29 October 2015

Evangelism or proselytism -- a PS

"We would like to know more about the people who are helping us."

These words were part of a letter I received from a grassroots-level development group in Honduras, back when I was the coordinator of the Right Sharing of World Resources program. I replied with a simple, low-key description of the worldwide Quaker family and mentioned that there were Friends in Honduras. I hoped that I was correctly navigating the line between unnecessary diffidence (not to mention respect for a legitimate question!) on the one hand, and a sales approach that could be interpreted as exploitative, on the other. In other words, I was trying to be transparent about our identity and motives without crossing the line into proselytism.

For convenience, last week's post about evangelism and proselytism made a clean distinction between the two. In the real world, as several people have reminded me, things aren't that clean. So here are some thoughts about the grey zone in between.

Ethical evangelists take into account any sort of power differential between evangelist and audience. No matter how careful you are in theory about not trying to lure people out of a satisfactory spiritual home (from the audience's point of view) to sample the goodies on offer in your own affiliation, if people are hungry or vulnerable and perceive practical value in a conversion, you're in danger of crossing the line into proselytism.

This is the reason that Christian relief and development agencies often have a no-proselytism policy. World Vision's policy can be read here. However, the issue is not as simple as it sounds, as Martin Marty's summary of approaches to "disaster evangelism" indicates. My first encounter with the Right Sharing program, years before I became its staffer, took place at a Friends World Committee triennial meeting in Hamilton, Ontario. As part of a panel on Right Sharing, Everett Cattell of Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region (and a former missionary in India) raised the concern of the "right sharing of the riches we have in Jesus Christ." Clearly, as Martin Marty points out, if you believe that people face eternal doom without these riches, you are going to assume that no other religious affiliation is truly "satisfactory" and that any inhibitions over proselytism are therefore inappropriate.

Maybe the best we can do is to frame the issue in terms of relationship and honesty.

First of all, when we engage in service, we should try not to monetize or bureaucratize relationships. In my time, Right Sharing had no money for field staff, but we always required some personal link between our committee and the community we were hoping to help. Sometimes the link was a local Friend, sometimes a Quaker member of a larger development agency, or a Quaker in the U.S. Peace Corps. It wasn't a perfect setup, but it was a start. The point is, before anything else, we're human beings simply trying to form worthy relationships.

Second, we should never require any knowledge of our doctrines before, during, or after our partnership, and we should take care that we don't make it seem like such knowledge would be an advantage. Nor should we hint that the other partners' affiliations could become a block for us.

However, we shouldn't pretend that values don't matter. We don't want to fund violence, addiction, elitism, racism ... but how would we know that our partners share these convictions (on some more durable basis than the time it takes to hook the funder) without honest exchanges on identity and motivation? Furthermore, many cultures don't privatize religion the way Western societies tend to do, so the subject of our faith is bound to come up.

And it should! We don't want to be so over-careful about proselytism that we give off an equally unfortunate message in the other direction ... that the partner community members are just "beneficiaries," the objects of our enlightened service, and not people we would want to sit next to while worshipping God! It was Bob Dockhorn of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting who, speaking at a conference maybe twenty years ago, stated this principle vividly when he contrasted the ministry of Chicago Fellowship of Friends, where worship and service were fully integrated, with the arms-length attitude of some well-meaning "outreach" programs.

We should try to build channels of communication that are sufficient to give a full accounting of our faith, when required, as an important element of our identity and motivation -- while also explaining that this same faith requires us not to proselytize. Evangelism with integrity requires avoiding unethical incentives, but it should not prevent "right sharing of the riches we have in Jesus Christ."

[Note: after thirty years of evangelism, service, and prophetic ministry rooted in Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood, the Chicago Fellowship of Friends recognized that its ministry had been completed and the meeting was laid down in 2005.]

A practical way for you to participate in the New Humanities Institute's program...

The Dialogue of Languages and Cultures in Today's World

... a call for papers.

Are you a teacher of a second language or a facilitator of cross-cultural communication? What have you learned about the relationship between language and culture? How have you made language instruction or cross-cultural learning more fun, interesting, effective? What about art and design as a "language" for cross-cultural communication?

Write about three or four pages for our New Humanities Institute's annual Dialogue of Languages and Cultures conference book. 

The conference description is in Russian here, but your paper doesn't need to be in Russian. You can write in English, French, or German, too. You can send your paper directly to the conference address, or if you like, send it to me in any popular word-processing format and I'll help reformat it, if necessary, for the conference.

The New Humanities Institute celebrates its 20th anniversary as a higher education institution next month. Before 1995, it had already existed for several years as a language school -- the first private school of its kind in the Moscow region. I've been an annual guest lecturer since 1994, and I've been a full member of the faculty since 2008. I've written several papers for these conferences over the years. You can sample them here.

Thank you for helping make our conference book truly international. Deadline for submissions: November 30. 

Vista ("communicating research and innovation on mission in Europe") dedicates its latest issue to the timely theme of nationalist extremism in Europe.

The perils and powers of charity, and the counterintuitive insights of China Scherz in Uganda.
It is on the basis of this dual critique of both politically oriented action and of regnant ideas about sustainable development that Scherz seeks to redeem the status of "small present-oriented acts of care."
College apologizes to [Quaker] professor labeled a communist and fired in 1962.

A case study in documenting the history of women in higher education: the "Seven Sisters" and the role of religion.

Reclusive Russian family's last survivor: the amazing story of Old Believer Agafia Lykova.

Imelda May, "Proud and Humble" ... "You know I'm only human, you created me...."

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