February 6, 2014
Last week I gave an online presentation to a group of sociologists at Boston College about Colombia and the work of the Diocese. We had a great conversation about Colombia’s history and its current challenges. We talked about positive change such as a growing economy, the reduction in paramilitary violence thanks to the peace talks, and the fact that Bogota is considered the Silicon Valley of South America. We also talked about ongoing problems such as the fact that violence against women (specifically the throwing of acid in the face to disfigure) is up 25% in the past 5 years, the ongoing human rights challenges related to land reform, the humanitarian crisis of displaced persons (5.2 million), one of the highest rates of income inequality in the Americas, and the fact that Colombia has joined the list of the top 25 countries for persecution of Christians (primarily due to Christians taking a stand in support of human rights).
In my presentation, I shared the ongoing work of the Diocese and the work I do in support of Diocesan priorities. We talked about the diocesan focus on youth leadership programs, addressing the needs of the displaced in our communities, addressing the needs of the elderly, and support and empowerment programs for single mothers. We talked about the micro-loan program in Cali, the women’s program in Soacha, and the elder housing program in San Rafael. I shared some of the projects currently being developed for low-income housing for single-parent families in Cartagena, church construction projects (where the church will double as a community center), and the farming project in Facatativa.
Inevitably, in a conversation with sociologists the discussion will move from social programs to systemic justice. It’s one thing to offer food for the poor. It’s another to provide them with training and skills, and to work toward addressing the social structures and political systems that have contributed to their poverty. It’s one thing to build low-income housing. It’s another to address the political and social challenges behind the fact that single-parent households find themselves poor and homeless. It’s addressing those structures and systems that contribute to social problems that most of us mean when we talk about systemic justice. Yes, there is an immediate need to feed and house someone. But there is another longer term need to ensure that the systems that create situations of hunger and homelessness be addressed. In Boston, I cooked in a soup kitchen for 13 years. I served on boards that addressed the needs of the homeless and the hungry. I also participated in programs and made donations to political organizations that were working to address the underlying issues that created the need for soup kitchens and shelters.
As we talked about these issues in the context of Colombia, we discussed addressing systemic issues. As a missioner working in another country, I struggle with two specific challenges in the context of systemic injustice. While I’m not one to be afraid to speak out, there is a very real danger in speaking out. The fact that Colombia is on the top 25 list of countries for Christian persecution is precisely because those who have spoken out against systemic injustices and sided with the poor have been silenced in some way. (That’s not to imply, by the way, that the problem is with the government, because I don’t believe that’s the case.) The problem is that there are always individuals who benefit from broken systems and structures, and understandably, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and dislike it when someone rocks the boat.
But beyond any practical concern, as a missioner I question whether or not it’s my place to address systemic issues. A quick review of the history of mission demonstrates the ways in which previous missionaries went into countries and “thought” they were addressing systemic issues and promoting what they considered needed change. While well-meaning, their ideas created systems of dependency, supported the efforts and misadventures of colonial powers, and established “their” version of right and wrong based on their predominantly Western perspective. I won’t go into great detail to explain what I mean by the following statement, but many scholars/people familiar with colonialism and the church’s history of mission would say that a great deal of the international problems we’re experiencing today have their roots in colonial history … and the church shares that blame.
You might also ask, “Who am I to think I know what’s best for others in another country?” You might ask what kind of credibility I have as a missioner, given the legacy of those who came before me. Some would say that any attempt on the part of someone like me to name and address systemic issues is simply a form of “neo-colonialism,” a repeat of a Westerner thinking he knows better than his hosts what’s best for them.
Beyond the previous points, there is yet another issue. Who am I to tell someone else about their problems when my own country is a mess? What kind of credibility can I possibly have when CEOs in the US have massively disproportionate salaries from their employees contributing to an income inequality that rivals those we consider “developing countries,” there is widespread technological displacement in the labor market, there are rapidly escalating poverty rates, the college-educated middle class finds itself surviving on food stamps, and our federal government is completely ineffective and dysfunctional. I seem to recall a scriptural lesson where Christ states, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” … How apt!
So, then the question becomes, “Since it’s not really appropriate to engage in work toward systemic change, is there anything I can do other than treat the symptoms?” I think the answer is a definite, “yes.” In fact, I’d like to think that’s actually central to my work, and also to the work of most missioners today. Missioners are typically engaged in what we call “empowerment” and “accompaniment.” Though those words get tossed around a great deal and are often misunderstood, at their core they point to our desire to enable others to stand up for themselves and to address systemic injustices in their own social context. For example, instead of fighting for women’s rights, we empower and support women to stand up for their own rights. Instead of addressing the underlying problems behind displacement, we support the displaced by providing the tools and encouragement to stand up for their rights. This is accompaniment … this is empowerment … this is mission.