I majored in geography in college because I love people, places, and the space between cultures. Most of my undergrad courses focused on development issues in Central and South America, covering both the theory and implementation of modern development strategies.
My favorite part of these courses, the thing that kept me engaged with my coursework, was that we were generally more focused on the execution of development theory instead of its construction. We studied strategies designed to combat sexually transmitted disease and child marriage, to provide education and food security, and to develop microfinance. It never seemed particularly beneficial to talk about the why of social injustices beyond the socio-political causes that could influence the design of a development strategy.
Personally it always seemed to me that the message was “social justices simply are, therefore we must actively address them ASAP, we need to get involved.” Some of my classmates were more than comfortable living in the “what if” space of our class discussions, presupposing that there was ultimately little hope of success in the face of so much suffering. I think being a Christian is probably what made me bored with questions of “why.” Any time it came up I would think “sin of course – everything and everyone is broken so let’s start trying to put it back together.” That’s actually not a reductionist representation of my thought process. As Christians we have the answer to human brokenness and cruelty, and that frees us to stop dwelling in the “why” and start figuring out “how”.
All of this, though, leaves us no less susceptible to the forgetfulness and numbness that plagues the wider public when it comes to engaging modern development challenges. Ever heard of South Sudan? Chances are good that you did at some point in the last 5 years even if you don’t remember. In 2011 President George W. Bush was instrumental in constructing a peace accord between North and South Sudan…only to watch it disintegrate in 2013 when the country plunged itself into a brutal civil war.
An article by Jeremy Weber for Christianity Today entitled “The Christian Case for Not Giving Up on the World’s Most Fragile State” paints a bleak picture of the current state of South Sudan. Interviewee Richard Stearner, the president of international aid organization WorldVision, explains that it has been considerably more difficult to raise private money to assist in the recovery of the South Sudanese people when compared to crises with natural causes. He says, “Donors have more empathy after crises that could happen to them than after crises that are someone’s fault.”
Perhaps more troubling than people forgetting is the fact that others, especially evangelical Christians in the U.S., are doing everything we can to avoid taking responsibility for the struggles of the Sudanese population. The “That sounds like a job for John Kerry” attitude, as quoted from an American pastor with whom Stearner spoke, appears to be gaining traction among a large number of American Christians who no longer see themselves as implicated in the issues of the wider world. This attitude and approach to the suffering of others is incompatible with the Scriptures.
For example, in the story of Ruth chapter 2 we find two destitute women, Ruth and Naomi, struggling to survive in a patriarchal, impoverished, rural, agrarian culture not unlike the one that exists in South Sudan today. They have no husbands, no children, no money, and – as women in the ancient world – little in the way of rights or education. Ruth’s life is reduced to the hope that she can at least collect enough food to avoid starving by gathering up what is left behind by workers in the fields of Naomi’s distant relative Boaz.
Ruth and Boaz are not related and Naomi is related to him only through the marriage of her late husband, yet Boaz, knowing Ruth’s character by her refusal to abandon her mother-in-law, Naomi, gives Ruth work, food, water and protection and asks nothing in return (Ruth 2:8-9). Later Boaz even shares a meal with Ruth and commands his servants that “even though she gathers among the sheaves, don’t embarrass her. Rather pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her” (Ruth 2: 15-16).
Boaz, being of a higher class and having no blood relation or other duty to Ruth, shows great humility, honor and respect in his willingness to serve her. Upon hearing of his kindness Naomi says of Boaz “That man is our close relative, he is one of our kinsman-redeemers.” However, by our modern standards and customs Boaz is practically a stranger to these women. So then how do we see ourselves implicated in the lives of others for the sake of love the way Boaz did with Ruth and Naomi? Why should we care about what is happening in South Sudan enough to give our money and more away to its redemption?
Stearner eloquently delivers the answer in his interview when he says:
“We have to ignore our differences and emphasize our identity is not our culture; it is the mind of Christ. Those who left have more education, but they lost touch. Those who stayed know the context ministry needs to be done in. We need one another to be complete.”
(“The Christian Case for Not Giving Up on the World’s Most Fragile State” p.2)
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:14 puts it, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” When we submitted our lives to Christ we were given a new identity and a command to “love our neighbor” as ourselves. Christ is our implication, our motivation, and our justification to actively engage the suffering of the world.
We are not of this world; we know that the suffering we see is not as it was meant to be; and because of Christ we have all of the justification and means to fight for the redemption of the world and more importantly the lives in it. We in our new identity in Christ, as image-bearers of God (Gen 1:26-27), are all kinsmen redeemers despite ethnic, racial, language, cultural and geographical differences.
Our identity in Christ as one body (1 Cor 12:12) transcends all of these differences. When our work engages the world and its people with the same thoughtfulness, activity, and compassion that Christ’s did, as Boaz did, then we can begin to see the kind of redemption and healing that is the goal of Christian global aid work.
Stanton Coman works in the not-for-profit space and is a member of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program in McLean, VA.