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Jim's Journal - July 2006


Smirks and stalemates
What to do? - Long term vulenrable mission
Spirit possession.
"The value of the white man is his money..."
Foreign language, foreign gospel
Report on children in my home
Siaya/Yala Theological Centres (STC/YTC, Kima International School of Theology (KIST)

Smirks and stalemates

It is easy for Westerners to smirk at the 'superstitious ignorance' that underlies African people's understanding of the world. Westerners implicitly assess all that is said by African people in relation to their own scientific understanding. They do not usually realise that the reverse also applies, and that African people can smirk in disbelief at the shallow explanations (ignoring all spiritual undercurrents) of events proffered by Westerners. Hence people talk past each other. As whatever the African says about witchcraft can make the Westerner think of science, so what the Westerner says about science can make the African think of witchcraft.

Sadly this results in a stalemate. Western science (including social science) can no more advance in interaction with African culture than can talk of dreams and spells assist in analyzing the results of a double-blind scientific trial. Far from the West providing Africa with answers to their desperate questions, African people find Western wisdom to be outside of their conceptual world. Western know-how transplanted to Africa, by undermining or upstaging what might have been effective avenues for overcoming superstition, perpetuates beliefs in magic. Hence subsidies for Western education in Africa are (often) an underlying cause of the perpetuation of poverty.

What to do? - Long term vulnerable mission

"… how do you think the West should react to the problems of Africa …"

The above question came in a recent letter to me, responding to my last 'Jim's Journal'. Why do I keep telling people what not to do. Then what should they do, seems to be the implicit message.

My answer in summary form to the above question is simple:


More and more of 'mission' activities seem to work in favour of providing young (and older) people with short-term exposure. But short-termers can cheapen and make a nonsense of the mission task. We don't have short-term pastors, we don't have short-term Bible college lecturers, we don't have short term bishops and overseers. The above posts are filled by experienced professional people. (We don't have even short-term evangelists, or short term church elders, or short term women's leaders). In the secular world we don't have short term pilots, or short-term businessmen or short term architects, school teachers or sailors. Then why do we these days have so many short-term missionaries?

I suggest there are four main reasons. 1. Perhaps the church's missionary force has lost direction. 2. Short-term missionaries are tourists looking for an exotic experience with built in conscience relief. 3. People, including long-term missionaries, are afraid to speak out because the short-termers are extremely influential. They are financially powerful and have a loud voice in the sending churches on whom the long-termer is crucially dependent. 4. Access to money frequently being the main requirement for operating in mission means that short-termers with money can get quick and easy access to the field.

Many subsidiary reasons can be added. Mission agencies and departments hope that short-termers will become long-termers. They hope that the short term experience will cultivate long-term supportiveness to the missions task. It is important, they say, for young people these days to get a global perspective on life. The world is anyway becoming a 'global village' in which English gets you almost anywhere - so why not? Surely it is better to spend 3 months on sabbatical or saving street children in Timbuktu than whiling away the months in UK suburbia …

It is a bold (or foolish) missionary who dares to speak out against short-term mission. Sometimes we are required to be bold and foolish for Christ. Should short-termers so dominate the missions scene? Should missions literature be full of accounts by people expounding on their initial experiences of foreignness? Should missionaries (and foreign church leaders) be running around in circles accommodating and pleasing powerful foreign (ignorant) visitors? Should strategic decisions be made by those with no experience? I do not know of another field where this applies. If I pick up a journal on chemistry, I don't read stories about 'when I first picked up a test tube …'. Educational journals contain articles by teachers, and not by 'one day I happened to visit a secondary school in action…' by a total novice.

The uniqueness of the task of cross-cultural mission lies, I suggest, in its cross-cultural nature. Chemists, engineers, school teachers, vets, doctors, secretaries, professors, soldiers and even astronauts are all engaged in perfecting aspects of a familiar culture. The cross-cultural missionary is unique - in having to learn to appreciate, live with, and function in ways of life that are antithetical to, despised by or even abominable to the sending culture!

