Jim's Journal - October 2007
Thoughts on What is Vulnerable Mission?
This is another special edition of Jim's Journal. The focus in it is on the nature and underlying principles of Vulnerable Mission. It is hoped that some readers will be encouraged to volunteer their services to VM by assisting in the planning for 2009 conferences. (Contact jim @ vulnerablemission.com for details.)
Languages that people know are extremely complex entities. The experiences that a community goes through constantly adds to their complexity.
Languages reflect the people that use them - physically, socially, spiritually and so on. It is through this complexity, amazingly, that people learn and know how to communicate intimately and organise and enjoy their lives.
A foreign language is not a substitution of different sounds for existing words, but an introduction of a system of communication that is logically very different and rooted in an unknown way of life. Communication in a foreign language at depth is impossible - unless or until that language is appropriated by a people to make it their own. Until this happens, imposition of a foreign language amounts to mandatory incompetence as meanings hang in the air.
Such substitution of foreign for indigenous sound systems (languages) has become the norm for 'formal' activities in much of Africa. European languages cannot be 'owned' by African people as long as they remain rooted elsewhere. Their use leaves vast gaps in the communication process. Hence their spread adds to incompetence over the continent. Pray that such forced imposition of incompetence cease, and people be allowed and enabled to communicate freely.
Ironically it is international and supposedly compassionate bodies such as the UN and aid agencies that are using their financial might to so force incompetence onto African peoples.
The Millennium Development Project is a recent example. It is attempting to force people into universal primary education. The MDP does not insist that primary education should be via a language that children understand.
Instead international funds are being used to wrench children away from their own people's and customs, to be left hanging in a meaningless ether, knowing that from thereon they are increasingly dependent for their very existence on the whim of the distant foreigners.
Attacking a people's language by imposing a foreign alternative that mandatorises incompetence is a serious strike at the very essence of what it is to be a human community. Animal-like features can substitute for human ones in the course of such degradation. Surely there needs to be a cease to the (effectively because of foreign subsidy) forced imposition of incompetising tongues onto Africa?
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Missionaries may not take kindly to the suggestion that they are not sufficiently 'vulnerable' to the people. Setting up an 'Alliance for Vulnerable Mission' is implying this. Is the Alliance condemning missionaries and cross-cultural workers of not being sufficiently vulnerable?
An apparent contradiction in work in the 'poor world' is that while the Bible advocates humility, Western Christians are seen as having, or being, the key to the solution of people's problems. This through knowledge of a superior language, superior medical practice, superior education or technology, access to vast superior resources or even the superior power to lobby important political actors. The solutions that Westerners have to other people's problems often seem to be urgently needed. The nationals of the countries being reached will go along with this urgency. They will often also acknowledge the superiority of the Western missionary. All this makes it hard to be 'vulnerable'.
The reasons nationals, at least apparently, often agree with Western missionary superiority are many:
1. Whatever the missionary wants to do almost invariably involves money. Then various people stand to benefit regardless of the actual objectives of the activity concerned.
2. Because culturally it can be considered rude or offensive not to encourage someone in what they have set out to achieve.
3. In a world dominated by the West, Western missionaries are often in powerful influential positions.
4. (related to 2.) Financial and cultural dependence often obliges nationals to go along with a foreigner.
Western missionaries failure to be vulnerable is not by intent. They have the best of intentions. It is rather due to enormous pressure from all quarters, from home, field, nationals, missionary training college, etc., to urgently implement the 'superior' product that they have in hand.
The superior product, be it medicine, theological education, dairy project etc. etc., is invariably formulated in the West and invariably operates in English or another European language.
Involvement in this superior product as a result makes it hard for missionaries to become a part of the local language community. Once the superior product is set up missionaries become the key people responsible for its success. They understand the superior product better than the locals because it is of 'foreign' design, so they usually have to be the 'boss'. Missionaries are held accountable by donors for the success of their projects. Local people know it is in their interests not to keep the 'boss' too closely informed lest that should cause a problem with funding.
