Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Missionaries

No do not be fooled we don’t need these things Don’t be slaves to the hardtack, sugar or the coffee or the Bacon fat Won’t give our hearts away Not for that Not today --RCPM, “Buffalo” There are a few things that came up during the Four Days in July that I wanted to write about but didn’t have time. The big one was a series by Greg Laden over on his blog about various run-ins he had with missionaries while doing field work in Africa. It’s quite eye-opening. I, like probably every Christian, had the occasional run-in with missionaries. They’d show up at church looking for further support for their work. Generally they’d brings slides of all the people they were working with and let us know how many people they were reaching with the gospel. Now that I’m all grown up I even know a few people who have spent time or are currently working “in the field,” as it were. Truth be told I usually didn’t like the missionary visits. I can’t really say why. I, like everybody, pretty much assumed they were out doing good. I don’t think I ever felt particularly pressured to give them money, so either it wasn’t a hard sell or I was somewhat immune. What I think I resented about the missionary visits was the sense that they were somehow spiritually better, or at least more advanced, than the rest of us. They sacrificed a lot to go overseas and actually do the work the Bible said we were all supposed to be doing. It’s a weird idea, now that I think about it. There were (or are, I guess) the spiritual haves and have-nots. Those of us who didn’t give up the comforts of home to go to deepest, darkest Africa or wherever simply didn’t stack up. Seeing the perspective of an American who went to Africa specifically to see how Africans lived is fascinating. It’s also not particularly surprising to realize that the assumptions made by the people sitting in pews listening to sales pitches from first world missionaries who saw the rest of the world as the outer darkness filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth would get the wrong impression. Christians in general and American Christians in specific base their knowledge of the world on assumption and prejudice. Generally that’s the sort of thing that I gloss over and say, “Well, they just don’t have enough knowledge,” but the truth is most Christians simply don’t want to know. They’re perfectly content to be ignorant as long as it suits their world view that the world is a horrible place that would be okay if it just had more Jesus. I find ignorance somewhat forgivable as long as there’s a desire to learn more. Willful ignorance, on the other hand, gets no quarter from me. It’s like when I was working with an international campus ministry. Ah, hell, I’ve danced around it. But there’s no reason for me to protect its identity. I spent nearly a year as the Outreach Coordinator for the WIU chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. All in all it was an experience that ranged from “not really fun” to “downright horrible.” I knew of IV before I joined up They run a big missions conference on the U of I campus every year (or every other year, I forget) called “Urbana.” I went about ten years ago and was treated to a week of self-serving meetings. Seriously, I don’t remember being impressed. I slept through most of the optional stuff and mostly recall the big convocations for the fact that they put the really annoying worship band in video up on the jumbotron at U of I’s Assembly Hall and put the actual words of the song in a nearly illegible font on the bottom sixth of the screen. However, on the last night when they asked people to commit to doing overseas missions I stood up. I don’t fucking know why. I didn’t want to do missions then and the desire didn’t show up in the six or so years between then and my departure from Christianity. It was probably that old sense that not doing (or at least saying I wanted to do) overseas missions meant I wasn’t a very good Christian. Either way, when I got to IV at WIU I found out that they’re big on multicultural outreach. Now, on the face of it I have no real problem with multiculturalism. It can be an effective cure for ignorance, after all. I just think it’s better if multiculturalism is approached with a sense of mutual respect. When it’s all just a pretext for sharing your own narrow religious views then multiculturalism is a net negative. Especially in a group where there was exactly one non-white, non-Midwestern (wait, check that. She was from Chicago. But, hey, she wasn't white...) person and everyone was allowed to talk about multicultural outreach as a great thing without actually apparently doing it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I had a habit of hanging out with all different kinds of people. I also didn’t invite them to IV or try to share the gospel with them. I was, as I’ve said many times before, a lousy Outreach Coordinator. I like to count that as a good thing these days… Meanwhile, though, there was the step beyond the net negative. It was decided at some point during my tenure as Outreach Coordinator that IV (I believe the regional IV group) was going to have a white culture event/meeting/thingy. I was appalled. I was especially pissed that I had to have a role in promoting it, since it was decided in one of the Executive Team meetings that we’d be in charge of the promotion. As I recall, the rest of the team did a really stupid skit and I was supposed to come out and give the sales pitch. I had a terrible cold or fever or flu or something that night to begin with and, as I said, hated everything about the idea. So I walked out, said something to the effect of, “We’re white, we have culture, go to this thing,” and got the hell off the stage. And the more I think about it, that wasn’t a paraphrase. I mean, what the hell is “white culture?” I get that it’s possible to make the mistake that you can have an “African” culture and a “Latin American” culture if you’re a dumbass white person living in Macomb, Illinois who’s only met three people from farther away than Rockford. But for the love of crap they should be able to get that there’s no such thing as “white culture.” There’s Swedish and British and Ukrainian and Russian and Spanish and Italian and Irish culture. There’s even American culture. And within those groups there are hundreds or thousands of sub-groups delineated by geography, religion, age, popular entertainment, interest in causes, and any number of things that I can’t even begin to think about right now. Missions work is a form of cultural imperialism. Sure, in some cases it does a bit to a lot of good. But from reading Greg Laden’s Blog I get the impression that it does more harm. So go read the stories if you get the chance. It started here. But that was just a teaser from nearly two years ago. Less interesting than the Blues Brothers... Mmm. Beer. When researchers adopt a missionary position. The Great White Douchebag. Don't have a dog-related pun. But at least there's more douchbaggery... The other side of my church propaganda. Apparently they're anti-Semitic, too. Hooray! Real-life internet trolls. Who knew? Discussion of secular missions. Meanwhile, I’ve found that storytelling is a fantastic way to get a taste of multiculturalism. And with storytellers there’s a genuine attempt to actually share the culture from within. So if you do happen to be one of those white people who needs a multicultural kick in the pants, find a storyteller. I'd especially recommend Linda Gorham, Antonio Sacre, Tim Tingle, or In the Spirit should you notice any of them are in your area. In other news, I'm also working up to a post about Hell. I thought I'd be able to shoehorn it in to this one or my Sabbath one from yesterday, but it hasn't happened yet. It's weird to be reconsidering these ideas at this point in my life. But I think it's a good thing. I'm gradually pulling away from the thoughts and stories about how Christianity hurt me in to the bigger ideas and why they don't make any sense. It's all a part of the ongoing healing process, I guess. And, um, not to be schmaltzy, thanks to all who have taken the time to wander through my journey with me. It's been an interesting ride and every time I think it's coming to a close something new comes up. Also, I recently found out that "schmaltz" is rendered chicken or pig fat that's used for cooking and sometimes served as a condiment. I'm not sure how that got turned in to a word that means "excessively sentimental." Language is weird, especially where Yiddish and English interface.

