A Matter of Justice: My Journey towards Gender Equality

Recently I ran across this article in the Tennessean: “Should wives submit? Debate resurges in some Christian circles”

My initial response was to shake my head and think, “Are we really still dealing with this?” My follow up thought though recognized my hypocrisy in that I once held a similar perspective.

Being raised in the southern “Bible belt” of the United States and having attended a conservative Christian seminary, I once was conflicted about this issue. On one hand, it was clear all around me that women were capable, equal leaders fulfilling many responsible roles and that was a good thing. On the other, my narrower cultural milieu told me to uphold the “traditional” roles of men taking the lead, especially in the home and the church. There are many who have been steeped in some conservative Christian circles who still experience this dissonance: You don’t want to compromise what you’ve been taught what Scripture says on this subject but the reality all around you and what seems right tells you differently.

For me, I tried to strike a compromise between the two positions with what has more recently been called “soft complementarianism”. Basically, it’s an attempt to still uphold that men technically are supposed to lead in the church and home, but that in the rest of the world and even in how that plays out in everyday living there can be equal leadership. So women are encouraged to teach and lead in church in all kinds of capacities but have to stop short of being an elder. In the home, mutual leadership in decision making is the normal way to operate. However, if a husband and wife have tried every way possible to see eye to eye on a decision and just can’t; then, the default tie-breaker is the husband (I even tried to soften this with stating that the husband though, is supposed to put his wife’s needs first when making the tie-breaking decision).

In many ways I still sympathize somewhat with the “soft complementarians”. Realizing that a deeply held cultural religious conviction needs to change is a difficult transition. Often one wishes to navigate the needed social change slowly and with caution; attempting to continue to respect one’s tradition as well as to challenge and modify it. I see many soft complementarians attempting to cross that bridge slowly. This is definitely a better direction than the recent revival of a more hard-core “complementarianism” among many younger, very conservative evangelicals. (Recently a friend told me of a 20-something mom within this movement who had been asked if she could meet with some other moms for a play date. She responded that she probably could, but needed to call and ask her husband if that was permissible!)

But I began to struggle with my “soft” complementarianism. It seemed that no matter how I tried to slice it, spin it or soften it; at the end of the day, however much the gap was minimized, women were inferior to men. By making the husband the default tie-breaker within the home, even in the best of marriages, there is still the subtle message that the wisdom of a woman is less than that of a man. By making the position of leadership within spiritual community inacceptable solely because of one’s gender, a glass ceiling is imposed that speaks volumes to the souls of women and where they stand in social order and even perhaps, before God. Further, while most soft complementarians may virtually be egalitarians in their homes and marriages, the theological position they feel they have to continue to uphold is used in many churches and homes to disempower women and keep them “in their place”. Ideas do have consequences and in my journey, holding this theological position became a problem of injustice for me.

*Image from Hope International website.

Years ago my vocation began taking me to various parts of the globe dealing with issues of injustice. Time and again I encountered cultural practices that subjugated and subverted women, most always justified through long standing traditional or religious values and mores. Whether through a process or an abrupt change, it was not until those values were challenged and replaced that breakthroughs for women were realized. I began challenging my own beliefs.

Did I really believe in a God and a gospel that would subjugate part of the humanity (however so slightly) to another part of humanity simply because of their gender (or race)? Of course not. The Jesus I saw in Scripture consistently disrupted the social norms of his day and empowered the women who followed him. I also came to believe that whatever interpretative Scriptural difficulties there may be on this subject, the early church, based on their experience of Jesus, began to set as their trajectory one overriding principle: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” No limitations. No subjugation. Nothing less than living in full equality with one another. Complete freedom to be who God made you to be regardless of gender or ethnicity. That’s just. That’s good news. That’s a trajectory worth following.

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Avoid Doing More Harm than Good: 4 Questions to Ask

For those of us involved in humanitarian efforts and seeking good social change in this world, there is perhaps nothing more frustrating or even devastating than to realize a project we initiated, a grant we enabled or even a mission trip in which we participated did more harm than good. I believe that author, speaker, and Equitas board member, Andy Crouch speaks to this when in a recent interview he challenged leaders with the thought that, “We either contemplate or we exploit.”

These are crucial words for those of us who are attempting to affect social change. Sometimes we are so enthralled with possibilities, potential “successes” or meeting our own objectives that we do not always think through the possible inadvertent consequences and exploitation. There are perhaps few things worse than unintentionally exploiting the poor, vulnerable and oppressed as a means to accomplish our good intentioned but malformed ends.

