Posts Tagged ‘religious activity’

“But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves he seeks no power, therefore he has power,” Alan Paton (Cry the Beloved Country)

During a recent weekend trip I had an intense discussion with an agnostic friend. Church and religion are to her one of the great evils of our time. Her experience has been one of manipulation, coercion, disrespect, and hypocrisy. I found it difficult to defend the church in light of her experiences. In fact, my own experiences have often echoed the things I heard her share –and I am one of the insiders. So, if my experiences have not differed too greatly from hers, what has kept me active in the church and in faith despite these “great evils”?

Love.

I’m not sure when I first started viewing religion through the lens of love vs. power, but it has been my saving grace . . . and a thorn in my flesh. I’ve seen religion practiced both ways. I’ve felt the weight of both. I am regretfully an undisciplined practitioner of both.

Power: By using the term power I do not mean capability or strength. Rather, I’m referring to the authoritative aspects of power like hegemony and sway. By exercising this kind of power, we are lured by the ascendency of position in order to influence others, particularly if that influence makes us look benevolent and bolsters our reputation. The true motivator here is self.

Love: Likewise, when using the term love, I do not mean passive warm feelings, but rather  the activity of gratuitous affection without want of compensation.

Perhaps, these lenses are a result of working as a religious storyteller for many years and encountering powerful examples of religiosity practiced during intense times. Allow me to give an example of one such intense time.

I still cannot shake the disgust and frustration I felt in the wake of the Indonesian Tsunami a few years ago. I was first struck by the magnitude of the disaster. Then, as I began stumbling across watches, boots, and baby stroller parts in the rubble, a tsunami-sized force of grief struck me for the individuals who were lost in the rolling waves. People all over the world felt this grief and gave to countless relief organizations with the hope of making a difference.

The response of American churches was immediate and generous. That was my initial thought anyway. But as I began listening to the stories of the people on the ground, my heart sank. I learned of relief organizations competing with one another by staking-out villages with airdropped packages. Along with the packages came stipulations for the village leaders to choose that particular organization as a patron and refuse help from others. Often, the villages waited months for follow-up and were sometimes abandoned for more sensational villages. In many cases, the aid was driven by the appeal to donors more so than by the actual needs of the tsunami victims.

In one situation, a NGO hired workers outside of the area to build ships for the tsunami victims so that they could begin fishing again. A noble cause indeed! However, when the fishermen received their new boats, they found them to be useless in their local waters and incompatible with their style of fishing. They pleaded to be given the resources to make their own boats but the good deed was done and the NGO and it’s donors were already celebrating back in the US of A.

Love was not the primary motivator of these actions. This was very clear. And yet, donors were applauded for their altruism and benevolence.

The good news is that I did encounter many examples of love-motivated activity while I was there and felt surprised to see how these actions brought about a profound sense of empowerment (meaning strength and capability) to those in need.

I’ve witnessed good and bad stories like these all over the world and struggle with the best way (and most ethical way) of communicating them. Many relief workers also wrestle with this tension. Social psychology refers to this dynamic as altruism (action motivated by a selfless concern for others) vs. egoism (action motivated by self-interest).  Economist Brian Duncan labels donors who give out of a sense of “making a difference” Impact Philanthropists.* He warns that “impact philanthropist may fall into a codependent relationship with recipients in which the recipients remain dependent on philanthropy.”

The power of influence is a strong motivator and has led many relief organizations to set up giving models to meet this demand. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You probably receive catalogues in the mail that let you set up yearly giving administered to a single child, or allow you to buy a sheep for a specific family and drill a well for a remote village. If you raise extra funds for yourself, you can take a trip and see the work for yourself and call it a missions trip.

Aid organizations realize that they need these sexy projects that cater to a donor’s sense of power (AKA altruism) in order to fund the less sexy projects like overhead or maintenance, which are essential to meet the broader needs. This causes substantial ethical dilemmas for many relief organizations.

But let’s take a step back and look at the broader relationship between religiosity and power that stretches far beyond charitable giving. It seeps from pulpits and blogs and facebook status updates. Desperate appeals for influence under the guise of gospel truth simply reek of manipulation. This is the sort of thing my agnostic friend can sniff out before a Christian opens his mouth. When it comes to proselytizing, she says it starts with a look of pity followed by condescending words that reveal their moral superiority.

“If they would just say, ‘I have found the most amazing thing in Jesus. It has changed my life. I can’t help but tell you about it and would love for you to experience it too’, I could handle that. I can see that it is motivated by something real and out of a love for Jesus and for me”, she says. But this she rarely hears.

Choosing love isn’t easy.

The day following our discussion, I had one of those uncomfortable pew sessions. I jostled and shifted and sighed and finally walked out during the sermon. I was really glad my friend was not with me. She would have sniffed it out before the sermon began. Initially, I was bothered by the eisegetical engagement of the text – I get fidgety when the sermon becomes a support for personal agendas, guilt-trips, and manipulation (I’m not just talking about pulpit bullying but also minor things like seeking affirmation, reputation, or just meeting a budget goal).

When I walked out into the sunshine and took a stroll around the parking lot, I became aware again of this tension between power and love. My first response was anger followed by a desire to protect the naïve souls of the young congregants. Then I felt the pang of Christ – so many words that could have been spoken about his beauty and character where lost in the narcissism, focusing instead on the deeds of men and the awesomeness of this particular church.

In the face of “great evils” and injustices, will my response be motivated in love or power? It was a hard question to ask myself. Did I see Christ active in this church? Yes. Why is he active here despite these “evils”?

Love. Gratuitous affection without want of compensation.

I thought of the speaker again and felt that strange and heavy weight of compassion. Was I able to see beyond his words to glimpse at his heart? Was it really full of “evil” or was there something else there–perhaps insecurity or fear? What does Christ see? I spent the remainder of sermon time praying for him.

I believe that power will always be a temptress to those in authority. I believe it will always be a motivator of religiosity. And yes, I believe it can cause great social and spiritual harm. But I am coming to terms with the reality that my instinctive response toward religious power plays is often a religious power play in itself.

“But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love.” Alan Paton

Walking in love will require of me a more deliberate look at how I give, speak, defend, and pray.  I have a long walk ahead.

* Duncan B. 2004. A Theory of Impact Philanthropy. Journal of Public Economics 88:2159-80

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