To avoid such dilemmas while being a vulnerable missionary, requires a denial of the inherent superiority of ones own culture, language, people, procedures and so on, and a refusal to get caught up in providing urgent solutions to what are clearly long-term problems or issues.
A vulnerable missionary is not a bridge to the West for those hunting for dollars. A conscious refusal to solve problems using foreign money is required. Also, a refusal to communicate using international languages in favour of 'doing things as locals do', all this over an extended period.
My reader may object that a Westerner has by following the above erased the usefulness that he/she could have offered to a community. Indeed, in so far as foreignness is advantageous, to an extent a VM does this. Then he/she ends up on a level playing field with the locals, meaning that what they do, locals can also do, so it is imitateable. What marks out the VM from locals should, if anything, be their Christian faith, meaning that what they testify to is Christ, and not the superiority of Western ways.
As I follow the above guidelines, my own vulnerability arises from my refusal to jump in and solve people's problems or to implement projects using resources of a non-indigenous nature. I am very slow to use foreign money or a foreign language to solve a problem. Conventional foreign-based avenues of operation are closed to me. I have to depend on the whim of local people to decide whether they will work with me, instead of paying them salaries or 'support'. I have to use the local language, as I have no choice but to work in local ways and link in with the local system.
Not using foreign resources to ease my task means that I run into all the obstacles that trouble local people, and more because my skin colour identifies me with ignorance.
Hence things can move incredibly slowly. But this means that what I do local people can imitate. It puts me constantly into a position of vulnerability where I need people's freely offered help in order to 'succeed'. It means that I get constant practice in the local language.
My vulnerability to the local community arises from my being heavily dependent on them for what I do. I have also become vulnerable to Westerners, as I have allowed the foreign African ways to encroach on my heart and my mind. That is, I no longer stand entirely with the West looking over at Africa, so neither can I agree with all the West does or wants to do. Neither am I entirely with the Africans. I guess I am somewhere in-between.
(Note the above does not mean that I can operate without Western finding. I use outside funding for myself and a few children who I live with, but as minimally as possible for my other activities and especially Bible teaching and church ministry. The latter then remains independent of my finances.)
Vulnerable mission is like slogging one's way through a jungle on foot, whereas conventional mission from the West can be flying over the jungle quickly to where one wants to go. The latter gets things done, and often quickly, but does not leave tracks that locals can subsequently follow.
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Grading African students' papers can be a learning experience. Here are just a couple of paragraphs that I recently found particularly interesting:
We live in concentrated quarters occupied by many family members and crowded. Meanwhile the Westerners live in a large house in the upscale neighbourhood. They have to explore the world without minding their community and discover various things while we Africans concentrate on beliefs and customs which bring poverty, death and killing.
(Pray for the African people as they struggle with deep urges and massive peer pressure to keep to traditions even when they know that they may not be helpful to them.)
I have found that Africans are very friendly people and have a concern over one another. This however does not refuse the fact that Westerners also love each [other], but its more of Africans than Westerners.
It is ironic that while the West strives to save Africa from calamity through enormous aid efforts, the African people still see themselves as having more love for each other than Westerners.
KIST students indicate that African people have very deeply seated customs that they are reluctant to abandon. To them, it seems, these customs make them human. Leaving them is like abandoning human dignity. Almost like a slippery slope to becoming like animals. This applies particularly to respect for the dead. Africans love one another more than Westerners, we are told above, but customary practices also result in poverty, death and killing. Paradox.
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I feel qualified to speak to, about, and of 'the West', because once 'I was there'. I have been where you (the Westerner) are. I was, that is, a typical British schoolboy. (Well. Maybe no one is truly typical, but perhaps I was pretty typical.)
After 19 years of living in Africa - I suggest that there are some deceptions going on that are seriously distorting our (Westerners) view of the rest of the people in our globe. Let's say - especially Africa. The deceptions in a sense are simple and obvious. But also incredibly widespread in their impact. In addition to laymen, scores of academics are deceived, and thriving on the deception.
