Tag Archives: faith

Why Aid Should Never be Used as Bait for Religion

In a replica of an old Thai church at Ancient Siam, near Bangkok....

It pissed me off. I just couldn’t handle it. It was as if you had to buy into Jesus before they would help you!” Annika set her coffee cup down hard on the table and looked across at me.

Jammie and I had been doing weekly orphanage and prison visits here in Bangkok as part of our service work. We’d caught wind of some interesting work being done to encourage entrepreneurship among young women in the Bangkok slums and, here I was, quizzing Annika, a Swedish expat, about it.

“I finally had to part ways with the Christians I was working with in the slums,” she said. “I am not a Christian, I just want to help. They, on the other hand seemed to think that it was only OK to help if they racked up a few conversions.”

I sympathized with Annika. I am a Christian and the quid pro quo she was complaining about bothered me too. It reminded me of the time I had done some research on homeless shelters on skid row in Los Angeles. The one I visited made you sit through Christian chapel before they would feed you. I admired the generosity of the shelter and their desire to help. But I couldn’t shake the sick feeling I had about their methods.

It all seemed wrong somehow. Here’s my reasoning. I would love to hear your ideas in the comment section:

1). You are exploiting weakness – All kinds of scandals are bred around aid organizations. When one party with ample resources is helping another that is desperate, power is often abused. When Christian (or other religious) aid organizations require Bible studies, religious services or outright conversion in return for food and shelter, that is exploitation, plain and simple, no matter how much the administrators believe they are “helping”.

2). Faith just doesn’t work that way – You can’t force faith. I find my faith to be the most meaningful thing in my life. But I’m willing to bet that I wouldn’t feel that way if it had been forced on me. There simply is no buy-in with coercion. As the Christian colonizers of old proved when they forced conquered peoples into baptism: faith, when forced, is only skin deep (the locals retained their ancient religious beliefs while putting on an outward religious “show” for their colonizers).

3). The “What’s in it for me?” factor – You can’t offer genuine, focused aid to someone if, all the while, you have an ulterior motive. If you are simply trying to fill pews at church, your “aid” efforts will come across as hollow and insincere. The aid is about the people being reached, not about the giver or his views.

4). Aid becomes a transaction – When people catch on and realize that they simply need to profess faith to receive aid, many will gladly do so. Faith becomes currency and the whole process is corrupted. Rather than help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient, this “faith for aid” transaction encourages dependency and dishonesty.

5). You cheapen religion – I am not against religion. I am actually hugely in favor of a sincere, compassionate, generous out-living of faith through the practice of religion. But trying to purchase believers through aid packages cheapens religion. It is completely shortsighted and makes a mockery of true religion.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with my reasoning. There are passionate defenders of charities and nonprofits that require at least some exposure to religion before they will help the disadvantaged. They argue that this is the best way to really help those that are suffering, that they are helping the “whole” person.

What do you think? Where is the line? What is the best way for religious charities and other organizations to offer help to those that need it? Tell me in the comments.

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Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand


Does Being Religious Make You Narrow-minded?

 

I remember having a conversation with a missionary of a different faith when I was living in the Pangasinan province of the Philippines.  We got to a juncture where it was clear that we disagreed on something.  Her helpful comment?  “I am right and your are wrong.”  Classy.

Holy Simpletons

I have always hated this about some religious people.  They often tend to be the most annoyingly narrow people I come across.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have always seen myself as religious.  (Yes, for those that prefer the term “spiritual”, I see myself as a spiritual person.) But what is it about religion that draws the intolerant and the simpleminded?  The types that have to be right?  It’s nauseating.

Give and Take

I believe in a higher power.  I believe that life has meaning in and of itself and that I do not “create” its beauty and texture, I discover it.  I could go into a long list of the things that I believe in but I have never seen CultureMutt as a place to score any sectarian points.

I am, however, very interested in promoting understanding and patience between people of different cultures and beliefs.  I really enjoy some give and take, some mutual learning.  I am always interested in ways that people from diverse faith and cultural backgrounds can actually dialogue.

Is the Answer to be Agnostic?

I certainly sympathize with agnostics who simply do not believe that truth is knowable.  To a certain extent, I agree.  Truth, in its perfect, ultimate form is not something I believe we will ever grasp.  But I certainly want to be open to discovering more and more of it as I go through life.  Is my faith getting in the way of this?  Is the fact that I am actually a member of a Christian denomination (Seventh-day Adventist, to be exact), a hindrance to my discovery of truth?

People have different reactions when I ask this kind of question.  There are some who, being believers themselves, immediately get on the defensive.  “How could you say such a thing?  You have the truth don’t take that so lightly!”  I’ve met other churchgoers who are more sympathetic.  They say that it is a good thing to be open to a fuller understanding of life, reality and truth.  I’ll let you guess which type I associate with when I go to church.

The Flip Side

But enough scrutiny of the churchgoers.  I have found equally narrow-minded people that profess no faith whatsoever.  They are religiously convinced that religion and any articulation / organized understanding of reality has to be wrong. They write it off before even considering it.  It kind of reminds me of political diehards (myself included from time to time) that are so busy calling out the other side for their partisan narrowness that they forget to remove the plank in their own failed policy eye.

