Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Only Believe" - Jesus, the Little Girl and the Woman with the Issue of Blood

This double story appears in three of the four gospels.  Matthew's version (Matt. 9:18-26) is an abbreviated version.  Luke's version (Luke 8:40-56) and Mark's (Mark 5:21-43) are similar, but I will print Mark's here as it shows the most detail:
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them,“Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Two females, one the privileged daughter of a prominent synagogue leader, the other an impoverished and ill woman who had spent all her money on doctors and whose impurity made her an outcast among her people.  The privileged girl takes no active part in the story; she is ill, and later she dies. When Jesus touches and speaks to her, she rises and is given back to her parents.  In keeping with the propriety of the day, the man to whom the girl belongs-- in this case, her father-- acts for her in public places.  Thus it is not just the girl who is juxtaposed to the hemorrhaging woman, but the girl's respected and influential father.

The woman, however, has no man to act for her.  She has been ritually unclean for so long that it is likely her husband divorced her long ago (see Lev. 18:19).  Where Jairus is at the center of the religious community, this woman has long been outcast from it. Jairus boldly and publicly calls on Jesus for aid on his daughter's behalf.  The woman must take action for herself, but she dares not do it openly. As I have shown earlier in this "Jesus and Women" series, respectable women did not cry out after rabbis on public streets.  Furthermore, unclean women were not supposed to push through crowds of people, as this article on Jewish Laws on Women's Purity in Jesus' Day explains:
According to the Bible, a woman is impure for seven days from the beginning of her menstrual flow (Lev. 12:2; 15:19). Anyone who touches a menstruous woman becomes unclean until evening (Lev. 15:19). Whoever touches her bed or anything she sits on during the week is unclean until evening and must wash his clothes and bathe with water (vss. 20-23). . .
Josephus states that women during the menstrual period were not permitted in any of the courts of the Temple (Against Apion 2:103-104; War 5:227). The social separation of women during their menses is further emphasized in the Talmud.
WomenintheBible.Net provides more detail:
Strictly speaking, she should not have been among other people. According to the laws of ritual purity, she should have been at home during her menstrual period, living quietly (see Leviticus 15:19-31). These laws worked very well for healthy women who had a menstrual period of five – seven days. It was a time out for them, when they were relieved of their normal duties and could rest.

But the woman in this story was not healthy. Her menstrual flow had lasted twelve years, so the purity laws had become an impossible burden for her. She could not go out, she could not touch members of her family, she could not enjoy a normal life, and she was constantly debilitated.
Jairus' daughter has been alive for roughly the same amount of time as the woman has been suffering: twelve years.  Twelve is a number representing completeness in the Bible; it is when a child comes of age, and here it brings a crisis and a turning point for both the young girl and the older woman. Though the two do not meet, their lives are intertwined by these events and by the way their narratives are told as an intercalcation.

This Biblewise article explains "intercalcation" as "a literary technique used by the gospel writers to enhance both stories, providing larger insights and lessons. The 'story within a story' is called an intercalation or a 'sandwiched' story."  The article's detailed comparisons are worth noting:
It becomes clear when they are told together that they belong together. There are too many verbal links to suggest otherwise. The daughter was twelve years old and on the brink of her womanhood. The woman had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and had become unclean and cast off because of her womanhood. The disparity in status and stature of the main characters cannot be overlooked. They are exact opposites. One was important and influential, a ruler in the synagogue; the other was an outcast with no standing in the community. Jairus was named; the woman was not. He had a family, a place in society; the woman had “lost all that she had.” (She’s probably homeless.) But there are some similarities, too. They both humbled themselves by falling at Jesus’ feet. They both had a great need. Jairus asked that Jesus come and lay his hands on his daughter; the woman wanted but to touch his clothes. They both believed that Jesus was the one to help them, but they came from opposite ends of the social spectrum. . . . 
Mark's version is significant not least because it gives us a very unusual glimpse into the inner life of this woman.  She thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed" -- and then she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.  In every way the reader is encouraged to see this woman, this silent social outcast, as a feeling, thinking human being.  Desperate for healing but mindful of the social mores, she intends to slip in and out of Jesus' life unnoticed by anyone.  In the process she becomes the only person who obtains healing outside of Christ's voluntary will.  The agency in her story is not His, but hers.

