My interest in the relational dynamics flowing from material and social disparity in close social proximity was probably inevitable.1 As a child of Canadian missionary parents, I spent my formative years in Ethiopia, where I absorbed the values, assumed the entitlements, and confronted the burden of missionary material and social privilege. The boarding school that I attended stood as an unapologetic bastion of Western privilege, with Ethiopians permanently relegated to kitchen, laundry, garden, and custodial roles. At the tinkle of a small bell at the head table, a bare-footed servant would patter in from the kitchen, white apron barely concealing his own threadbare clothes. The school was surrounded by a chain-link fence, intended to keep the entitled in and the unentitled out. Aware that we were members of a privileged superior class, we came to accept, expect, and sometimes demand the obsequious deference shown to us by "them," including adults. In our play and discussion, Ethiopians were subjects of curiosity, sometimes the objects of ridicule, and occasionally admired for their stoicism in the face of poverty and persecution; but they were seldom friends, and even more rarely social peers.
Continuing my education in Canada, it would be fourteen years before I returned to Ethiopia-this time, in 1974, as a missionary myself. My wife and I were assigned to Tigre Province, in the north, where we administered a relief and development team trying to assist survivors of the famine that would soon precipitate the collapse of Ethiopia's ancient monarchy. Highly critical of what I perceived to be the Western mission modus operandi, with its deeply engrained entitlement assumptions, I ensured that each member of the team-an international mix of some sixty-five medical doctors and nurses, hydrologiste and water engineers, agriculturalists and mechanics, drivers and cooks, evangelists and interpreters-received an equal share of the financial pot. We worked and lived together both in the field and at the home base. I regret to recall that my not-always-subliminal attitude vis-à-vis fellow missionaries sometimes bordered on the pharisaical (see Luke 18:9-14).
Following the murder in 1975 of Ethiopia's last emperor, the venerable Haile Selassie, there was a noticeable shift in media portrayals of Western foreigners. As the Derg, the military junta, began to move the country from oppressive feudalism to enlightened socialism, the euphoria of its citizens was palpable. For the first time in several millennia, peasant farmers could contemplate the prospect of owning their farms and reaping 100 percent of what they sowed. Absentee landlords were to be a thing of the past. Millions faced the happy prospect of being literate as students poured out of the cities and towns and into the countryside to teach reading, writing, and socialism. Students, in turn, would learn both to respect the peasantry and to do hard manual labor.
Following our stint in northern Ethiopia, we were assigned to Kaffa Province in the south, where coffee is thought to have originated. Here we worked with a number of established congregations within several days' walking distance of our home in Bonga. Our primary assignment was to support the work of evangelists serving under the auspices of the Kale Heywet (Word of Life) denomination. The church, sensing an ideal opportunity for service in the emerging stress on literacy, seconded Christian teachers and their families to assist in congregational and community literacy in the hinterlands of the province. Poverty-stricken local communities were encouraged to construct simple, single-room schools, for which the mission agency would supply corrugated roofing and blackboards, while teachers engaged by the Kale Heywet Church would provide instruction. As the presumably neutral foreigner, residing not far from a small town that boasted both a post office and a telephone, the foreign missionary was to be a liaison between the Kale Heywet Church and the literacy teachers, serving as their communications and financial conduit. The monthly stipend for each family was roughly equivalent to US$8, with no benefits. To our personal net monthly income of $1,200, in contrast, were added the benefits of medical insurance, a semifurnished house, travel funds, and educational opportunities for our children.
I derived quiet yet smug satisfaction from my self-perceived ability to work in fraternal, nonpatronizing ways with my Ethiopian colleagues. Our home was as open to them as theirs were to us. While vaguely disquieted by the conspicuous material inequities that marked our economically and socially disparate lives, I gave little thought to what could or should be done about it. An unwritten code among foreign missionaries obliged one to toe the line when it came to wages and other forms of remuneration for employees. To break rank would set a dangerous precedent, exposing colleagues to invidious comparisons and putting enormous pressure on the cash-starved Kale Heywet denomination to do the same. It was commonly understood and frequently observed, furthermore, that increased compensation would "spoil" Ethiopian employees, rendering them unsuitable for the rigors of pastoral or evangelistic duties.
