My Missionary Position for 2013

Apologies again to anyone who was disappointed not to find a fresh blog here last weekend. For family members and friends who are looking for an excuse to be proud of me, I did finish one rough draft of a longer academic essay, but it needs a lot of work before I submit it for peer reviewed publishing anywhere. (My professor tells me I need to develop a “dryer” writing style for an academic audience.) Meanwhile the middle school students’ final testing season for the academic year has begun in earnest already. So to keep myself honest here I thought I’d toss out a quick essay on an exam question that I gave to some of my ninth graders last week:

If you were to give money to support missionary work, what sort of things would you expect the missionaries to do with it? Explain why.

This is one I’ve had in my files of potential exam questions for the required unit in Christian ethics in the Finnish curriculum for some years already. In some ways this is a “give-away”, since it doesn’t require that kids have been paying attention in class to be able to give a reasonably good answer: They don’t need to know any names or dates or philosophical theories to formulate a mature response. Thus it is a popular question for them to take a crack at. Yet it is a deceptively difficult question; one which most adults may have a hard time formulating a coherent answer, and one on which I rarely end up giving the maximum number of essay points.

This actually says something about the rather non-American philosophy of education which I have developed in practice. I believe in being fair to kids in terms of rewarding them both for sincere effort and for intellectual accomplishment. I recognize that the grades I give make a difference in their lives both in how much television time their parents will give them and in what sort of school they will be able to get into next, after they graduate. I don’t want to punish them in either of these respects and I want the evaluation to be as fair as possible in those regards. Yet I don’t have any set matrix of talking points to be covered in answering the above question, nor any pre-determined range of correct answers I will accept.

The ethics and religious education units in the curriculum here are not primarily designed to indoctrinate kids into a particular world view or to make them aware of the more trivial historical characters in the field, though I’m sure many of my Finnish colleagues use them that way. For that matter extremely few of my students are considering going on to careers specialized in this subject. Thus what I am trying to instill, and trying to measure in part with my exams, is an ability to function in the various ideological and human relational situations in the world in which they are likely to find themselves in a tolerant and constructive manner. So in their answers to this question I’m looking for evidence that they are stopping to think about how their way of looking at the world relates to other people’s ways of looking at the world, that they recognize other people’s rights to see the world differently than they do in some key respects, that they are possibly interested in helping others by offering them useful perspectives and beneficial social structures based on their own religious faith, and that they acknowledge other important ways of helping their fellow human beings besides preaching at them. I might disagree with them about many of their specific suggestions, but that is not the point. If they can demonstrate a fair amount of maturity in formulating an answer –– showing a desire for cultural mutual respect balanced with a desire to improve on the status quo of life among those they are trying to help, or “minister to” –– I’m willing to give them the sort of grade that will make their parents happy and help them get into a more prestigious school. Many in the field may consider this to be too subjective and insufficiently standardized, but they won’t get me fired so I can live with their rejection of my way of doing things.

But all of that sidesteps one important question which, after the exam, students are perfectly entitled to ask me: What would I expect missionaries to do with money that I might donate to their work? That’s actually an important matter to me, one that is actually quite relevant to life as I know it, and one where my perspective has been continuously changing over the years. Within the various Christian fellowships I’ve been attending over the past year I’ve been subject to a few different low key appeals to support various sorts of missionary work. Some bright young theology students have come to worship services looking for sponsors for their participation in missionary training programs in the southern hemisphere. One church was taking up a collection to enable a preacher’s family in a tropical region to buy a car, since it was becoming rather dangerous to use two-wheeled transportation with their young children. One of my doctoral research supervisors is investigating the question of the proper role of missionary hospitals within the health care systems of developing nations, and one of the bus stops near my house currently features an advertisement for a fundraising drive for a church-based international charitable organization providing food for children in famine struck regions of Africa. If I am to make some personal sacrifices so as to have some spare money to give to such causes, which should I be contributing to?

Bus stop missionary fund-raising display

Bus stop missionary fund-raising display

First of all there is the basic question of why we need to convert people to our own particular religious or ideological views. As an accessible, non-religious example of what I’m thinking of here, let me tell you about Mika: Mika is a fellow that I first met when we were both doing relatively menial jobs at a shopping mall over 25 years ago, and after not having seen each other for quite a while he has been in touch with me again this spring. Mika is rather unusual in that the one thing which has remained entirely consistent in his life over these years is his commitment to the sport of American baseball. In years past when I have travelled to the US he used to ask me to pick up various official Major League Baseball products for him, and recruiting Finns into the sport has been an element of the conversation every time we’ve met or talked since. True to form, in our last Facebook chat he wanted to know if any kids from our school might be interested in joining the junior baseball league he is still working on organizing.

Baseball may be as good as any random humanitarian cause to promote. It teaches physical self-discipline, hand-eye coordination, specialized skill development, teamwork, strategic thinking and international relations; all while requiring limited physical endurance and allowing players of very different skill levels to work together with each other on the playing field. I certainly have nothing against my friend’s “calling” in this area; I just find it hard to personally relate to his missionary zeal in the matter. I mean I know that he knows that there are plenty of other sports more firmly rooted in Finnish culture which provide the same sorts of personal benefits to players that baseball does. So why bother struggling to import some new custom, which is in fact one of the most boring spectator sports ever to be televised?