But when He feels power go out of Him, Jesus is determined to see and hear the invisible, voiceless recipient.  At this point the woman seems to become afraid that she has been too bold, but she is also brave.  She doesn't slip away in the crowd, but comes to Him and confesses.  "Daughter," He tells her (did she find it odd to be called so by a man who was at least her own age, if not younger than she?) "your faith has healed you."  The respect He gives her is as plain as His compassion.

During this exchange, the powerful and influential synagogue leader has had to stand and wait.  And while he waits, time runs out for his little girl.  He must have felt a kind of despairing impatience, waiting for Jesus to be finished with this interruption, but the texts do not record him as protesting.  If he thought his problem was more important than that of this lowly woman (who, though suffering, was not at the brink of death as his child was!) he doesn't say so.  I sincerely think I could not have been so patient in his place.

And it seems he's going to lose out because of it.  A messenger approaches to say it's too late.  His daughter has already died.

Jesus now allows Jairus' problem to interrupt his final interchange with the healed woman.  He is still speaking to her when the messenger comes, but He stops to hear what the messenger will say.  Then, with the same compassion He showed the woman, He tells the bereaved father not to be afraid, but only to believe.  And then He raises his daughter from the dead.

The Biblewise article interprets it like this:
In putting the stories together, Mark shows that there is no limit to the good that God can do. One is not healed at the expense of another. Those choices do not have to be made -- either/or, one wins/the other loses. Jesus demonstrated that God is present and caring for everyone – rich or poor. One is not more important than the other.
Most of us tend to err on one side or the other-- we give more weight to the concerns of the privileged and powerful, or we tend to despise them for their privilege while we focus on the marginalized.  But a sick child is a sick child, a bereaved father is a bereaved father, and a suffering woman is a suffering woman-- alike in their humanity no matter who they are. Jesus saw and cared about all three.

Now that she has died, Jairus' daughter is also unclean, and anyone who touched her would become unclean (Numbers 19:11), just as anyone who touched the hemorrhaging woman would become unclean.  Paula Fredricksen's article on Boston University's religion page shows that in general, Jesus as a practicing Jew would have followed the purity laws, and that the purity laws were about ritual cleanness for the worship of God; they were different from the moral laws about sin.  Being or becoming ritually unclean was not about sin, and of course people naturally incurred ritual uncleanness (through marital sex, childbirth, funerals and the like) in the course of their lives.  But uncleanness was something you'd generally incur through contact with family members and close friends; you didn't want to have to go to the time and trouble of undergoing a cleansing ritual for a stranger.

Jesus, however, touched unclean strangers frequently, in order to heal them.  And as David deSilva points out in his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity (pp. 284-285), something astonishing happened when Jesus touched an unclean person: rather than their uncleanness being transferred to Him, the person was healed by Him, thus becoming free of the source of the uncleanness:
The leper is perpetually unclean, but Jesus nevertheless touches him and makes him clean. . . The Gospels thus present Jesus encountering a stream of ritually impure and potentially polluting people, but in the encounter their contagion does not defile Jesus; rather his holiness purges their pollution, renders them clean and integrates them again into the mainstream of Jewish society where they can reclaim their birthright, as it were, among the people of God. 
The hemorrhaging woman and the dead daughter of Jairus thus both encounter Christ from the same place, regardless of the disparity in their social positions.  Both are unclean and thus outside of society.  Jesus' touching the girl and being touched by the woman restores both to the community. The purity laws, Jesus seems to be implying, should not be used as a justification for creating outcasts.

David deSilva elaborates:
Jesus' healings of the diseased and encounters with 'sinners' are immersed in issues of purity rules and pollution taboos in which we see Jesus consistently showing a willingness to cross the lines in order to bring the unclean ones back to a state of cleanness and integration into the community. . . [W]hen Pharisees, who seek to preserve purity through defensive strategies (abstaining from contact with the unclean or potentially unclean), challenge his eating with sinners and thus inviting pollution, he quotes Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice". . . The holiness God seeks, according to Jesus' understanding, entails reaching out in love and compassion. . . .
Mercy trumps sacrifice because (as I mentioned a few posts ago) people are more important than things.  The Christian faith as Jesus taught it was about inclusion not exclusion, not about keeping "pure" through ostracizing others, but about reaching out to others in love.  As Fred Clark at Slacktivist pointed out this week, if the end result was that we as Gentiles could be included in the people of God, who are we Gentiles to turn around and exclude one another? 

