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.



Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand

50 thoughts on “Why Aid Should Never be Used as Bait for Religion”

  1. Ugggg. I’m glad someone else said it. This is like the SDAs who want to make sure that the orphans are being taught to be Adventist before they donate money… or make sure that the kids are vegetarian. Uh… really people? A child is starving and you can’t just feed them and call it good for the day? Jesus said, if they’re hungry feed them, if they’re naked clothe them, if they’re thirsty…. it was that simple. Our faith should be about a transformation of ourselves and how we treat others…. not a transformation of others. The amount of love in our actions shouldn’t need a sermon.

    1. I know, right!! It is seriously crazy-making… No wonder missionaries get a bad rep… Time to re-think the whole approach…. Any ideas for alternatives? Like for, example, with our boarding school dream back in the day… how could we have structured things so that we touched lives and taught values but didn’t force faith?

  2. I agree 100%. People figure out quickly enough what others motives are and God help us all that ours were pure.

    Aid and sharing the Good news of God’s love is an end unto itself.

    I just ended my employment at an SDA organization here in South Korea that is heavily involved in the baptism numbers business. There is nothing wrong with celebrating new members, but nobody should pressure others to join a church.

    The Americans and other westerners that I worked with at the SDA organization here and I were constantly experiencing shock when we heard and saw time and again the various methods of manipulation and bullying from so-called pastors.

    It does cheapen the whole “business” of spreading the Good news and doing good / showing love for God’s sake.

    I am now happily working for South Korea’s first national to earn a doctorate in Altruism and am excited to be mentored by her at her amazing school.

    1. Wow, that is amazing news, Heather! About your new employment, that is:) Congratulations!! That sounds like an amazing job:) How did you snag THAT?

      As for the baptism numbers game…. it just is all so completely off. I am extremely relieved not to be employed by an organization that would require that kind of nonsense.. especially in the name of education, care or aid…

      Doctorate in Altruism?

  3. Well written Bjorn, I think you grabbed all negative aspects of this. As cara said above, its very important to realise what prophets etc said “if THEY are hungry feed em” etc. When they is mentioned, there is no requirement for the hungry to be part of a religein, I think the only pre requisite is to be a living thing. Compassion isnt only for humans, its for all living things and that is what most religions teach you to do. The simple commandment such as to be good to thy neighbor says it all really.

    However, I would say to some extent it can be benificial to have the backing of a religion but it can also have adverse affects and cause conflict too.

    The example you gave of having to go through something religious to gain something from a religious organisation is just plain wrong. Religion is there to spark the sense of humanity within, if you pick and choose and shove it down thier throat, then you totally negate it.

    Totally agree with your mentioned points and in summary that you dont need to bribe someone into religion. Help them because you want to and your belief compels you to be humane. not for the sake of inviting desperates to believe in what you do.

    Greed is never far off and corruption is its child.

    1. Samir, thanks for the excellent comment. I appreciate the thoughts and definitely agree with you. I wanted to ask for clarification on one point though. What did you mean by “to some extent it can be benificial to have the backing of a religion”… do you mean that organized religion often has the financial backing to create charities?
      Bjorn recently posted…Why Aid Should Never be Used as Bait for ReligionMy Profile

      1. Bjorn
        thanks for the response.
        I think that when asking for donations the backing of relativity sometimes has to be employed.

        What i mean about religion giving a good backing to some charities is that for certain areas where a particular religion dominates, any donations to be collected for that region are usually aimed at like for like religious demographics.

        when you have events like natural disastors in say bangladesh or pakistan, the charities which are at the forefront for asking for donations are muslim charities because the element of familiarity and relativity is there and the chances of gaining donations based on religion rather than humanity are increased 10 folds.

        similarly, starving children dying in africa (about 24000 a day) are from all backgrounds and a lot of charities are set up for donations. but if they were to inform donators of the fact that a vast majority of these starving children are from a muslim background, you can imagine how the donations would slump.

        1. Samir, thanks for your explanation. And yes, I agree, a religious identity can definitely be of help or of hindrance in this kind of work. When done well, I am all for religious charity work of any faith. As long as faith is not a prerequisite for aid, I think religious values represent a lot what is best about humanity and can power a charity to success… Thanks again for your input..

  4. It’s such a tricky balance to combine ones humanitarian work and evangelism. It becomes even more difficult when you are associated with a western church that places value more on the number of conversions than on the number of people helped.

    Furthermore, if someone truly believe that God makes life better, than sharing Christianity should be heavily integrated into all aspects of life! After all. the purpose of doing any type of humanitarian work is about making people’s lives better – and that is exactly what a relationship with Christ should do.

    I think, however, the problem is that we too often look at God as something we have to “sell” rather than someone we desire to build a relationship with. No one should require a conversion to receive aid. I think any time we do that we are revealing our lack of a relationship with God.

    It’s definitely tricky to combine God and aid in an ethical way (which sounds counter-intuitive). However, I firmly believe that those who are able to mesh the two in a Christian way can make a huge impact in the world.
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    1. Rob! Thanks for the comment. This is really interesting. Combining faith and aid is definitely possible. In fact, keeping the two separate is probably impossible if you truly believe what you believe as it becomes part of everything you do. Do you have any examples of people that have pulled this off without coming across as heavy-handed?

  5. I couldn’t agree more. On another note, I seriously am thinking that missionaries shouldn’t be employed and neither should pastors. Then it would require everyone to show compassion and God’s love where they are and take ownership of following Christ’s example for themselves.