Shortly after the departure of our senior (and, I must add, exemplary) missionary colleagues, government teachers initiated a national strike, temporarily paralyzing the regime's literacy and socialization efforts. Although privately employed educators did not participate, several of the teachers with whom I worked were arrested and required to show proof that they were legitimately employed by a recognized organization. Since the Kale Heywet denominational headquarters was hundreds of miles away, where its leaders were absorbed with myriad revolution-related challenges of their own, I provided the beleaguered teachers with identification cards bearing the imprimatur of the mission society. At their request, ostensibly to reinforce their claim to be in active good standing as teachers, I also provided them with signed and dated receipts indicating the amount of their monthly compensation. These receipts, like their identification cards, bore the seal of my mission agency. With these documents in hand, the teachers returned to their various posts, more secure and apparently relieved.
Several weeks later the local bailiff served me with a lengthy indictment, initiated by the teachers. Charging that I was a "running dog capitalist and exploiter of the people," the document went on to enumerate my many misdemeanors, climaxing with the charge that I had defrauded them of their contracted wages, skimming off half for myself . My protests that the teachers were not in fact employed by me but by their denomination were met with flat denial, with the teachers offering as proof their recently acquired identification cards and compensation receipts. When I countered that contracts detailing the agreement between each teacher and the sponsoring churches would support my contention, and that these could be found in the elementary school office filing cabinet, I was accused of lying. Sure enough, inspection of the filing cabinet revealed it to be empty. Mission personnel policies clearly stipulated that Ethiopian employees be reimbursed a monthly minimum of what was then the equivalent of $16, yet the receipts that I had signed provided damning proof that these men had been receiving only half of that amount. From all appearances, I had been pocketing the rest. Justice required that the teachers be compensated.
Facing the Issues
This, together with several similarly vexing experiences, drove me from Eden. Having until then concealed myself behind the scanty fig leaf of Western cultural entitlement, my material plenty in the context of relative destitution began to assume its rightful theological significance, and I stood exposed to myself in ways that had long been evident to my Ethiopian colleagues. The reassuring rationalizations to which I had once had recourse were stripped away. I understood as never before why the rich dare not risk living in close social or physical proximity to the poor, and why, when circumstances oblige them to do so, they must protect themselves and their possessions with walls, gates, bars, dogs, armed guards, the society of the similarly privileged, and-if-necessary-lethal violence or even war.
This experience provided me with opportunity to regard myself from the vantage point of the poor among whom I lived and with whom I worked. My ruminations eventually resulted in the book Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem, drafted during a 1987-88 sabbatical at Yale University and published by Orbis Books in 1991 as number 15 in the American Society of Missiology Series.
Exploration of the roots of poverty and elucidation of the supposed wellspring of affluence were not the purposes of the book then, nor are they the focus of the expanded and revised second edition, as important as these subjects might be.2 Nor was it, or is it, my intention to address the immensely complex, ideologically polarizing questions swirling around in missiological debates about dependence and interdependence. Rather, my attempt has been to show how both the effectiveness and the integrity of decent, well-meaning missionaries and mission organizations can be compromised when theory and practice are at demonstrable odds with those of the Lord they proclaim. The book is not about economic theory but about the challenge of living Christianly in contexts of dire economic deprivation and destitution. Its main points may be summarized as follows:
* Because of historical, economic, and cultural factors that cannot be replicated by the poor among whom they live and work, Western missionaries frequently discover themselves to be relatively wealthy.
* It follows that what the Bible says to and about the rich, it says to and about such missionaries. Wealth and poverty are among the most frequently recurring themes in our Christian Scriptures.
* Gross economic inequity in close social proximity poses complex relational, communicatory, strategic, and ethical challenges for missionaries. These questions emerge from scriptural teaching on the relationship between rich and poor, and between God's people and their possessions.
* Since Christianity is above all a relational faith, missionaries who make a conspicuously comfortable living from their religion potentially subvert, obscure, or contradict the Gospel mandate by exemplifying, rather, the Good News of Plenty.
