Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Immorality of Mass Charity

Friends have helped me before, sometimes in big ways. I am not against charity. I'm in the early stages of recovering from three years of personal "charitable" endeavors, and even now looking to the next thing I can give my life to. I am not against charity.

Feelings and intent aren't enough. For all our faults, and they are many, America is a charitable society. In addition to everything else we've picked up, as a people, we learned how to give. My favorite piece of Ronald Reagan mythology is the story of an older black lady who came to the Oval Office and petitioned Reagan to give more money to welfare programs. As part of her petition she shared her story and how she had a hard time buying food for her family. Reagan told her he wasn't going to build up the Federal welfare system any more, he then wrote her a personal check to help her feed her family. A short time later he balanced his checkbook and saw the check hadn't been cashed. Concerned, he contacted the lady and asked why she hadn't used the check. She told him it was framed on her wall. Reagan put a second check in the mail and told her to feed her family. Love or hate Reagan, you have to love this moment and the character it reveals. Ideologically he was unwilling to throw more money into a system he thought broken, regardless the intent of that system, but he loved his neighbor and acted to help her even when it cost him personally, both in time and money.

There are large charities that do good work and times of tragedy and disaster when throwing gobs of money at a problem may be the right stopgap. There is the rest of the time as well. This is not a petition to end Federal entitlements or chastise national leaders. We have the system and the leaders we deserve; we are the ones who chose them... good and bad. This has to do with the intent of Christian charity and loving our neighbors wherever we find them.

Regardless the action of government, our neighbors are our charge. The government will never be able to fulfill the great commission or reach the standard of love set by Jesus and the early church. Government isn't human and is incapable of relationship. Regardless political interpretations of the gospel and justifications for our vote, the gospel only exists in community and is therefore beyond legislative intent. We are called to love our neighbors with our own actions, money, and, most importantly, time. We are never given permission to surrender this right and responsibility to some soulless blob of good intent. The poverty, socioeconomic division between the races, and depressingly high rate of abortion our community faces is not the responsibility of our government. It is the responsibility of we the people. Government will do what it thinks best and we will say yea and nay with our votes, as we should. If we stop there we fail as people of compassion. If we think our votes and checks free us from acts of compassion and real relationship with our neighbors we fall short.

How we relate to God is revealed in how we relate to those around us. The Good Samaritan didn't walk by the bruised and battered man expecting government services to get involved in his care and he didn't walk by blaming government for the social ills that led to his abuse and its failure to help him. He got involved in the man's life and helped him. The early church didn't criticize Roman rule for endemic infanticide and a social system that abandoned widows to the choice of starvation or prostitution, they went to the trash heaps to save babies and spent their resources to protect and care for widows. The community who loved Jesus didn't demand others live in community and share resources, they chose to live that way themselves.

For all the bravado and self-righteousness of grand social programs and mass charity, the reality is love only exists when expressed in community. Positive transformation doesn't come through lump sum impersonal donations, but through personal interaction and targeted support made effective when built on relationship and an understanding of specific situations and communities. We, as the church, are uniquely capable and commissioned to do what the government is fundamentally unable to.

We have the same opportunity we have always had. Will we love God and our neighbors, thereby making government irrelevant, or will we find peace in statements of "should" and the justification of intent? Will we be known by the way we love, or by our ideology? Neither is wrong, but one is useless without the other. Questioning the impact of government programs on the family down the street who uses food stamps, the drunk homeless man on your way to work, or the single mother on welfare in that other part of town is fine, but it doesn't free us from acts of love. When we see them and concern ourselves with government failure, rather than loving Jesus in relationship with them, we turn our backs on Jesus and place ourselves in the condemnation of Matthew 7:23 "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

Most of the problems and negative social consequences often associated with international and domestic charitable action can be fixed through community. The problem with community is it's painful, difficult, and comes at a high personal cost. The fire and forget it of writing a check or voting for new government programs may make us feel better, but there is a moral cost to ignoring the real consequences. The economy is never strengthened through taxation and welfare only makes poverty more comfortable, yet there is some twinge of self-righteousness when we support these things. Some form of taxation is necessary and welfare may sometimes be useful, but they are never the answer. God is the answer and we are his action, how then will we live?

