Jim's Journal - May 2006Be careful as you enter the service of God. It is better to draw near to listen carefully than to rush and give aid like fools who cannot distinguish what is good from what is bad. (Ecclesiastes 5:1. A translation from Kiswahili.) Contents
The Widening Net, Food, Aid and Untruths
So to tell lies?
Rationality, Reason and Primitivism.
What Can Make Translation Impossible
Studies and all that
Siaya Theological Centre
Yala Theological Centre
Kima International School of Theology
Cruel, Unjust, Pathetic and Shameful
A missionary's writing to his people at home about 'the field' once enabled him/her to explain things carefully for people at home to understand. He could tell things about particular individuals and sensitive situations in order to attract prayer.
Nowadays much communication is by internet. Thanks to numerous aid projects, the same is widely available in much of Africa. A residue of the colonial educational policy means that the language used in education in Kenya is the same as the language with which I communicate to folks back home; English. All this means that a missionary can be less and less certain that the people who he is reaching, aren't also reading what he is writing about them!
Our era seems to be one of telescoping difference. That is, it is considered politically incorrect to say that 'other people' are 'different' from 'us'. They are supposed to be the same, and differences in their way of life to be arising from their environment. This is the foundation to the current mega-drive to funding development around the world from the West. It is the justification for having one educational system used internationally. The assumption is that people around the world being the same, the things holding them back economically are their physical environment, i.e. things like rainfall, drought, poor soils, lack of infrastructure and lack of capital etc. The West is busy trying to plug these differences in its aid programmes. As it is politically incorrect to criticise aid programmes, so it is politically incorrect to write or talk as if people from outside of the West are 'different'.
Many fail to realise that the short-sightedness of aid protagonists suppresses the finding of alternative courses of action. Alternative activities are put on the shelf as people try to get their heads around what donors are trying to do. Even free speech is suppressed in the scramble for aid. Those opposed to handouts may be marginalised, or even hated. Handouts dominate society and economy. The problem is; the alternatives being suppressed may be vital to the future of the globe. Perhaps the alternatives to 'aid solutions' are important?
Massive secular activity in pursuance of global prosperity is of course rooted in a denial of the influence of 'religion' (never mind 'God'), that can be traced to Marx and other scholars before and after him. The European Community's secularist policies are perhaps leading the field in this area. Surely this is dangerous? A massive never-before-attempted experiment is being carried out, the potential victims of which are the majority of the residents of the (so-called) Third World. What if the Marxists are wrong? What if people's beliefs actually have a key role to play in the development of a society? What if there are no short-cuts to 'development' and if foreign interference in what people should be doing for themselves is doing irreparable damage? Scholars are certainly not of one mind. Replacing Gospel preaching with aid, can be condemning people to (unnecessary) misery or death.
The secular principles underlying the achievement of millennium goals surely represent a blinkered view of the world. Yet anyone who dares to point out the blinkers, rather like someone in the crowd commenting that the king doesn't have any clothes, is at risk of getting into trouble. So, we all stay silent and await the disaster. (Later we will say that 'I knew they were wrong all along'.)
How can we expect the hungry man, who has been told 'if you agree with me you will get fed', to do anything but agree? This is why relations between the West and the non-West are increasingly built on lies. If you are not a Westerner, you have to lie! Once lies have begun, then there is no obvious place for them to end. Once lies have begun, then you can never again be sure who to believe. Well, lies have begun, and the blame can be laid (at least in part) at the foot of the West and its narrow secularised thinking.
It is often difficult to distinguish truth and lies when communicating cross-culturally. How can I tell the truth over something that my target audience (Christians in the UK and Germany) have not experienced? My explanations are an attempt at the truth, given the limitations of translation and differences in culture. Globalisation can deny me the privilege of being able to explain things in such a way that Westerners will understand, if the same words can be misunderstood by a local person.
Globalisation makes it harder and harder to know what to say back to the West. Sorry folks. I will keep trying. But that's the reality . . .
It seems to me that there is a serious problem with the use of these words.
Rationality and reason seem to have been the special property of European peoples, and those descended from them. Europe went through the 'age of reason'. New thinking took shape as prior presuppositions about the world were challenged. It seems that this 'new thinking' has had a transformational effect on Europe, then America, then Australia, and then the rest of the Globe.
For people living in Europe reason (rationality) has become 'normal'. It is no longer the property of a few specialists. 'Irrational' has in turn become a negative term. European peoples look back rejoicing that they are no longer steeped in the ignorance of their ancestors.