* Western missionaries living in contexts of poverty usually slip into some combination of four characteristic response patterns: (1) associating primarily with those of approximately equal social and economic privilege; (2) adopting a simple lifestyle that belies the conspicuous extent of their privilege, namely, the benefits of Western entitlement in critical areas such as medical care, transportation, education of children, and retirement; (3) shifting the debate from the ethical dimensions of missionary affluence to the realm of mission strategy, focusing on the relative advantages of church independence as opposed to dependence or interdependence; and, less frequently, (4) abandoning privilege and living as those among whom they live and serve.
While each of the four approaches in the last point can be defended, in the latest edition of the book I propose a fifth approach - a biblically informed and contextually delineated status of "righteous rich."
A Missiology of the "Righteous Rich"
To the extent that my thinking on these matters has moved toward a more constructive conclusion than was possible when I first wrote on the subject, I am indebted to Jacob A. Loewen and his wife, Anne-missionaries, linguists, anthropologists, and true Christian pilgrims.3 Jacob Loewen has written helpfully about roles, a key factor in shaping human identities and relationships: "Roles are the traditional ways people act in given situations. They are learned within the cultural setting. Very frequently the missionary is quite unconscious of this inventory of roles which he brings with him, and so never questions their legitimacy. But we must point out that even the very role of a missionary-a person paid by a foreign source to live in a strange country and to preach a new religion-is quite difficult for most people to understand."4
For a missionary's communication of the Gospel to be effective, teaching must be accompanied by personal behavioral and character traits that are consistent with what is being taught. Role sincerity is absolutely crucial to missionary integrity. Those who make a living by means of their religion are often tempted to act and speak as if all the points they make are personal convictions, totally unrelated to financial constraints or considerations. When this happens, role insincerity projects a contradicting paramessage.5 As the old adage notes, "What you are speaks so loudly that the world can't hear what you say."
Loewen points out that until newcomers have been incorporated into the established network of relationships, members of a society will not know how to act toward them. For this reason early explorers and traders in North America often found it necessary to become blood brothers to individual tribesmen. Once such a link had been established, the whole group knew how to behave toward the newcomer, even though the newcomer might not yet know what was expected of him. While most societies allow for a period of trial and error for newcomers to learn to play their roles appropriately, if they persist in unpredictable or inappropriate behavior beyond the allowed limit, they will be judged to be unreliable at best, perhaps even false.
A related problem arises from roles appropriated by new missionaries. Inevitably, and unbeknownst to them, newcomers to a society will behave in ways that mark them as belonging to a given status. When missionaries fulfill only a part of expected behavior associated with their status and its accompanying roles, people can feel deeply betrayed or angry. For example, many missionaries, in an effort to help people economically, have unwittingly assumed the role of patron or feuded master. If they then refuse to fulfill the obligations associated with that role, the understandable result is confusion, frustration, and even anger. The sincerity and honesty of such missionaries are questioned.6
It is my modest proposal that Western Christians generally, including missionaries-whenever they either anticipate or discover that their way of life and its entitlements make them rich by the standards of those around them-embrace the status of "righteous rich" and learn to play its associated roles in ways that are both culturally appropriate and biblically disciplined. Expectations will vary from culture to culture, but people normally make a clear distinction between rich people who are good and rich people who are bad. Missionaries should aspire to be on the good end of the culturally delineated continuum. In turn, these culturally defined ideal statuses and their accompanying roles need to be informed biblically to ensure that the missionary's life measures up to his or her teaching.
Our Christian Scriptures describe sharp behavioral differences between the righteous rich and the unrighteous rich, distinctions most conspicuously evident in their respective relationships with the poor. It follows that Western missionaries should make careful biblical study of this subject an essential aspect both of their preparation for mission and throughout their missionary careers. Although more than 100 pages have been devoted to this theme in my book, here space permits listing of only five representative texts-three from the Old Testament and two from the New.
Deuteronomy 15:1-11. If the principles, ideals, and objectives outlined in this passage (see also Lev. 25:8-17) have any kind of legitimacy across time and cultures, one may well ask whether any nation today-on the basis of its treatment of its poor-could pass this biblical litmus test for righteousness. Whatever the shortcomings of Western nations, descended from a Christendom that was and is far from Christian, the people of God, especially missionaries, must explain how the relationship between rich and poor is to be addressed in culturally appropriate and practical ways today.
