Monday, February 13, 2017

Runaway Radical: Radical Christian Missions

A crowd of students raising their arms in worship at Urbana 2012. Image source.
Let's continue talking about Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, a book I totally recommend to anyone who has experience with the radical Christian missions movement. "The radical Christian missions movement" is the term I've decided to use, because I'm not aware of any explicit label for this movement, but it very much is a movement with its own distinct ideology, and we have to call it something. (I was never aware of a label for it because it was presented to me as "this is what real Christians are supposed to do"- to give it a unique name would imply that it's not the same thing as just plain old Christianity. Related: I was raised evangelical but nobody really told me explicitly "we are evangelical." No, it was always "this is what real Christians believe.")

The radical Christian missions movement is what you get when people who believe in "biblical inerrancy" actually read the bible and take it as seriously as "biblical inerrancy" proponents say we should take it. The bible is FULL of verses about helping the poor, FULL of verses blasting the rich for oppressing people, and Jesus preached some pretty scary extreme stuff like "turn the other cheek" and "whoever wants to save their life will lose it" and "anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me" and "whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me" and "give to everyone who asks."

It all adds up to an ideology that goes like this: If you are really devoted to Jesus, then you have to give up more and more and more. You have to give up everything you possibly can. The bible commands us to help people, and as long as there exist people in the world without reliable food and water, and you aren't doing as much as you possibly can to help them, you are sinning. It's selfish to have savings accounts, it's selfish to buy nice things for yourself- no, you should donate all that money and just trust God. That's what faith is- taking these big risks, the world says you're "crazy", but then God comes through and the result is amazing.

I went to InterVarsity's Urbana conference in 2009 and 2012, and radical Christian missions ideology was preached CONSTANTLY. From beginning to end, the whole entire Urbana conference is radical Christian missions. It's all about the horrifying reality of humanitarian crises that exist in the world, and how Christians need to DO SOMETHING about it, how YOU need to do something, how God is sending YOU, give everything up and go save the world.

At the end of Urbana, everyone is given a "commitment card" to fill out. I've managed to find a photo online of the card from the 2012 conference:
Urbana 2012 commitment card. Image source.
The card in the above image has a bunch of boxes you can check, to indicate which things you're "committing to." There are 3 categories: getting saved, evangelism, and cross-cultural missions. And throughout the conference it's made clear that the very best thing you can commit to is long-term cross-cultural missions. Be a missionary. Yes, when it's time to fill out the cards, I'm sure the speaker on stage will say something about "not everyone is called to cross-cultural missions, don't feel pressured to check off that box if God's not calling you" but come on. The whole entire conference is "look how much these non-white people in foreign countries are suffering, God cares about them, so YOU need to do something about it" and "look at this person who is a really really amazing Christian because they heard God's call and moved to another country."

And though I'd say this ideology is better than the "all that matters is heaven and hell, just get people saved and don't care about physical needs" that's also common among church people, it's still not a healthy belief at all. It's driven by guilt. The point is to sacrifice so much that you're constantly in a state of crisis and you have to "depend on God"- because some people in this world don't have clean water, so what makes you think you deserve to feel secure about getting all your needs met?

So much guilt. I was at Urbana 2009, when, at the beginning of his talk, Shane Claiborne took a bag of rice and said, "In this bag of rice, there's about 24,000 little grains of rice, almost equivalent to the number of lives that are lost every day from poverty and suffering." And then, while the whole stadium watched, he poured out the entire bag. Later some of us students were talking about it, and someone asked what the point of that was. "Was he just trying to make us feel guilty?" (There was also discussion about "why do they keep talking about global poverty and how we have to give things up, but there's a massive light show and fog machines every day during the worship time- couldn't that money have been donated instead?" [This is exactly what Judas said- make of that what you will.] And "we all spent hundreds of dollars to come to this conference- why are they asking us to give more for this offering they're collecting?")

Even though the church where I grew up wasn't part of the radical Christian missions movement, they taught "always put others first" which is essentially the same thing- the radical Christian missions movement just takes "always put others first" to its logical conclusion, which is "if anybody, anywhere, is in such poverty that they can't even get their basic needs met, then it's wrong for me to have anything good." The church also taught me that my mental health didn't matter, which is a key component in radical Christian missions. It relies on people NOT thinking "a belief system that puts this much guilt on people is so so SO bad for mental health, and our mental health matters."