Problems arise when European peoples move beyond the boundaries of their own historical lands and meet up with folks living a life that resembles the one that they had grown to despise. That is; people who are not guided by the reason or rationality of Europe. How do Europeans respond to such people? As European peoples consider themselves once to have been steeped in ignorance, they perceive those living in ways that they used to live as still in the dark! They are considered to be pre-reasonable, irrational, primitive etc.
Globalisation and its effect on linguistics have subsequently complicated this issue. This is - that a European (English) language, is now a world language. When non-Western people learn English they take offence at having such negative terms as 'primitive' used to describe them. The 'politically correct' solution has been to prohibit the use of such terms.
School-children growing up in Europe today are no longer told that the non-Western world is 'primitive'. But, what has happened to the cultural gap? Where has the primitivity gone? Has pre-scribing the use of words associated with 'primitivity' been considered to have done away with it? Where is the cultural distance created by Europe's experience of its peculiar history? Has it disappeared as a result of re-writing textbooks? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could solve all of the world's problems by re-writing curricula in this way.
The cart is before the horse. This is magic! If I call my bicycle a motorcycle, I do not suddenly find that it has an engine. Seeing a tree and telling someone it's a tuft of grass does not make the tree fall. My foot does not cease to have 5 toes if I call it 'an appendage'. How then have 'primitive' people suddenly ceased to exist? Where has the 'primitiveness' gone? Was it never there in the first place? Then how did the word arise? Has it been wiped out in a moment by the banning of the use of a word? Or has it been rendered invisible?
Perhaps the use of the terms has been prescribed, without the issue having been resolved! 'Primitiveness' has been rendered invisible to the globalised world. Academia is forced to pre-suppose that it does not exist. Thus the field of international studies has been deprived of key knowledge regarding the subjects of their study. This is serious. How can the West pretend to be qualified to intervene in global affairs if they choose so to ignore reality on the ground?
The invisibility of primitivity is, it seems to me, a serious impediment to international relations today. In simple terms - decisions made by Western people in their relationship with 'other peoples' is as a result based on a major ingredient of ignorance! This is why Western policies in regard to Africa frankly do not work. The pre-scribing of terms that tell of 'difference' prevents the finding of its solution.
One cause to this invisibility is of course the use of a so called 'international language'. The use of English around the globe has the deceptive effect of concealing differences. Foreignness seems to disappear when obscure phrases are simply translated into familiar idioms. Yet as discussed above, this disappearance of foreignness is deceptive - a smoke screen. But it is the limited understanding of what is foreign that pre-scribes the possibility of wise international relationships. This limitation of the use of an international language needs to be recognised. Decisions affecting local people should be made by local people thinking in their own languages!
There is another aspect to all this. One reason for Western people's being so offended by what is 'non-rational', is that they have built their life's foundation onto the rational. That is, reason and rationality are not peripheral to life in Europe; they are seen as part of the very essence of what it is to be human. Herein lies a serious error that is currently denying much of the world (at least much of Africa) the opportunity to progress. That is - because it is known as part of what it is to be human, reason and rationality have to be considered to be universal to all societies around the globe. In being considered universal, they are no longer up for discussion - but are presupposed and invisible (see above). This means that people who are not in possession of them, have no means to acquire them.
The error that has been made is the construction of the foundation of life on something other than God. In Europe today, God's existence can be questioned on the basis of rationality. This is the wrong way around. "The fool says in his heart, 'there is no God.'" (Psalms 14:1a). God says "I am". 'Assuming' God takes us to the place of being able to critique what is 'rational'. Reason and rationality come back onto the debating table and out of the 'taboo' box. The essence of what it is to be human, is to be created in the image of God, and not to be rational. The former gives people around the globe a common foundation, but the latter is divisive, restrictive and sectarian.
As long as Western man values himself and defines 'humanity' according to the peculiar outcome of his own history, the world is divided. Faith in God first, puts rationality into second place. Only when in that 'second place' can it be considered as 'optional' - those that have it and those that don't being equally valuable to God. Thus there is a theological imperative to the future of the nations. Putting something other than God in first place is idolatry, and heading for disaster.
A prerequisite to finding a solution to the dilemma currently facing the globe is faith in God. That is, in a God who is supra-rational! To him, rationality is an option to be considered amongst others, and not the be all and end all. Once rationality and reason are thus put into perspective, those people who lack it can be helped to acquire it, instead of it having to be assumed that they are in possession of it if they are not. (Being sub-human is not rationlessness (primitivity) but Godlessness.) God is greater than rationality. The essence of human-kind is that they are created in the image of God, and not in the image of rational man.