Jesus showed us the way through this story of a sick child, a desperate father and an I've-got-nothing-left-to-lose woman.  He didn't treat people as better-than or less-than.  He treated them all as people.  He didn't do us-vs.-them.  He only did "us."  And no one escaped His notice-- not even a woman who tried her best to do so. 

Christianity should be about going and doing likewise. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jesus in the Gardens: Undoing What Adam Did

It's Easter week, and I'm thinking about gardens.

My own garden is full of tulips and daffodils that are starting to fade now, but my cherry tree is still in bloom and dropping pink petals on the grass.  The grass is bursting out of itself, growing too fast, faster than a mower can keep up with.  And the birds are singing as they wing over my plantings. Gardens are beautiful in the spring.

Jesus' death and resurrection was in the spring-- right around the time of Passover.  Two gardens feature heavily in that story.  There was a garden at Gethsemane, where He prayed and cried on the night He was arrested.  And there was a garden where His body lay entombed.

When Adam and Eve first sinned, it was in a garden.  And they were driven out of the garden by an angel with a flaming sword.  In the garden stories of Gethsemane and the tomb, angels appear again.

Gardens. Temptation. Angels. Death.

Turning points.

I think that when we see Jesus in gardens, in narratives that repeat so many of the motifs of Eden, it's good to pay special attention.  Jesus, after all, is called "the second Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45).

Matthew and Mark tell the story of the "place called Gethsemane" (Matt. 26:36, Mark 14:32), but it is John who informs us that the place where Jesus withdrew after the Last Supper was in fact a garden (John 18:1).  The original readers, of course, would have recognized the name of this garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives (which is how Luke describes it in Chapter 22) without having to be told. But look what Jesus does in this garden:
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39)
The passage says He prayed this way three times.  Three is an interesting number, because that is the number of times Jesus asked Peter to reverse his denial of Him (John 21:15-17).  It is the number of times Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13).  Adam and Eve were tempted just once, and they fell.  Jesus, as the second Adam, resisted three times.  Somehow, three is the number of reversal, of undoing what has been done.

Adam in the garden at Eden, all of his life ahead of him in a place of joy and peace, chose his own will over God's.  Here in the garden at Gethsemane, Jesus in an agony of distress for the death He is facing, gasps out three affirmations of God's will.

And an angel comes (Luke 22:43).  Not with a flaming sword to drive out, but with outstretched arms to strengthen and comfort.

And then there was the other garden.
At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:41-42)
The narratives give several different versions of what happened next-- just as we might expect if a number of people all told individual eyewitness stories.  But several elements appear over and over again.

The stone was rolled away from the entrance of the tomb.

Angels appeared-- again not to drive out, but this time to proclaim: Jesus had risen from the dead.

And the first to see and speak to the risen Christ were women.

I want to focus on the story in John:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. [Emphases added.]
One thing stands out immediately.  Mary didn't see Jesus just because she happened to be the first one there.  Jesus could easily have appeared to Peter and John, but He didn't.  He waited until they had gone home. Then He appeared to Mary.  Why?

In the first garden, the garden of Eden, the woman who listened to the serpent was thinking about her own gain.  She saw that "the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom" (Genesis 3:6). And so she took, and she ate.

In this garden, the one with the empty tomb, the woman isn't thinking about herself at all.  She's thinking about something else.  Someone else.  Three times she says it: "They have taken Him away.  Where is He?"

The third time, He answers her Himself.  "Mary."

And she rushes into His arms and won't let go.

Just as Jesus reversed what Adam did, Mary has reversed what Eve did.

But He has something He needs her to do-- something He chose her, and not Peter or John, to do.  So He must ask her to let go of Him and do it.

After the scene in the garden of Eden, God warned Eve that now her husband will rule over her (Gen. 3:16)  And what we see in the biblical story from that time on, is men ruling over women.

Until Jesus came along.

