Archive - Global Citizenship RSS Feed

White Savior Complex

I think it was 1978 when I first heard African church leaders discuss the “white savior complex” and blame the media for creating images of Africa in perpetual crisis.

We sat in a small, airy, modern building in Dakar, Senegal. It was hot. Dust devils swirled the sand outside. It was my first trip outside the United States and everything seemed noteworthy, even the flat, dry landscape beyond the windows.

This memory was conjured up by the public debate about the “Kony 2012” campaign and its viral video.

The African church leaders complained to me as if I were representative of the entire journalism profession. They had wanted to unload on someone for a long time, and here I was, so they unloaded. I heard about their frustration that positive stories of Africans solving problems and creating economic progress were of no interest to Western journalists. The journalists only wanted stories of crisis, death, destruction, graft and political corruption, the church leaders said.

They only show up when something goes wrong. They take pictures, shoot video and leave. When they leave, the story goes away until a crisis pops up somewhere else. They don’t get the story accurate. They look only at the things they can see on the surface. They don’t understand the culture or the underlying circumstances that lead to human suffering.

They see drought but ignore longstanding issues that have roots in colonial exploitation, roots that create inequity and injustice and keep Africans in a subservient position in trade relationships, lacking the money to build infrastructure, education and viable businesses to compete globally.

But there was more. The African church leaders were also frustrated with the parade of celebrities who come for a day or two, get their picture taken and speak on behalf of Africans. Then they retreat to the most expensive hotels and leave on the next flight out. I heard about white people who come to Africa with a savior complex, as if Africans don’t have the intelligence or capabilities to solve their own problems.

We lack resources, not resourcefulness,” the Africans told me. We don’t need white saviors telling us how to survive. We’ve been surviving here long before white people came and exploited the people and the land. After they leave, we’ll still be here, they said. I got an earful. Welcome to Africa!

All of these themes have come up in the “Kony 2012” campaign flap. I was surprised by a blog post by a PR professional in the United States who said Invisible Children had deftly managed the public relations flap. Not from what I have read in reactions of Africans to the film. They raise issues that have been percolating for at least 30 years and the fact that the film steps into these troubled waters and stirs them anew is not a sign of deft PR. It’s a sign of good intentions run aground by lack of historical understanding and context.

In reviewing this criticism, I’m not making a case for ignoring the horrendous human suffering caused by Joseph Kony. The criticism does, however, provide perspective. For as long as I’ve been writing about poverty and its effects globally, which is now going on 30 years, I’ve been concerned about the exploitation of children, especially as child soldiers and through sex trafficking. It’s heartbreaking. It makes me angry. It deserves focused, ongoing attention until we’ve put an end to it.

For me, focus and ongoing attention are key. It’s unfortunate that the “Kony 2012” campaign’s attention got diverted to the accuracy of its claims and the role the storyteller. 

I’m willing to give great leeway to the young filmmaker and his aspirations to put an end to Kony’s reign of terror. I’m reminded of Ann Lamott’s comment in Bird by Bird, “Reality is unforgivingly complex.” I’m grateful that he’s taken on this terribly important issue. And I’m hoping the attention Invisible Children has brought to the issue creates a sustained effort to put an end to Kony and others who exploit children in merciless ways.

This will require a multi-pronged  effort to empower African human rights advocates to press for action by governments in Africa, public support of the kind Invisible Children is creating in the United States and elsewhere to pressure Western policymakers and governments to pursue Kony and others, and to implement aid programs  that include measurable outcomes to protect human rights and prevent exploitation of children, and women who continue to experience rape and other indignities daily in Africa.

It’s been such a long, long time.

Postscript–March 16, 2012: Nicholas Kristof defends the young filmmaker with a compassionate defense. This BBC coverage contains African reaction to the video. David Reiff critiques the advocacy methodology and its outcome (or lack of it) in this article in Foreign Affairs. A tragic turn of events occurred today with the arrest of the young filmmaker. He is in my prayers.

March 20, 2012: Journalist Angelo Izama provides a lucid overview of the political context in which Joseph Kony operates and discusses how this complex context makes it possible for tyrants like Kony to function as proxies for the various political interests that help them to survive.

This collection of posts gives insight into the white savior complex from different points of view.

When Helping Hurts

The controversy that has been stirred by the Invisible Children organization’s “Kony 2012” campaign has created public discussion about important issues regarding human rights and humanitarian aid that need to be aired. The campaign is valuable in this way, regardless of its stated outcomes. A Foreign Affairs article on Invisible Children’s call for intervention last November makes one of the most damning critiques. Recently Foreign Affairs guest blogger  Joshua Keating charged that the organization “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) abduction and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony–a brutal man to be sure–as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.”

