Fulfilling Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book that has become a seminary classic: “Christ and Culture.” Actually, it was a series of lectures that were compiled into a book. Niebuhr suggested five major philosophies or categories as to how Christ can interact with human Culture. The five are:

  1. Christ Against Culture
  2. Christ Of Culture
  3. Christ Above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture.

<If you want to read a VERY BRIEF description of each category one can go to an article in Focus on the Family HERE. The first half of the article is beneficial. The second half was a waste of time as the article writer feels the need to demean Niebuhr as a “liberal.” Apparently, because he is liberal, he should not be trusted, while D. A. Carson (who is less liberal) is more trustworthy. I have trouble with this. First, trusting a person because of how closely he conforms to your preconceived opinions is a dangerous road to go down. As a second point, Niebuhr’s categories are a framework. As such, they are useful or not useful, rather than true or false. Judging a framework on who established it is kind of foolish if you get right down to it.>

I find the categories rather useful. I think that the first two categories (Christ Against Culture, and Christ Of Culture) are simply wrong. However, the remaining three have potential value. So I am adding another expression here with a bit of caution. But here it is:

Christ Fulfilling Culture

This one is not distinctly different from one or more of the latter three categories. Rather, I like this expression because it gives a better image of what I think Christ’s role is in terms of culture. To me Christ Transforming Culture is a good descriptor of Christ as one who takes what exists and makes it better, but does tend to focus more on the role of changing what is bad over the role of preserving what is good. Christ and Culture in Paradox is good and I think it fits well as a term with Bevan’s description of countercultural theological contextualization. However, the expression focuses on conflict… and that is a bit too simplistic. Christ Above Culture is good in that it makes clear that Christ and Culture are not equal— Christ has priority. However, in every other way, the term is unclear.

I prefer the expression “Christ Fulfilling Culture.” It suggests the idea that in Christ the work started in culture is completed in Christ… or that in Christ culture can become what it was meant to be, rather than what it is. Culture is generally (but not universally) understood to develop organically to meet the needs of a group as well as the individual members of that group. Culture guides behaviors and interpretations so that people can meet their holistic needs (physical, psycho-emotional, social, and spiritual) within a society as well as to attain human potential/flourishing. As such, culture IS because culture seeks to be good. However, culture always falls short of its lofty goals. Culture always ultimately fails to satisfy completely the felt and real needs of the group— because it is a construct of flawed humans in a flawed world. Christ, then, fulfills or satisfies what was dissatisfying in a culture.

Consider a couple of stories that point me in this direction.

Story #1. I was talking to one of my students who is of the Kachin people. The Kachin people are a group of tribes in Northern Myanmar, and parts of China and India. He was describing the beliefs of his forefathers. He noted that the Kachin people believed in one supreme creator god. They believed in the fallenness of man. They believed that God had given a message to the people but that message was lost. They believed in the need for sacrifice for reconciliation with God. When Christian evangelists came from the Karen tribe to their people, large numbers responded. However, many of them did not see themselves as leaving the religion of their ancestors. Rather they saw the Christian faith as fulfilling or completing the religion they already had. They now had the message they lost, and the completion of the sacrifices, through Christ.

Story #2. Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, was a major event where an important issue was decided. Do Greeks have to become Jews to become Christians? The end result of the council was “NO.” Christ’s message is relevant to Greeks in the same way it is relevant to Jews. Christ fulfills the Jewish Religion and Culture, and Christ fulfills the Greek Religion and Culture. As such, Christians may behave considerably different in many key ways and still be understood as living according to the will of God. In the end, I feel that fulfill best expresses this.

Quitting as Lack of Faith or Act of Faith?

Going into Missions is often thought of as an act of letting go. One lets go of one’s former job, one’s home culture, and often many friends and even family.

One might think that means that missionaries

walking away

are good at letting go, but that is often not the case. In fact, the letting go in the past may make one less prone to do it in the field. One of the main challenges is letting go of ministries or projects. There can be a number of reasons. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list.