15 comments:

PersonalFailure said...

Missions work is a form of cultural imperialism. Sure, in some cases it does a bit to a lot of good.

And that's what bothers me about mission work, even if they are bringing clean water and education to extremely impoverished areas of the world.

Jay said...

Hi, Geds.

I made it here through Greg Laden's place, and think you've got some interesting things to say.

I like what I've read of your flensing of Cooper's "work", and plan to finish working through that.

Good work!

Geds said...

PF:

In general that sense that, "We're the good Christians coming to rescue you," bothers me about missions work, whether we're talking about sending missionaries to Africa or doing things in the church's neighborhood. The problem is that sometimes the only way things get done is if a church or parachurch organization steps in and gets people to volunteer. I helped build houses with my church that wouldn't have been built if there wasn't a church nearby that wanted to help.

So I guess I have some level of ambivalence about the whole thing. Toward the end, though, I know that I wanted to try to help and volunteer for the sake of helping and was deeply uncomfortable with the witnessing part of the equation. I ended up dropping the witnessing.

Now if I want to help I mostly end up sending money to charities or the various UN organizations. But, honestly, it would be nice to get out and get my hands dirty every once in a while. It's just tough to find non-churches that do that sort of thing.

Jay:

Thanks for stopping by. There will be plenty of posts about Cooper in the future, so keep coming back.

Also, it's really cool that Greg Laden put the link up. I finished this post last night and sent him an email to thank him for sharing his experiences. I wasn't exactly expecting to get pimped...

atimetorend said...

"It's weird to be reconsidering these ideas at this point in my life. But I think it's a good thing. I'm gradually pulling away from the thoughts and stories about how Christianity hurt me in to the bigger ideas and why they don't make any sense."

Thanks for writing this stuff down. A lot of these things do not seem major in deconversion, leaving the faith, but they still need to be worked out in my mind. I find that as these (maybe) side issues are worked out I have a lot more peace with who I am. Rejection of Christian doctrines becomes more nuanced, makes more sense, and becomes something I can articulate both to myself and others. I need a compartment in my mind to keep all these scenarios, looking at them through a new lens.