The cross-cultural missions task today faces a magnitude of challenge never before known. That is the challenge of meeting, comprehending and working with a foreign culture, while under a degree of scrutiny form 'home' greater than could once have been even imagined. This is due to the communication-revolution of recent decades. To this can be added the ever more focused and narrow academia of the West brought about by numerous factors including the use of an international language for scholarly purposes, and (especially in Europe) a dogged determination to make rootless ideologies such as secularism 'work', no matter what.

The missionary can be left high and dry! Few are prepared to listen to reports of 'exotic' cultures when scores can say "I was there myself and spoke to the people face to face (in English) …". Even those who do listen may struggle to take on board any aspects of cross-cultural encounter that counter or threaten the comfortable worldview that they have created for themselves.

The other part of my prescription for mission is that it should be vulnerable. People who are vulnerable are non-threatening. They do not work with those people who are at the same time dependent on them. They are ready to listen without condemning. They are ready to be misrepresented and abused without complaining. They have a listening ear but not a condemning tongue. They are not powerful in the worldly sense.

This is doubly (or triply or more) important for a Westerner wanting to engage in mission - because of the enormous power of the culture and the people from which he/she emerges. The Westerner carries this by default. He (she) is a marked man. A Westerner in Africa stands out as he/she would in a British crowd through growing horns like those of a bull, or having a nose like a football! Major efforts are needed for a Westerner even to get onto the starting-block in the race for vulnerability. At the moment very few are facing in the right direction - as policies of the West to Africa (of aid etc.) are such as to tend to set the white man apart more and more, and not less and less!

There are many reasons for vulnerability to have been thrown to the wind. One is plainly because technology and social know-how from the West have been widely considered to be the solution to African problems. Hence visitors to the Continent far from having the humility of recognising their own ignorance, often have the confidence of knowing that they hold solutions in their hands, if local people would only listen! Instead of putting themselves into humble positions where they can listen, visitors to Africa from the West concentrate on empowering themselves to enable their particular voice and message to be heard as widely as possible. When it comes to empowering African people - then the idea is to empower them to say what the white man is already saying, or to do what the white man has already been doing - not to think for themselves. The African who is praised is the one who behaves like a white!

I suggest that one cannot be effective as a missionary operating on this system. The African who behaves like a white is not behaving according to his heart orientation but through imitating foreigner(s). There being no indigenous foundation to such behaviour makes it liable to corruption and collapse at any time. Changing one person in a community accustomed to acting as a social whole makes him a misfit not a change-agent. (Unless he makes a lot of money, which of course he actually often does. But then are changes that follow money heartfelt and lasting?) People learn by building on existing knowledge, thus enabling gradual social change, but the individual who has been 'white-ised' is airlifted out of his community, to be impaled onto a pedestal of dependency.

What helps an older person teach a younger is not only that he knows what the younger doesn't, but also that he knows the state of not-knowing that the younger person is going through. In other words, someone who has climbed a mountain step by step is better equipped to direct someone else to do the same than he who was planted onto the mountain top by helicopter. He who has himself climbed out of a hole can best direct another to do the same. What is important is not only the desirable finished state (true faithful believing Christian) but also how to reach it! The process of reaching cannot be identical for people from different cultures (i.e. starting points). Hence assisting someone from another culture to achieve a said goal first requires the instructor to immerse him / her self into the culture concerned.

This principle is widely adhered to in the Western church and in Western life. That is why the leader of a woman's fellowship is usually a woman, a youth leader typically young, the pastor of a Chinese church Chinese, and the elder of a church in town a respected leader of the town's community. Such careful thinking goes to pot on the mission field in Africa - where European people using European languages try to control every cough and splutter of the African church. Saying this does not make me into a racist. The 'problem' is not singularly that a Brit involves himself in an African church. The church has always been international and multicultural. The 'problem' is that the Brit insists (and African people won't argue because of their kindness, and their financial dependence) on running the church using his language in his way! (When I say 'insists', I mean 'forces' through circumstances. East African people can be desperately clinging to the use of English, because that is the language that gets them multiple financial and materially lucrative contacts. At fault are those who run projects on the African Continent while operating in English.) Many many mission contexts have almost zero built in learning curves in relation to African life, but are usually highly attuned to the pleasing of Western donors. This is ignorance being perpetuated.