Two years ago I wrote an answer to the question, Why Did Jesus Choose Twelve Men? 
The twelve were the main witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In the Ancient Near East and Roman cultures, the testimony of women was considered invalid. It was not accepted in court; it was not legally binding in any way. The world was simply not going to listen to women, and Jesus knew it.
So here’s what He did. His very first act upon Resurrection was to appear to the women. In fact, John tells us that though Peter and John ran ahead of Mary Magdalene on the way to the tomb, they saw nothing. Then after they left, Mary Magdalene was the first to see the Resurrected Christ. John 20:3-14. Other women also saw Him shortly afterwards– but no male saw the Lord, revealed for who He was, until that evening, eight hours or more afterwards. . .
The significance of this would not have been lost on the male disciples in that patriarchal culture. They knew that they themselves had refused to believe the women’s testimony that morning. Then when Jesus appeared to them, they realized the women had been telling the truth.
Jesus was communicating this very clearly (the fact that we miss it today is a product of our culture): “The world will not accept the testimony of your sisters, but I have just forced you to listen to it. My kingdom is to be different from the world. You are to listen to your women and allow them to testify of Me.”
 Before Jesus commissioned the apostles to take His message to the world in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene and her sisters to take His message to the apostles.  This was a much bigger deal than it looks like.  As Christianity Today's online article Five Errors to Drop from Your Easter Sermon puts it:
As you preach this Easter, do not bypass the testimony of the women as an incidental detail. In the first century, women were not even eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. Josephus said that even the witness of multiple women was not acceptable "because of the levity and boldness of their sex." Celsus, the second-century critic of Christianity, mocked the idea of Mary Magdalene as an alleged resurrection witness, referring to her as a "hysterical female … deluded by … sorcery."  
This background matters because it points to two crucial truths. First, it is a theological reminder that the kingdom of the Messiah turns the system of the world on its head. In this culture, Jesus radically affirmed the full dignity of women and the vital value of their witness. Second, it is a powerful apologetic reminder of the historical accuracy of the resurrection accounts. If these were "cleverly devised myths" (2 Pet. 1:16, ESV), women would never have been presented as the first eyewitnesses of the risen Christ.
 Jesus does not send Mary back to the male disciples to be ruled over by them.  He sends her back to them to teach and proclaim His truth.  Far from telling her to know her place, He deliberately raises her out of a woman's place and into a place of equality.

Mary, in desiring Christ above all else, has undone what Eve did. And Christ responds by undoing "he shall rule over you."

Last year Preston Yancy wrote the most beautiful blog post I have ever read anywhere.  He called it When It Matters Because of Two Gardens, and I probably would never have written this post if I had not first read that one, and thought about it ever since.  Here is a little of what he said, though I encourage everyone to read the whole thing:
I think of how one little verse, one little verse of a redemption in the twentieth chapter of the most beautiful Gospel, the story of us, could mean all this. 
Could mean systemic patriarchy has been overthrown. Could mean that equality is now. Could mean that the Law of Moses would be overcome by the law of grace. Could mean that a woman is a person not a thing, joy of father or husband, and that her word is worth, her voice use. . .

And I think of them, sometimes, of that second Man and that other woman, in that garden west of Golgotha, and I think of her as she was sent forth, running east, and I think of the tangled mess of grace tripping and dancing round her in her wake, her feet bringing the news of healed cosmos, healed creation, and He has done this, first, and we shall follow, and so comes the Light.
Jesus in the garden is an undoing and reversal of what drove humanity out of the garden. He has begun the righting of all that has been wrong-- and not least what has been wrong between men and women.

We should not read the rest of the New Testament in ways that negate this truth.

For He is risen indeed.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Another Take on the World Vision Question

Last Week I wrote about the controversy revolving around the international Christian charity World Vision and its decision, quickly reversed, to employ same-sex married Christian couples.  I wrote about the issue in terms of real, living children overseas who have developed long-distance relationships with their sponsors, and I will not back off my stance that breaking off such a relationship once it is formed is wrong. Regardless of the fact that the child will still receive World Vision benefits through his or her community, Christians should not abandon or reject kids they have started a relationship with, even if it's a very long-distance one.