I understand the frustration or hope we instinctively feel about the direction our nation is taking, but as Christians, this emotion is wasted. We have something greater to hope in and have something greater to do.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


I was talking with some friends and filling them in on Haiti when one of them asked about the earthquake and the judgment of God. He wasn't pulling a Pat Robertson or anything, he was just trying to connect dots between faith and the brokenness of the world. It was the second time in as many days I heard something connecting natural disaster and God's judgment. Jeff Daniels character on Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom makes the statement, "I’m a registered Republican, I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage." For being in the Christian clique and far more conservative than liberal, the mindset of God orchestrating disaster is much less common than others seem to think.

The hundred thousand or so deaths in Haiti were the result of poor construction practices. Those buildings failed because stupid people built them in a way that demanded failure. The tragedy in New Orleans was the result of building a city below the water line and trusting a faulty levy, both of which were human decisions. Earthquakes, natural fires, floods, and hurricanes, as destructive as they are, are natural creative aspects of the dynamic world we live in, the results of which (minus human tragedy) are often good from a long term perspective. It isn't God's fault we build crappy buildings on fault lines, ground level anythings on floodplains, mobile homes in tornado country, or poke bears with sharp sticks. Natural disasters are often only considered disasters because some group of people already did something stupid. This isn't always the case, but it accounts for the majority. The rest is usually just bad luck.

If God didn't make it happen, then why did God let it happen? This seems to be the unstated question driving most Christian thought on the whole smiting/natural disaster/all-powerful God topic. For some reason I've never connected these dots. Scripture is pretty clear about God laying waste from time to time, but he is always pretty clear about the why, what, when, and where. It's never something to be guessed at. If you bump into a smug Christian talking about God's judgment, I know they exist somewhere, be sure to remind them God's judgment tends to come when the faithful have failed. Noah's decades of preaching had no impact in his community, Lot lived in a city where he was somewhat respected yet made zero impact in a spiritual sense, and Ananias and Sapphira failed to connect with the core principle of the community surrounding them. As for Nineveh and Jonah, it was Jonah that wanted Nineveh to be destroyed - not God. God, as he always seems to do, provided a way to avoid the destruction he intended to bring. In other words, even if we find ourselves in a situation where massive disaster is clearly the judgment of God, the correct response is grief and repentance, because I guarantee you God won't be smugly happy about the thing and it wasn't his first choice.

Looking at David's response to his son Absalom's death in II Sam 18 gives us an idea about God's response to the tragedy that follows human rebellion. Absalom was trying to kill David and take his kingdom from him yet died in the attempt. Instead of rejoicing or being indifferent about the striking down of the rebellion, David wept for the son he loved. I think this is one of those times Davis was close to God's heart.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sean Of The Dead

Sean could have said it in a clearer less offensive way, but I don't think he could haves said it better.

We were in the desert covered in sand, sitting around a campfire, and periodically shooting each other with airsoft (not so soft) guns while talking about a wide range of topics. Dirty Jimmy, a man who lived up to his name, was doing his best to hold his weight in a conversations about spirituality and kept coming back to the beauty of the stars and how he had read the Bible when Sean dropped his bomb.

Sean is an ex-addict who at his low point crashed his car into a church while loaded. Since then his life had been radically transformed and knew the restoration that comes through knowing and loving God (or more aptly knowing that you are known and loved by God).

In a moment of frustration Sean blurted out, "F@#? the Bible, do you know Jesus!?"

I was flabbergasted and headed quickly toward offended when I realized what he actually said. He was right. A little flustered and out of sorts, but right. The Bible isn't bad, but it's only a book. If it doesn't help us know Jesus, it's useless.

As Christians we often identify with our totems rather than the thing that gives value to them. Jesus ripped on the hyper religious in Matthew 23 because they differentiated between aspects of the temple and the thing that gave them value. The Bible isn't magic nor is there special power in our church buildings, if Jesus is absent they are empty, useless, and dead. If Jesus is present, then it is the presence of Jesus that has power and value.

I love the Bible, but I love it because through the Bible I've come to know and love Jesus. If every church and Bible disappeared tomorrow the reality of the person, power, and action of Jesus would not dissipate one iota. There is nothing wrong with the symbols and practical tools of our faith, the things we sometimes identify with, but they are only useful when they are accomplishing their purpose, when they are bringing us closer to Jesus. If this practicality is missing they, and possibly we, are dead.

When you find yourself loving and placing your hope in something say, "Toss this thing, do I know Jesus?" If the answer is no, perhaps it's time to make a change.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hey Everybody...

