently the size of fish bowls.) We had the restaurant call us another cab to return to the resort, and this time as the cab driver was winding through the dark, drenched streets to get us back, we somehow got around to the topic of religion.

The poor cab driver didn’t know what he was in for when he asked us what we were doing in Mexico. He was fairly open about his religious beliefs once we explained our trip, which probably involved phrases like “sharing the love of Jesus.” He told us he had a Bible on the shelf at home but never really read it. His mother was religious but it didn’t hold a lot of interest for him. He was busy trying to provide for his family. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I know that my friends and I spent the remainder of the trip back, slightly buzzed, trying to convince him how great Jesus was. Despite our efforts, the ride was too short for us to change his mind and we arrived back at our hotel.

I was, in retrospect, disappointed by the exchange, thinking if I had only said the right things, we might have effected the man’s (re?)conversion to Christianity right then and there. I was acutely aware of how many people don’t “know God,” and how sad their day-to-day lives had to be. In part, that was just the mode that I was in, having spent a week evangelizing the “unsaved,” and it probably involved some guilt at partaking in the typical American resort vacation, tucked away from day-to-day life in Mexico. But there was always a tinge of sadness that mixed with the earnestness when we returned, because it was much harder to evangelize at home.

For church groups, particularly of teens and young adults, taking missions trips to Mexico is fairly popular for a variety of reasons. It’s close and relatively easy to get over the border. But there is also some time-tested institutional logic involved.

If the primary directive of Christianity is the Great Commission—to convert as many people as possible so as to usher in the end of time—as many evangelicals think it is, why do most spend so little time trying to complete this task? Why instead do they venture out mostly in large groups to faraway places rather than evangelize in their immediate surroundings? I think that it is in part because they base a vibrant spiritual connection on evidence in socio-economic well being. We went to Mexico because the poor are more vulnerable, and consequently more open to the Christian message. It helped also that we believed there was a connection between their state of poverty and their spiritual status.

This preference for “vacation evangelization” is not unconnected to our marginalization of the homeless in the United States. Most comments I have heard about the homeless reflect the belief that they are ultimately responsible, not only for getting themselves into the situation they are in, but in wanting to stay there, because surely if they wanted to get a job, they could. Similarly, middle-class Christians often tend to think that physical poverty is a reflection of spiritual poverty, and an improvement in the latter will effect an improvement in the former. In addition, the proximity of homeless in our own communities is unsettling and more important to rationalize than the existence of poverty elsewhere.

I didn’t often think about this connection as a Christian. My motivations were out of pity, although it did cross my mind that we didn’t focus as much attention on the poor in our own community. But why the poor? Why not evangelize those of our own socio-economic background? Perhaps because without a socio-economic disparity, there is no justification for convincing someone that their life would be better off with Jesus. There is no metric of measurement to justify religious belief among our peers.

The lack of urgency to evangelize one’s peers is a reflection of a level of disbelief that “they” are actually better off than “we” are. It is easy to go elsewhere and observe living conditions that would be terrible to experience. The knowledge that you have it better off in social and economic domains  transfers readily to a spiritual domain. After all, Christians understand that their good position in life should be attributed to God. And if someone nearby is experiencing a tragedy, it is easier to step in, assuming—aside from a genuine desire to help—that his/her situation would be more manageable with religious belief. But how do you convince someone for whom life is going well that they are actually not well at all? One might do as Nietzsche suggested Christians do, make others sick in order to make them well. I, like many, convinced myself that others must be more unhappy than they seem in order to justify my worldview. But few have the heart to seriously act on that conviction, to find out if that’s really the case. And if not, it might be beneficial to consider whether Christians are actually better off, and by what standard—other than a Christian one—that might be measured.

Am I suggesting that Christians be more evangelistic with all of their peers? In terms of consistency, absolutely. In my last years as a Christian, the rhetoric of evangelization seemed hollow and hypocritical. I wasn’t shooting for conversions, but I did think it the Christian’s imperative to make a positive impact in his/her communities. So part of me wishes evangelicals were more consistent in application of their beliefs. But I’d rather that Christians realize there is no necessary connection between theological belief and socio-economic position. A reliance on social or economic indicators to prove or evidence divine favor would only prove an arbitrary an cruel deity who caused many to suffer in order that a few might enjoy relative comfort.

03/15/13

Brief Thoughts on a New Pope

Catholics of the world have a new pope. He is the first pope with the name Francis, the first Jesuit (an order that was on the Church’s bad list in the past), and the first from outside Europe. While these seem significant, they probably are not. They may even seem significant to the institution itself, but to the outside world, little will change.

If there is anything I could be encouraged by, it’s the connotations that the name Francis has for poorer socio-economic classes. It would be significant if the Catholic Church invested more effort in aiding the poor from the top-down. Latin and South American Catholicism in particular has been known in since the latter half of the twentieth century for a commitment to the poor, sometimes becoming the sole voice of resistance against capitalist exploitation that was often ignored by the official Church. It would not be new for Catholics to fight against economic exploitation, then, but it would be new for it to extend beyond words for the Catholic hierarchy. The institution cannot help but perpetuate itself, and this has meant an accumulation of wealth in the upper echelons of the church. There have been rumors that the papal transition was in part due to the potential loss of wealth because of impending prosecution.

