BLOGGERKatherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development. After a long career in...
Faith in Action tracks the activities of people of faith across the globe and across religious traditions, with a focus on development issues. Posts are originally published by the Huffington Post. Older blog posts appeared on the Washington Post's Georgetown/On Faith site.
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AT THE CENTER
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"Good News" Or Something Else?
May 26, 2009
The recent flare-up over whether American soldiers should be free to distribute bibles in Afghanistan highlights a simmering debate that comes to a boil every once in a while. It's not about whether people should be free to practice their faith, but how and when they should be free to share it. This knotty issue comes pretty high on the agenda for the new President's Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Council which is shaping the new administration's approaches to public funding for faith-inspired organizations.
The most sensitive words are evangelizing and proselytizing. "Good news" is part of the root of the word evangelism, as in bringing the "good news" of the gospel. Proselytize has a more specific meaning: "to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause". In both instances active persuasion is of the essence. Conversion is part of world history, and the earliest waves of globalization trends spread Christianity and Islam especially to far corners of the world. But today, the debates enter the fraught domains of human rights, freedom of speech, and the boundary between religion and state.
The operative question is: when and where is it appropriate and wise to preach and "spread the word", especially when such preaching is linked to activities like distributing food, building wells, or running schools and hospitals? Many see it as fundamentally unethical to link good works to even the most subtle encouragement to talk about faith, while others hold that the spiritual and material cannot truly be separated. Some see faith-inspired organizations that work to end poverty as the angels of international development, truly devoted and passionate in their advocacy of the poor, while for others they are Trojan horses disguising religious motivations inside good works.
Some things are reasonably clear: it is just plain wrong, even immoral, to condition help to destitute people, for example in a humanitarian disaster, to listening to - much less accepting - any religious teaching. And most believe that discriminating by religion is wrong also - restricting aid to only Methodists or Muslims, for example. Many faith-inspired NGOs have signed onto codes of conduct that prohibit this kind of behavior.
But the boundaries are fuzzier in non-emergency situations. Development is about the kind of society we want to build. Spiritual and religious dimensions are part of the mix. What's in a school curriculum? How are issues of sex and HIV/AIDS prevention tackled? What about roles of women and minorities?
Tom Getman, recently retired after a long and distinguished career at World Vision, offered a wonderful window into these complex issues when he spoke at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University earlier this month. In an interview and in his talk, he traced a personal journey, in Washington, South Africa, the Holy Land, and Geneva, that has changed the way he sees evangelizing and proselytizing.
World Vision is a giant on the international NGO scene, explicitly Christian, working to help children and end poverty in over 100 countries. Founded very much as an evangelical organization, one of its "testing" challenges has been how to reconcile its deep Christian beliefs, a broadening understanding of the nature and causes of poverty, and respect for the wisdom and faith of different cultures and religions.
Getman argues, deeply and passionately, that nothing is more important today than meeting the needs of poor people and communities. He sees a void in evangelical Christianity that can be filled only by working for the needs of the vulnerable. Both Getman and World Vision President Richard Stearns, who recently published a book titled, "The Hole in our Gospel," argue that mainstream evangelism, which focuses on the afterlife and on "saving" souls from hell, is incomplete because it minimizes the importance of working to end suffering in this life. Getman sees inclusion as the watchword, by which he means not seeking the conversion of others but working together to bring about change and a better world. Inclusiveness takes work - the emergence of the "rainbow nation" of post-apartheid South Africa, positive changes in race relations in the U.S., and the steady diversification of World Vision's faith profile, have come about not by chance but through people working to build bridges and bring about change. Faiths working together, respecting their own traditions and finding common ground in common purpose and belief, is part of the story.
These are large questions and they deserve to be addressed with, as President Obama said at Notre Dame, "Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words." The spectrum of views on faith and social work is too wide and it impedes the work that needs to be done. Thoughtful views of people like Getman can help move towards informed dialogue, solid bridges, and better solutions.