If I had a life theme for the last few months it would be Reading and Siestas. If there were something deeper it would be Selfishness and Esteeming Others More Highly Than Myself.

 Living an isolated life in a large group of people creates a strange dynamic. I'm always with people, but hampered by language issues, I'm rarely "with" people. The interactions and friendships are real, but limited. I'm familiar with, and enjoy, the challenges and loneliness of truly being alone and the interaction and growth that comes from living in community, but this middle ground is messing with me. Having a crack-load of downtime doesn't help much.

I don't want to be self-centered, but it's hard not to be when you are human and you spend a lot of time in introspection. I am selfish and thinking about my selfishness doesn't fix anything. Getting down on myself for being self-centered only adds fuel to the fire, like a narcissist calling everyone's attention to how narcissistic he is and telling them how awesome he is to have seen his flaw and to be doing something about it. So yeah, I see the irony of writing an introspective blog about being self-centered.

For the lat few months, when faced with one of those dinky moments of frustration founded in someone screwing with my perfect little world, there has been a voice in my head repeating, esteem others more highly than yourself, esteem others more highly than yourself, esteem others more highly than yourself... baby steps.

I don't think I'm more selfish in Haiti than in the U.S. it's just a lot harder to hide in the distractions of life out here. I get to see more of my brokenness and then feel stupid for paying attention when there is other stuff to do. Hopefully that voice will have more of an impact on my actions when I get home, hopefully I'll think of others before myself, hopefully I'll be better at loving others rather than being frustrated by trying to figure out how to be better at loving others... hopefully Anchor Man 2 doesn't suck.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Philippians 2:3-4

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Deja Vu All Over Again

Started working on an old project again and I read this, thought you might like it,
"God isn’t content with yesterday. If our eyes rest on how things were we miss the new horizon, the next stage God calls us towards. Christianity should never be comfortable; it should always be a challenge. The moment life revealed by Christ stops challenging the way we see and relate to the world around us we know we’ve lost sight of Jesus. As far as this life is concerned, there is no arrival, there is always a next step and a new challenge intended to bring us closer to the reality of God and his kingdom. We can rest in the knowledge of God’s love for us, the authority of his action, his deep intent, and our identity as sons and daughters of God, but we can never rest in thinking there is nothing more to do and nothing left to learn. The deep challenge of true relationship is the ever-present demand to love and love deeper, better, and more fully than the day before. The expectation to maintain an old self or a present comfort distracts from the point of the thing. Like a young child, growing pains are a necessary reality of becoming a full-grown being. When we seek to maintain, rather than embrace the challenge of growth, we embrace our own disfigurement and stunted growth."
I've got about a month left in Haiti and I want to finish well, no idea what that looks like or what comes next.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A New Commandment

In my perfect world Ash would be the ideal guy to model missions on. Wisecracking plays, knowledge is only moderately useful, shop smart shop S-Mart, and always go with the boom-stick and chainsaw combo. Unfortunately there is a little issue with reality, and just because a bunch of other people like to ignore it doesn't mean I get to.

"What are we doing?" it's a question a friend of mine in ministry asks all the time. It's a question I've been asking a lot lately as well. Not from a defeatist, pull your hair out, drown your sorrows sort of way... at least not mostly. It's a question that needs an answer, or at least a good effort at one. I asked it a bit when in Uganda, a bit more in San Diego, and a whole lot now that I'm in Haiti. The answer is slowly becoming simple, but that doesn't mean it's any easier to walk out.

I believe humanitarians don't need to be Christians, but that Christians need to be humanitarians. You can't possibly read the prophets, or the New Testament, and come to any other conclusion. Here is the problem, the humanitarian aid community (faith based or otherwise) has caused a lot of damage in a lot of places. Haiti was better off several decades ago before a bunch of mostly well meaning people decided to lend a hand. It was a mess and had a bunch of need and opportunity to serve, but a lot of what took place destroyed a nation. If you don't believe me read Travesty In Haiti, by Timothy Schwartz... for that matter read it any way. He spent ten years over here and lived out a bunch of the stuff I've glimpsed and suspected. A bunch of it I've seen other places as well, tho not nearly as condensed as here.

As a side note, if you are a book geek and you want to experience slingshot idealism, read The End Of Poverty, followed by White Mans Burden, and then Travesty In Haiti. At the end of the first you will want to turn Sachs into a saint, after the second you'll think he is a bit of an idealist and at best simpleminded, by the end of the third you'll want to drag him out into the street by his toenails and do some pretty horrendous stuff to him. Then, remember he's a good guy who's spent a chunk of his life trying to figure out how to help people and make the world a better place.