  1. Fear of Change. We are creatures of inertia or homeostasis. It takes energy to change, to learn, to grow. If we have been doing something, we are likely to try to keep it going (1st order change) rather than stop and do something different (2nd order change).
  2. Comfort. Not unrelated to the first one, but now expressed in a more positive way. We get good at something and it feels like we have found our niche or our calling. It feels right to stay where we are and it feels wrong to cut ties… break relationships… end what has been so much of our present. Innovation and new challenges seem wrong, because we have gotten good at thinking “inside the box,” and hanging out in our “comfort zone.”
  3. Sense of Ownership or Privilege. We identify our ministry work with ourselves rather than with God, or with locals. The ministry feels like “ours” and not “theirs.” We sympathize with the writer of Ecclesiastes whose complaint was of how the rewards of one’s hard labor eventually go to those who did not work for it or earn it.
  4. Hubris. It is tempting to think that a ministry cannot survive without us. To let go can feel like dooming a ministry to collapse. Unfortunately, that attitude can actually create this reality. Thinking one is indispensible can lead a missionary not to train up others to take his/her place.
  5. Unable to Recognize the Times. I Chronicles 10:32 speaks “Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do,…” Missionaries don’t always recognize when times have changed and situations changed. A need may disappear. A missionary may have transitioned from pioneer, to parent, to partner, to participant, and can (and should) move along. Many projects come to their natural end of life, but instead of being celebrated as a completed task, are put on life-support and maintained in a state of ineffectiveness.
  6. Fear that it Suggests a Lack of Faith. When is giving up on a project a sign of lack of faith, and when is it an act of faith? This takes a great deal of discernment, because leaving can be a calculated plan to follow God’s calling, or a running away from difficult tasks and choices. Retreat can be an act of cowardice or a an act of sound strategy. Leaving too soon is bad, but so is leaving too late. For some people it is a lack of faith because they believe the calling of God is static (“God has called you to this place for this ministry… until death”) rather than dynamic (“Calling is following God wherever He leads”).

If you are looking for easy answers, you will find none here. Listening to God and to wise mentors and peers are important, but these will remove all doubt. It is somehow right that MINISTRY rhymes with MYSTERY. There is, and should always be, a certain amount of uncertainty. Ultimately, our decisions must be Acts of Faith.

Dem Pesky False Prophets (Part 2)

Clearly this is part 2 to a part 1. You are welcome to click on that HERE, if you had not read it yet.

To continue… one may assume that a true prophet would have the qualities that were suggested from Matthew 7 and enumerated in the last post.

  1. A true prophet understands him/herself. The prophet understands that he/she is called by God to speak on the behalf of God. <As noted before, this is not a good test since many false prophets, mistakenly, believe themselves to be speaking for God.>
  2. A true prophet claims to speak in God’s name (rather than some other name). Again, not the best test since many people will claim to speak in the name of God… or the Bible… or Jesus Christ… or the Holy Spirit.
  3. A true prophet does signs and wonders that provide veracity that they are true prophets— at least if they do signs and wonders. Many many prophets in the Bible did not appear to do miraculous signs, and the passage in Matthew 7 does not imply that all true prophets perform miracles. In fact, Matthew 7 points to an opposite problem. The ability to perform miracles is NOT guarantee that an individual is not a false prophet.
  4. A true prophet produces good fruit.  We will talk about this last one the most, and note that #5 won’t be included on this list (it doesn’t really fit here).

Matthew 7 suggests that the most valid of these is the 4th one. A true prophet produces good fruit. False prophets can also be productive… but what they produce is ultimately worthless or counterproductive. The issue here is then not success.  False prophets can be quite successful. So what might be some good fruit?

  • Truth. A true prophet says what is true. Truth is identified in confirming to what is true. If God is true, the Bible is true, and the Created Word is true, then what the prophet reveals must conform to it. The words of the prophet must speak of God in line with the character of God. It must also conform to canon (the Holy Bible). It must also conform to Creation. So if a prophet was one who retells the future, most don’t, the words must conform to that future.
  • Moral good.  A true prophet must be fruit-bearing… but such fruit must be a moral good. So if prophet seeks wealth or power (a la Simon Magus) then the person is not a true prophet. If the prophet places him/herself above morality, then the person is false. When the prophet appears to be working at odds to God or the church, one should be concerned. (Note of course that a prophet, like Jeremiah, sometimes preaches against God’s people to encourage them to return to God.)