Over the past 30 years, humanitarian efforts have become entangled with political realities to a dangerous degree because human rights are invariably a part of humanitarian crises. The record on this entanglement is mixed. The Berlin blockade following World War II led to treaties that attempted to protect aid to civilians in conflict areas from the political and military agendas at work. This meant keeping aid itself as neutral as possible.

However, great human need always occurs within a complex political equation. Helping people in these situations is rarely as simple as it appears on the surface. Those most likely to suffer in natural disasters and war are the poorest and most vulnerable in the population. They live in the least substantial housing, lack the resources to flee to safety and are the least influential in the social structure.

A history of brutal leaders

Northern Uganda, where Kony operated before taking refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been in turmoil for longer than young Invisible Children filmmaker Jason Russell has lived. The people of the Karamoja region, home to 1.1 million, have long endured drought and political and social instability. Since its independence as a U.K. protectorate, Uganda has experienced a succession of despotic leaders who plundered the country and ruled by terror. Its first president after independence, Apolo Milton Obote, suspended the constitution and ruled under martial law, creating tribal conflicts and insurgencies that brought the country to ruin.

Obote was overthrown in 1971 by a military coup that implanted the infamous Idi Amin Dada, whose quixotic and deadly leadership has been well-documented in popular culture in the book and movie “The Last King of Scotland.” Civil war erupted and continued from 1979 through 1986. Government troops carried out genocidal raids that terrorized the region known as the Lewuro Triangle.

Obote returned to power in 1981, and some Ugandans say his second term was even bloodier than Amin’s. Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, and he has brought relative peace and stability, except in northern Uganda. While he instituted progressive programs to combat HIV/AIDS, he is criticized on human rights by many international observers. Uganda is particularly harsh in its rejection of homosexuals today, for example.

A volatile mix

Reliefweb says the Karamoja region has the “lowest human development indices in the country.” The Reliefweb assessment also points out that 80% of the population faces food insecurity exacerbated by drought and lack of sustainable jobs. More than 1.1 million internally displaced people have returned to their homelands or have resettled to new locations after a peace agreement reached with Kony’s insurgency, but their ability to earn a living is still hampered by the broken economy across the region.

It is into this highly volatile mix of historical and contemporary political, economic and environmental currents that Invisible Children has stepped into and is suggesting military intervention. The Obama administration has put military advisers into Uganda to aid in locating Kony. However, their value is also being debated.

Looking past the fact that the assessment by Invisible Children is flawed (which should be enough reason for caution), it is also questionable how introducing yet another military operation in a region plagued by instability for the past 30 years could contribute to stability, especially when it would inevitably involve cross-border operations into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Kony is said to be operating now.

Sometimes doing good is not as simple as it seems from the outside.

From Invisible Children to Viral Video

A young filmmaker’s chance encounter with armed militia in northern Uganda nine years ago has resulted in a media storm that today is capturing attention around the world and reinforcing claims about the power of social media. It’s also created healthy debate about the most effective way for concerned people to affect humanitarian issues half a world away, and whether advocacy and awareness are sufficient responses to a longstanding conflict.

I’m writing of the viral video by Jason Russell, a 24-year-old filmmaker who went to Uganda as a student to discover a story he could tell through film. He found the story. It was about children conscripted against their will into the Lord’s Resistance Army run by the sociopath Joseph Kony.

Russell began telling the stories of children who sought refuge in common places where their numbers gave them strength to resist forced conscription. They would leave their homes to sleep together at night in buildings or other places so they couldn’t be abducted one-by-one at home.

Now a video posted by Russell’s organization, Invisible Children, has millions of viewers and is the subject of debate. The debate asks whether the information presented in the video is accurate. Kony’s militia is no longer operating in Uganda but is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it numbers  hundreds of conscripts, far fewer than the alleged 30,000 implied in the film. And while the militia is still doing great harm, the concern of critics is whether the film’s questionable information is a solid basis for useful action.

Other critics point out that Invisible Children spends only 30 percent of the funds it raises on direct services to children. And still others ask if a misinformed public can have meaningful influence about a situation in which a better solution is to assist local persons to resolve problems on their own doorstep.