I was involved with IV in college too, and internation student "outreach" (bible studies) in particular. I had forgotten about the missions emphasis of Urbana (I never did attend). I really did appreciate the emphasis on multiculturalism, I have always had international and multicutural friends. And sure, many other cultures are not Christian, so the evangelism tie-in made sense. I thought that was God's call on my life.

There is definitely something about missions that preys on people's egos. My thought was that if you go at least one step beyond what you are comfortable with, then you know you are not being held back by self-preservation and you are more likely to be open to doing God's will. But conveniently, going that extra step happens to put you one step beyond what 90% of the other people in your group will do, which makes you appear more spiritual and more esteemed in their eyes. Can definitely be an ego trip.

Looking forward to perusing the Greg Laden links later.

Lynn said...

I can't remember how I came across your blog a few weeks ago but have been reading it regularly ever since then. It's very interesting to me because I've had a similar experience in my life of being raised in a fundamental Christian church and gradually realizing that I was sitting in the church on Sundays listening to sermons that I didn't believe. I finally left that church in my early 20s but then it took me a while to come to the realization that I didn't believe in God anymore. It was quite a shock to me but at the same time very freeing!

Do you have a blog on your site which relates how you actually came to your own realization? I haven't come across it but maybe I just haven't been looking in the right place. I'd find it very interesting if it's here.

I will definitely read the Greg stories about missionaries. I also always felt uncomfortable with the whole mission thing.

The Woeful Budgie said...

Hey, thank you. Following along for the past year or so has sort of helped me to process my own beliefs, and to find my own voice in all this. Plus, I've met other deconverts here, which has also helped. *waves at atimetorend*

If you'd told me even a year ago that I'd no longer be a Christian at this point, I don't think I'd have believed it. In fact, I probably would have hung on tighter to my faith out of fear. But I'm surprised at how good (even how natural) it feels now. It's like being barefoot in the grass after a lifetime of wearing uncomfortable shoes.

Looking forward to the post on hell. I never did like hell, even as a fundie. (Though, to be fair, I suspect the same goes for a lot of fundies.)

jessa said...

I much prefer the Catholic approach to missions over the Evangelical approach. This is probably because Catholics live their faith in a very different way than Evangelicals. They just go out and DO stuff instead of spending so much time insisting that works can't get you into heaven alone and questioning whether one's faith is REAL or just cultural. I think that translates into Catholics giving people food and baptizing people and stuff, but without the "hard sell" of Evangelicals and without insisting that the missionized change all their thought patterns to ask where Jesus fits into every little detail. I can help people for honorable reasons without spending twice as much time thinking about it as I spend actually doing it. However, it is definitely still important to think about it so that you don't accidentally subvert your own values.

Catholic or Evangelical, though, all missions still have a "white man's burden" air about them of "we know what's best for you because we are better off than you". I have a friend who is very big into asking those people what it is they want, rather than bringing in our own agenda and priorities, even if they seem pretty innocuous like access to clean water.

MadScientist said...

"Christians in general and American Christians in specific base their knowledge of the world on assumption and prejudice."

Unfortunately that behavior is not limited to any particular racial/ethnic/religious group. When Hong Kong was an outpost of the British empire there were englishmen who behaved well and those who believed the Chinese don't even deserve the respect and affection that might be shown to a house pet. I can visit places in Indonesia and interview people who would tell you how much they hate the USA and how the USA is the source of all their problems and how we're waging a war against islam. I can walk down the street and find another Indonesian who says he wishes he could escape to the USA and miraculously be freed of all his problems.

On various (short) trips to parts of the globe which many people would never consider visiting I have run into missionaries and scientists. Many scientists (unfortunately not all) get to know the locals and tend to work with them and get on with their research projects - whatever they may be. In contrast many missionaries (but once again not all) isolate themselves from the locals and maintain some superiority complex; in the case of Papua New Guinea the "missionary education" seems to include training the locals to believe that the white missionaries are superior to them and that the locals are far too stupid to do anything useful; many things (such as making chocolate) can only be done by the white fella.

Geds said...

atimetorend:

I don't recall being too uncomfortable with IV's multiculturalism until that "white culture" conference. After that I started to listen to the way people talked about wanting god to bring foreign exchange students in to their lives and things like that and started to get uncomfortable. It was like they wanted a pet non-white, non-American.

It's the old problem, though, that if (the editorial) you believe Christianity is "the way," you have to believe that your culture is better than other people's. So you end up basically wanting to do multicultural work in order to get rid of those other cultures. Bad things happen...