Here is the thing, there is a big difference between helping and wanting to help. They are both good, but they don't always go together, especially when you expand the scale and reduce personal interaction. Even when you keep it small and maintain personal interaction it is easy to screw things up. Because guess what? Living in a different culture means the things you thought were logic, common sense, and natural no longer play. This isn't right or wrong, it just is. And so you ask yourself, "What am I doing?"

What I've come to believe is that the Gospel is universal in it's significance and applicability, it's the power of God and it's meant to set people free. It quite possibly is the only thing that really matters. Everyone needs this... I need this. Here is the catch, I don't think it can be enacted outside community. At least not usually. The sucky thing about this "catch" is that community is often difficult, time consuming, and carries a high personal cost. It takes a lot of the glamor out of missions and ministry, and it's something I'm not always that good at. An emphasis on the Gospel and community doesn't eliminate the need for humanitarian/charitable action, rather it provides a framework of accountability, feedback, and insight into what the real needs are... not the ones we perceive from the other side of the world and are happy to throw our money at. So I ask myself, "What am I doing?"

I'm slowly figuring out how to answer this question in a way I can apply to my life, and I hope I'm not the only one. In the mean time I'm trying to live by a new commandment: Don't Break Anything. This is also known as: do no harm, don't piss in the pool, think then act, caring doesn't always equal compassion, want isn't the same as need, money corrupts and a lot of money corrupts a lot more, If you don't give your kids a bag of candy what makes you think it's a good idea with another person's kids (except for me, you can always give me candy), spitting on someone is sometimes a compliment but don't ever role the dice, doing nothing may be the most productive thing you do all day, and if you can't laugh at yourself what's the point?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mangoes In The Teeth

Being in Haiti during mango season means learning to floss on a daily basis, it also means learning to check yourself.

Cultural mindsets can be a bit tricky to walk around. Some I need to let challenge me, some I need to learn how to challenge, and some I need to keep my mouth shut about. I'm not a sociologist, I don't hold any culture immune to criticism. Sometimes we need to stand up and in the words of Mal from Silverado say, "That aint right." If I use western culture as THE standard of comparison then freely criticize me, I probably deserve it. Even if I'm right in the instant, there's something wrong if I can't find a higher standard for support.

Watching kids throw mangoes at trees to knock other mangoes to the ground... then leave them there because they'd rather not walk in the mud to get them, is something I need to keep my mouth shut about. Sure it's wasteful, maybe 1 in 4 actually gets eaten, but there are a freak-ton of mangoes (this is a scientific term) and there just aren't enough people to eat em all. Saying "Hey, the way you've been doing this all your life isn't a good management of resources." Is like criticizing a Grizzly at the height of the salmon run for only eating the brains and skin, it only makes me look like and idiot and the principle of the matter isn't that great of a hill to die on.

I was talking with a pastor friend and he made the statement that in ten years the situation in Haiti would be better. I asked him what was going to happen that would make things better. He thought about it for a bit then said, "If we don't improve things ourselves, America will occupy us." The strange thing is an American occupation fit into his concept of "things being better", hows that for an argument against neocolonialism? I told him he didn't want things to get bad enough for America to occupy, an earthquake and some nasty poverty wouldn't cut it. I mean, we didn't even interfere in Rwanda and that was before we scalded our hands in Iraq.

There are things that just aren't right, and not in the mangoes rotting sense. Corruption, abuse, oppression, mental and physical poverty, etc. deserve a reaction, they demand a response regardless the culture we come from or the one we are in. But those issues aren't unique to Haiti and we aren't free from them in America. When we react we need to do so with a higher standard in mind. Jesus seems like a good start, he acted independent of local politics, religious catchphrases, and cultural elitism. He didn't overlook the world around him, but he didn't limit himself to worldly solutions either. I'm trying to figure out what that looks like in my life, and God knows it'd be good to figure out what it looks like in Haiti.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Self serving comments about other self serving people

I tend to dislike awareness campaigns, the "I wear a bracelet because I know and I care" type stuff. It seems fairly self important and meaningless. What kind of idiot would I be if I walked around San Diego with a homelessness awareness bracelet and went to college groups talking about the issue rather than doing something practical for the people on the street. I found out today a friend of mine, one I lost track of years ago, finally died. I don't know if he died on the street, but I know he spent a lot of the last ten years there. A lot of us tried to help him over the years, but it seems his demons stayed with him longer than some of us who loved him yet couldn't figure out what to do. I was always sad I didn't know how to help him - sorry M.