The challenge of awareness

Over the years I’ve observed that some organizations are better at marketing development and empowerment than actually doing it. Invisible Children seems unabashed about its role. Russell tells the New York Times no one wants to see another boring documentary about Africa, so he decided to make one that is “pop” and “cool.” His most telling comment is that Invisible Children strives to be the Pixar of human rights storytelling. Which begs the question: To what end? Pixar produces content for entertainment and diversion, not for social change.

This is at root the challenge of awareness created through social media. Does awareness lead to action? What kind of action? Can a campaign built around celebrity, bracelets, pledges and donations lead to meaningful action? A new word, “slacktivism,” has been coined to describe this online activism.

A different approach

In stark contrast, outside the chatter of social media and as the Invisible Children video was going viral, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church was training a group of college students face-to-face in Washington, D.C., about global health issues. The board was preparing the students for visits to legislators to discuss the church’s concern for health programs around the world, specifically focusing on the diseases of poverty and the church’s campaign against malaria known as Imagine No Malaria. The two methods of engagement could hardly be more different.

But both seek to engage young adults in critical issues of consequence in our hyper-connected world. There is hope in this effort. I take hope in the debate about the effectiveness of the method associated with Invisible Children. The questions of how to effectively advocate for human rights, affect government policy and empower local people to solve local problems all deserve wider discussion and action.

Each of us will decide whether Invisible Children’s method of online activism is sufficient and if we support it. I hope it feeds the kind of substantial engagement supported by the Board of Church and Society that will in the long run create skilled, effective influencers who will effect change in the long term.

If the Kony2012 campaign contributes to a meaningful consideration of how we can effectively advocate for a better world, then it is serving a useful purpose. And for lasting change and long-term influence, the model practiced by the Board of Church and Society offers a proven track record of effectiveness.

 

Time to Rally Around The Global Fund

Several months of turmoil have set back the efforts of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Self-initiated investigations have uncovered financial abuses by local representatives of the organization in a small handful of the many countries the fund serves.  Yet, Bill Gates has called this worthy international organization one of the most effective entities to which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributes.

Today, 25% of all international funding for HIV/AIDS-related programs, over half for tuberculosis, and almost three-quarters for malaria worldwide comes from The Global Fund. An estimated $15 billion is needed annually.

Gate’s support was further affirmed by an unbelievable $750 million promissory note, announced last week in a story in the New York Times. Before his announcement, Gates wrote a cogent op-ed piece calling for continued support for foreign aid.

Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20% giving children a future.

Reduction in malaria deaths

The Global Fund is a funding mechanism, a bank, if you will, that makes grants to governments and non-governmental organizations that submit program plans in advance at a scale sufficiently broad to have national and regional impact. It fell a billion dollars short of its needs last year, causing it to suspend its grant-making.

This is particularly harmful because the grants are built on a two-year planning cycle, so the suspension of funds means a potentially deadly delay in treatment and prevention for the people who depend most on the fund’s work. Since 2000, malaria deaths have been reduced by 20 percent, according to the Times report. The time lag could set back these gains, resulting in increased human suffering and even deaths.

Amid the global economic crisis, the news of fund abuse was doubly harmful. For economic reasons, and in reaction to the misuse of funds, some donor governments withheld new pledges or did not fulfill past pledges. This meant programs and people unrelated to the misappropriated funds would not get much-needed prevention and treatment programs for these three diseases of poverty. It is important to note that the diseases targeted by the Global Fund take an unconscionable toll on the world’s most vulnerable and resource-deprived people.

Fragile progress 

The measurable progress that has been made in treating and preventing deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis is well documented. But it is fragile, and interrupting it is even dangerous because these diseases can easily blossom and return with a vengeance. The parasites and viruses through which they’re transmitted are adaptable and resilient. This is not a time to slow down or turn away.

The funding abuses also gave opponents of humanitarian assistance a talking point to call for reducing aid from government sources. Governments are the largest donors for humanitarian assistance. Nongovernmental organizations can never hope to fill the gap.

A call to the faith community

As supporters and partners of the Global Fund, I believe it’s critical that members of the United Methodist and Lutheran faith communities not only continue their support but also advocate on behalf of the fund.

The diseases of poverty will not be addressed at scale without governments, foundations, nongovernmental organizations, religious organizations and corporations working together and providing funds. If ever there were a strong witness for continuing to support this worthy organization and its vitally important mission to fight the diseases of poverty, the Gates endorsement was it.