So let’s consider possible false prophets:

Hananiah.  Jeremiah 28.  Did Hananiah know he was a false prophet. Not sure. He was a court prophet, meaning that he served the king. There is an inherent challenge to serve both God AND king. Nathan appeared to be able to do it. Hananiah clearly wasn’t up to the task. He ended up telling the king and leaders of Judah what they wanted to hear. Ultimately, his message was proven false. His false message also led people to do the wrong thing— keep on keeping on.

Harold Camping.  Harold Camping is a different type of false prophet. For those who don’t know, Camping made several predictions over around 17 as to the return of Christ. He would probably be described as a Christian. Most would probably use the term “born-again” to describe him. As such, we might be uncomfortable calling him a false prophet. Also, he may not have self-identified as a prophet. Instead of saying that he is an accurate sharer of God’s message. However, he did claim to accurately discover and share secrets in the Bible. In reality, he was filtering the Bible through the dubious frameworks of numerology and pretrib-style dispensationalism. Unfortunately, bad came of it. Many Christians bought into this message… and then were disappointed.  100 million dollars was siphoned into a world-wide Christian message campaign that was false. Camping sold off many of his radio stations for this (at least he wasn’t doing this for the money). Non-Christians were given added confirmation that Christians were gullible. And since the message was linked to the Bible as if the predictions actually came from the Bible (although they didn’t), so some people would understandably reject the Bible.

Sadhu Sundar Selvaraj.  This is a recent self-styled prophet in a somewhat classic stereotype (claiming special powers to foretell based on information from God). He has made lots of prophecies with very little success. But in each case there is a contingent aspect to the prophecy to cover his back side. There is nothing wrong with that I suppose. But after awhile one must wonder if he is just a faker. Certainly, he has benefited from the celebrity status accorded him by those faithful to him. Some people have been able to overlook his bad foretelling, and his bad theology (like the Prophet Joel floating around the conference that he was speaking at). But some believed one of his predictions so much, that they either (1) fooled a major network to create a false news story, or (2) a member of that network did it intentionally. Certainly not good stuff. Falsifying news stories to provide veracity to a false message is truly wrong. Instead of rehashing this painful story… please just review my previous posts on this.

Dem Pesky False Prophets (Part 1)

False Prophets

Next week in church I will be preaching on false prophets. Truthfully, this is not one of my favorite topics. I am doing it because I am working my way through the Sermon on the Mount. One reason it is not a topic I prefer is that there is such a temptation to name names. The problem with that is that to do this one risks drifting into subjectivity. There are a lot of people who are self-described prophets that I don’t care for, and many more who take on a prophetic role who are more embarrassing to the faith than edifying. I don’t want to name a lot of names. But at the same time, if one stays too focused on abstractions, it is hard for many to understand the topic.

Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’

                        Matthew 7:15-23

This passage actually gives several reasons why we false prophets often appear to be true prophets.

1.  Verse 22 says that these prophets may think of themselves as true prophets. To be a false prophet does not require one to intentionally delude others. A false prophet may also delude himself or herself.

2.  Verse 22 also says that that false prophets may prophecy in the name of God. This is important. One of the characteristics of a true prophet in the Old Testament was that the individual prophesied in the name of the Lord, as opposed to some other being. However, Jeremiah 14:14 and following, for example, makes it clear that this is no proof of being a true prophet. In other words, saying “God/Jehovah/Jesus/Spirit told me to tell you _______” is no proof of them speaking the truth. I might even add that it can be more of a “doubling down.” Saying that one’s words literally came from God Almighty adds status to both the message and the alleged messenger.