But Rod at the Political Jesus Blog has added an important perspective to the discussion that needs to be taken seriously.  He asks the question: Are African, Indian, South American children being used as pawns in the White Culture Wars?  

The thing is that in focusing on the gay-marriage issue here in the United States and fighting among ourselves over it (with non-white children overseas caught in the middle as both sides accuse each other of not doing what's best for those kids) Christians in the white majority culture on both sides of the issue may be blind to our own self-centeredness.  And we seem to be missing the bigger question: Are World Vision and other Western-created charities actually the best way to give to poor children in other nations?

The problem is that as white American Christians, we have a weakness for falling into what the By Their Strange Fruit Blog calls a "white savior complex":
The 'white savior complex' is a perception that white folk have that they are the benevolent benefactors of helpless 'others.'. . The 'white savior complex' is particularly strong when it comes to white aid in Africa. . .Often church missions have a concept of the 'poor starving children of Africa' and very little understanding of the self-empowerment and independence that can thrive in our absence.
As Rod at Political Jesus put it:
Both sides (in their blog posts), were more than eager to press this story as one where we had to “save the children.” At no one point were the problematic practices of World Vision, its advancement of White Saviorism through its advertisements or its questionable method of “child-sponsorships” (but not really child-sponsorships) ever put under scrutiny. . . African and other nations populated by darker skinned people are represented time and again as the passive recipients of white benevolence. This “help” however, is just a re-hashing of old Western-style colonialism brought to those countries by missionaries. [Emphasis in original]
 To be fair to World Vision, they are aware of this weakness and have published an online paper about improving their accountability in this and other areas:
A related mistake is to ignore our ‘inbound’ accountability to listen and learn from the poor. The good news of Jesus implores us to seek only the best for the other. Ministry approaches which breed dependency, or which are patronising, or paternalistic, or which treat the poor as our “clients” diminish the Good News. All parts of our global family must be respectfully and sensitively engaged.  It has been wisely observed that “The Christian gospel has sometimes been made the tool of imperialism and of that we have to repent.”
Other Western Christian charities, such as Kinexxus, seem to have done their homework on this issue and are striving to overcome it:
Mission organizations and humanitarian agencies that operate from the same misguided assumptions that Africans are too poor or incapable of doing anything significant to bring about development to their communities only reinforce a receivership mentality. They come to Africa with a heart of compassion and noble intentions to alleviate the suffering of an impoverished people. But if they don’t take the time to understand the community and cultural worldview they are entering or attempt to learn even simple greetings in the local language, these well-intentioned “do-gooders” run the risk of rushing in and unconsciously imposing their will – utilizing material resources to gain control so they can make their project “happen.” The results will be short-lived and often counterproductive. The local community will not own the project, nor will they feel any obligation to maintain it.
Still, as I've been looking into this matter, it seems to me that for those who have not already committed to a relationship with a sponsored child (who need to keep that commitment), the best way to help impoverished people on other continents is to help those churches and other charities that are indigenous to the countries in which those people live, who already understand the issues and problems unique to those regions, and to whose knowledge and expertise we ought to be deferring.

As By Their Strange Fruit goes on to say:
The 'white savior complex' is basically based in pride. It reveals an attitude of superiority and paternalism, . . .Rather than perpetuate the myth that white folk are somehow the world's saving grace, we need to empower others to take the lead.
And of course, when indigenous charities and churches already are taking the lead, the best we can do is get on board to help them.  

For instance, we can contribute to the African Independent Churches that are local to countries we want to help:
Even though the denominational, ritual, and linguistic diversity of these churches makes it difficult to analyze and classify, the common thread uniting all of the Christian churches is that they were all established by African initiative rather than by foreign missionary agendas. Even though many of these churches have traditional denominational names and relationships, they are not defined by these traditions. These churches emphasize that they are established and led by Africans. In addition, all AICs place emphasis on the biblical warrant to include African cultural norms into their modes of worship, theology, and practice, though to varying degrees.
A link to the webpage for contributing to African Independent Churches is here. For those who want to help poor people in the Western hemisphere, there is a Pasadena-based ministry which specifically empowers indigenous church leaders in Latin America: Latin American Indigenous Ministries.  Or we can contribute to secular charities whose founders are native to an area we want to help, such as the Wayuu Taya Foundation, which empowers and aids indigenous Latin American peoples in many countries, or Alaffia, which is involved in communities in West Africa.

