Understanding Our Perspective

A few days ago I went to a lecture by John Pavlovitz. He spoke passionately about the church’s need to embrace an expansive hope, to keep extending the table, because the table belongs to Christ, not to us. I think a lot about extending the table, in part because I drive past a restaurant renovation every day on my way to and from town. The restaurant will be called “Sawhorse” because the new owners grew up in a family that used sawhorses to expand the table, to welcome guests for any meal. It’s an approach to hospitality and abundance that is inspiring. After the recent General Conference vote to add more punitive measures to LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, NZ, I needed to hear words of hope and inspiration to continue living into the way of Christ the peacemaker. I’m grateful for the work and ministry that John is doing.

One thing he said caught my mission-oriented ear however, and it is an all-too-common thing I hear from people who have been on mission trips. “They had nothing.”

Pavlovitz was describing the joy and warmth of the young people at a school in Kenya, where he and his wife were visiting. By the way he described it, the village must have been in a rural area and likely one struggling with poverty. It is shocking to US citizens who travel to discover the depths of poverty that affect the majority of the world’s citizens. It is shocking for US citizens to discover that poverty affects so many people right here in our own country. Sometimes it takes a short-term mission trip to push us beyond our familiar streets, neighborhoods and stores to see the reality of poverty and how it affects our neighbors. Yet, we can be restricted in how we view our neighbors because of our perspective.

Our perspective is the set of unconscious lenses we wear when we look at the world. Dr. Cate Denial is a historian who recently described an exercise she used to help her students understand the perspectives they bring to the study of history. She had students pair up, with one describing a set of objects to another whose back was turned away from the objects while they drew what was described to them. Student pairs were scattered around the room, with the objects on the desk at the front of the room. They shared their drawings and discussed the differences between them. Great questions were raised about primary sources (the persons who were describing the objects) and perspective. The students began to consider other lenses that affect our perspective - cultural background, education, ideology.

In short-term mission, our perspective is impacted by the unconscious lenses we wear. Our cultural background affects how we think about money. Our education colors how we think about other people and governmental systems. Our own political views are a lens. When we travel, we bring our perspectives with us, and these affect how we think about and talk about our neighbors in other places. The common phrase “they had so little” or “they had nothing” can be a perspective that comes from our affluence. We may not realize that we understand “what we have” in material terms, while the people who are welcoming us understand “what we have” in terms of hospitality.

When Pavlovitz visited Kenya, the young people who greeted him likely welcomed him with joyful songs and cheerful smiles. Their perspective was that they offered him their best hospitality, which is what they had in abundance. What if when we return home from mission trips we talked about our hosts in terms of what they had instead of what they lacked, which came from not unpacking our perspective? What if we took off our lens of materialism and consumerism to see that our humanity is what we share and judge people from a perspective of hospitable generosity? Then we can say “they gave us their very best”.

Unpacking our perspective and understanding the unconscious lenses that we wear on mission trips is important, because how we talk about our neighbors matters. How we talk with them matters. How we talk about them when we return home matters. The concept of Ubuntu means “I am because We are.” I am more fully human, more fully who God created me to be because we are in relationship. I am, because we are. How we talk about our neighbors matters, to us and to our shared humanity in Christ.

John Allen Chau and the Assumptions We Carry

Today as I sat down to write about John Allen Chau and the distance between opposing viewpoints, I realized that the moment to comment on this subject passed back in early December.  Many articles and posts were written just after the news hit that Chau had been killed as he tried to land on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal.  I wanted to write in mid-December, but it felt reactionary.  Reflection and careful thinking take time.  That time means that jumping on the bandwagon while the topic is hot is not an option.  While I may be late to the subject, it is still important to consider what happened between Chau and the people he attempted to reach, and what happened between those who saw him as reckless and those who saw him as a martyr.

In last week’s post, I argued for love as our guiding ethic.  Looking at the conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys and the Indigenous Peoples’ March, I suggested that the entire situation could have looked very different if the boys’ chaperones had guided them to listen to the people they disagreed with, to hear what Nathan Phillips and the other Indigenous Peoples’ marchers were communicating with their songs and drumming.  What would that situation have looked like if everyone in that situation held space for questions, listening and learning from each other?

