Sunday, May 14, 2023

Repenting of Missions and Right Wing Ideology

"Every way of a man is right in his own eyes..." - Proverbs 21:2a NKJV

It made perfect sense to me. On a Sunday night in June 1997 I attended my second worship service with a church in Brazil. I had only been in the country a little over a week, and already I was sensing something stirring within me about the place and the people. During communion that evening (the main Sunday service was held at night) a song was sung about Brazil. I couldn't understand the words, but I could feel them. I knew intuitively (and later confirmed once I learned Portuguese) that they were about the poverty and injustice in Brazil, and that the nation needed to look to God. In that moment my mind raced and I had what felt like a revelation that this was to be my life's work. I was to be a missionary in Brazil. Returning to the US and finding my way into a ministry program at Harding University, only to discover that the very next year we'd be doing a mandatory international campaign in Brazil, was only further confirmation for me. This was indeed my calling.

In Brazil after graduation and ordination, I worked to help start a church. My vision had been to do some sort of outreach to the poor. Some sort of justice work would have been appropriate, but that was lost in my time at the university, where I learned all about evangelism and nothing about addressing the world's real problems. The solution to everything was supposed to be the Gospel, preached and believed.

Things went sideways eventually, but that's a story for another day, one I've likely told too often anyway. For now, suffice it to say that I spent a brief time in Brazil helping to start a church, and on my return to the United States was able to shift much of my financial support to a Brazilian evangelist who was spearheading the work in Uberlandia. 

"You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves." - Matthew 23:15b NABRE

Looking back, I'm glad I didn't spend more time in Brazil than I did. I had made myself into a fundamentalist who was proficient at straining out gnats, but prone to swallowing camels. My temperament was all wrong, and I had many unresolved issues from a broken relationship prior to my move to Brazil. Worse, I was preaching a message that promoted evangelicalism. We have seen in recent years the poison fruit that evangelicalism bears, with hatred against lgbtq folks, white supremacy, and a slavish devotion to right wing politics. It was evangelicalism's influence that led to Trump's disastrous time in office, and in Brazil the same occurred with the election of Jair Bolsonaro.

"... person will reap only what he sows." Galatians 6:7b NABRE

Again, my intentions were only ever good. I wanted to help people, and I had come to feel convinced that this was best accomplished by bringing them to faith in Christ, and in line with the beliefs I had come to accept. In fact, to some extent, it worked. I saw hurting families healed by their connection to the faith and its community, and experienced the joy of people finding new or renewed purpose in life. Often finding faith would lead people and families to make real material improvements in their lives, such as men giving up drinking and carousing, and parents giving more thought and attention to child rearing. Yet, these results could have been achieved, certainly, without the inclusion of bigotry and division. Sowing those seeds have led to terrible results on a large scale that inflicts real harm on people, particularly those in marginalized groups. 

" suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." - 2 Timothy 4:3 NIV

People seek out preachers who will say what they want to hear. In the United States we find social conservatives who lack strong connections to the church identifying with evangelicalism or simply "Christianity." It's a cultural marker and a way to distinguish who is in an out. Of course, Christians who vote for Democrats aren't really Christians, in their estimation. So in the US as well as in Brazil and elsewhere, the evangelical pastors are often more than happy to deliver sermons that people want to hear. They tell them lies about the US having been founded as a Christian nation, and perpetuate myths in order to secure their positions and power. Many such religious leaders likely believe the things they are saying, though in some cases I have to wonder if they aren't doing what I once did, engaging in self-deceit in order to mold oneself into what other people want. It is toxic, either way.

"Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that...they will come to their senses...." - 2 Timothy 2:25-26

I don't have illusions that by reentering ministry as a progressive I will be able to win masses of people away from the snare of deceit and bigotry that they find themselves in. That's far too grandiose. My hope instead is that by working in practical ways for the betterment of humankind (loving my neighbor), and by advocating for peace and justice, the needle can be moved at least a little for some. Most importantly, I want to ensure that the seed I sow is good, and that my ministry does no harm, and in some fashion helps.