The Global Fund was as transparent in investigating and reporting internal abuses as any organization I’ve seen in years of writing about international development. This forthcoming approach speaks well for the organization and its credibility. The fund has also prosecuted and achieved convictions against some of the culprits, who sit in prison as I write this. This comes at some risk to the fund in the host countries where offenders have been prosecuted.

Last week, the fund’s board reviewed the duties of the executive director and changed the responsibilities of the position. The board appointed a manager to run the daily affairs of the organization. Executive Director Michael Kazatchkine resigned.

My hope is that, in the future, the fund will regain the ground lost these past few months, recover from the economic downturn that has reduced its funding, and receive support from donors large and small to continue the march to end the suffering caused by these diseases.

At the end of the day, we are talking about people, vulnerable people, many of whom are without voice, suffering exclusion and discrimination as well as the effects of terrible diseases. Without the programs made possible by the Global Fund, their suffering will only increase. Many will die. And that is an abuse that all of us must not allow to happen.

 

A 2012 Reading List

After I commented on a reading list distributed by “Q”, some readers of this blog asked for my list. I’ve been slow to respond. But here is a list of the dozen books I intend to read in the course of this year.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelaum. I’ve almost completed this book. Friedman and Mandelbaum write about four challenges that confront the United States–globalization, the revolution in information technology, chronic deficits and excessive energy consumption—through a lens of U.S. power, influence and ideals.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter. I’m close to finishing this book also. Davison calls on Christian faith communities to de-couple public witness from political engagement and to practice “faithful presence” for the common good. The latter includes non-partisan, non-ideological expressions and actions for the common good. He bases his case on a theology of the Creation that calls Christians to be responsible to follow the teachings of Jesus to acknowledge the reign of God, be a servant people, act with compassion for all and invite all into the kingdom of God.

Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey D. Sachs. The book was released four years ago, but I’m just getting to it. Dr. Sachs, the leading voice behind he Millennium Development Goals, proposes a new economic paradigm that is globally inclusive, cooperative, environmentally aware and science based because we are running up against the realities of a crowded planet.

The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark. There’s a new (to me) strain of thought that says early Christianity spread with the cooperation of elites in the institutions of the day, and without this cooperation, the Christian movement might never have achieved the success it has attained. This case says Christian ideas and acceptance needed more than grassroots movements and populist coalitions. The followers of Jesus also needed influence in the institutions that shape culture in order to survive and grow.

Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer. This, too, is an older book that’s been on my shelf for quite a long time. Dr. Farmer is an advocate for a definition of comprehensive human rights that includes, among others, food, shelter and health. Dr. Farmer is a tireless advocate for those who live without these basic necessities and who lack the voice to advocate strongly for them.

The End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs. Another of Dr. Sachs’ important works. As the world moves ever so slowly toward raising standards of living in developing nations, it appears that ending the most debilitating effects of poverty is no longer considered a pipe dream. Dr. Sachs, more than any other economist I’ve read, makes this case most clearly and reasonably.

Life, Keith Richards. A gift from my daughter, I’ll do my best to work through this biography of the guitarist and founding member of the Rolling Stones.

The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression plunged both maternal and paternal sides of my extended family into poverty and pushed them off the land. One grandfather kept life and limb together as a sharecropper, and another lost his farm, and his heart, when he had to move to town and work laying sidewalks through the Civilian Conservation Corps. I have a lifelong fascination with how the people of that era kept their families together (or lost cohesiveness) and made it though this most difficult economic period. It also reminds me that history does, indeed, repeat itself–perhaps not in every detail, but in wider sweeps of human behavior.

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx. Another oldie, but one I’m interested in because the reviews praise Proulx’s ability to write lean, clean prose, a talent I can only wish for.

A Guitar and a Pen, edited by Robert Hicks. This collection of stories by Nashville songwriters is a departure from their storytelling form of music to narrative. The songwriters of Nashville are the poets of popular culture, and I admire their ability to tell a story about life in all its sadness, strength, joy and humor in three minutes. This is fun, light, pleasurable reading.

There you have it. I’ll no doubt be reading beyond these books, but these will take priority.

 

 

Top Ten 2011 Faith Media + Culture Posts Tell A Story

It is always surprising to find out what people are reading, and our blog is no different.  So in keeping with the season, here is our list of Top Ten Posts from our Faith Media + Culture blog.  As we look at them, they seem to reflect a time of change, uncertainty and global concerns that have been top of mind for many.