In reflecting on this, four questions emerged as I thought through how we attempt to minimize “doing more harm than good” when considering a project. My field is philanthropy, but I believe these questions are transferable to a variety of humanitarian efforts, including church mission trips. While these certainly are not the only questions that need to be asked before engaging a potential project or task, here are four questions you might want to consider for starters:

1.    Is this even wanted or needed? How many “good” projects turn out to be unhelpful because a true assessment was not honestly performed? The worse case scenario is when the community did not want the intended “good thing” and the “good thing” in hindsight brought no real value. Unfortunately the third world is littered with such projects. One helpful tool in thinking through needs assessment is Tearfund’s Project Management Cycle manual found here.

2.    What motives are involved? This includes my motives as well as the motives of others who are involved. Perhaps one of the most difficult things to assess is one’s own motives but this is vital. I may be wanting success in addressing an issue so badly that without checking my motives, I’m willing to fall for the pitch or grab a hold of flashy effort that makes me feel good but really does little tangible good. I also may want to be able to say I participated in “x” knowing it’s getting a lot of attention. It’s far too easy to listen to a few who will tell you what you want to hear than to truly survey the context and reflect on whether or not this will truly bring good social change or benefit.

Additionally, I must ask about the motives of others involved in the effort. Examples here are numerous, all the way from the pure at heart to the quintessential con artist. Most difficult to assess are those who are neither. Recently, a colleague and I spent a few hours in a third world country trying to reason with a pretty good guy who had a really bad idea and who’s motives were mixed. He wanted to both help a certain segment of vulnerable people and make a decent living at it. It was actually hard to tell which was the greater priority. It seemed though that his mixed motivations were blurring his ability to honestly assess the bad idea.

3.    Am I listening to enough voices? Obviously those proposing the project or inviting you to come are for it but do you have a good understanding of context through learning from multiple voices? Often times our work can have the unintended consequences of displacing or disempowering indigenous leaders or stakeholders when we don’t ask this question. Even worse we might even empower the wrong group or persons. I think here of a medical missions organization that unintentionally linked to a very fundamentalist group to distribute their supplies in country. This resulted in hegemony for the group as gatekeepers and a grossly inadequate distribution of supplies. In time they heard from enough “voices” on the ground that helped them correct the problem. Rarely does a project make sense when there are no indigenous grassroots voices involved. Conversely, the greater the amount of trusted voices, the less likely the odds of doing more harm than good.

4.    Am I thinking far enough? Those in my field are notorious for falling short on this one and I worry that I have fallen short here from time to time as well. We demand measured outcomes and want to see them materialize yesterday. We prefer to fund projects that can produce an immediate or short-range bang for the buck. The danger in this is that if we aren’t careful, we can have the cumulative effect of producing short-term “good” at the expense of long-term harm. Social change for the good is most often slow and needs long range vision. It most often requires committed partnerships that through mutually beneficial relationships will labor together for a cause or change in which all are passionate. Participating this way checks our motives and our vision. It’s easy to fly in, do something that seems good in the moment, and fly out without ever assessing, “Does it truly make a difference in the long run?” It is much more difficult to ask the questions, build true partnerships, commit to causes and truly seek after long term good. I suppose then, it depends on what we want…back to our motives.

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In Defense of Philanthropy

Recently, I have been a part of several conversations that were genuinely wrestling with the question, “Is philanthropy actually a distraction from what is truly needed in our world and therefore harmful?” The argument goes something like this: “In order to lift people out of poverty, it would be better for those with wealth to exclusively invest their wealth back into capitalist pursuits therefore providing jobs and economic growth for the targeted population. Economic growth lifts people out of poverty, brings social good with it and therefore should replace philanthropy.”

I do believe there is truth in this argument. Far too often economic development and job creation in poverty stricken areas take a back seat while philanthropically fueled sincere but misguided pursuits create dependency rather than empowerment. I am all for correcting this.

A recent rise of books, articles and blogs has begun to shine a light on the many faux pas of modern philanthropy and aid in general. These voices are certainly a helpful corrective; however, there are some who as a result are beginning to question the very idea of philanthropy. They as a result propose that creating a robust market is almost exclusively what is needed to address society’s problems. There is a need to swing the pendulum, but to continue with the colloquialisms, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

While balance is needed, I would argue that it is not so much the idea of philanthropy that is the issue but how we do philanthropy, with whom, for whom and to what end. There are obvious problems with the idea of throwing out philanthropy. Here are a few reminders, (not an exhaustive list), of what philanthropy can best do:

1. Provide relief. Disasters, famines, wars, disease and other humanitarian crises are an ever-present reality in our world and are not going away.