The antidote to narrow-mindedness then, can’t be the mere act of embracing or rejecting religion.  In a way, your status as far as faith is concerned is not the point.  Your willingness to experiment and to be generous enough to give others 50% chance of being right is where it has to start.  Is this messier than the blessed assurance of those that think they have it all or those that are dead set on disallowing any chance of truth’s discovery?  Of course.  But what good is assurance if it is built on blinkered, sinking sand?

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Bjorn Karlman

Christian, Not Crazy: Some Almost-Organized Thoughts on Faith

Photo 176I struggled with this post.  It’s different from most in that I’m not writing directly about American politics and I am not trying to write on top of the news.  This post is about context.  Specifically, a context rooted in faith.  My faith.  Intellectual suicide?  I don’t think so.  Let me explain.

One of the things that most fascinated me when I started following American politics from across the Atlantic while I was living in the UK, was how openly politicos talked about faith.  If anyone with political aspirations in Europe did anything more than attend a sterile Easter service at a state church, Europeans would write him or her off as a religious nut.  Not so in the United States.

Despite his moral flexibility and playboy approach to saving the world, Bill Clinton was raised Southern Baptist and regularly sought the counsel of religious leaders like Jesse Jackson (who coincidentally was having an affair while counseling Bill on his Monica-related troubles).  We all know that George W. Bush was a man of faith.  His faith was positively troubling as we witnessed his crusade of a post 9/11 foreign policy that permanently sullied America’s image abroad and did more to draw religion-inspired battle lines than any American move in decades.  As cerebral as Barack Obama is, he was famously aligned with the controversial preacher Jeremiah Wright as a member of his flock when Wright spat out the words “God damn America.”  Multiple presidents have sought to address social problems through government funding of faith-based humanitarian programs.

Apart from the faith of recent and current American leaders, the American political landscape is hugely influenced by the religious right which, although somewhat fragmented currently, is enormously influential in any election.  This group of evangelicals ranges from run-of-the-mill casual believers with nominal conservative values and a penchant for apple pie and Nascar to raving lunatics that bomb abortion clinics, harbor closet (or devastating open) hate for minorities and spend their free time trying to legislate the teaching of Creationism in schools and the flying of racist confederate flags in front of state buildings.

More than once on CultureMutt, I have critiqued the evangelical contingent in America.  I grew up as Seventh-day Adventist and as a current member of this conservative evangelical community I feel particularly responsible for the messages that come out of the evangelical camp.  That’s why I:

Blasted Beck over his ridiculous critique of church social justice programs:  Poetic Justice for Beck’s Social Justice Rant

Found this way to lure young male congregants hilarious:  Pound the Other Cheek: The Advent of Christian Fight Clubs

Thought that this approach to evangelical sexual morality was extremely naive:  Virginity 2.0 – Post Cherry-Pop Purity.

Sincerely hoped that religious crazies and their know-nothing dogma were losing steam:  Fundamentalism Loses its Mojo

As faith and politics are very intertwined and as I am so drawn to talking about both, I thought it only fair to say a few words about where I personally stand when it comes to religion.  Some of my readers have, in one way or another, asked me what I personally believe in.  If you have read CultureMutt over the past several months it won’t come as surprise that I am a cultural and political liberal.  When it comes to religion, I hate evangelical cheese and over-simplification of faith; I look for vomit buckets when I hear of attempts to legislate Christian morality; I am pro-choice; I am no literalist when it comes to my approach to reading religious texts; and I am all for gay rights, including the right to marry.

Having said all that, I do believe in the transcendent, that there is a presence that far eclipses the limited human perspective.  I am a religious tourist and have found meaning in all of the major world religious traditions.  My best friend is a Muslim and through my conversations with him I am drawn to a monotheistic approach to faith.  I am convicted by the Christian narrative of a compassionate deity that redeems humans in the grander cosmic sense as well as in our day-to-day reality.

What I feel most passionately about when it comes to my faith is this focus on bringing redemption in the here and now.  I don’t believe, as some do, that actively practicing faith requires an end to intelligent thought.  Rather, my faith challenges me to use critical thinking in finding a humane response to human problems.  I believe that authentic faith breeds understanding, generosity and compassion.  This is why I am passionate about fighting for social justice and finding systemic solutions for today’s social problems.  Poverty, illness, lack of education, drastic social inequality, racism – in my book these are very real manifestations of evil and I support a faith that combats each.

I don’t think I am entirely “right” in my articulation of reality and faith.  I know I have a lot to learn, that I am doubtless wrong on multiple fronts. I’ll listen to your thoughts because they will enhance my understanding of reality.  I intentionally held off on articulating any personal religious convictions on CultureMutt because this blog is not meant to be a forum for the discussion of the fine points of doctrine.  I simply thought that a little context at this point regarding my personal faith-related convictions would help explain where I am coming from.  Looking forward to your thoughts.

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Bjorn Karlman