On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.

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On Inquiries and Rejections

I was talking a while ago with my friend back in the States about my time here in East Africa. We had been to this part of the world together on multiple occasions, so it is nice being able to talk to someone with whom you share experiences. In the course of our conversation, he was asking about how I was doing and mentioned that he was jealous that I have this awesome opportunity. But, I admitted something to him that I have found true during my time here: It is really difficult living here.

I do not say “difficult” as a slant against the people I work with. The people here are wonderful, and there is a lot to be admired from the way East Africans live. I say “difficult” because you have to almost completely change you way of life in order to function here.

For one, you have to completely alter your standard of living. Unlike how that expression is normally used, I am not implying that one has to move from a higher to a lower standard of living (or vice versa). What I mean is that you have to completely change how you operate from day-to-day. You have to pay attention to things you aren’t using to paying attention to. You have to forego any familiarities with life ‘back home’ such as food, fashion, driving style, road manners, and interpersonal communication among basically everything else.

It is true that on a short-term mission trip you are exposed to all these, you really only interact with them on a superficial level; you are an outside observer performing some interactions with the local culture. At the end of the two weeks, however, you return home having only tasted life abroad. But, as is the case for me, the changes in lifestyle are not applied only on the surface. You have to take them on yourself entirely.

The way people here think, which can be quite different than the way people think in the States, has to become the way you think. There are expectations that are placed on you that you are not use to, and you have to learn how to adapt in order to meet those expectations (and it’s another thing entirely to know which expectations you should and should not adapt to). Overall, there are many challenges to living – rather than visiting – a culture that is foreign to your own. If I can be honest, there is one main challenge I have been struggling with ever since I arrived here.

It’s the way I am treated simply because I’m white. I would say “because I’m American” but a friend of mine who is also American lives here and is black, and he is treated like a normal everyday African even though he is still trying to learn some basic Swahili.

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Sometimes it’s not that big of a deal, and I even find it flattering in some cases the amount of attention I get because of my skin color. When attending a soccer game I may be the only white person in a crowd of hundreds or thousands (besides the team coaches), so I like being called out and recognized as special because I am cheering for the same team as everyone else. What I struggle with, however, is when people assume that simply because I have a United States visa I have personal connections with people in high places who can supply jobs, money, and transport to the U.S.

At first I let it slide off my back whenever a random stranger would come up to me and ask for employment, or money, or what have you. But not too long ago I suppose you could say I reached my tipping point.

I was at church, a place I like to think of as one where I can let my defenses down a little and just enjoy being with my Spiritual Family, where there is neither African nor American, rich nor poor. A man was there, and talking casually with other people present. Then he saw me, and came up to engage in conversation. I’m not averse to meeting new people, so I obliged. After sharing about some of his life’s difficulties, I could tell where the conversation was going. When he got around to asking if I could supply him with a job, I politely told him I’m not in a place to do so. He became a bit frustrated and then asked me for money. Again, I politely told him I could not and made up a reason why. Then, he kept looping his requests until I just stopped responding. I think that was the moment when it became too much for me, and I couldn’t handle being treated like a stereotypical rich, connected, all-around better citizen of the world because I’m white.

I remember lying in bed that night, still frustrated by the whole experience, and deciding not to fight those ideas anymore:

“Fine, I have more money than you do because I’m American.”

“Okay, I have personal connection with the president of the United States and the owner of British Airways.”

“Yes, my life will always be better than yours in every conceivable way.”

“Of course, you can’t do anything right on your own and need us ‘white saviors’ to come and do everything for you.”

Although I completely disagree with the above statements (and their presuppositions), when you frequently receive these messages in some form or another throughout your stay and some people even outright say these things to you, it can be tedious.

That is just one example of what I have been learning about myself (and long-term missions) while I have been here. I could talk about more, like how I always have to be careful about what I say regarding Kenya’s politics, leaders, international affairs, lifestyle, etc. whenever I am around other people because I do not know what will offend and what will not; or how the rate at which life flows is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating; or how difficult it is to suppress my ‘Americanisms’ almost all the time. But, hopefully this should suffice to get my point across: life in a foreign place is difficult.

Because I have chosen to live in Kenya and work with the church during this time, some people have assumed that I am planning on being an international missionary. While I have seriously thought about it, I have also learned that I am not gifted or graced to perform such a task. I do not know how the missionaries here do what they do, and handle with such grace and humility the situations in which they find themselves.

I thank God for the people he has called to build his kingdom overseas, because it’s certainly not something I can handle.