It's important to develop the humility to see that other people groups are quite capable of helping their own poor, and that God has already provided for leaders there.  Sometimes we white Western Christians aren't meant to be the team captains, but the water carriers; not the heroes, but the sidekicks.

But one thing we want to try hard not to be is the villains.  And historically, too often that's exactly what we have been.  We've got to open our eyes to this and work on breaking the cycle.

The key with overseas charity is to stop talking and begin listening-- to stop trying to teach and open ourselves to learn.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

World Vision and Evangelicalism

I was going to write about something else this week, but I can't get this off my mind.  A lot of other people have blogged about it this week, and some more than once.  But even if I'm partly repeating what others have said, I have to speak up, too. 
It all started when Christianity Today published online a letter from the president of international charity group World Vision, announcing that it was changing its policy on allowing gay Christians who were legally married to be employed by their organization:
World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently "tearing churches apart" over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor. 
Given that more churches and states are now permitting same-sex marriages (including World Vision's home state of Washington), the issue will join divorce/remarriage, baptism, and female pastors among the theological issues that the massive relief and development organization sits out on the sidelines.
Two days later, amid a ferocious evangelical backlash, World Vision reversed its decision.  But not before ten thousand children had lost their sponsors. 

A few of those who dropped the children they were sponsoring have returned.  But apparently most have not.  

A lot of bloggers have written about this in the days after, but Elizabeth Esther best put the way I'm feeling into words:
[R]egardless of whether I agree or disagree with World Vision’s initial policy change, I have made commitments to three very precious and very REAL children. It is my DUTY to fulfill those commitments. . . Christians ought always disagree in the spirit of St. Matthew 18 and ESPECIALLY when the LIVES of CHILDREN are at stake. We ought to gently and wisely confront leadership–NOT encourage our fellow Christians to forsake promises to innocent and NEEDY children. (Emphases in original)
I think it was Matthew 18:15 that was probably in the front of her mind: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother."  The passage goes on from there to advise on what to do if the "brother" doesn't listen.  Although this passage is really about interpersonal relationships and not about a Christian's interactions with a large charity organization, I think Elizabeth Esther was right that the spirit of the passage still applies:  when Christians disagree, they should try to work it out, not suddenly cut off relations with one another.

I do understand the perspective of many evangelicals on this.  My church background is evangelical, and it was through evangelicalism that I came to to the faith.  Evangelicals have always put a huge amount of weight on keeping to what they understand as an incontrovertible, biblical moral code. They give this at least as much weight as they give to foundational Christian doctrines.  To evangelicals, World Vision's attempt to take a neutral stance on the issue of whether gay Christians can marry same-sex partners was incoherent.  There could be no neutral stance in their minds: either World Vision was going to forbid same-sex married for Christians in their employ, or it was going to allow it.  Even if it allowed only one same-sex marriage among all its employees, this meant allowing same-sex marriage, and that was unacceptable.

Evangelicals felt they could no longer have anything to do with World Vision.  In their minds, this had nothing to do with hating gay people; it was all about biblical holiness.  Holiness is about reverence for God.  It's not a trivial matter.  A devoted evangelical will pay almost any price, sacrifice his or her own comfort, endure scorn, disapproval and anger from society, in order to obey what they believe God has commanded. I get it.  I really do.

But there's something being overlooked here, and it's a big thing.  It's the principle Jesus taught of mercy over sacrifice.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Paul articulated the same basic principle in 1 Corinthians 13:3:
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Though these two passages might not seem to be about quite the same thing, I think they are.  It's encapsulated in something my mother taught me as a child, and though I didn't always listen to her, this is one thing she said that has stuck with me.  She said, "People are more important than things."

By "things," she didn't just mean my toys and clothes.  She meant the things I gave my time to, the books and television shows I watched.  She even meant the rules for things like bedtime or homework that usually stood firm in our family. There were times that rules could be broken.

There were times when you closed the book and turned off the TV.

There were times when you didn't worry who that toy belonged to.

Sometimes it was because you had a relationship with someone, and that relationship called you to set aside special time for them.  A visit from far-away relatives.  Or a holiday.