And churches and missions organizations often use these kinds of guilt-driven tactics to get people to donate money. How many times have I seen an advertisement with a photo of THE MOST starving African child they could find, accompanied with some line about how you could help them "for less than the price of a cup of coffee per day"? The message is clear: There are people who live in such bad conditions, you can't even imagine, but you have a comfortable life and you should feel bad about it. To get rid of that guilt, please donate some money to our mission organization. Right? Radical Christian missions just takes that to its logical conclusion.

That's why none of it was shocking to me, when I read in "Runaway Radical" how Jonathan gave away his bedroom furniture and slept on the floor, how he made a commitment to always give all the cash in his wallet to any homeless person who asked, how he criticized his family for spending money on a vacation, how upset he became when his car was in an accident and he had to use the money he was saving for a missions trip to pay for car repairs instead. It's totally consistent with the radical Christian missions ideology that I was explicitly taught at Urbana and less-explicitly taught in the evangelical church. I've never met anyone who actually followed it to the extent Jonathan did, but that's because he's a way better Christian than the rest of us, according to that belief system. Not because he "misunderstood" or anything like that.

And here's another thing we have to talk about: the phrase "we have so much in this country." I often heard this as the reason we should give away money to help people on the other side of the world- because "we have so much in this country." It's fascinating how many faulty assumptions are packed into this one simple phrase. First of all, it dismisses all the Americans who live in poverty. Clearly it's their own fault because they're lazy and bad at managing money, and also they have TVs so don't feel bad for them, it's not like they're *really* in poverty. Next, it assumes that the way we live in the US is so incredibly different then those stereotype people in Africa or Asia. We have so much, we can easily donate to help them, but they don't and they can't. And finally, I seem to have subconsciously bought into this "we have so much in this country" reasoning, such that when I moved to China I actually found myself thinking "I'm off the hook now, I already gave up the American lifestyle and moved to China, so I don't have to do any more charity giving." I could sense there was something wrong with that line of thinking, but it was really hard to figure out what exactly the problem was.

Another idea mentioned in "Runaway Radical" was "getting God's attention." Jonathan talks about how he felt like he needed to do more and more radical things, put himself in even more risky situations, to show God he was really devoted and get God to respond by doing miracles. I totally get this. This is EXACTLY what radical Christian missions teaches. Just "step out in faith." Be "crazy for Jesus." Jump in before you know what you're even doing, and trust God to take care of you. That's what real faith is, they said. On page 161 of "Runaway Radical," the writers point out that this is how satan tempted Jesus in Matthew 4:
But who else was told to put himself in harm's way and let God do the rest? Wasn't Jesus offered the same temptation by Satan in the wilderness? "Throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple," Satan challenged. "If you are who you say you are, God won't let you fall" (Matthew 4:5-6, paraphrased). It was an opportunity for Jesus to prove his special proximity to God, a chance to demonstrate a show-stopping act of faith.

But manufactured hardship is always for show. Radicals forsake big houses and nice cars for mud huts and orphans. But to wear sacrifice as a badge is to trade material status symbols for spiritual ones. It is baptizing attention-seeking behavior, confusing "making an impact" with "making a scene."

The same kind of exhibitionism Jesus refused to take part in is now the very thing radicals think Jesus expects of them. As the contest escalates, the question becomes, How much trouble can I land myself in? How can I get myself thrown in jail like the apostles? How can I get myself killed like the martyrs?
They're not exaggerating. This is what radical Christian missions teaches: Do wild, reckless things because of "faith"- that's what it means to really be a disciple of Jesus.

In the book, Amy and Jonathan explain why this ideology is a form of legalism. And their antidote is grace- believe that God loves you unconditionally, you don't have to earn it by saving the world, and you should just focus on "loving the person in front of you." Personally, I think their answer is good in terms of the "getting God's approval" aspect of radical Christian missions, but it doesn't address the "there is so much suffering in the world and you should be doing more to help" aspect. Next week I will talk about how feminism gave me a much healthier way to look at that component.


Posts about Runaway Radical:

The Stories You Can't Tell In Church
Radical Christian Missions
What Feminism Taught Me About Saving the World

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