2. Advocate for and stand with exploited, vulnerable and/or voiceless populations (such as orphaned and vulnerable children).

3. Encourage development where infrastructure has collapsed or is corrupt. The suggestion to do away with philanthropy assumes that all markets are at least minimally viable and somewhat attractive for the amount of economic investment that is needed to prime the pump out of poverty. In many third world situations there are severe limitations on infrastructure and complications that are not easily remedied (regardless of where you stand on Sachs vs. Easterly divide). In the meantime, grinding poverty takes it’s toll.

4. Protect, nurture and guide the next generation. One assumption that must be made according to the above scenario is that creating jobs and wealth solves societies ills. Unfortunately the commercially exploited children of Cambodia or the restavek child servants of Haiti for whom my organization advocates would beg to differ.

5. Concentrate and/or convene the necessary resources to problem solve and bring solutions to humanitarian and/or environmental issues.

6. Fund pursuits that are intrinsically but not directly economically valuable such as faith and the arts.

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Autumn’s Chill

Autumn’s chill has slumbered in
An earthy, seasoned welcome.
Interrupting bustling distractions
With steadying solace.
Whiffs of childhood are in its company
A poignant, memorable interlude.
A gentle nodding to brevity and rhythm
Crisp, sentimental cadence.

~Lance Robinson, October 3, 2010

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What’s wrong with nice people?

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” – Parable of the Good Samaritan

I cringe every time I hear it, but I hear it said from time to time whenever I’m with Christians who are trying to distinguish their place in this world. “We don’t want to be just ‘do-gooders'”, often this is said with an incredulous tone, “We want to truly live for God.”  Christian speakers sometimes use it to scold their audiences. “What makes you different from your neighbors? What makes you different from merely nice people doing nice things in the community?” I always want to ask, “What in the world is wrong with doing good? Are we against nice people doing nice things?”

I understand the intent of these statements, but far too often Christians feel a need to distinguish themselves by way of contrast with others – an “us versus them” way of talking – an alienation of the other. This is understandable when trying to draw a distinction against a way of being that is destructive and evil; but, do we really want to draw a negative contrast against people who are contributing well to our world, (perhaps even seeking justice and showing mercy better than many “Christians”), but don’t share our faith commitments?

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes the hero of the story the one who was outside the faith. The Samaritan was one who’s lifestyle and faith commitments didn’t match up at all to the faith community Jesus was addressing. Brilliantly, Jesus turned the tables on the religious leader who questioned his orthodoxy to unwittingly have to reply that it was the Samaritan – the “compromiser”- the one outside his faith – the other, that exhibited the mercy and love that God would be pleased with. It was the Samaritan not the “faithful” who advanced the kingdom of God in this story.

I for one am very thankful that God is at work beyond the obedience of the church. Christians can and should learn from those within our communities who are nice people living nice lives. We can and should admire those doing good no matter there creeds or commitments. If we want to follow Jesus then we will work together and integrate with those who don’t in seeking the common good of our communities and justice in our world.

Christianity that can’t learn from, cheer on and work together with others who may not share our faith commitments but do express love, justice and mercy, is a Christianity that is missing the mark according to Jesus. Our faith’s purpose is to see tangible expressions of the kingdom take root in our world. We are to be about setting things right in this world. Why not point out what’s right about what others are doing and using that as a point of engagement with them rather than feeling a need to distance ourselves from them? Would not the former be a more powerful witness in our world? We should applaud those who don’t share our faith but are doing good and follow their example. “Go and do likewise.”

This post will be a no-brainer to some and perhaps a challenge to others, but the idea of Christians working with others toward the common good, being creators rather than critics, and avoiding a subculture mentality is apparently what Gabe Lyon’s soon to be released book,  The Next Christians-The Good News about the End of Christian America – How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith anticipates for present day Christianity (see this review here). It may very well be worth your time. If you read it, let me know what you think.

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Reflections on Isaac’s Life

In the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, I spent three and half weeks in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic involved in the relief efforts. This was, needless to say, a life-changing experience in which I encountered countless stories of both tragedy and resilience, and my own participation took an unexpected twist from a small role in the food distribution and medical relief of thousands to an effort to save one child.