 The Obligation of Christians

In that same vein, I printed out two articles regarding the actions of John Allen Chau.  One was an opinion piece by a professor of religious studies posted at Religion News.  The other was a piece posted by The New Yorker.  Dr. John Stackhouse argues that how a person thinks about the actions of Chau depends upon how one understands the obligation of Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment – Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew to “go, therefore” and make disciples of all nations.  The New Yorker article describes the conversation amongst missionaries and mission agencies regarding the approach taken by Chau – direct proselytizing – in contrast to relief and development work.

Dr. Stackhouse presents the case for proselytizing in stark terms.  Chau believed that the people of North Sentinel Island were in imminent danger of losing their eternal lives, as though an asteroid was approaching their homes and his faith required him to preach Jesus to them.  Despite Chau’s study of linguistics and missionary anthropology, and despite not knowing the language of the Sentinelese people, Chau “contravened the express wishes of the islanders” and attempted to land on their island.  Chau would have learned through his study that gaining the trust of people in order to show respect for their culture and to learn their language takes time.  The people he was attempting to reach have no immunity from modern diseases, and despite his efforts to quarantine himself he would have presented an infectious risk to the very people he wanted to reach with a message of salvation.

 The Assumptions We Carry Into Mission Work

The assumption behind Dr. Stackhouse’s argument is that without verbal proclamation by a Christian the Sentinelese people can never know God.  If people have not heard about Jesus from a Christian or had the Bible preached to them, then God cannot have revealed God’s self to them. 

The assumption that God cannot save God’s own creation without human intervention is one that needs unpacking.  The assumptions we bring to any mission work should be examined.  Dr. Stackhouse asserts that Christians simply have to decide if they believe those persons who have not heard a verbal proclamation of Christ are going to hell or not.  If you agree, then Chau is a martyr, and if you don’t, well then let’s just “agree to disagree on this basic point”.  Further, he asserts that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the time of Christ, so it’s all good if we disagree.

 Not Agreeing to Disagree

My argument is that if we simply “agree to disagree” then we are not unpacking the assumptions and biases we bring to our mission work.  Holding space for each other, listening to each other, asking ourselves difficult questions, these are the ways in which we dismantle our own prejudices and cultural blinders.  We may continue to disagree, but without listening to each other and continuing the conversation, we will not learn from each other.    An ethic of love guides us to listen to each other and work through our difficult questions.

The New Yorker article quotes Dr. Ed Stetzer, professor of mission and evangelism at Wheaton College: “The history of [mission] is filled with stories of bravery, martyrdom, and positive change – but also filled with mistakes, colonialism, and cultural errors.”  Dr. Stetzer’s description of mission history reveals that scholars of mission have examined assumptions and biases, working through difficult questions and learning from the past. 

Wycliffe Bible Translators is mentioned in the New Yorker article as well, due to their policy of only sending translators when they are invited.  This is also the policy of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.  An invitation from a presiding bishop of an area is required for a team of volunteers to go to a mission project.  Policies like this have developed after mission sending agencies carefully considered difficult questions and listened to those they aimed to serve.  Waiting for an invitation means that a volunteer team is not in charge of the mission project.  The host country or church decides when or if they want outsiders to come. 

 Building Bridges of Understanding

So this brings us back to learning how to listen.  As I’ve said before, learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  Rather than simply agreeing to disagree, which means we do not have to face our vulnerability or change, Christian love makes it possible for us to hold space for each other.  Christian love is the guiding ethic which makes it possible for us to hear each other and build bridges of understanding.  When our brothers and sisters in countries that had received missionaries during colonialism spoke out against the assumptions underneath decisions by mission agencies or denominational leadership, it took Christian love to guide those mission and denominational leaders so that they could change.  Through listening and building bridges of understanding, we have an opportunity today to improve our mission practices.

I don’t have an easy solution for the conversation about John Allen Chau’s approach to the Sentinelese people.  I would defer to those with experience in the region, both local church leaders and mission organizations that work in the region.  I firmly believe in and trust the work of the Holy Spirit.  I believe that God can work in ways well beyond my imagination.  I believe we are better when we pray, think, and work together.  May we all continue to hold space, listen, learn, and build bridges of understanding and grace. 

Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

When I was young, I read to my little brother.  We had an extensive collection of children’s books, but as children often do, we read our favorites over and over.  One of them was a collection of Dr. Seuss stories.  I was always puzzled by the story of The Zax.  The north-going Zax walks straight into the south-going Zax and there they argue.  Each one demands the other move aside, and each one refuses to budge.  So there they stay, through wind, rain, snow, and eventually a city grows up around them and they stand, refusing to budge, under a freeway interchange.