The way to rescue mission from the quandary that threatens it is, I suggest:


Spirit Possession

Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as having driven out demons/spirits (e.g. Mark 1:25-26). So, how can Christians today deny either their existence or the need to remove them?

I guess that people have long had 'problems' of all sorts, ranging from diseases, infertility, accidents, various misfortunes and so on. The same people have wanted (as they still do today) to be free from these problems. That is, to remove (or in other words drive away!) the problems.

The way that these problems are to be dealt with will of course depend on how their nature is understood. Problems are clearly inherently relational. A tree falling in a distant forest may not be a problem to me, unless someone known to me is injured by it. Should a friend, family member or colleague have been critically wounded by the falling tree then knowledge of his or her ailment, all be the person very distant, will trouble me. It may make me depressed, it may deny me sleep, or make me negligent in the carrying out of my duties.

The fact that the injured person in the scenario above is not with me physically does not stop them from having a deleterious impact on my life. What is 'with me', we could say, is their 'spirit'. In order to be healed from the depression and sleeplessness and so on that is troubling me, that spirit clearly needs to be removed. This happens in the act of exorcism, and until it is removed I am in a sense 'possessed'.

What then if the symptoms of the above occurrence arise, without my being aware of the tree having fallen and injured someone? That is, I feel poorly, discouraged, sickly and can't sleep, but am not aware of that there has been an accident? The obvious answer of course is that I will now suspect something to have occurred to have had this influence on me! That is simple logic. If X (a friend has an accident) causes Y (I feel bad and even get sick), then Y arising, implies that X has occurred.

Someone coming to feel sickly suspects a cause. This cause is in the form of a 'spirit' (as above defined) that has come to trouble him or her. In order to achieve relief from this ailment, clearly the spirit needs to be removed. This person will then seek a specialist who can remove the spirit, sometimes known as an exorcist.

The example of a friend having an accident is only one of many ways that 'spirits' can impact my life. My meeting a colleague and being told by him "I hate you and I wish you would get lost and die" will trouble me long after the person has left the room. Much milder versions can also apply - such as having a friend walk away after a conversation and not say goodbye. Or any suspicion however caused that someone doesn't like you. Perhaps gossip that you have heard that suggests any of the above.

Each of the above cases is of a person troubling you in his/her absence. The person may even already be dead, yet continue to trouble you. In each case, physical maladies can follow. In every case, the sufferer will seek to be 'delivered' from the malady concerned. That is, will seek to have the spirit removed.

Note that treating the symptoms of an ailment would be considered secondary in such a case. That taking an aspirin may relieve the headache that I have had ever since my father suddenly passed away, has not got to the root of the problem, which is the spirit of my father that is haunting me. Hence the task of an exorcist is primary to that of the 'healer', including so called biomedical-healers.

Death has always deeply troubled mankind. Of all the problems to beset us, this is the ultimate. Not a reduction in the quality of existence as implied in job-redundancy or injury, but a complete annihilation of a fellow, now reduced to a stinking corpse. Forgetting this dead person may not be easy, or even possible. That is, their spirit remains with us. The nature of the behaviour of this spirit will depend on how they were when they were alive, and often especially the circumstances surrounding their death. For example, should you be angry with someone, and then they die within a couple of hours, you are likely to feel regret if not guilt. This regret or guilt will be caused or brought to you by the dead, in other words they will haunt you. Husbands and wives have been known to die within days or weeks of the death of their life partner due to the ongoing influence of the dead person concerned. Some parents become very seriously depressed following the death of their children.

As above, X resulting in Y, will have us suspecting X if Y arises. In other words, because the dead can so trouble us, we can conclude if we are troubled that it is the dead that are doing it. Hence the power of the dead in many parts of the world. The influence of the evil thoughts of the living (hatred, jealousy, someone who doesn't like you or want you and so on) are on the other hand known as witchcraft.