3.  Verse 22 says that false prophets may also do signs and wonders. Some people find this strange, because the assumption is that such things validate the message. It is understandable that people would think this. Jesus did miracles partly out of compassion for the people in need, and partly as a sign of the coming Kingdom. But signs are not enough. Apparently Judas could do signs and wonders and yet was also described as the “Son of Perdition.” We are pretty sure that Judas did miracles because the Bible said that the 12 did miracles, so if he did not, when Jesus said that “one among you is a demon” (John 6:70) presumably all of the other 11 would have looked straight at Judas, rather than be confused.  Deuteronomy 13:1-6 notes that a prophet who does miracles and teaches a false doctrine is a false prophet despite the miracles. Actually, that passage suggests that the miracles could actually come from God as a test of faithfulness to the people. But that doesn’t have to be the only explanation. The priests of the Pharoah in Exodus could do some miraculous signs, and the false prophet of Revelation also could.

4.  Verse 16 states that false prophets produce fruit. Of course, later on, it notes that the fruit produced is bad… but it is fruit nonetheless. I feel like I can suggest from this that getting things done, or being successful is no reliable evidence of being a true prophet.

5.  Verse 15 states that false prophets may look like us (look like sheep to the sheep). It is easier to assume that a prophet is false if they act different than we expect. In fact, Jesus was rejected by some because He was not what people expected. However,  it is easy to trust people who use the right terminology and style– providing a comfort to us that they must be of us because they act like us.  Often however, looks are deceiving. A somewhat parallel passage is Ezekiel 34. There the analogy is slightly different. The wolves are described as bad shepherds— bad religious and civil leaders in Israel. Despite the language, the imagery is the same. They destroy and scatter the flock out of disregard for the sheep’s well-being, and to satisfy their own selfish appetites.

So, if one looks at this passage, one may be excused for being doubtful of being able to identify a false prophet. After all, the passage seems to say that a false prophet may:

  • Look and act like us… and use language that is comforting to us.
  • Use the language of a Christian teacher/preacher (referencing God, the Spirit, Jesus, the Bible and such).
  • Be successful and even accomplish things that are pretty impressive
  • Even be able to do things that seem to demonstrate that they have the power of God on his or her side.
  • Actually believe himself or herself to be a true prophet of God.

This last one is especially challenging. How can we identify a false prophet when the false prophet may not even realize that fact himself/herself?

You may see why it is uncomfortable for me to name names. Looking at the list above, I am tempted to call false that which doesn’t look or act like me… and give more grace on those who I can relate to better.

I will continue in Part 2, and will use three examples:  One from the Old Testament, and two from recent times.

 

The “Not-so-Great Man” Theory of Missions History

What makes history… history. One can look at it as repeating cycles of human drama. It can be seen as class struggle, social and/or technological progress, paradigm shifts, or clashes of civilizations or ideologies. But one popular one is the “Great Man” Theory. In the words of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

I honestly don’t know the context of his quote so I can’t say whether I agree with his overall thesis. However, I know that there are many people, including a disturbingly large number of (commonly American) Christian leaders who have embraced the “Great Man” Theory of History, where history is essentially understood as driven by a few individuals that are rather… exceptional. It is hard not to see the ubermensch of Nietzsche or the “fountainhead” of Rand in this sort of thinking.  It can be seen, on the face of it at least, to support a certain individualistic, libertarian ideal. However, if the historical trajectory of mankind was driven by a few exceptional individuals, that puts remaining billions  as passive participants in the grand workings of a tiny tiny minority. In effect, the greatness of a few is predicated on huge flocks of sheeple.

And we see this in missions history. I have enjoyed using Ruth Tucker’s book in teaching Missions History (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya) because it is so readable… and since we are designed to learn through narrative, life stories of a few often really help us learn faster. But I must admit that one negative aspect of a biographical approach to Missions History is that it gives a very false impression that the Church expanded through a very few.

