Jim's Journal - March 2004
This edition of Jim's Journal focuses strongly on issues of money and aid. Please enjoy your read.
For further news, see my 2-weekly updates!
Here in Africa it is whites who very often condemn the prosperity Gospel. While doing so, they usually bring things, like food, medicine, schools, that are intended to help people to prosper, as well as preach the Gospel! Whatever 'prosperity Gospel' is that is so bad, local people could easily reason that someone who becomes a Christian should prosper, or the missionaries wouldn't always be bringing the two together!
Prosperity Gospel is one of those nice English phrases, that is meaningful only to someone with a dualistic worldview! Such people separate spiritual from physical and material, and have no trouble accepting that someone can live a poor life yet be spiritually rich (e.g. perhaps Mother Theresa) or a rich life and be spiritually poor (e.g. perhaps Princess Diane). It is very sensible, in Britain, not to expect suddenly to grow wealthy just because one has joined one's local church!
Attempts to translate 'prosperity Gospel' into Dholuo or Kiswahili (the African languages that I am familiar with) instantly hit the rocks. A Gospel message that brings prosperity surely is a good thing and not a bad thing! Saying that prosperity Gospel is bad, is like pronouncing a curse on one's fellow believers , or refusing to share what one has with others. Hardly a good way to 'win friends and influence people' for the Gospel! It is nigh impossible to teach / preach against prosperity Gospel to people within the African worldview, unless you just want to confuse them or make yourself unpopular.
Yet telling someone of a wholistic worldview that they should have 'x,y,z' that only arises in a dualistic worldview is to condemn them to a life of desire, inferiority, failure plus usually corruption and immorality.
Have you ever thought what life would be like if you had to wear a big hat with 'dunce' written on it wherever you went, whatever you did, all the time? Would that be pleasant?
This prospect faces a white man in Africa. The association between skin colour (white or pink) and 'more money than sense' is so strong, that there is no escape. Every white man is taken as a cow to milk. Every (other) white man seems to revel in this role. Should you have other aspirations to 'help' people in any other way than in dishing out money, you will find people constantly grabbing for your udder.
Africa is not a hospital. Neither is it a refuse hole for all spare European money. The people are not stupid, but they are different. The constant proclaiming of CHARITY and AID by almost (?) all whites in Africa is perpetuating an extremely deep racism.
"It is better for people to know me, than for them to make burnt offerings to me " (Hosea 6:6). The very God of heaven and earth and the God of the Bible, wants us to KNOW HIM! This 'to know him' is an interpretation of 'to obey him' (1 Samuel 15:22). Not to know him and not to obey him is to be oriented other than to him; that is to sin. Jesus tells us that "it is better that someone have a millstone tied to his neck and be thrown into the sea, than that he should cause any of these little ones to enter into sin" (Luke 17:2).
An important part of what we must do as Christians is to help others to know God. Misleading them, is no joke.
Is God the God of constant free handouts? Does he go to people and open conversations by saying "I have money to give you, how can you use it" or "do x,y, and z and we will fund you?" Does he insist on feeding people, teaching them his agricultural practices, or on their believing in the voracity of bacteria as a pre-condition of being his followers, or a necessary product thereof? Does the God of the Bible do this? Do God's servants in the Bible do this? If not, then why do we?
Yes, times have changed. But God has not. Do 'changed times' in England mean that God can no longer be who he used to be, and presumably still wants to be, in Africa?
The role of mission, needs to be distinct from the role of 'civilising'. The missionary must (as far as he can, although he will never fully achieve this) strip himself of his culture as he goes on his mission.
The failure to do this today is the root of 'prosperity Gospel' in Africa. This is idolatry. What people receive in the name of God is not God, but merely culture - very often economic culture. That is not helping someone to know God. It is in many respects denying someone of a knowledge of God, as the noise of this culture clamours and pushes him out! (Bible translations are from Dholuo into English).
I have discovered that my friends here in Kenya believe in 'the force'. They believe that life is force, and being is force, and there is force in many things. My friends believe this so strongly, that there seems to be no way that you can make them think differently. This force is what everyone wants!