The question then arises as to how such situations are to be handled? The objective is to remove the troubling spirit, but how? That question has beleaguered mankind for centuries. Rituals are frequently used. Then there is the calling on the name of deities or the friendly dead to help to deal with the unfriendly dead. The ritual killing of animals is seen as a means of satisfying the lust of the already dead for 'life' force(s). Old people with long experience whose friends and colleagues have already passed into the realm of the dead are frequently the ones consulted. Or those people who have a mysterious side to their existence - strange people with apparent mental irregularities. Communication with the dead may be through dreams. This system of seeking help is unfortunately open to abuse - the therapist may charge money, animals like cattle, or sexual services in exchange for his art.

Just over 2000 years ago a boy was born in Palestine, who was to bring some radically new remedies to the dilemmas faced above. He removed spirits, but did not demand payment. He was able to heal those who had been bewitched, but without accusing any witches. This is because he knew of the power of the creator God. He was (and is) God. He taught something called agape (fatherly love). His power is still available today, and it is the outworking of that power of the true God that has brought the church to where it is today. The church has in turn profoundly influenced the civilisations in which it has operated. Perhaps we have been too quick to forget some of these things?

"The value of the white man is his money..."

One reason Luo people laugh when they hear me speak their language, it seems, is that they cannot see a good material reason for me to have 'wasted my time' in learning it. The languages of power and influence, that they are all busy learning, are English and (to a much lesser extent) Kiswahili. "Why would anyone want to go to school to learn mother-tongue" was the incredulous statement of a lady I spoke to recently? "But I spent years and years in school learning about and in my mother tongue" I protested.

Ironically, dependency on the West here in East Africa, by locating problems and solutions in the international arena, can have people assume their culture to be faultless and their language not in need of attention. Instead of being open to correction and change, fossilized ancient cultures guide much of peoples' lives. Whereas people are quick to accept my corrections of their use of English (my language after all), it is hard for them to believe that I can ever help them to live their own lives better, given how ignorant I am even of its basic social/relational, ritual, cosmological and conceptual components.

Hence attention is focused on correcting that which is foreign that has been introduced into the Continent. Schools, institutes, research centres, NGOs and universities all target this area. Even Christianity, being as it is introduced through foreign language and concepts, is a means of honing foreign inputs for maximum local benefit. The best brains in Africa are focused on solving the problems of foreigners and their inputs. The indigenous is ignored.

When will this crazy situation end and education in Africa begin to be an examination of people's own life and culture instead of that of others?

Foreign language, foreign gospel

One outcome of the use of a foreign language in running one's country and educational system, is that much that is of consequence in a people's own life that the foreign language happens not to share, is ignored. Thus, given the extreme foreignness of English as used in Kenya, superstructures of education and academia are erected, that fail to address people's heartfelt concerns. These structures look great to foreigners - because they are 'just like at home'. The question is - how to take in hand the parts of people's lives that are ignored, and how to avoid the inappropriate perpetuation of structures that are of little or no value locally except in their role as maintainers of dependency on outsiders?

A common approach in East Africa is to refer to the 'non-modern' parts of one's life as 'demons', and then periodically to chase them away. Another approach is publicly and officially to deny what is there (thus unfortunately making untruth a fundamental building block of society) while maintaining it out of sight. Many use the foreign structures for obtaining money, that is then used to satisfy the heart-felt indigenous structures. This process can be called corruption.

This scenario becomes very confusing for missionaries. Where does the Gospel belong? Its easiest fit is in the formal sector, because it comes with all the credentials for that sector. That is, it fits easily where English is used. Existing theological and devotional books address those parts of African people's lives that are visible to the international community.

But this 'foreign Gospel' leaves much of African people's lives untouched. Some (many) have become dissatisfied with this, and attempt to bring Christianity into the 'hidden' part of their lives. This can cause considerable alarm and shock to missionaries - who see their nice familiar Gospel misshapen and 'distorted' to address unfamiliar (invisible) concerns. Reactions include denial, rejection, condemnation and confrontation. Only rarely - engagement and accommodation.