10.  Malaria is No More. Say What? This post was my response to an article in the NY Times in which a representative of Malaria No More said the organization was about to close up shop because malaria was coming to an end.  Hard to imagine such a proclamation when malaria takes the life of a child in Africa every 45 seconds.  Subsequently, the staff of Malaria No More issued a statement saying the organization has never claimed “mission accomplished,” is not closing its doors and will only close after the goal of ending malaria deaths in Africa has been accomplished.

9.  10 Tips for Christians in Social Media. A few do’s and don’ts for Christian conduct online.  My favorite is to remember the Golden Rule and avoid snarkiness!  Lewis Carroll’s Snark caused people to disappear, much like mean spirited jabs can diminish a person.

8. Phantom Dreaming: The Schwinn Phantom. A short reminiscence of a love affair, with the bike of my life, and how we were reunited. Guess that was the start of my love for all things with wheels.

7.  Poll on Global Citizenship Released. What an incredible year this has been and it is no surprise that one in five US adults has followed international news closely.  Our poll uncovered some surprising facts. When asked where Americans turn when disasters happen, 52 percent tend to turn to U.S. and International Red Cross organizations first.  Church and religious organizations were second (29 percent), indicating the important role faith-based institutions play in serving both local and global needs.

6.  Why Somalia Matters. Drought, famine, dying children and conflict make for a volatile situation.  For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.  I believe that benevolence can lead to peace and stability.  And faith can lead to hope and worth.

5.  Open leaders have open meetings. Well, this was a doozy of a post, raising comments from all corners of the United Methodist world.  I appreciate all of you who have written, called and commented – even those of you who took issue with my opinion.  To those who disagreed with my comments, I am sorry for any offense.  However, it’s the beauty of transparency and freedom of speech that allows for this vast array of agreement and dissension.  May God continue to bless this cherished First Amendment value.

4.   Country Song Packs A Hell Of A Punch. Country music has always told a kind of raw truth about our country, and Brad Paisley’s song “A Man Don’t Have to Die” is no exception.  The song tells of the type of hell many are going through as the numbers of those living below the poverty line has reached all time highs.

3.  Photos from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Talk about the Great Recession and it conjures up images of the Great Depression.  I have always been interested in the collection of images from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information documentary photo project in the 1930s and into the early 40′s, and have gathered some of my favorites here.

2.  Celebrating the Death of Osama bin Laden? Is it a Christian act to celebrate a death, even one so notorious?  Here I discuss the ambivalence that many of us felt at bin Laden’s death.  Since then we have had more to ponder with the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

1.  Rob Bell and Hell. What’s all the fuss about?  Yes, Rob Bell asked us to consider that there might be other pathways to comprehend God and that hell might be a state of being.  But many of us have secretly asked the same questions and have endured our own personal hells.  Theologians have been arguing these questions since the late 19th century, making Rob Bell just one more brave soul willing to ask questions.  Since the publishing of his book, Rob Bell has left the famous Mars Hill Church he founded to pursue other interests, one of which is a television drama.  Seems Bell never scored high grades in seminary preaching classes because he was always pursuing new ways of presenting ideas.

Well there you have it: a year of economic woes, international upheavals, provocative propositions about hell, social media manners, and a little love letter to Schwinn.

Join us in the coming months as we offer up our view of the world in 2012.  But take heed, as Edward R. Murrow so eloquently commented,

Perhaps we should warn you that there is one thing you won’t read, and that is a pat answer for the problems of life. We don’t pretend to make this a spiritual or psychological patent-medicine chest where one can come and get a pill of wisdom, to be swallowed like an aspirin, to banish the headaches of our times.”

But just maybe, we are comforted in our ability to ask questions together.

Civic and Religious Activism Go Hand-in-Hand

Pew survey released just two days before Christmas reveals that people active in churches, mosques and synagogues are more involved in different organizations and devote more time to them compared to those who are not actively religious.

This doesn’t surprise me. For the past 10 years, research by United Methodist Communications has consistently identified a desire among a significant number of people in the United States, especially young people, to connect with others who want to make a difference in the world. They also want to be part of something larger than themselves, something global. And this is a spiritual quest.

There is ample evidence that when given the opportunity to fulfill this desire through outward bound service, they will take it and run with it.

A missed opportunity

Most religions teach concern for others and provide the means for followers to act on the teaching. Service to others is a core precept of the Abrahamic faiths, for example, so it’s likely those who follow these religions would engage in outward expressions of their faith.