People who believe so much in 'the force', interpret Christianity through the same. Hence being a Christian is about getting blessing ('the force') and deterring Satan (the 'anti-force') through worshipping and believing in God (the ultimate source of 'the force'). When these people speak of 'the force' (gueth or teko in Dholuo), then this is the most important thing in life. Other things, like money, education, technology etc., become kinds of 'the force'. Things that are not kinds of 'the force', are kinds of 'anti-force', such as jochiende (ghosts) and juok (witchcraft power). The name of Jesus has a lot of force. Old people and (recently) dead people have more force than young or live people..
When Christians see that they have acquired a lot of money, education and technology (things), then they perceive themselves as having a lot of 'the force'. That is, they believe that God has blessed them. These things, to them, are not generated through human planning or reason but are blessings (gueth). Those Christians who do not get so much of these things, perceive that this is because there are kinds of 'anti-force' that are depriving them. They fight against these 'anti-forces', sometimes also called Satani.
It seems that there is no limit to the total available force. Hence if someone gets a lot of money from the West, they do not always see the necessity to share it out, but are more likely to reason that others should imitate what they are doing so that they also get more of the same. Those not getting the wealth are doing something wrong - i.e. allowing an evil force or an anti-force jurisdiction. This needs to be removed, usually by ritual means.
Some people call these beliefs in force 'superstition'. I become sad when I hear that word. Those are my Christian friends ... When the whole of life is about fighting with 'anti-force', and you say to someone 'don't fight any more', there is nothing left to live for. Saying that these forces don't exist or are inconsequential is met with ridicule and reveals one's ignorance. I have visited many churches in African. I have participated with many of my friends as they have engaged God with the 'anti-force' (Satani). The same happens at funerals, and we have lots of funerals here in my village. If you don't go to funerals, that is if you are not ready to join the people in their battles against 'anti-force', they don't accept you as a good neighbour.
Whereas foreign-sourced funds are somewhat independent of this, succeeding in any local ventures requires constant attention to the dead who control 'the force'. This is where our Yala based Bible teaching programme has fallen somewhat 'between the slats'. Not wanting dependence on foreign funding, we have little donor money. Yet our failure to attend sufficiently to the dead and to funerals, easily tarnishes our reputation locally. Some of our students are trying to rectify this situation to ensure the growth and development of YTC by raising funds to help buy coffins, and ensuring good communication of deaths and representation at funerals of YTC students and their families.
This means in turn that foreign-originated activities such as projects, are generally accepted because of their contribution to positive force, and not through their functional efficacy. Someone once said that "A careful look at the rural economy of most of the developing countries by a Western trained social scientist usually suggest that almost everything is wrong" (Lea and Chaudhri 1983). It is these days easier to try to turn a blind eye to this than to try to correct it.
I could bring things from home. I can give people money, food, technology and other things. That convinces them that I have a lot of 'the force'. Then they desire the same. That brings jealousy and a lot of desire for things that come only through the kind of 'the force' that Europeans have. It is hard for many African people, including the educated ones, to get this kind of 'the force'. Education alone does not tell people the key secret to the White man's 'the force'. This is because there are many things that are lost in the process of moving education from the part of the world where it originates, to where it is a 'stranger'. What is alive at the point of export, becomes flat at the point of its use.
Some Westerners are struck by how much time African people spend 'hanging around' and doing very little. That is not the way things are seen here. In Swahili to be and to grow are the same word (kuwa). The very 'hanging around' (as it appears) is a purposeful activity designed to bring 'development' and progress. 'The force' is after all in the being, and this being is needed to keep evil at bay.
My friend who believes in 'the force', believes that he who knows the most about 'the force', is his dead relative. To get as much of 'the force' as possible, he therefore has to produce a lot of children, and follow other customs laid down by dead relatives of long ago that are supported by more recent dead relatives.
I was once impressed to discover that local people had many 'welfare societies' that were constantly raising funds for their community, especially in towns / cities. I was then shocked to discover that actually the 'welfare societies' were not raising funds to look after the living, but the dead. This makes perfect sense when one bears in mind that it is the dead in turn who make decisions regarding the wellbeing of the living. Someone not handled correctly following their death, can cause problems for years to come.