When I was young, I came to believe that the great churchplanter of the first century was St. Paul. It made sense, since the book of Acts placed such a strong focus on him. But eventually, I started thinking:

  • Did Paul plant the church of Jerusalem?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Antioch?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Alexandria?  No
  • Did Paul plant the church of Rome?  No
  • Did Paul plant the churches of North Africa, Italy, Babylon, and numerous other places where they sprang up in the decades following the entry into the church age? Generally No.

In fact, Paul was involved in a relatively small percentage of churchplants during his lifetime. This doesn’t lessen his impact. Frankly, his impact was more in the words he wrote than what he actually did.  It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that Luke’s biographical approach to explaining early church history, while being ideal for the sake of memory, can mislead when read by people who are prone to idealize and idolize. This is true today as well. It is easy to place people like William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Cam Townsend, Lottie Moon, David Livingstone and many more on pedestals and see them as worldchangers, while the rest of us take up space.

In some ways, perhaps they were worldchangers. But I think in most cases, it wasn’t so much what they did but what they represented. People like William Carey and Lottie Moon (for example) did not radically transform the places they were. However, their words and actions inspired people to go, to send, and to support. In effect, it was in many ways the little people who changed things, by placing meaning to the activities of these two. If the many ignored these few, nothing of impact would have happened.

It is actually surprising, when looking at missions history how the most successful growth eras of the church happened at times when there were really no active (or at least famous) missionaries. One example would be in the first 3 centuries. Even though there were apostles (recognized churchplanters) active into the 2nd and even 3rd centuries, they rather quickly moved out of the limelight, and commonly did not appear to be prime movers in the growth of the church during this time. I will quote here Von Harnack here (I had used this long quote before… but it fits here quite well… you can read the longer version of this quote HERE.)

“The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage. How little we hear of the former and their results! How much we hear of the effects produced by the latter! Above all, every confessor and martyr was a missionary; he not merely confirmed the faith of those who were already won, but also enlisted new members by his testimony and his death.

… Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to “let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly.

… We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life which he found among Christians in general. How this life stood apart from that of pagans even in the ordinary round of the day, how it had to be or ought to be a constant declaration of the gospel—….      We may safely assume, too, that women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion (see below, Book IV. Chap. II.). But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”

“Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” by Adolph von Harnack.  Volume 3, Chapter 1

The first few centuries was a time of huge growth of the church. That huge growth came from not-so-great men and women faithfully doing their little things that led to great things in the church. If one chooses to say that they acted on the inspiring behavior of a few… I am open to granting that this may have at least a small factor. However, again, it was the people who chose to be inspired rather than be disinterested. And really if one thinks about it, I really don’t think a slave in a house in Thessalonica (for example) lived an inspirational life of hope and love around others in the household because some pillar of the faith inspired emulation at some point in time. I believe this person did it first of all as an act of faithful reverence to the one who expressed love first giving true hope.

Many of the major missions movements and major times of church growth were not driven by towering characters. Few can name any Nestorian missionaries from the first millenium. Fewer still can name monks who shared their faith during the great movement eastward of the Russian Orthodox expansion a few centuries ago. Such ignorance may be because of our own prejudices, but then the fact that we have certain “superheroes” of the faith may just as clearly demonstrate prejudice. The growth of the church in China during the Maoist regime reminds us how mission professionals are not really needed for God to do great things.

Missions History does not need superstar Christians. In fact, it seems like sometimes the decline in the Christian church (such as in North Africa in the first Millenium, and Central Asia in the early part of the second) are, in part, a failure of the gospel message to truly bridge the gap of the professional to the common (or the elite to the illiterate).

I can’t speak to History in general, but I think it is pretty clear that in Missions History, we need less “Great Men.” Our bookstores and conferences are littered with them. We need far less of them and more “Not-so-great” men and women. They are the ones who will turn the world upside-down.

——————————————-

This is part of my haranguing in support of “Small” or “Weak.” It must be a weird thing with me.  For some other posts in that line, you can look at:

                              Dream SMALL!!

                             Praying for Weak Christian Missions

                              The Power of Weakness — Part 1        (Parts 2 and 3 follow Part 1)

 

No Pictures Please…

Pictures are important… sort of. In missions, pictures are valuable because they inform in a manner that words just don’t. With digital media and cellphones with high quality digital cameras and GBs of memory, it is easy to litter the world with photos.