While delivering food to an orphanage in a small community outside of Port-au-Prince, our team came across a sick infant. Six-week-old Isaac was malnourished and dehydrated, and he grabbed my heart. A nurse practitioner who was with us decided that he needed immediate medical attention. With the blessing of the orphanage director, Isaac was swiftly transported to a medical clinic and I became his custodian in helping him receive medical care. At that point, my journey became exclusively, albeit briefly, intertwined with his.

After a good fight and despite the best efforts of many caring people, Isaac passed away on February 6, 2010. For years I have been working in various parts of the world with children-at-risk and related issues, and many children and their stories have affected me. However, the intensity of attempting to save Isaac’s short life, within the larger framework of the untold sufferings of Haiti, has had a profound impact on me, my family, and, as I continue to discover, many others as well.

I feel I was almost thrown into Isaac’s saga, so the lessons that follow are less about what I was able to do and more about what was confirmed in me as I moved through this time with Isaac. At the very least, Isaac’s story is a reminder that the claims of justice and love mean very little unless they affect someone tangibly.

It also reminds us that often times the best efforts at love and justice are small and focused. His life has been a beautiful illustration that whether we are fighting for the justice of thousands or fighting for the life of one, it’s worth it.

I wrote the following reflection while in a Dominican hospital about halfway through my time with Isaac. His story, one of an orphan suffering in the third world from lack of adequate health care, malnutrition, and basic needs, is one of a million such stories. May Isaac move you to consider what you can do on behalf of these orphaned and vulnerable children worldwide.

Wednesday Morning Reflections, January 27, 2010:

As I just rubbed Isaac’s back, he jolted and reflexively I said, “It’s okay bud. Someone’s here with you.”

I’ve been trying to figure out my role with him. Dad? Maybe. Lots of unknowns still with this. Custodian through this medical crisis? Yes. I am here to make sure that he’s properly cared for.

But what if the worst happens and he never pulls out of this? Then why all this? Why drive him wildly across the dusty countryside of Haiti to a disaster response medical clinic? Why have him cared for by experienced doctors who have converged here from all over the world? Why hop on a military chopper with him and rush him to the best hospital we could find in Santo Domingo? Why do blood work, hook him up to monitors, and pump powerful antibiotics into him? Why?

The thought came after I touched Isaac and said that someone’s here for him that in a profound sense every single human being has value; and everyone of us, just like Isaac, needs someone “there” for us whether we realize it or not.

Perhaps to give this to someone even when you are not sure what good it is or role you are playing is precisely the way God wants us to love. Perhaps I will only be here for Isaac for a short part of the journey or if his journey is short. Perhaps it’s for the long haul. Perhaps I’m supposed to be this for Isaac, and perhaps he’s teaching me something about love.

The frustrating part of this is the finitude of the human perspective. We don’t always know our role in the story. I certainly don’t understand the massive amounts of suffering and “aloneness” that has been going on all over Haiti, and it angers me. It makes me question God, or wonder if he’s the being we think he is, or even wonder if he’s really there at all.

At the same time I find myself praying—praying that somehow in some way those who were trapped or continuing to suffer will at least be given a touch from God and somehow experience that they are not alone. This is my prayer, but the realist in me recognizes that this is often not the case. People suffer and die alone all the time. Then I find hope calling me to believe this for them in eternity, and love calls me (and all who say they follow Jesus) to incarnate this love to those that come into my journey. Love also calls us all to stand for justice for the vulnerable and oppressed.

I truly wish that I could resolve the mysterious tension of not understanding the sufferings of this world and the anger and cynicism that they bring alongside the simultaneous life-giving and joyful narratives of love, justice, hope and compassion, beauty, truth and grace. The latter spurs me to want to challenge this present order of things through trying to live out these life-giving stories with presence, hope, grace, justice and love.

I want Isaac to sense someone is there for him and at this stage of life that is perhaps all that it is for him—a “sensing”. But for the value of his life, and for as long as our paths cross, I can be that for him.

I think that’s what we all need, from God and from others: to know or believe someone is there for us however long our lives are and whatever twist and turns they take.

This is to me the message of the incarnation: to show us a God who is loving and present amidst the often times dismal, inexplicable chaos around us; to give us a hope that someday this will all be made right; and to love, value and be present with us for who we are, no matter who we are—especially little Haitian orphans.

Today I choose to believe someone is here for you, Isaac, and for me as well. Despite the “whys” I choose love.

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