What many Westerners who are in various ways involved in Africa will not accept, it seems to me, is any suggestion that undercuts their own assumptions as to their superiority over and above other people in the globe. Any challenge to the advantages of global Westernisation are quickly and aggressively rejected.
This is not limited to Westerners. It also extends to those non-Westerners who are eating from the Western pie. In Africa that can include a lot of people who are ready to back Westerners to the hilt. They know that if they do not do so their own necks can be on the line. This is one source of the deception. It is the emperor who hasn't got any clothes, all over again.
This position ironically is illustrated by a constant call from academia to 'hear from the native'. Western scholarship, especially that which deals with the non-West, is desperate to incorporate the views of scholars from non-Western parts of the world. This would appear to be admirable, but certainly is turning out to be difficult. One of the problems with this is that non-Westerners have to go to enormous lengths and to bend over backwards just to begin to be able to move into the realm of what is 'acceptable' in scholarly writing. First they have to learn English syntax, vocabulary and grammar. Then they must understand the ways (culture and habits) of Westerners intricately so as to be able to communicate in such a way as to be 'coming from' where the Westerners are coming from. This typically entails marrying a Westerner, living in the West for many years, and engaging in much higher study in Western universities. In order to communicate successfully with the West, the non-Westerner must first be immersed in the West at great depth for donkeys years.
Non-Westerners acquisition of a voice in the West is indeed 'expensive'. It requires a large degree of rejection of who they 'are' (were). Then they can finally be considered valid spokes-people on behalf of that on which they had for decades (typically) to turn their backs.
It needn't be quite as simple as that. Non-Western scholars will stop at different points along the line. They will reject their own people and culture only to various degrees. But those who do not go the whole hog to become 'West pleasers', have to pay the price - and that price is often that they are unlikely to be heard by the so-called international community.
The reason they won't be heard is not because Western people are unwilling to bring them on board. As I have mentioned above - Western scholarship is, it seems to me, making efforts (and major efforts) to include other voices. But the reason that this cannot happen in the context of global academia is because it is impossible given global academia as it is! There are fundamental epistemological assumptions under girding Western dominated academia that are, frankly, basically, importantly and damagingly wrong. These are rendering international scholarship into a farce. (Epistemology is the study of the origins of knowledge.)
In short - the West is wrong to think that it sufficiently understands the non-West to engage with it as it does. Academia's effectiveness at grasping deep understanding of itself is misguided in thinking that it can do the same of 'the other'. While its efforts at understanding the other may be admirable, the sense of confidence imparted as a result of these efforts is false. This false confidence is damaging in its effects.
My own investigations carried out over many years and recently acquiring me a PhD have found that a large part of the error being enacted is a misunderstanding as to the basic nature of language and communication. It is widely believed that communication is a matter of encoding thoughts into words, so that someone else can decode the same. This is false. Human minds are not like computers that code and decode things in precise digital (or even analogue) ways. 100% of the content of a message may be preserved in communication between computers, but such an analogy is extremely misleading when it comes to communication between people. People create meaning on the basis of their total context, of which words of language are typically only a small part.
I look at this epistemological/communication situation more extensively elsewhere. I refer my readers to my Articles - Index.
Almost (or absolutely?) to a man, the mission force from the West to Africa is currently engaged in spreading Western things using Western money through the media of Western languages.
What I am suggesting as a desperately urgent need for mission tomorrow is to get away from this domineering model. The means for what I am suggesting is at once simple, and at the same time, I believe, profound.
That is, for ministry of Westerners in the non-Western world to be carried out using local languages and without foreign resources. These are the foundational tenets of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. These are to be discussed in the proposed 2009 conferences.
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Darkness can be a welcome shield from calamity. Horrific events kept out of sight by a lack of light can give a delusion of peacefulness. The encroaching of dawn can be traumatic if it signals the end of ignorance of disaster. Better darkness? Deepening one's awareness of what is going on in Africa can be frightening.