Nehemiah 5:1-13. For those of us who are wealthy, it should be a matter of some seriousness to find in our Scriptures scarcely any record of repentanceon the part of the materially well established. Here in Nehemiah is one heartening instance, a reminder that no matter how complicated the issues or how deeply entrenched and personally vested the self-interests, it is possible to repent. What would repentance look like from the vantage point of powerful mission organizations in contexts of poverty? This is difficult to say, since the righteous-rich missionary or mission agency, while informed biblically, must be defined contextually. In this text we can observe the difference between mere legality (the privileged were not breaking their own laws) and justice (what God required of the privileged). This is em important distinction for Christians to make, since the laws of nations are often framed or simply evolve to protect the vested interests of the powerful. But while the law is almost always on the side of the rich and the powerful, God's standards of justice frequently require that oligarchic laws be broken.
Job 29:11-17;31:16-28. Whether one subscribes to the "hidden hand of the market" as the source of all good things or whether one detects in the regional, national, and global marketplace the not-so-hidden hand of the economically and politically powerful, it is clear that Job regarded himself as duty bound to play a proactive role in the material well-being of poor people in his orbit. At the very least, a wealthy missionary will need to be prepared to explain why God-fearing Western missionaries should be considered exempt from this ancient standard, and whether God has changed his mind in these modern times.
1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19. Texts such as this one are damning to the rich and difficult for Christian teachers to obey. It is clear that from the perspective of the poor among whom a wealthy person lives, this text needs careful rationalizing by most rich people if they hope to escape its censure.
1 John 3:16-20. This passage and many others like it make acutely uncomfortable public reading when wealthy missionaries sit and worship in congregations of the poor. Clearly, rich Christians are called upon to be energetically proactive and economically generous in their expression of concern for the poor.
Such texts are only suggestive and are supplemented in my book by the more careful studies of the righteous rich provided by Christopher J. H. Wright and Justo L. González.7 But the texts mentioned contain the minimal guidelines-"righteous rich templates," in a manner of speaking-that should guide and characterize the righteous rich, whatever their time or place. That such texts will be applied to wealthy missionaries by the poor among whom they live and work is certain. The challenge for any missionary will be to make sure that he or she is seen to be righteous both by local standards and by Christian revelation.
I have been involved in the training and nurturing of missionaries for much of my adult life. For the past ten years it has been my extraordinary privilege to serve Christian leaders and missionaries from around the world at the Overseas Ministries Study Center, assisting them in their quest for spiritual, professional, and intellectual renewal through our community life and programs. It is natural, then, that I should propose that Western missionary framing and refraining curricula and on-field orientations should include courses and forums for serious, sustained discussion of this troublesome issue. To my knowledge, systematic exploration of the missiological implications of economic inequity in close social proximity is not usually a part of either preliminary or ongoing missionary preparation. Surely every mission studies curriculum should include at least one seminar exploring biblical teaching on wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor, with implications drawn and applications made for Christian missions and missionaries.
Mission by Interruptions
Living out a missiology of the righteous rich means, at its core, a willingness to be useful in terms defined by people in their local contexts. For this we have no better exemplar than our Lord himself. With a mission more sweeping in scope and magnitude than those of even the most daring mission strategists, his commission was to save the world. Oddly, by the standards of Western missions, he spent his adult life as a laughably parochial figure, never venturing beyond the borders of his own foreign-occupied country. By the standards of even the most forgiving mission administrators, he proved to be frusfratingly deficient when it came to actually fulfilling his mission. His major difficulty had to do with the interruptions that constantly intruded into the larger mission to save the world.
