Monday, August 17, 2009

Christianity and Development, Part 1

I've decided to do an occasional series of posts called "Christianity and Development", in which I'll discuss how Christian faith influences perceptions (or doesn't) of development, and how that plays out among missionaries and those in the secular development community.

As a Christian myself, I'm especially keen to address this topic. I think both communities have a lot to teach each other, but rarely take the time to do so. Unfortunately, there is a lot of parochialism amongst the NGO community, which leads to a lot of groups doing their own thing without attempting to learn from others.

I'd been considering a series like this for a while, but I've finally decided to write because of a conversation I had a few days ago with a Ugandan Christian. During our conversation, he made a comment that ran something like this:
a few years ago an American pastor spoke to our group and said, "the reason America has become so developed and powerful is that many years ago the people there made a decision to turn to God and be faithful to His word." Until Uganda makes the same decision, we will never be a successful country.
His point was that America's success was a direct result of a collective faithfulness to God. I wasn't sure how to respond to such a sentiment, so I tried to be nuanced. "America prides itself on being a place of diverse opinion and thought. So while there are many faithful Christians in our country, there are many people who do not follow Christ. And many of those people have been successful, along with Christians." My friend was less than convinced.

Inside however, I was a little upset. No matter what this pastor had intended, the perception he left behind was that America has been successful solely by being Christian. The reality of course is much more complex. I am afraid that this pastor left the impression that Ugandan Christians should be out converting everyone to Christ before attending to issues of development. Unfortunately, Uganda has been "converted" many times over yet has not achieved the same level of success as the United States (granted, "success" is a relative term. The Christian worldview would attest that measuring a nation's GNP vs. the US is a deeply flawed metric).

However, the values central to the Christian faith: honesty, love, faithfulness, and sacrifice play a crucial role in the development of a society. Corruption hinders most developing countries, and I think a transformational commitment to Christ (and these values) would eliminate this most basic of problems. But if Christian groups only pursue altar calls at the expense of "holistic transformation", poverty will continue. The gospel must not just be preached, it must be demonstrated. When we as Christians do work towards transforming lives - and that list is potentially endless - we show to non-Christians the work the Holy Spirit is doing in ourselves. And at the same time, we show that the work done in our lives is overflowing into their own lives. In saving us, God has also blessed others.

Only when we proclaim through words that Christ is Lord, while at the same time proving it through our work, will societies truly be lifted up. As James said,
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing for his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." James 2:14-17

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