(Note that my reference to 'rationality' refers to the way this word is used in Europe, specifically the UK. That other people may use the same term when using English to describe their own ways of life does not change the fact that it is used in specific ways in UK English. Note also that 'primitivity' is only 'primitive' from a perspective. But it is difference.)
A man took a whole year to discover that his work colleague, who seemed to care for him a great deal, was actually trying to seduce him. Question: before he made this realisation, had he understood her?
If the answer is 'no', then neither can anyone from the West 'understand' Africa without deep and extended cultural exposure. This means that what they 'translate' back to 'the West' before having had such exposure are misunderstandings. If the answer is yes, then be ready to be laughed at, because that understanding might have missed the whole purpose of the engagement!
The Viva for my PhD that was on 24th February 2006, was only partly successful. At the end of it I was asked to revise and resubmit my thesis. I am working on this with a view to re-submitting within the next few months.
The outcome of my Viva illustrates the dilemma that I these days find myself in. Having diligently followed the course of listening to the African people and being vulnerable to them in the work of the Gospel, I now find that some Western people can no longer believe what I say! While almost everyone would advise getting to know the people one is reaching with the Gospel, not all of those will later concede that you have valid insights different to theirs.
In other words, having spent 18 years drawing near to the African people am I now expected simply to support what everyone else 'already knows'? While trying to minimise the places where my examiners appear to have been offended I have realised that I cannot but be honest, even if it costs me my PhD. Prayer valued as I revise my work!
Great support from a number of key church leaders in Siaya town has enabled the success of the Siaya Theological Centre class this term. I have had about 8 students on a regular basis, mostly young people and mostly from one church. This is still early days in what will no doubt continue to be a struggle, but the signs are encouraging. Questions remain on the borrowing of one of our Yala teachers by the Siaya centre. We are actively recruiting for teachers for Siaya in the days ahead and have some hopeful candidates. In immediate view are some very practical classes to be held in the vacation on 'marriage and family' from 11th to 13th April.
The same teaching on 'marriage and family' is planned for Yala for the week after Easter. My own involvement in Yala has been just one class weekly at a place called Wagai. The other seven classes in different parts of the Yala region have been taught by my colleagues. One class has failed completely through having to compete with meetings arranged by the UN for the Millenium Development Project, held on the same site. The rest of the classes have run, more or less strongly. Our having found another volunteer means that we have replaced the teacher who resigned at the end of last year. Another teacher who absented himself at the end of last year has now come back and is ready to teach next term!
A growing realisation of the importance of the local rootage of theological education will help to strengthen Yala and Siaya TCs. We face stiff competition from alternative programmes in English and from far afield, that are more prestigious and upwardly mobile as well as heavily subsidised or even totally funded from the West. Our successes are small victories against the post-colonial hegemony!
The same questions as to the relevance of foreign curricula are also on the KIST debating table. I have been given two courses at KIST, each with 30 plus students, that clearly attempt to engage with the African way of life and its interaction with the church and with the Scriptures. Though not knowing details as I am these days not a part of the administration, it is clear that KIST is advancing on a number of fronts, including improvement of the library, investigations into better accreditation, links with other organisations etc. It is a privilege to continue to be a part of KIST.
I have had two articles published at the start of this year, and have also given a public lecture at KIST. The articles are in the Evangelical Review of Theology, January 2006 and the Missiologist, April 2006.
lecture - (This is in Kiswahili.)
One of the cruellest things that European nations have ever done to African people, is to have ruled them using a language that they don't understand. One of the most unjust things that the Western world continues to do to Africa, is to support systems that perpetuate ignorance and hence poverty, by subsidising education in the same foreign language. One of the most pathetic and shameful things that the West continues to do 'for' Africa, is to have a powerful impact on people's lives by controlling them from afar without ever learning their languages or ways of life.
My readers may baulk at the above paragraph. So might I have some years ago. Sorry folks. If you took time to find out the truth I think you'd agree with me. It is not only the government doing this, but also the church. Even the Protestant church - that vowed in the Reformation never to do it again. Please stop.
(I am not saying that international languages shouldn't be taught in schools. What is difficult is that languages from Europe, effectively dead languages here in Africa, are constantly used as the medium of instruction as well as the medium of official business.)
Thanks for the encouraging correspondence that I get from many people
periodically. Special thanks to the young people of Andover Baptist Church
for the cards they have sent.