However, many, including mainline Protestants, have not done well articulating this appealing attribute in ways that make them inviting to those seeking a more vibrant expression of faith. Some denominations lost their capacity to communicate their relevance when they disengaged from the media environment that has become the world in which we live and move today. That’s a pity because they have what many are seeking, and it can make a difference in people’s lives.

Having an impact

Reporting on the Pew research, the Christian Science Monitor says the actively religious are also likely to feel better about their place in society and to be more trusting and optimistic about their impact on society.

My hunch is that connection to a religious community serves as a way to step outside the hyper-individualism prevalent in modern societies and that religious activity functions as a form of empowerment. It’s been my experience that when people organize around shared moral convictions and act compassionately, such as building Habitat houses, advocating for just and humane social policies, or volunteering as tutors in urban schools (among many other social activities), we experience both a stronger connection to others and a sense of purpose that results in awareness that we can make a difference in the world.

In religious language, we discover we belong to God and to one another. The entryway to deeper spiritual understanding is through giving yourself to a larger purpose than what is offered in a secularized, consumerized material culture.

I heard a moving witness to this at an event called Advocacy Days for Imagine No Malaria, in Washington, D.C. After meeting with legislators to advocate for preserving discretionary items in the federal budget, including funding for malaria prevention, a woman told other participants in the program that she felt renewed faith in the democratic system, a greater sense of personal empowerment and a deeper commitment to her faith. I hope she felt accomplishment when many of the programs for which she advocated were retained in the budget legislation that was passed a few days ago. With others in the group, combined with advocates from religious communities across the country, she did, in fact, make a difference.

Our call to action

I believe faithfulness is best expressed by our compassion. Jesus instructed his followers to act compassionately toward those who were among the least in society. That call to action has been a basic precept of Christian faith throughout the ages.

It’s been said that religious belief is personal but not private. The Pew research seems to confirm it, and perhaps it reveals more: Religious faith is not only about what we believe; it’s also about how we live.

Entering A New Age Of Faith

Do we stand at the dawn of the Age of the Spirit, as theologian Harvey Cox writes in “The Future of Faith,” or the end of the religious era, as Bob Roberts Jr. writes in “Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flattened World”?

Harvey Cox

Cox believes the world is becoming more religious, not less, and that faith is being reclaimed as a way of living and acting in the world as we stand before the mystery of God. Roberts writes the future of the church will be the story of the non-religious follower of Jesus, as I reported in a previous post.

These two views are not as incompatible as they seem at first glance, nor are they unique. Shane Hipps takes a similar tack in “The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture,” and Tex Sample makes the case that faith is best communicated among working class people as practice and not as belief (“Blue Collar Resistance and the Politics of Jesus,” Abingdon Press).

This points to the ferment stirring in religious communities worldwide. It’s ferment about how faith is defined, its place in the world and how faithful people express it.

As we move toward global interconnectedness and a mediated culture that is image-based, viral and relies on stories, it looks more like the oral culture of Jesus than not. The paradox is that technology gives us the ability to communicate directly and to tell our stories broadly.

Trust vs. belief

Cox reminds us the earliest followers of Jesus were said to follow “The Way” (Acts. 9:2). Faith, Cox says, meant a dynamic lifestyle nurtured in communities guided by men and women that reflected hope for God’s coming reign.

The earliest Christians affirmed that “Jesus is Lord.” To follow him meant to do as he said in Matthew 25: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, give drink to the thirsty.

In the long chain of history, however, Cox says this dynamic view of faith got changed.Trust in Jesus became belief about Jesus, Cox writes.

Trusting in Jesus, however, meant recognizing the kingdom of God that he proclaimed is here and now. It meant the world has unrealized potential and the faithful are called to help fulfill this potential even in the face of setbacks and death itself. It is a commitment to hope. Both Roberts and Cox end with this hope. It is the foundation for faithful living.

‘A God-sized challenge’

Faith is best expressed in community—something each of the writers I’ve cited also makes clear. Jesus used the poetry of Isaiah to explain his call to his followers to be outward-bound people acting in ways that not only usher in the kingdom of God but also affirm its reality here and now.They are called to be servant people who affirm the reign of God.

This is a challenge in a globally interconnected world. How do we live our faith locally and globally? As I read these writings about faith as practice, I’m left with a root question: How do we seek justice locally and globally? Cox admits it’s an unresolved question. Roberts offers a partial answer by calling for local faith communities to have global relationships.

But if we are really called to transform the world, which is what Matthew 25 is about, then that means change of a significant scope and scale. It will require collaboration, partnership and global vision beyond anything we’ve experienced before. If following Jesus means pursuing the kingdom of God, that’s more than humbling; it’s a God-sized challenge.

