June 1, 2009

You can’t purchase shalom

I’ve been reading the news coverage in preparation for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. A while back - though recently for me as it only just arrived in my mail - there was an article about Convention’s focus on the Millennium Development Goals, the so-called “Eight Commandments” that are designed to address global poverty.

I should state up front that I generally view the MDGs with suspicion. I don’t find them a useful conceptual tool and I think the Bible has a more expansive - not to mention more poetic - view of what is required of Christians to work towards a more perfect Creation. Mostly, I find the focus on MDGs aggravating because it means I have to explain myself and my work in terms of vocabulary I don’t find useful. For instance, in my limited engagement with them, they don’t speak to the needs I’ve discovered relating to the need for a new conceptualization of masculinity or the difficulties surrounding secondary and post-secondary education.

The Episcopal Life article quoted the report from the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns (that’s a mouthful - and how can there be peace without justice?). That sent me in search of the whole report and it was refreshing to read:

The MDGs are a new framework for global healing and reconciliation, but they are nothing new for the people of God. These tangible, achievable goals...are but a 21st century articulation of what the church has been called to and worked toward its entire existence….

Even more important than the numbers is the spiritual transformation we have seen take place in the church as we come face-to-face with Christ, working in partnership with our sisters and brothers around the world to end extreme poverty. While one measure of success is certainly in dollars raised, an even deeper measure is to be found in stories told around the church—stories of sacrifices made, lives changed and joy discovered….

The Episcopal Church is experiencing an awakening—at its best humbling and, at times, stumbling—but an awakening, nonetheless.
It came as a frustration, then, that the rest of the article was essentially devoted to budgetary matters. What I’ve learned so strongly while working in Itipini is that while more money is needed to build a more perfect world, what is desperately needed is more relationships. People need to commit to people, no matter how different they may seem.

In my experience, money often serves to corrode mission. What progress towards right relationship - with Nolizwi, Vuyelwa, Pakama, Petros, and countless others - I’ve been able to make has been the result of my decision to share an existence in Itipini these last two years. It takes money to support me here and I never forget how many people have made that support possible. But that money, invested in me (or any missionary), has been able to accomplish so much more than if it had just been written over to buy, say, malaria nets. The fruits of incarnational ministry are a lot harder to quantify than malaria nets but it is incarnate ministry that moves us in the right direction.

(It was interesting to see so much concern in the Episcopal Life article about measuring the 0.7-percent. The entire budget of the Mission Personnel Office - and many other church offices, I am sure - should go under the 0.7-percent category.)

I think I see this disconnect most clearly in my ongoing efforts at a micro-credit program. As I wrote in an early evaluation of it, I had no trouble raising money for the program. In fact, I had way too much money. What I didn’t have enough of was human resources to facilitate the program and provide the kind of real support and encouragement the borrowers needed. I’m convinced micro-credit addresses several of the MDGs. I just wish there were more people working in micro-credit programs around the world instead of writing cheques for other people to work in micro-credit programs.

When it comes to stewardship, we often talk about how we can give our time, talent, and treasure to our church. It’s easy to give your treasure to global mission. It’s a lot harder to give your time and talent. I’ve spent so much time here thinking of ways people in the rich world can contribute their time and talent to people like those in Itipini. I haven’t come up with many so far. It’s a difficult question but one we need to embrace.

Instead of seeing General Convention obsess over its budget, I’d like there to be a conversation about ways Episcopalians can contribute more of their time and talent to the pursuit of right relationship around the world.

(Let me note some obvious caveats. First, I realize budgets are important statements of principle and deserve some degree of obsessing. Second, I’m familiar with the Body of Christ metaphor. Just as it is my role currently to serve in Itipini it is the role of others to raise money and awareness in the rich world. We all play a part. But I worry that sometimes people get so comfortable in the raising money role, they never ask if God is asking them to play a different role in a different place. I also worry that raising money simply becomes a cathartic experience to make us feel like we are “doing something” and obscures on focus on the real needs of the world.)

Shalom is a popular concept these days and rightly so. It’s a handy and deeply true way of expressing our final goal - completeness in Christ. But even if we had all the money in the world, we could never buy shalom. When we spend so much time obsessing about budgets and dollar figures, I worry that we begin to believe we can.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jesse,
Could you explain what incarnational ministry means?
Thanks...Susan Jergesen