Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Not playing God in mission

A great interview in Christianity Today with Jayakumar Christian, head of World Vision India (a Christian humanitarian organization, as its website puts it. Interesting to see they have Rajdeep Sardesai's endorsement prominently flashing across the homepage! He's a famous journalist and founder of the 24/7 TV channel CNN-IBN.), on mission, focusing on the work they've done in one district (I suspect it's in Tamil Nadu. I've never heard of Gudiyatham district) in reducing bonded labor by children. He seems very level-headed, humble, deeply committed to the Gospel, and respectful of India's religious heritage as well, including the deep religiosity of India, at a level that most Westerners simply cannot appreciate until they've witnessed it firsthand. Here's some bits that really caught my attention.
But was seeing God in their liberation a theological shift for these Hindus?I don't think it's a theological shift for the average Hindu Indian. For Indians, God is more involved in day-to-day life than most Western Christians' theology would allow. The average Hindu need not be introduced to God in that sense. They need to be introduced to the name of that God—Jesus. I've said many times that we do not need to break our heads in India convincing any Indian about the existence of God. The challenge is, "What is the name of this God who is involved with the poor?" That's where Christian distinctiveness—and divisiveness—is felt. Our privilege in World Vision is being able to call attention to the name of God as Jesus through our lives, relationships, and actions, not in a divisive manner, but in a distinctive manner.Is there suspicion that your development work is a subtext for proselytizing?There is suspicion in certain quarters. But we insist that in World Vision India, we do not trade our God for development. We do not trade our God to buy relationships. He is too precious for us to be bargaining with, too precious to be bargained for. He is not for sale.So proselytizing, conversion through coercive means, is a non-issue for us. Not just because we respect the people we serve. That's one part of the story. But also because we value the God we worship.And here's another part -- about access and linkages. One doesn't think about these things, especially not India's privileged, or even middle classes -- we take it for granted. For instance, the fact that I can speak English -- a sign of education, access, power and status -- opens doors automatically. In the stratified and inherently inegalitarian mileu of India, walking into a bank or talking to an official is a hugely intimidating experience for the poor.
You seem to think about poverty less in terms of prosperity and more in terms of access.The word we use is linkages. Poverty is the absence of linkages, the absence of connections with others. So we look for opportunities to link powerless communities with people with good intentions, people with good hearts—government officials, health officials, panchayat presidents, headmasters in schools—who have an influence in the local area and who mean good. We work closely with them.We also work hard on our own linkages. Here in India, there are government officials in very senior positions who are most willing to design programs that serve poor communities—if we can link with them and help them understand the needs and opportunities there.The next part flows from this -- cultivating the powerful (and the wealthy) as partners in development. Most importantly, I find this attitude absolutely admirable -- to constantly beware of playing God.
The truth is that both the powerful and agents of transformation need to transform our understanding of power. It is not enough to simply play the power game better or more humbly. We need to come deeply to believe that our basis of power is not our professionalism or connections or resources. Those are only tools to be used. The basis for our power is our dependence on God. If we do not remember these fundamentals, it is so easy for us in World Vision to play God in the lives of the poor.What form does 'playing God' take in mission?You have to understand that my assumption is that the poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their lives. Human beings were designed to submit their spirit only to the Creator. Any attempt to take the place of the Creator leads to poverty. I talked about this with the community yesterday several times, and you could see heads nodding. Only God can direct how I should live my life, when my child should go to work, what my child should be doing. But others had taken that role of control in the lives of men, women, and children in that community.In the very process of breaking the human tendency to play God, though, I can begin to play God. Because I have similar power. I have the power to approve or not approve development programs; I have the power of connections; I know people in high places. For the agent of transformation to refuse to play God requires great strength of character.So how does one use one's power without playing God?We constantly remind ourselves that our organization is dependent on God. We might have budgets, strategies, professionalism, and sophistication in organizational practices, but those do not explain our effectiveness. Our effectiveness is explained by our dependence on God.I remember talking to one of my colleagues just three weeks ago. An elderly Hindu lady in his community came and handed a small wooden cross to him. She said, "I have figured out that this is the secret of your success." She said she had kept another cross for herself. I thought to myself, Who told her this? She must have observed his life. I was so grateful to God when I heard that.
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