I think that’s the new age we’re entering—a new age of faith with a global vision.

 

 

 

Living Faithfully in a Post-Religious Age

When Bono spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago, he spoke about the need for the world to put an end to poverty and to tackle the diseases of poverty. He spoke with a clarity that got headlines and an op-ed in the New York Times.

 Bono did not speak as a member or participant of a religious group. In that sense, he was a non-religious advocate for values and practices that are compatible with most religious groups, particularly Christian.

Bob Roberts Jr. says the primary story of the future for the church will be the non-religious follower of Jesus. (“Glocalization: How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World,” Bob Roberts Jr., Zondervan)

Melinda Gates

Four years ago, I attended the Gates Foundation Malaria Forum where Melinda Gates addressed professionals working to end malaria. She sent shockwaves through the audience when she called on the world to eradicate malaria. Only minutes before she arrived, the group had debated whether malaria could be eradicated or eliminated, the latter defined as controlling the disease within a specific geographic area. Eradication means ending it globally, once and for all. It was a “no-no” word until Ms. Gates issued her challenge. After that, it became the goal.

A few days ago, Ms. Gates, at the second Gates Foundation Malaria Forum, cited the work of the people of the The United Methodist Church who have made it their business to take up the fight to eradicate malaria.

The prophetic voice not only challenges but also affirms, and in these instances the prophetic words call the world to claim a “God-sized” vision to put an end to poverty and eradicate a killer disease.

Living beyond religious language

We’re in an age in which voices outside the religious community challenge us to heal a hurting world. This is a biblical imperative. And for Christians, it’s a call to follow the teachings of Jesus, but it’s not phrased in religious language.

Some scholars say we are living in a post-Christian era, but that term is a misnomer. Perhaps we’re in a post-institutional era (and I’m uncertain about even this phrase), but faithful living is even more necessary. The teachings of the Bible are more relevant than ever.

To Micah, it wasn’t complicated: “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously– take God seriously.” (Micah 6:8,9, “The Message”)

Similarly, as recorded in Matthew 25, Jesus makes it clear how his followers should enter into the world: “… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35,36. 41, “The Message”)

Micah and Jesus talk of justice with compassion and humility. They say faithfulness involves serving the poor, sick, dispossessed and oppressed. It’s about connecting with others. And from this connection grows the recognition that we belong to God and that God is reaching out to us in a gracious embrace that is life-giving.

Catching up with God

To follow Jesus is to find where God is at work and try to catch up. It is living in the assurance that under the pain and beyond the chaos of life lie meaning, fulfillment and abundance — not abundance as in the material world, but abundance as in a life rich in connection with others, coherence, creativity, hope and positive action. Faith helps us find this place, and finding it requires us to serve. When we serve as Jesus called us to serve, we discover it’s life changing and potentially world transforming.

It’s a world of connections and engagement, collaboration and partnership between religious and non-religious. In the new horizontal world of global interconnections, faith is viral, passing from person to person, multiplying and becoming an expansive, transforming movement that reveals both our mutual needs and strengths, and, to our surprise, we discover the kingdom of God in our midst.

The World Cries for Economic Justice

While paying for groceries in Pine Mountain, Ga., recently, I heard another customer say, “It’s hard times right now. Hard times.”

I turned to see a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, dressed in soiled blue jeans and a cotton shirt, telltale signs his work is physical and dirty. It was the end of his workday.

A Cape Town Folk Art Artist

Now, jump from Georgia to a downtown craft market in Cape Town, South Africa. I am talking with a young artist-vendor who says, “It is difficult right now. If I sell one or two paintings per day it is a good day.” His small folk art paintings sell for US$30. He emigrated from Zambia hoping for a better life here. If he sells at this pace for a year, his income will be equivalent to US$10,000, in a city with living costs equivalent to those of a typical U.S. city.

Now let’s move to Harare, Zimbabwe, where Kubatana, a nonprofit organization, is attempting to offer interactive telephone services to low-income Africans. Brenda Burrelle explains Freedom Fone is for people who can’t afford broadband and those who can’t read.

UNICEF and Freedom Fone are creating a two-minute audio drama series to educate women workers about how to deal with unwanted sexual advances by supervisors. However, each cell phone segment will cost 43 U.S. cents airtime. For a Zimbabwean worker earning US$30 per month, it’s too costly. (In township lingo in Cape Town, the cell phone is known as “bleed me dry.”)