I think Kony 2012 is different. Invisible Children isn't a perfect organization, but I have a hard time criticizing them when they do stuff no one else does. Are they potentially self important white guys who are trying to save Africa? Maybe, but that doesn't mean they are like all the others who have tried. I'd much rather have their track record than the UN's, that 1 Million T-Shirts guy, or a whole host of others who've had the good sense to stay out of the spotlight. In reality, there isn't that much you or me can do to stop Kony, and yes he should be stopped, regardless of where he's now operating or how much he's scaled back his actions. Almost the only thing we can do is get vocal, tell others, and make a noise our politicians can't ignore. Though there are no guarantees, the U.S. staying involved in the hunt for Kony is more likely to be productive than if we walk away, something we've done a lot of in the past. It might all turn out horribly, but it's not like the LRA isn't abducting, killing, raping, and destroying lives right now, so yeah, doing something might be better than doing nothing... at least for those yet to be abused and destroyed.

This chick has made a popular argument against what I just said, but she doesn't fairly represent the movie, IC, or the reality on the ground. LRA is a northern Ugandan issue, he never touched the south, and most all of his impact was in the Acholi tribe. So yeah, he isn't that big of a deal right now for a lot of people in Uganda, then again, there were a lot of people in Uganda that never cared too much about him or what he was doing.

The only real issue I have with Kony 2012 is that it might create the impression stopping Kony will fix everything, it wont. He's just one of many wicked little men doing everything he can to destroy lives and torment good people in East Africa, and for that matter around the world. Regardless of what happens to him, there are a lot of people who can use your prayers and actions, some of them probably won't be helped, but some of them will - I've seen them, walked with them, talked and cried with them, and shared their food. The "white man" can't save Africa, but brothers and sisters can help brothers and sisters regardless their history or the color of their skin.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

All that glitters is not gold

Haiti has the ability to make you think about things you really don't want to think about. It has the potential to reveal the best and worst in us. A few hours from the U.S. Haiti is the pet project of a massive number of NGO's and church groups, many of which were here long before the earthquake, and yet, Haiti is worse off than it was 30 years ago (not even counting the earthquake). This prompts the question, "What are we actually doing?" I mean, is Haiti the bleeding hearts Disneyland, it's need making us feel needed, so lets not worry about the deeper issues as long as there are orphans to hold? It's not intentional, most of us aren't bad people, but there is something ironic about criticizing TOMS for the negative impact their free shoes have on local economies and the way they help create dependent mindsets, while in the next breath talking about bringing donated sandals out for the at risk kids we work with.

In the last month I've seen massive organizations that do amazing work, I've seen micro organization that do everything they can for those in need, at great personal cost to those in charge. I've been the token white guy that enables kids to get food just because he is white and therefore "trustworthy" with the resources available, while at the same time seen locals refused those resources because the trend of selling food meant for orphans so the higher-ups get some cash has developed, or at least come to light. I've got local friends who say this, as well as much worse stuff, happens. I've been told of Haitian pastors going to America to raise funds for their ministries, and the orphans they take care of, only to spend the donations on private homes new cars and school for their own kids, with hardly a dime going to the kids in the pictures. Some lighter skinned missionaries are far from innocent of these and worse practices.

Money and good intentions are as likely to fix Haiti as a lack of action bolstered by indifference. A friend asked me what I would do for Haiti if I were the president of the United States. I couldn't answer him. I told him the truth, America can't fix things here. At the same time, we can help, we just can't do it in ignorance and with shaded glasses. If we care about God, and at least pretend to be Christians, when we read:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matt. 25:34-40

we shouldn't ask "What does this mean?" as if we were that stupid, but "What does that look like where I am?"

I wish I knew how to fix Haiti, I don't, I can't even fix myself. But I hope I can learn how to love God and love the people I'm around.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Something Easy to Get Started

So I'm in Haiti now and still wondering what comes next. With the renewed anointing of power, the electricity has been off for a week, I thought I'd post a few pictures that reminded me of Africa. Kriss Kross, snot, baby goats, tire toy, massive spiders, etc.