Lynn:

I don't know that there's a specific post. There's a string of my realizations under the Loco to Stay Sane tag. The main problem is that I don't see it as a single moment. It was a collection of little realizations built up from other little realizations that eventually just hit a tipping point. So, um, sorry?

Budgie:

I tend to agree that most fundies don't actually believe in hell. But I'll be elaborating on that soon enough. I think.

jessa:

Oddly enough, I've come to a healthy respect for Catholics. I mean, there's plenty to not like there, but when it comes to missions work they're relentlessly practical. I'd work with a Catholic in missions long before I'd work with an Evangelical.

MadScientist:

Thanks for your input. It's interesting (and, honestly, a little saddening) to hear someone say that they've had similar negative experiences with missionaries.

And I certainly wasn't saying that cultural chauvinism is limited to Christians. Any time a people group is going out to win, whether it's territory or souls, they take with them the idea that they are better. China, for instance, didn't call itself "The Middle Kingdom" because they wanted to make sure everyone knew they were between the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. They were the middle of the Earth.

Then, of course, the Europeans came along...

I was trying to draw a counterpoint between what the missionaries told the people in the pews they were doing and what they were actually doing. I didn't have anything concrete outside of Greg Laden's stories, though, since I was just one of the people sitting there listening to a one-sided story. The idea that they'd actively tell the people they were supposed to be helping that they weren't smart enough to do anything is saddening. It's not surprising, though.

So, um, thanks again for adding your experiences.

atimetorend said...

"Hey, thank you. Following along for the past year or so has sort of helped me to process my own beliefs, and to find my own voice in all this. Plus, I've met other deconverts here, which has also helped. *waves at atimetorend*"

Hey Budgie, thanks! The feeling is mutual. There's nothing that has helped me me this past year than knowing I'm not alone in struggling through leaving the church.

JD Walters said...

Wow, I just came across this post...my own experiences with missionaries couldn't be more different.

I'm a recent graduate of Princeton University and a member of Princeton Evangelical Fellowship. The missionaries that came to talk were all Princeton and PEF alumni. There were doctors, engineers, psychologists...all of them the most courteous, humble people I had ever come across. I never detected the slightest hint of spiritual one-upmanship, and thanks to a traumatizing fundamentalist upbringing I have a finely honed bulls--t detector that's on 24-7. They did ask for money and prayers but I never felt pressured to give and the overwhelming impression that I got was that they were here to serve us instead of the other way around. Not a hint of higher and lower 'grades' of spirituality. What they DID give was some of the most exciting, insightful exegesis of the Bible I've come across.

And as for cultural imperialism...the guy who visited from doing evangelism in Turkey among Muslims confessed to me after the talk that it was one of the hardest he had ever given because he couldn't find a way to adequately but briefly summarize Islam without over-generalizing and inadvertently encouraging caricatures and stereotypes. He did give advice on ministering to Muslims but it was done in a context of utmost respect for Muslims, their convictions and their rich and vibrant culture. The missionaries who came from Africa were just brimming with stories about how they were often surprised to find themselves being taught by the locals instead of the other way around.

And as for your accusation against those who (you assume) would be "perfectly content to be ignorant as long as it suits their world view that the world is a horrible place that would be okay if it just had more Jesus,", perhaps you've seen this piece by an ATHEIST:

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God

I'm not saying that there aren't rotten apples or truly imperialistic missionaries or that all missionaries are good, selfless people. But I find it sad that once people deconvert they tend to become just as biased in the opposite direction as they were before-and attract the same adulating comments from like-minded people. How about a little nuance and perspective?

Geds said...

JD:

I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and assume this is the only one of my posts you've read. I'm also going to assume I'm reading trollishness in to that last paragraph because it inadvertently sounds a lot like what the standard trolls say and not because you're actually a troll. Should you come back, don't give me reason to think otherwise. And read a few of my other posts on my feelings about my Christian experiences before you start telling me I'm only angry and don't have a nuanced perspective.

First off, I never make any claims that my experiences are universal. You've had different ones. Good work. In the pieces I linked on Greg Laden's blog he drew a pretty sharp distinction between Catholic missionaries and Evangelical missionaries.

I was talking about my experiences as a fundamentalist/evangelical. You ran in to missionaries at Princeton, where I'm guessing you were dealing with mainline, liberal protestants, not evangelicals. I'm also guessing you weren't dealing with people who skipped college entirely to head right to the missions field or only went to Bible College before going out to do their thing.

In short, I'm guessing you were dealing with far more educated missionaries who actually understood a bit about the world from a non-myopic perspective.