Blacked out

But sometimes… just don’t take pictures. Or, perhaps don’t post pictures. I would like to offer a few stories where pictures were a bad idea… and a few where the became okay.

  1.  My classic story for “Don’t take pictures” was in my second year in missions. We were having a medical mission in the city, targeting children who work in the public market. This was a fairly needy group. We were partnering with two local churches who I was well familiar with and a mission team that I was unfamiliar with. One of the things being done at the medical missions was circumcision (“pagtuli”). In the Philippines, circumcision is considered important but not done when the boy was young. Rather it was done closer to puberty and is seen as a bit of a rite of passage. For a family to be too poor to have their boys circumcised leaves them in a bit of a state of moderate disgrace— failing to cross this transition to manhood. (This is not about whether you think circumcision is medically necessary or not, or whether you think it is religiously mandated or not. It is a cultural value here.) We had lots of circumcisions that day. We actually ended up putting together a bunch of tables and had a cadre of circumcisers to carry out this work. Several were being worked on simultaneously. I noticed that some of the volunteers from the other mission team were taking lots of pictures of this. In fact, a couple of them were standing up by the table with their cameras high over their head so they could take pictures of these boys being circumcised.    …. Do I have to tell you how inappropriate that is? First of all it is disrespectful. How many of us really want to have strangers taking pictures of us with our pants and underwear down— those pictures to be seen by who knows and for what?  Second, it is exploitative. I will get to this more in some other stories. But I am pretty sure none of these boys gave permission for those shots to be used. They were taken (most likely) to show that money for medical missions is a good thing, and, since the photographers were foreign, perhaps they wanted to “wow” their audiences, to show how weird things are in the Philippines.  Third, it is arguably illegal. Pictures of unclad boys being sent to foreign countries for non-research, non-medical purposes could be viewed as illegal. This could be identified as trafficking in child pornography. Of course, perhaps some of the pictures were blurred for privacy sake… but the ones I saw were definitely not.
  2. A friend of mine pastors a church here and was telling a story of something that happened at his church. A young lady of a Muslim family became involved in the church youth group, and decided to convert to Christianity. Her family lived far away while she was at school and this gave her the freedom and confidence to make some important decisions on her own. The very next day, pictures and stories were put up on Facebook of this young lady leaving Islam to become a Christian. … Again, do I have to tell you why this is inappropriate? Sure enough, the pictures and messages got back to her family who were most unhappy. The family members were not the only ones unhappy. The young lady felt that she was used by her Christian friends… just another notch on their Evangelism gun. “Hey! We got ourselves another Muslim!!” She, dropped out of the church, the youth group, and all things Christian. Hardly surprising.
  3. A group of women and youth my wife worked with were asked to leave the city and go to a remote community to hold Vacation Bible School. These women and youth were very good at working with children. On the way there, the host, a foreign missionary, suggested that they stop near a rice paddy to eat. After eating, the missionary suggested that some of the ladies go down into the muddy rice paddy and look like they were tending the rice plants. He took some pictures. Later, the women talked to my wife, and they felt exploited. Were they? Well, they live and work in the city, but they were being encouraged to get dirty and look like they work in the fields. They also did not know what the photos would be used for. Were they exploited? Exploitation is primarily a perception… so I suppose they were. If the reason for the photos was clear and and the women were given full input into the picture-taking they might have agreed and even found the experience fun. Or maybe they would refuse. Either would be better than the uncertainty.
  4. For many activities we may say that taking photographs is okay, but sharing publicly is not. A restoration service of a pastor was publicly shared online, and some people reacted negatively and then shared it with still others, this time with words that greatly mislabeled both the pictures and the activity. Restoration services after a disciplinary period are rather controversial in the Philippines. (Most seem to prefer the traditional process of a pastor sneaking away to a new area and starting, over hiding the past problems.) Knowing this problem I told people to not share photos… but some shared the photos anyway. Sometimes one simply has to know human nature. When we were working with “Drug Surrenderers” here in the Philippines, I made a point of telling people not to take pictures at these meetings. There certainly is a stigma with being on the barangay drug watchlist. Occasionally we would take some pictures to show others what is happening. However, we would take pictures of the volunteers working with only the backs of the surrenderers. Human nature is often to blame someone for being in a drug recovery program rather than to congratulate them for doing the right thing. However, towards the end, the surrenderers wanted to be photographed. For example, they decided to do a treeplanting project to emphasize that they want to have a positive role in society rather than negative. They wanted to be photographed to show how things have changed. We honored that. It was their choice.
  5. We don’t take pictures in jail ministry. In fact, the correction officers take all cameras and phones away when we go there. But even if they didn’t, we would not take pictures. Many have considerable shame for being in prison. We don’t want to add to that shame. Correction officers take pictures in jail, including the counseling we do… but that is their choice. We can’t control that. We also don’t take pictures of patients we do counseling with in the hospital. On rare occasions, in non-hospital settings, I have taken pictures of counseling where I take the picture of the counselor and the back of the client. Again, it is about not exploiting. Additionally, hospitals don’t want groups going into their facility for photo ops. In fact, many institutions really don’t want that to happen.
  6. Exploitation is hard to identify sometimes. Two humorous stories that sort of relate to exploitation. The first is one that I heard about, but hadn’t seen personally. The story could be apocryphal, but since I have seen things that mimic this in a somewhat less extreme way, I suspect that it has basis. A missionary went to a church and asks “Who loves to eat chicken?” Hands went up all over the place. The picture of all of these people with smiling faces and hands raised was put on the missionary’s newsletter with the implied message that these were excited people responding to the message of the missionary. And speaking of newsletters, the second story is one I have more direct connection with although I wasn’t actually at the event. A baptism at a church plant was held in a large swimming pool. A lot of pictures were taken. No problem. However, then one missionary (Missionary “A”) began complaining that another missionary (Missionary “B”)  at the event had used a picture of the baptism service in his newsletter giving the implicit message that it was his ministry. The Missionary “A” thought that “B” was taking credit and thus exploiting the event for personal gain— and told an awful LOT of people his sentiments. The problem was that “A” was also using these photos for support-raising work, so his complaints about “B” seemed more self-serving. But that is part of the problem isn’t it? Pictures often serve the missionary rather than the people the missionary is supposed to serve.