And sometimes it was because even if you didn't know the person very well (or at all), there was someone hurting-- someone in desperate need.

People are more important than things.  Needs are more important than rules.  Mercy towards people is more important than sacrifice for God.

Many evangelicals have defended their decision to drop child sponsorships through World Vision by saying that World Vision doesn't give the sponsorship money directly to the child, but to the community, so the child won't directly feel the impact of the loss of their sponsor.  They say they are switching their sponsorship to another organization and another child, and that the important thing is giving, not what group receives the gift.

In response I'll cite some excerpts from the FAQs at World Vision's web page on How Sponsorship Works:
World Vision child sponsorship is an amazing model that allows for a one-on-one relationship with a sponsor, while pooling the gifts of all sponsors who support children in the same community so that we are able to provide long-term resources for lasting change. 
About 10 days after you sponsor a child, you'll receive a Welcome Kit in the mail with your child's photo and more information about sponsorship. Within 6 to 12 weeks, be looking in the mail for your first letter from your sponsored child. You can email and write back! 
Every year, you'll also receive an annual progress report with a new photo of your sponsored child and details about the progress that your child is making, as well as a newsletter of accomplishments in his or her community. (Emphases added)
Sponsorship is about far more than the money given.  It's about the relationship established with the child.  So I must ask some questions of those who have dropped their sponsorships, or switched to another organization.

How is your earlier-sponsored child to understand why you aren't sponsoring him or her anymore-- even if someone else steps in and becomes their sponsor in your place? Will this child really think, "The people who used to write to me and answer my letters have dropped me, but it was nothing personal, so it's ok"?
Is this new child you're sponsoring simply interchangeable for the earlier one? 

Will you miss the pictures and letters from the earlier child? Will you wonder over the years if he or she made it to adulthood or what happened to him or her?

Was this child a person to you?  Was (s)he more important than things

Evangelicalism claims to love children from the moment of conception.  So what about this child?

You see, it doesn't really matter how much you disagreed with World Vision's change of policy about gay marriage.  Ultimately, that change of policy was a thing. And the person who is your sponsored child was and is more important than that. As Elizabeth Esther said, there are ways of expressing disagreement, or even extreme disapproval, of something that you believe compromises Christian holiness, without compromising Christian love and mercy.

You might even have had a little mercy on World Vision.   It can't be easy to juggle all the differing beliefs and convictions of Christians from all the different branches.  Maybe they were sincerely trying to do the best they could with the real people, including those in same-sex marriages sanctioned by their own churches, who came to them wanting to help impoverished children and their communities.  

You see, I also understand the perspective of non-evangelicals on this.  And from where they're standing, this really does look an awful lot like hate. 

As for myself, in the most foundational ways I still am an evangelical.  I believe in the central doctrines, and I strive for personal holiness.  I stopped calling myself an evangelical, though, because I wanted no part of the whole "you disagree with us, so you're not one of us" thing that so many evangelicals are involved in.  And because I'm a theistic evolutionist, because I'm an egalitarian, because I question the literal interpretation of some Bible passages-- and because I wonder if the verses about homosexuality are really applicable to committed, monogamous same-sex Christian marriages-- many evangelicals do indeed consider me no longer one of them.

No matter.  You may not consider me one of you, but I consider you one of us-- all of us who call on the name of Jesus for salvation, who consider Him Lord and do their best to follow Him.  The tent of Christianity is just fine for me, even if I don't fit in a smaller tent inside it.  I'm grateful that my own church, which is evangelical in doctrine and practice (and whose motto is "We are not the only Christians, but we are Christians only") still seems to think there is a place for me.

Finally, for those who are troubled and sad-- even angry-- as I am, by the events of this last week, and who wonder if they should leave evangelicalism or try to stay-- I'll just repeat my mother's words.  "People are more important than things."  Labels are things, and evangelicals and non-evangelicals are all people.   Hebrew 12:14 says, "Make every effort to live in peace with everyone." True, it then goes on, "and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord."  But if holiness is obedience to God, then "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" is holiness too.

I don't know what any of you should do, except to love people and follow your heart, where the Holy Spirit dwells.

But let's all have mercy on one another and make every effort to live in peace.