There tends to be a wide gulf between the sorts of missionaries that would be at an Ivy League school giving presentations and the sorts of missionaries that would be at a Bible Church. Princeton, Harvard, the University of Chicago, et al. are dangerously filled with those pointy-headed intellectual types who have weird, postmodern ideas about the world. My own church didn't have an anti-intellectual stance per se, it was in the shadow of Wheaton College, after all, but it still had a definite sense that there were the right kinds of Christians and the wrong kinds of Christians. There wasn't any sort of ecumenicalism that I could see. My church might have done stuff with the Evangelical Free Church or the non-denominational College Church (actual name of the church: it was right across the street from Wheaton College), but if there were Lutherans, Presbyterians, or, heaven forfend, Catholics, involved, my church tried to avoid whatever that thing was. Pentecostals were out, too, but in the opposite direction.

We used to have actual conversations about whether Catholics were actually Christians because of the Pope and Saints and whatnot. I wrote in a post a couple days ago how when I told my pastor I was going to start going to a Presbyterian church he said, "You'll like it. They don't have the bible there." Imagine how that translates to dealing with the unwashed masses who don't even pretend to know Jesus. So don't tell me I'm being unfair to my old church and the missionaries that passed through because the missionaries you met were nicer and actually knew what the world looks like.

And why should I have to reject my ideas based on a single article if you don't seem to be willing to go and read the stories I linked to?

JD Walters said...

Geds,

It's true I only read and am commenting on this post. And I certainly don't mean to be trollish. But if this post is at all representative of your attitude towards Christian missionaries then I stand by my comment that it lacks nuance. I never said you were 'angry', only that you're biased in the opposite (i.e. skeptical) direction and attract like-minded people.

This bias is obvious in some of your responses to my comment:

"You ran in to missionaries at Princeton, where I'm guessing you were dealing with mainline, liberal protestants, not evangelicals."

Nope, they were evangelicals with a strong view of inerrancy, acceptance of miracles and exorcisms (based on their own personal experience) and a firm exclusivism as to the validity of other religious traditions. That exclusivism, however, did not imply lack of respect for or caricature of those whom they were ministering to.

"Princeton, Harvard, the University of Chicago, et al. are dangerously filled with those pointy-headed intellectual types who have weird, postmodern ideas about the world."

Where did that come from? On the contrary, these were some of the most practical, down-to-earth people I've encountered. They had wide and deep knowledge of the Bible, history of religions and occasionally philosophy but they weren't at all post-modern.

"And why should I have to reject my ideas based on a single article if you don't seem to be willing to go and read the stories I linked to?"

Because I posted the link in response to your characterization of the belief that the world would be better off with 'more Jesus' as a delusion. If such it is, it is one shared even by some atheists, such as the author of the linked op-ed.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you argue that Christian missionaries on the whole do more harm than good in the countries where they minister. I think this is just plain wrong. What I did not argue, however, is that all missionaries are good and there have been no damaging influences left by culturally imperialistic missionaries.

Geds said...

JD:

I see you enjoy it when I make assumptions about your level of knowledge and the experiences you've had based on random word association. Isn't it so much fun?

Re-read my post. Figure out what I was saying. Or go away. I really don't care which one you choose. Because it's not my job to tell both sides of the story.

I knew a hell of a lot of ham-handed missions organizations and I ran in to some missionaries who sucked. Greg Laden apparently did, too. Deal with it and don't tell me I'm just making shit up because I'm angry.

JD Walters said...

Geds,

"I see you enjoy it when I make assumptions about your level of knowledge and the experiences you've had based on random word association. Isn't it so much fun?"

No I don't enjoy it one bit when people make fallacious inferences due to bias. What ARE you going on about with your 'random word association'?

"Re-read my post. Figure out what I was saying. Or go away. I really don't care which one you choose. Because it's not my job to tell both sides of the story."

I see this reaction so many times with Internet skeptics. The first post was always a masterpiece of precision and logical argumentation, so the problem simply MUST be with those trollish commentators. And if you think it's not your job to give a balanced presentation, well then you're just confirming my suspicion of bias.

"Deal with it and don't tell me I'm just making shit up because I'm angry."

Apparently you enjoy putting words in my mouth because I NEVER said you were 'making shit up'. I never denied that you've had some bad experiences with missionaries. All I was concerned to do is counter the general impression you were leaving that on the whole missionaries do more harm than good and behave like holier-than-thous.

But yes, I think I'll be going because it's clear you're not interested in a real conversation.