The Zax is a story about not listening to each other, about refusing to learn or change.

 Outrage and Refusal To Budge

A friend of mine shared a blog post about the exchange between Omaha Nation elder Nathan Philips and a group from a Covington Catholic School in Kentucky.  The blog post suggested that the high school boys should return to school and “be educated” about why their actions were viewed as disrespectful to a Native American elder and Marine Corps veteran.  Education efforts are to be commended, but they are a minority voice among all the shouting and outrage since videos of the exchange hit social media.

This incident follows another one just a month ago, in which a young American man persisted in traveling to visit the Sentinelese people despite Indian laws forbidding any outside contact with these people.  The laws exist to protect the Sentinelese from the risk of contracting modern disease, and to protect visitors from the violent response of the Sentinelese which meets anyone who tries to cross their shores.  This exchange also caused an immediate reaction on social media, again resulting in strident voices standing firm in their opinions.

They were racist.  They weren’t racist.  They were provoked.  They weren’t provoked.  They should be punished.  They were just kids.  They were victims.  They were mocking.  He was wrong.  He was faithful.  Mission is colonialism.  Mission is a calling.  He broke the law.  He was a martyr.  North-going Zax refusing to budge.  South-going Zax refusing to budge.

 Holding Space For Listening and Learning

While the full range of reactions to these incidents included moderate voices, those who were angered and those who were defensive were the loudest.  In such an exchange – outrage or indignation followed by defensiveness – there is not room for listening and learning.  What is critical is to hold space in which people involved can reflect upon what happened, listen to each other, and learn new ways of living out our call to be people who are known by our love.

The person who wrote that the Covington Catholic School boys should be taught history, sociology, cultural intelligence and morality has the right idea, but the process of education takes more than stating “people should learn”, and more than just a classroom.  The process of education requires that we stop shouting past each other as though we are the Zax, refusing to budge.  Listening to each other and learning from each other requires that we set aside outrage and defensiveness.  This is not easy.

What the exchange between the Catholic high school students and the Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March shows us is that humans tend to stand firm in their opinions rather than listening to each other.  Dr. Seuss was really on to something about our human tendency to refuse to budge rather than listen.  Jesus told his disciples that people would know them simply by the witness of their love for others.  Love is the guiding ethic that drives all of our encounters with others.  Love requires that we set aside our self-defenses and listen to each other.  Love requires that we learn from those we meet – and in mission love means that we learn from those we hope to serve.

 Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

The exchange between Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic School students could have been quite different.  What would it have looked like if teachers, parents, mentors, chaplains and chaperones had instilled in the students the guiding ethic that love guides every encounter with another person?  What if the students had simply walked a short distance away from another group of protestors who were yelling at them?  What if love had determined how the school viewed student chants at athletic events?  What if love was the fundamental ethic that guided discussions about other cultures?  About our history?

Learning takes time and it takes vulnerability.  Learning requires that we ask hard questions and listen to the answers.  Learning requires that we open ourselves to the possibility that we need to change.  Consider how I learned about a particular racial slur.  My high school French teacher was near retirement age and often drifted off topic.  When he taught a lesson on the French national anthem, he went off topic and discussed his experience as a soldier in World War II, culminating in a brief and muttered commentary about Japanese people.  He used the word “Japs”.  I’d forgotten this incident until I turned on a classic movie channel a few days ago and Clark Gable appeared on the screen using the same word.  The movie must have been filmed around the same time as my teacher was enlisted in the war.  The term was in common use, no one thought anything wrong with it.  But to my ears in the early 1980s, it was shocking (as it was again this week).  I asked my older brother’s best friend about it.  His father was American and his mother was Japanese.  My brother’s friend was over at our house quite often and I thought of him as another brother, so I asked the difficult questions – and listened.  Yes, he said, that’s a racial slur.  Don’t repeat it.  After all these years I don’t remember all the details of our conversation, but what I remember is that we held space for each other to listen and to learn.  It was uncomfortable.  A bit like a Zax stepping to the side.  But worth it.

Learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  With Christian love as our guiding ethic, we can admit when we need to change and build bridges of understanding.

I’ll write more about the young missionary and his encounter with the people of North Sentinel Island soon, and how listening to each other is what is needed at this moment in mission practice.