Engaging and accommodating have many traps and pitfalls. Not least is the risk of clashing with other foreigners who have taken the common denial, rejection, condemnation or confrontation options. (It is amazing how quick Western people are to take these options given their reluctance to support the same in their own cultures. That is, while counseling is frequently used as a means to taking people's issues seriously in the Western church, often no provision is made for taking African issues seriously in the African church.)

Engaging the Gospel with people's traditional ways of life using their mother-tongue languages is like jumping into a pot of hot soup in a dark room! There must be some floundering and pain before one begins to find clear direction. Yet frankly there are many senses in which, until one engages with people as they are, one has yet to begin true Gospel work. This is because unlike agricultural projects, educational programmes and even medical campaigns, the God of the Bible demands first place in people's lives, and engagement with their very hearts. You can't do that if you are an odd foreigner, and all eyes are focused only on what is in your pocket. A missionary must get into the soup to be effective!

What is the soup like? I would like to point my readers to two recently published books that unveil challenging insights into the nature of this soup-of-life. I hope they will inspire aspiring missionaries to engage the challenge of crossing linguistic and cultural barriers - the highest priority in reaching the people of Africa today!

MARANZ, DAVID, 2001, African Friends and Money Matters Dallas: SIL International (An excellent book that reveals many real and important differences that need to be addressed to enable close relationship between European and African peoples.)

MYERS, GLENN, 1998, The Poorest of the Poor: the peoples of the West African Sahel Carlisle: OM Publishing (About the situation in West Africa, which has very strong parallels in the East African scene!)

Report on children in my home

Samson, aged 24 will finish his teacher training in Mombassa (600 miles away) this August, and then probably get a teaching job there.*
Esther, aged 22, has given birth to a second child.*
Dorcas, aged 17, finished her primary schooling and is now learning to sew and studying at YTC.
Christine, aged 8, is gradually mastering reading and writing.
Okoth, aged 17, is studying hard at school, and has of late matured considerably.
Zachary, aged 10, seems to have grown out of some bad habits, and we are gradually seeing him mature.
Pamela, aged 21, now has a fiancé and is to be married on 16th July 2006.
Melody, aged 19, is now married with a daughter, and perhaps other children. *
Diane, aged 17, suffers from chronic ill health, so we are praying for her.
Ochilo, aged 19, is learning carpentry and studying at YTC.
Okello, aged 17, has a speech impediment, which we are praying he will overcome.
Saul, aged 13, I am optimistic that he has turned a corner. He works hard and is good to have around.
Michael, aged 4, is still the main entertainer of the household.
Doreen, aged 17, has struggled a bit more at school than we anticipated. She is now working hard in preparation for her primary school exams.

* no longer living with me permanently. (False names used throughout.)

Siaya/Yala Theological Centres (STC/YTC), Kima International School of Theology

We have just accepted a new teacher for Siaya Theological Centre. He wrote on his application form that he originally came to Siaya to do 'watch-doctoring'. We later discovered that this was a spelling error - and actually he had been a witchdoctor until he accepted Christ into his life. He is due to attend a residential Bible college from September to November of this year, then could begin teaching in Siaya as early as January 2007 if all goes well.

We discovered earlier this year that in the same month that we launched STC (January 2005) an African pastor friend of mine was also launching another Bible/Theology teaching programme in the same town! That is a more formal and conventional programme than ours. We are glad that they have accepted that we have a joint graduation ceremony on 15th July 2006. Please pray for this event. (They are running the event, but have allowed us to be a subsidiary part of it.)

There is not much to report on our Yala classes, except that staff shortage has forced us not to run two of the planned nine classes. Of the seven classes running, I have been teaching three, our director and my pastor sharing the rest of the teaching.

Changes are in the air at KIST on the accreditation front. KIST, as many theological education institutions, is under pressure to comply with international (for which read Western or British/American) standards. While ironic that a rural denominationally based theological institution in Africa should be under such pressure - the Kenyan government recently warned that non-complying degree awarding institutions could be shut down. This immediate danger has passed for us, but the pressure is now on to complete mounds of paper work and push KIST to meet the criterion of various accrediting bodies.