Almost everything written in the Gospel accounts of his life relates directly or indirectly to the wrenching, but strategically petty, personal agendas of the ordinary men and women who pressed in on him on all sides during the few short years of his ministry. The Creator God incarnate, bent on saving the whole world, allowed himself to be interrupted by the sick, the lame, the blind, the withered, the bereaved, the outcast, the deaf, the demon possessed, the grieving. Whatever he may have been doing at the time, he seemed never too busy or tired to stop and pay close attention to their agendas. How understandable it would have been for Jesus to regretfully turn away these ordinary folk, reminding them that as Creator of their planet, now charged with redeeming it, he simply did not have time to give attention to the personal details of their everyday lives. Instead, he showed his followers that any proclamation of the Good News that does not intersect with the actual needs of ordinary people is not good news, but mere religious propaganda. On this issue he was at distinct odds with the Pharisees, as his followers today should be. We must never forget that it was his willingness to yield to one final, fatal interruption on a hill just outside Jerusalem that accomplished our redemption. It is this interruption that lies at the heart of the Gospel that takes missionaries to the ends of the earth.
We Western missionaries have a lot to learn from our Lord. Defined and driven by corporate and ecclesiastical agendas that are the product of well-meaning organizations and church leaders often thousands of miles away, we sometimes have no time to serve people on their own terms, thereby implicitly denying both that we are servants, at the beck and call of those among whom we minister, and that they, rather than we, determine our usefulness.
Were the role of the righteous rich to become widely appropriated by Western missionaries, it is safe to assume that the missionary enterprise would be transformed. We would certainly become more Christlike-not merely comfortably accoutred promulgators of correct propositions about God and inherited notions of ecclesiology, but righteous-rich followers of the way, whose immense good fortune is put at the disposal of the neighbors among whom our Lord has placed and accompanies us.
I was accused of lying. Sure enough, inspection or the filing cabinet revealed it to be empty. From all appearances, I had been pocketing the rest.
It is my proposal that Western Christians, including missionaries, embrace the status of "righteous rich."
1. This article is an adaptation of material from Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem . . . Revisited, revised and expanded edition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2006).
2. In his book Ending Global Poverty: A Guide to What Works· (New York: Palgrave Macrnillan, 2005), Stephen C. Smith estimates that "there are on the order of one million programs around the world attempting to reduce poverty" (p. xi). Smith is professor of economics at George Washington University, where he directs the Research Program on Poverty, Development, and Globalization. His material is based on the World Bank publication Attacking Poverty, World Development Report 2000/2001 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). Despite the multiplicity of programs, Smith's prognosis is not hopeful. Equally gloomy is the more recent World Bank report Equity and Development, World Development Report 2006 (Washington, D.C.: World Bank; New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005).
3. Jacob A. Loewen, one of the most self-transparent missionaries it was ever my privilege to meet, wrestled in deeply insightful ways with problems of missionary roles. Particularly helpful is his essay "Missions and the Problems of Cultural Background," in The Church in Mission: A Sixtieth Anniversary Tribute to J. B. Toews, ed. A. J. Klassen (Fresno, Calif.: Mennonite Brethren Church, 1967), pp. 286-318. See also two articles coauthored with his wife, Anne: "Role, Self-image, and Missionary Communication" and "The 'Missionary' Role," in Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective; Selections from the Writings of Jacob A. Loewen (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1975), pp. 412-27 and 428-43.
4. Loewen, "Missions," p. 291.
5. An interesting example is an incident Loewen relates of the healing of Pastor Aureliano's wife, who was ill with malaria. The missionaries claimed that they believed James 5:14-15 ("Are any among you sick? They should call the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up"), but their prayer for her was not effective. Later, the Indian pastors prayed for her healing, this time with the desired result. When the missionaries asked why they had not been invited to participate in the prayer, Pastor Aureliano explained that it had been evident that they did not really believe, and that according to the text the Loewens had shared with them, their prayers would be ineffective. See Loewen, "Missions," pp. 289-92.
6. See Loewen and Loewen, "Role," pp. 426-27.
7. See Christopher J. H. Wright, "The Righteous Rich in the Old Testament," chap. 8, pp. 191-201, and Justo L. González, "New Testament Koinonía and Wealth," chap. 9, pp. 203-21, and "Wealth in the Subapostolic Church," chap. 10, pp. 223-35, in Bonk, Missions and Money.
Jonathan J. Bonk is Executive Director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, and Editor of the INTERNATIONAL BULLETIN OF MISSIONARY RESEARCH.…