The short answer in this case: I believe it provides him with a broader base of people that he can feel personally connected to, and being able to personally connect with others is really a significant part of what life is all about. Having a broader group of baseball players in his country and in the world enables Mika to find friends to hang out with and enjoy the company of, even if they have nothing else in common. It enables him to contribute something positive to the development of young people, and to pass on some part of his personal identity to his own children. I’m sure Mika could talk to you for hours about what, beyond all of this, makes baseball uniquely valuable in our world, but to me that’s beside the point.

So from there one question which arises is, do we actually need to convert others to our own way of thinking in some significant way to be able to establish this sort of human contact? The immediately obvious answer would be no, but there are in fact many times when it helps still. In spending time among more secular Muslims in South Africa last year, for instance, many of them were interested in converting me to their faith, not because they necessarily believed that I needed the spiritual input of their beliefs to be OK with God, nor because it would necessarily make me a morally better or happier person, but because it would make it much less socially awkward for them to be close friends with me. I see variations of that same dynamic in many religious and ideological communities, and I suspect that this is why many people are interested in various forms of missionary work. But we can also initiate personal connection with others by being personally kind and caring to people without necessarily trying to change anything about them, and this can be at least as satisfying a personal experience as making successful conversions.

In addition to making connections with other people though, missionary work also puts those who succeed in converting others in a position of power or advantage over them. The converts become the missionaries’ “apprentices”, and often the faithful servants of the denomination or empire which sent the missionaries to begin with as well. The satisfaction of gaining power and influence over others is undoubtedly a significant part of the motivation for being a missionary and sending out missionaries. In this respect, however, missionary work has many sad connections with the projects of the colonial period, where dominance was clearly more important to some mission organizations than authentic connection with people they were trying to convert. Are modern missionaries truly able to avoid the motivations and temptations to establish dominance with their missions? Probably not. Can this form of motivation take on benign forms regardless? In many cases I’d say so, but I’d also say that the human desire for power within missionary work always creates moral risks.

What about just helping people with their physical needs then? The missionary fund-raising ad at the bus stop is trying to emphasize children’s rights to nutrition and other basic needs. Why not stick to this level of missionary work?

Part of the answer there lies with the tired old “give a man a fish” homily. If there are structural factors that are causing people not to be able to feed themselves, it is more important to deal with those than with the immediate symptom of hunger –– even if that is easy to say with a full stomach. It is also important to see how both colonial abuses and self-defeating traditional customs –– careless selfishness perpetrated both by people outside of their culture and by people within their culture –– need to be dealt with for the long term elimination of suffering. This sort of missionary work cannot be done without intentionally trying to change people’s minds and cultures about some very fundamental moral and spiritual values. But to be successful and beneficial to those being converted it needs to studiously avoid efforts to gain power over them for the sake of having power over them –– easier said than done.

Finally we are left with the question, is there anything about our own message that is uniquely valuable, that these people cannot get from elsewhere and that is something that they positively require in order to have ultimately happy, successful and meaningful lives? What sort of “gospel” do we have that is uniquely worth promoting in our missionary work? If we look again at the baseball example, how does this sport create more physically fit, coordinated, teamwork oriented and mentally disciplined players than, let’s say, ice hockey, soccer, swimming and/or track and field? In terms of religion, how can we be sure that what we are preaching will improve people’s relationships with each other and with the supernatural world better than things they already have?

This is an especially difficult question to address objectively and constructively. All I can say about it here, in simple, general terms, is that to answer this question we need to tease this factor apart from all of those mentioned above, and rarely do missionaries or missionary organizations bother to thoroughly do so.

In any case, beside some sense of moral obligation in the matter, I believe that a significant part of our motivation in contributing to missionary work, and any other form of charitable giving, must involve an immediate personal, emotional sense of satisfaction in being able to connect with other people, and being able to experience their happiness as part of your own happiness. One former student of mine told me of his positive experiences riding on a train through North Korea, where few blue-eyed westerners tend to be seen on a day to day basis, and just being able to wave and exchange eye-contact and smiles with people on the streets and peasants in the field as the train rolled by. One Christian minister friend of mine tells of how, when visiting in countries with extreme endemic poverty at times, even though he knows that it will do little good in terms of solving the problems people live in day to day, he will sometimes go out with a pocket full of coins and “let the beggars have a field day”, just to experience the sense of positive connection that this brings. I deeply respect the value of both of these experiences, and I wish to have as many of the same as I am able in this life. That’s a big part of my motivation in remaining a school teacher. So I acknowledge that when I am making a donation to support missionary work I am effectively buying a particular service: I am paying that mission organization or that individual missionary to help me feel connected to other people and to a process that I believe is doing good in the world.

Now writing that bit has taken me more than four times as long as I give students to write their answers in a test situation. I don’t know how much of that I’d be able to produce if I were in their position. Nor can I discount the fact that I’ve had more than three times as much life experience as they have in which to contemplate such matters. Even so, between the various bluff and filler answers that I inevitably get stuck reading during exam season, there are always kids who positively surprise me with their insights into such complicated social/spiritual phenomena as missionary work. There are times I really hate grading stacks of test papers, but I have to admit, there are also times when it provides its own sorts of joys in life.

And so, back to work I go.

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Filed under Control, Empathy, Ethics, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality

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