Friday, July 18, 2014

Benevolent Opression

Photo Credit: Captain Mike Fuys
A little over a month ago I joined the team at ServLife International, a ministry based in Indianapolis that propels justice and reconciliation by building global community to plant churches, care for children and fight poverty. It's a simple yet powerful mission statement. My job is to spread the story of ServLife to a wider and wider audience. It's work I love because it gives me the chance to talk with lots of people. And the more I talk to people the more chances I have to expose the sad reality of benevolent oppression.

Benevolent oppression is a concept I learned not one I can claim as my own. Simply put it means that well meaning charity far too often has actually destroyed peoples ability to care for themselves. While it is laudable and awesome for Christians to follow Jesus' instruction to go and teach all nations, somewhere along the line that got confused with offering them help they don't need in ways that actually debilitate them. We failed...and continue to understand cultural context. It's hard for people to conceive of other ways to do things than what they've experienced. So we bring the Gospel to unreached people groups, then start assessing their living situations, then determine those conditions are somehow unacceptable, then begin flooding them with money and resources beyond their capacity to handle or even understand, then they grow accustomed to our 'benevolence' and cease to do for themselves, then we are afflicted with an ever growing sense of responsibility to care for them, then they become wholly dependent on our benevolence and can't conceive of a life without us giving them everything they need.

Along the way the Gospel gets lost. The idea of God as the great and sole provider who gives to each of us in all situations what we need is replaced by the people of God continually giving what we think people need. And we in the developed world interpret what people need through our lense of affluence. Setting our experience as the standard we destroy whole cultures with charity that has absolutely nothing to do with the Gospel.

The truth is, even the poorest of the poor in the United States are wealthier than 80-85% of the rest of the world. (By the way, if you make just $50,000 a year you're in the top half of one percent of the wealthiest people in the world). That means trying to get people in most of the world up to our poverty level would be a shock to their system and inappropriate in their cultural context. When we attempt it there is more harm done than good.

As I talk with people about benevolent oppression someone invariably says, 'I get it. Give a man to fish he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime.'

That's not necessarily true. It's actually...

Teach a man to fish and he develops a sense of self-worth, value and belonging that strengthens his family, enriches his community, and makes the world a better place for everyone. Give a man a fish and you destroy his soul, disregard his abilities, devastate his family, obliterate his community and rob the world of the blessings God intended.

I'm pleased God has called me to work with a mission that is dedicated to teaching men to fish. Not that we're doing that perfectly just yet, but ServLife is committed to partnerships in Nepal, India and beyond that lift up, encourage, hold accountable and treat as valuable the gifts, talents and contributions of every single human being. I believe many others are moving in this direction.