Three anecdotes do not prove a trend, but when considered alongside several recently released studies of global economic conditions, they illustrate the growing gap between the rich and poor, the need for meaningful work, and the need for economic and labor policies that favor job creation. This need is global, and it’s spiritual.

The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor

The rich are getting richer, faster than ever, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, summarized in The Guardian. High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI), defined as those with more than $1 million in free cash, have enjoyed a 10 percent increase in their wealth in recent years. They now control $42.7 trillion.

As governments around the world implemented austerity measures and politicians in the United States called for tax breaks for the wealthy to stimulate the economy, the wealth of HNWI surpassed the peak reached in 2007 at $40.7 trillion.

At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of poor in the United States grew by 2.6 million in the last year, creating the highest poverty level (15.1 percent) since 1993. Worse, the poverty rate for 18- to 24-year-olds is at its highest level since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war on poverty” in 1964.

The issue isn’t that wealth or the wealthy are evil. It’s that economic policies that favor wealth creation but do not also favor job creation and economic justice produce evil results – results that, in the long run, are harmful to all.

The Need for Meaningful Work

I heard an Irish woman recently say if her wages and purchasing power got worse, she would be working for free. Young people in Spain are going to the streets to protest unfair employment policies in a distressed economy. Portugal is experiencing out-migration of skilled young adults to former colonies such as Angola and Brazil because they can’t find meaningful work in their home country. Much of the Arab Spring has been about educated young adults frustrated at the lack of meaningful work and by unresponsive, corrupt, authoritarian governments.

In a special report on the future of jobs, The Economist (Sept. 10th-16th, 2011) says the number of officially unemployed stands at 205 million people worldwide. This is 19 percent of the global workforce, many of them young, educated adults in countries with a “youth bulge” in their populations.

A Gallup survey cited by The Economist says 12 percent of the global workforce is underemployed, and the International Labor Organization claims 1.53 billion people in 2009 were in “vulnerable employment” working for themselves or in underpaid family jobs.

In each nation, policies differ, but one thing is clear: in a complex, interconnected world the simplistic rhetoric of trickle-down economics needs to be retired. No matter where this economic ideology is employed, it creates unacceptable gaps between the rich and poor. It creates injustice, hardship and concentration of wealth that fosters social instability. It creates winners and losers. It does not create jobs.

Creating a Better Future

In a more positive vein, there is an opportunity for those concerned with economic justice to advocate for policies that will encourage innovation, immigration reform and job creation, writes The Economist. Those concerned about education must continue to press for reform and support quality universal education.

And we must all consider the changing structure of work in the global economy. The nature of work itself is changing. The need for new skills comes at a faster pace. We are less likely to find long-term employment in a single company and more likely to have “serial careers.” We will utilize online education more than ever. And we’ll have to be even more responsible for marketing ourselves. Some employment experts say we’re moving toward fluid, flexible work as individual contractors.

In “The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here,” Lynda Gratton of the London Business School says we will need to build a “posse” of 15 people to whom we can turn when work life gets difficult. These are people we can trust and work with effectively in the new workplace.

Gratton says we will need to stay mentally fresh by following a “big-ideas crowd,” stay in touch with talented, open-minded people, and spend time in thought-provoking conferences.

We also need “regenerative communities” to maintain emotional balance, including time with family and friends in the real world apart from the world of work, people with whom we can laugh, share stories and relax.

A Concern for People of Faith

As we enter the emerging work world, we are reminded that self-esteem is embedded in the work we do. When it’s meaningful, we experience fulfillment and self-esteem. At root, this is the spiritual side of work. I believe faith is about how we understand our place in the world in relationship to God and to each other. Work is, or should be, a concern to religious believers because it so intimately connected with human dignity and justice.

When work is reduced to job skills and economic indicators, we lose this perspective, and we also lose sight of the values embedded in work that affect our well-being and contribute to justice for all.

As I’ve traveled the past few weeks, I’ve heard a common theme worldwide, a cry really, for meaningful work and justice. From Pine Mountain, to Harare, to Cape Town and beyond, the people of the world yearn for fulfilling work and economic justice.

_____________________

Faith Media + Culture is pleased to release the first of a series of surveys on contemporary issues surrounding media consumption, changing culture and our faith.  To find out more about American perceptions of global involvement, read our 2011 Global Involvement Study.

To download a copy of the report, please click here.

 

Page 4 of 32« First...«23456»102030...Last »