I don't know just what God holds of 'the force'? Sometimes the Bible seems to speak of the Holy Spirit of God as if he is 'the (good) force', especially in the Old Testament. The Bible also speaks much of blessing, and of the 'anti-force' (Satan). What I know, is that my friend who believes in 'the force', loves his Bible, and I believe that God can speak to him through his Bible.
I also know that, whether I believe that 'the force' is acquired through thinking and planning (Europe), or through 'ritual means' (Africa), death will strike all of us. I don't know what people will do at my funeral or at that of my friend. I believe though that through my accepting the death of Christ God has prepared a place for me in heaven.
I do pray for God to help people escape from this belief in 'the force', as it seems that it keeps them very poor. This is not easy, as everything you tell them they hear in relation to 'the force', and not the other way around. When people get wealth or money then they use it to raise the levels of their 'the force'. Preaching, prayer and going to church are ways of getting more 'force'. Being saved is having more force. Wearing priestly robes, gives force. Using a PA system spreads force. And so it goes on ...
Many churches on this Continent are set up to help people to acquire force. The means engaged in are a combination of Western ones (e.g. language used in worship if English, clothes, power words) and African ones (a lot of dancing, simultaneous prayer, shouting, kneeling, sobbing and crying). These are done with the aim of getting force - such as healing power, money, husband / wife, children, house, job, car.
So am I writing something new? Hardly! A Dutch Priest (Placid Tempels) wrote about all this from his experience in the Congo in the 1940s! It just takes a while for a visitor to Africa to realise what is going on.
Dad being here has had me travel more than usual around Kenya, and even down into Tanzania. In the course of this, as also in the course of 'normal life' around Yala and KIST, money has become a constant point of discussion and concern.
To European peoples money is something they invented and understand (somewhat). It comes through carefully thought out economic activity. To African people money is a stranger that they scarcely understand, that comes from white people.
The association between white people and money not only makes white people to be looked upon as gods, but also means that nearly all the best brains in Africa are oriented not to producing their own money, but to getting money out of white people. This severely hampers the development of any economy. (In fact nearly all large scale businesses in Kenya and much of Africa are run by people of Indian descent, who seem to stand between the African and the white man).
Almost (?) all Western projects currently running in Africa are not helping people to be self supporting, but are making them more vulnerable, dependent, divided and dissatisfied with their lot.
Unfortunately the church is not innocent in this pauperizing process. It works in the same world and reads many of the same books as other folks. These days the 'success' of a project in Africa has almost nothing to do with being culturally sensitive, appropriate, helpful or beneficial in the long-term to the people. It has everything to do instead with fundraising in the West. The more ignorant a person is about African realities, the more likely he may be to 'succeed'! The African people themselves know this, and sometimes would rather keep an outsider in ignorance so that money keeps coming in, rather than tell him what is happening so that it slows down or stops!
While this system keeps the most money coming in for the short term, it spoils people and binds them to constant dependence and ignorance in the long term. The church, with its primary orientation to Christ and not to money, needs to lead the way our of this impasse.
The way to do this is easy, but difficult. It 'simply' requires people to work in African who are more concerned that people know God in their own language and culture than that they become Westernised.
As mentioned above, the 'success' of a missionary these days depends frequently on his marketing skills back home. At the same time, missionaries are often pre-occupied in promoting Western knowledge and skills in Africa. Why not have one person who is good at fundraising support another, who is thereby freed to draw close to the people? Once having drawn close to them, he can be an asset to the community in a way that is not creative of dependency.
Do I have to feel guilty if I live with poor people, and am not constantly giving them handouts? Surely I can instead give my money to world vision or tear fund, who are experts in this field, and get on with being a normal person?
Yet almost every African person asks any white man for money. This is because they are beginning to conclude that handing out money and Western technology is the only thing Europeans are good at. They can never be a true friend or brother. Do we want to prove such an African person right?