Inter-regional parallels are salient. The resemblance between Kenya and elsewhere on the continent is striking. There is a growing consensus regarding the basic unity of the Sub-Saharan African culture. This means that the whole subcontinent of indigenous people is responding to the foreigner (Westerner) in a similar way.
Including in that way is an apparent willingness to reject oneself (language, culture, history, traditions) in favour of following what is foreign. It includes a disintegration of social structures in the face of a foreign onslaught. It includes a way of life rooted in one system (the well known deeply rooted ancestrally legitimised one), while increasingly dependent on another unknown system (the West) for survival.
Particularly 'disturbing' to me of late has been the realisation that no Sub-Saharan African native people has as yet been able to 'develop itself'. This despite massive efforts of assistance by the West and volumous rhetoric. This is illustrated by the language situation. The whole region's formal development operates in European languages. (Countries run using local languages include Somalia, but that is hardly a success story, and to some extent Tanzania with Kiswahili - but in the educational system in Tanzania Kiswahili is used only up to primary level, then it is replaced by English.) That means - 'formal' activities in the whole subcontinent operate on an unappropriated foundation.
Meanwhile outsiders continue to insist that African languages be neglected in favour of European alternatives. This internationalisation of education under one language, I suggest, is immoral. In effect it draws the 'poor' nations into the service of the wealthy ones.
Redcliffe college (UK) recently initiated discussion on 'missionary heroes'. 'Do we need missionary heroes today' was the question. My impression was that the answer was 'no'.
Instead, these days missionaries to Africa are asked to accept the status quo and encouraged to fill the roles of cogs in machines. I suggest that the mission field desperately needs 'heroes'. People prepared to make extraordinary sacrifices and to throw themselves hook line and sinker into God's service in places like Africa. While keeping to Vulnerable Mission guidelines of operating in local languages, and refusing to use foreign finances to boost their ministries.
I believe there is a unique role to be filled by the church. It is almost impossible for non-believers to have the degree of commitment that is needed to be so culturally vulnerable as to be able to bring helpful inputs. It is all too easy for those working in foreign fields to fall out with each other. Only Christians can realistically be expected to overcome severe disputes by expressing forgiveness. They are working for God and not for themselves.
I believe that times are changing, and some self-appropriated bubbles of Western confidence need to burst. If they don't burst, then the consequences of the powerful West's self-deception will prove to be calamitous for the rest of the globe.
The system that encourages contentment in life as a result merely of dedication to one's assigned productive 'secular' role in the West is flawed. The productivity of the West will not save the world. It threatens to be its death knell. Man was created to serve God. The New Testament model of being slaves to God is apt. There is a desperate need for evidence of Christian lives given in sacrificial commitment to a kingdom greater than that of this world.
Progressive materialist ideologies that are loved by the self-gratifying West meet little overt opposition from the 'rest' because they have become dependent on them. 'The rest' become puppets.
While the Western world engages everyone else in their efforts at resolving their particular concerns (through international education being dominated by English), non-Westerners are left to attempt to resolve their issues alone. Others don't even take the trouble to learn the languages in which they are expressed. This intellectual monopoly is facilitated increasingly by modern technology such as the internet, and wolves dressed in sheep's clothing known as aid.
Where are the vulnerable missionaries of tomorrow?
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We have faced a number of setbacks, especially in terms of personnel, since my return from the USA in April. In the last month or so things have been looking up. Some missionary friends and colleagues are rallying together, and causing me to be optimistic that our 2009 conferences will go ahead. More supporters, especially competent administrators, are still needed.
Conference Proposal for early 2009
Topic: Vulnerable (Christian) Mission
Duration: Minimum three to four day duration in order to hammer out complex issues.
To be invited: those concerned with development and Christian mission from the Western world to Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
Urgently needed: volunteer personnel to plan and administer such conferences!
Conferences to be arranged in North America and Europe under the auspices of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission in conjunction with other sympathetic individuals and organisations.
Inquiries to: jim @ vulnerablemission.com
See: Vulnerable Mission: Encouraging Western people to engage in Global mission in a Vulnerable Way
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