Do we take pictures? Yes… a lot of pictures in fact. Probably more than we should. We don’t always get the ethics right. But we try, at least, to ask a few questions:

  • Is it legal? In some situations (jail being the most obvious example) taking photos is illegal.
  • Is it exploitative? Do the pictures help the missionary while exploiting those who are being photographed.
  • Is it kind?  Is it honoring? Showing people in a miserable state may get more support money… but many food and child organizations learned decades ago that there is a danger in this. (I remember a young child in the US telling his mother that “I don’t want to be brown” after watching one too many of these child feeding organizations showing well-dressed people providing food for starving and unkempt “brown children.”  The Philippines is full of beauty and joy. Yes there are miseries as well. But unbalanced photos deceive and such deception is not a victimless crime.
  • Is it true? Pictures can mislead… often even moreso than words.
  • Is it private? Some things should not be photographed. Often the public does NOT have the right to know.
  • Is it voluntary? Are people supportive of being photographed for missionary (or fund-raising) purposes?
  • Is it safe? (Not a Millenium Man reference. I have worked with people who go to places where Christian ministry is actively opposed (an odd thing indeed… but the world is indeed an odd place). They ask specifically not to have their picture put online… or alternatively, pictures shared should not be labelled with their names.

An old media trope is of a person going to a a remote technologically backward village and taking pictures with a camera (Polaroid perhaps). The people are deeply bothered because of the belief that in taking their picture, the photographer is stealing their souls. I don’t know if there is/was a belief of some cultures or not… but often in taking pictures there is indeed a theft involved. We need to be careful in this area.