It’s interesting to me, though, that we are so enamored by the whole process while holding, at the same time, that the pope really doesn’t matter and that we don’t really care what happens. Is it because we enjoy seeing the ceremonies and trappings of power? Is it only because we think that the pope doesn’t matter that we can enjoy watching people who obviously think he does? Or is it because we are worried that he may matter more than we let on? I am interested in the process, particularly because I can still remember when it took place less than a decade ago. I hold very little hope, however, for this pope being a harbinger for major changes either in the institution or the world.

What do you think? Does a new pope mean anything? Why are we so interested?

02/28/13

Pulling Ourselves Up By Our Bootstraps

A group of notable Christian leaders calling themselves Circle of Protection, with Jim Wallis as their spokesperson, recently sent a letter to Congress asking them to protect the poorest in our nation from being affected by budget cuts. Wallis, a long-time advocate for social justice in political circles, argues that the budget is a moral issue and that Congress needs to be reminded that cuts to vital aid programs affect people personally. I recognize that some political posturing goes along with public statements such as this, but I value the efforts of Wallis and those in this group for reminding Christians and others that, “a nation will be judged by how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable.” I’d argue that we’re better off if we judge each other on this principle rather than letting God do it, but the statement is valuable in trying to craft the kind of religion Wallis and some others want to see. He has been a social justice advocate for years and I’ll give his group the benefit of the doubt that not only are they making a public statement, but are engaged in their own communities as well.

In another article published recently, Amia Srinivasan exposes the “sin” of being dependent on the state. There is a connection between apathy toward continuing funding for aid programs and our stigmatization of their use. I’ve been more aware of the prevailing negative attitudes toward the “poor” in Idaho than when I was in California. I’ve heard comments at the gym, located downtown near a shelter, about how the people milling around should stop smoking cigarettes and “go get a job,” as if it were simply a matter of making the decision. (If that were the case, I wouldn’t be an underemployed PhD.)  One might think that we stigmatize receiving state support just to be mean, or we feel guilty, or because we’re scared that if we don’t make people feel terrible for relying on it, they’ll just stay on it forever. But there’s more to it than that.

Srinivasan’s article points out that we only stigmatize particular kinds of state support, and don’t recognize the state’s contribution to the wealthy (and the rest of us) to maintain our socio-economic status. Thus, much of the article is devoted to poking holes in the myths that support our inaccurate judgements of state support. Many people who rely on government aid, for example, already have full-time jobs that don’t make ends meet, and we subsidize those people in minimum wage jobs so that we can have cheap t-shirts from Wal-Mart. Wealthier folks, on the other hand, are protected by favorable tax laws (and have the means to take advantage of them), and have the ability to grease the wheels of legislature to remain in their favor.

So much has been heard before, and reinforcing the polarization between the rich and poor only goes so far. It already is joining the ranks of such played-out dichotomies as Democrat and Republican, pro-life and pro-choice, etc. The better question the article asks that is unique is why Americans only stigmatize certain types of state dependence and not others. Srinivasan suggests a couple possibilities. First, the state relies on the wealthy just as the wealthy rely on the state. We’ve been told at least since the Reagan era that big corporations and their leaders are what drive America’s economy. America and the wealthy are codependent, while the poor just drag the state down (and work at the companies with huge profits that don’t “trickle down”). Secondly, we have the myth of the self-made man or woman, which ignores the fact that many of today’s wealthy inherit their wealth. Indeed, even if they “worked hard,” they began with social advantages that the poor could not dream of. While self-reliance and rags-to-riches are embedded in American culture, they are largely myths. In their current form, they merely reinforce class divisions.

What struck me most in reading the article, though, is the idea that the biggest obstacle to destigmatization of the poverty we see around us every day may be pride, the indoctrinated belief of the aspiring middle class that we will be wealthy some day as well if we try hard enough. Thus we blame the poor for their poverty, giving them a minimal amount of support so that we can maintain the outline of a dream that will not be a reality for the vast majority of us, while those for whom wealth is a reality benefit from cuts to the bottom half.

This, I would argue, is one of the greatest hypocrisies in American Christianity, which extends strong ideological support for the poor while attempting to limit state support for them. I had a conversation a few years ago with a person who fits the self-made profile well, coming from humble beginnings to successful entrepreneurship. This person argued, as a Christian, that the government shouldn’t be able to force people to do things, like help support the impoverished, that they would otherwise do on their own. Many share this sentiment, yet I imagine they wouldn’t want the same principle applied to infrastructure or small business tax breaks. The government support of the poor that allows those, even those just above the poverty line, to stigmatize those just below because they are “mooching” from the system. But it’s not because they cheated the system and we worked hard for what we have. It’s because we know that we are no different. We have been able to take even more advantage of the system, and it is only circumstance that put us where we are today. The line separating “us” from “them” is ever so thin.

I agree that taxation of the wealthy will not solve the country’s economic imbalances. Part of the reason it is so controversial, however, is that it pokes a hole in the myth that we deserve what we have and we earned it all ourselves, a myth so vital to our nation that many of us will continue to support it without ever seeing any benefit from it.