Being Woke in 21st Century Missions

Being or becoming “Woke” means, “being alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”

Recently, the “whiteness” of much of modern-day missions is coming under fire, and for good reason. Like much of Western governmental aid to developing countries, the charitable motivation to help those in need is laced with power, manipulation, and privilege. Books like Toxic Charity, White Man’s Burden, and When Helping Hurts each point to a common theme. Embedded in the dependency issue addressed by these sources is the annihilation of dignity, delivered mostly from the hands of white people to mostly people of color around the world. This is a problem.

The issues of gender, color, privilege, and racism are a growing part of the twenty-first-century missiological environment. For too long, the pattern of Western missions includes inherent problems of race and power.  In many ways, thankfully, the old days of a culturally insensitive colonial mission have been tempered among those Western global workers educated to understand the issues of culture and power. However, we have a long way to go in these areas and many poor practices continue. More reform is needed. Great damage demands apologies.  Deep introspection is required.

I’ve been working in Africa since 2005. I am a white, middle-aged, highly educated male. From the perspective of world economics, I am quite wealthy. The very fact that I travel from the US to Africa several times a year indicates my access to incredible resources unthinkable among most of the Africans I work with. My gender, power position, age, and wealth are elements of my existence impossible for my African friends to overlook. Add to that my skin color and the centuries-old issue of race relations between white Westerners and Africans, and the juxtaposition in our relationship is stark and profound, to say the least.

In light of all these facts, some would argue my very presence in the equation is doing more harm than good. Many voices domestic and foreign are calling for people like me (white, male, Christian) to apologize, stand down and go away. I need to sit with that, think about it and apply it before I get defensive and dismiss it. Those voices are loud for a reason. A lot of damage has been done in the name of “helping” and even in the name of Jesus.

I do believe deeply in the Lausanne commitment of the Whole Gospel from the Whole Church to the Whole World. This is the Great Commission. The fact is much of the power center of Christianity is shifted from the global West to the global South and East. Many global goers are now sent from those regions that received the Gospel in generations past. The West still has the money, but the South and East have the future work of world evangelization.

So what are we white, rich, males supposed to do now?

Philippians offers four principles for me to navigate the world I find myself living in.

  1. Learning and Discerning embodied in Abounding Love. “And this I pray, that your love may abound more and more in real knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.” 1:9,10

My response to the voices calling us all to be Woke is abounding love – through real knowledge and discernment. What can I learn from those voices? How can I discern what I need to take in and apply? How can my love abound for hurting people who point out my hurtful actions and attitudes?

  1. A Posture of Servanthood and Humility. “…but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant…” 2:7.

The literal meaning of emptying is to “lay aside privileges.” I need to face the fact that I have privilege. I worked hard to get where I am in life, but I also had many advantages my African friends can’t even dream of. Jesus came as a servant, not a superior. He was driven by love, not power. He was also hated by a lot more people than loved him. This led to his ultimate crucifixion.  Am I ready to empty myself? 

  1. Beware the False Circumcision. “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision.” 3:23

While Paul here is referring to specific false teachers, I want to apply this differently. While much of the Woke voice is a righteous call to justice and against racism and whiteness, some of the voice is a deconstructionist mandate to destroy any involvement in Christian mission by white people among people of color. In the spirit of abounding love and a servant humility, I deny the concept that the mission is better off without people like me. I believe people like me need to be aware and sensitive to the effects of our voice and presence in the mission, but we also are part of the Whole Gospel from the Whole Church to the Whole World.

  1. Press on to the Call of Christ.I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us, therefore, as many as are mature, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.” 3:14,15

God will make you Woke!

While I listen, respect, apologize as I reform my whiteness, I will press on to the Call of Christ. I will keep my eye on the goal until His Kingdom is established. I will play my role to the best of my understanding. I will learn from, love, root for, work with, and support in any way possible my brothers and sisters of color in Africa and beyond to join the work of the Lord around the world to bring peace, justice, and love through Jesus Christ.

Please share your thoughts. I want to hear your voice in the conversation.

 

 

7 Comments

  1. This is excellent, Scott. Missions always carries with it the potential for paternalism/imperialism/dependency. Jesus wanted his disciples to focus on their neighbors first in part because of their lack of sensitivity to the cultural issues of those beyond their borders. Yet, he did call them to go beyond their borders. We have to address that call to go even as we address the issues that make going difficult.

    Thanks for your sensitivity to the nuances of this issue. We need the conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a very helpful analysis for me. It’s a topic I’ve struggled with personally as I go on short term missions and especially as I prepare first time travelers on our teams. The thought or doubt “Are we supposed to be going at all” often surfaces for me. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s such an interesting time to be so intimately involved with the practical side of “mission”.

    As a millennial, we’ve grown up under a generation that told us “you can be or do anything you set your mind to” and a part of that sentiment was privilege and our sole responsibility and ability to change the world. For millennial Christians, we’re realizing that we actually can’t change the world in the way that we grew up believing. The result for many is an adverse strategy: pull out of all missions. For the rest of us, we’re in a season of discovering what effective missions is – and I think this is exciting.

    Too long has the missionary model been constructed in favor of the missionary. I see us moving, in a healthy direction, towards a missionary model that is based on the recipient. Jesus spent 30 years learning how to be a Jew before spending the next 3 years ministering to Jews. This level of commitment and dedication is something all of us in “missions” should strive after.

    All in all, it’s most important for people to actually understand what the mission actually is. The more we tune ourselves to the purpose and mission of God – the more effective we will be in the mission.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I teach in a classroom full of immigrant students from across the globe. They change my life every day. I have learned the importance of having conversations about difficult subjects like race, poverty, inequity, and truth. I have learned the importance of struggling with my own privilege and biases. But, more surprisingly, I have learned the value of love and empowerment.

    Being in relationship with people that are different from you creates space for understanding that extends across our humanity. Our understanding of (and by that I really mean our misunderstanding of) people groups is challenged when we build meaningful relationships and engage in sincere conversations. The need for justice is glaring when you know those that are oppressed by the world’s broken systems, when you listen to their stories. Our mission then is to empower and support the oppressed on the journey to justice, fighting alongside them. But it is also to love the oppressed, for our broken systems have communicated and continue to communicate a message of insignificance about the injustices that haunt them. We cannot empower and we cannot love if we do not GO.

    Thank you for writing and sharing this powerful piece. Keep up the important work that you do for the Gospel and for humanity, following in the footsteps of Christ as you seek justice and love others.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t have much to offer my African friends. On the other hand, they bless my family with their fellowship and open hearts. So long as they’re willing to host my family in their home country, we’ll keep coming and inviting them to envigorate our faith and walk with Jesus.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. How much more of an even greater love do we display, when we steward the reality of our circumstances with a diligence and intention to actually understand our role, responsibility, opportunity, and call, in the context of our effect, good or bad, on the people we are trying to reach?? Knowledge, awareness, training, humility, learning, intentionality, discernment, understanding, time – these display a MORE abounding love, as you point out, not less. Knowledge is not the enemy here, but a gift resulting in more perfect love.

    I found the principles you took from Philippians extremely insightful in this context. Thanks for this Scott!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for this Scott. I’ve been excited for some time to work alongside you more closely, and I already love the way you’re challenging me and others in this line of thinking. Together, we’ll love and serve better.

    Liked by 1 person

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