    1. Karin, that’s a really interesting concept. Getting rid of paid clergy would definitely energize the base on a whole different level. I have visited churches that don’t believe in paid clergy and it really seems to make a difference.. not as polished as someone that speaks publicly for a living but definitely dynamic and authentic-feeling…

  6. For the record, I do consider myself an atheist now, so I think I am a little more objective than I would have been in the past. I think it depends on the situation. If a group is engaging in disaster relief or another type of short-term help, requiring some sort of religious conversion is really disgusting. I think if you are engaging in long-term relief or aid, then requiring some sort of criteria as a condition of aid is much more permissible. I think the idea of taking care of “your own” first makes a lot of sense since your resources for the long haul will be much more limited than they will be during a disaster when many aid groups get an infusion of money.

    Either way, though, I always understood the Bible to promote the idea that when you help others, it should be in a humble way. You shouldn’t use your aid to promote yourself or pump your chest. To me, that doesn’t just apply to the individual, but to groups as well since corporations are people too :P (I had to say it). So to me, regardless of how a group decides to offer aid, they should do it without expecting anything in return (although that might not always be possible with things like Habitat for Humanity) and without parading around self-congratulating.

    1. David. Great comment! And yes “corporations are people too” was priceless!! I resisted the temptation to resurrect the old CultureMutt days last November… but I kinda missed them:)

      The last time we spoke about faith I think you were considering atheism seriously. I’d be interested in what tipped the scale.

      I really enjoyed the post. Even your highly non-PC idea of “requiring some sort of criteria”…!

      On to other things. I am trying to keep up with American politics here in Thailand…. looks like Ben Carson could be the first sevvie to make a noticeable dent…

      1. I couldn’t agree more! I do believe that there are genuine people want to offer help, but they are often accountable to organizations and financial backers who want results for their investments. That’s just sad. Also, if Ben Carson gets any sort of nomination, I’m kicking a puppy.

        1. Jael! Sad that “results” are often quantified in baptismal tallies… And wow… Ben Carson… I actually watched his Prayer Breakfast Speech on YouTube… I wish he had stuck to Think Big and Gifted Hands… all this political stuff is killing me:)

  7. Hi Bjorn (or is it Bjørn?)
    Very interesting thoughts there!
    While thinking about this issue I was reminded of a good quote: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.”” (E.G. White, Ministry of Healing p. 143)
    I think that sums up how followers of Christ are suppose to do it. Jesus didn’t require baptism before he would help someone in need. But he also didn’t leave them just with the physical healing or physical food. He gave them something more, he gave himself – the Truth, the Way, and the Life. Some accepted, some didn’t. But he still loved those who didn’t accept his offer.

    1. Anneli, thanks for the very thoughtful comment. And I see your point. I guess I would like to see some organizations that pull this off successfully… providing aid without precondition and then sharing faith in a way that doesn’t exploit. Do you have any examples?

  8. I so totally agree! My young woman I know was in a program that was meant to help her change her life. There was much in the program to admire and I was glad she was in it. Yes, it was run by a Christian church–that’s all fine. But in order to progress in the program, the young women had to “buy into” the whole Christian thing. I thought that was wrong. I belong to a Christian church, but I believe that true service is not held hostage to ideology. (By the way, I lived in Bangkok for several years–great place!!)
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    1. Galen! Thanks so much for the comment. And I really liked how you articulated the idea of “true service” not being “held hostage to ideology”. Sadly, as you know, this truth is so often ignored…
      Were there any nonprofits that you felt were doing a good job with childhood education in the slums when you were in Thailand? I’m curious…

  9. Yep, pretty much sums it up. The first thing that came to mind was the Desire of Ages quote that talks about Jesus’s method of reaching people — he first helped them with their needs and cared for them, and only THEN did he say, “Follow me.”

    1. Thanks Licia, I definitely like that approach! It recognizes the physical need and meets it before moving forward….

  10. My first thought was complete lack of shock. We’ve come a long way since the soft sell was torture and conquest the hard sell was genocide. The church has a long history of these sort of shenanigans where they use the plight of the poor and disenfranchised to bolster their own institutions. The truly sad thing is if you brought these concerns to the people providing coercive aid they wouldn’t understand you. They would no more understand you than someone speaking gibberish. If you want to be less medievalish It was standard practice (and still is in some places) to put a soup kitchen in a religious meeting place and harangue the bums about the evil of their ways while they eat. Dan Pink has an interesting TEDTalk about incentive and motivation that you might want to watch. Consider Adventists. We’re probably not nearly as coercive but we do have a similar mentality. I remember going to Africa during an Academy mission trip. We sent 20-30 kids to Africa to hold an evangelistic series. We combed the village asking to pray for people, inviting them to the meetings and we set up a clinic where a couple of kids volunteered with their Dads and other volunteer doctors and dentists that came with. We left that village having done nothing for those people except pull some teeth and lance a few boils. I can think of many many better ways of collectively 50,000$ or more than transporting 2 dozen children around the world to pray for people, but then I’m an enormous believer in the tangible. But there are so many of the religious who do not. That the charity is merely a means to the intangible. I think the most generous thing you can think about the people your talking about in your post is that they’re so desperate to save souls that they’re willing to engage in these semi-medieval tactics of carrots and sticks, however I think this is overly generous for people. I think they do it because it has to do with this patriarchal and paternal notion of ‘rightness’. That it’s right that they should attempt to coerce people into religion. That so long as the soul becomes transformed into something they feel aligns with their beliefs any means are justified to that end. I strongly disagree with this notion that you can make people or even help people become christian. If I go abroad or wherever The charity that I do, or any of my actions, will speak to any who pay attention as to what kind of person I am. I feel no need to convert others to be like me. And personally I don’t think that God cares much if you’re a christian or anything else so long as you try to live righteously but that’s just me.

    1. David, this was a fascinating comment! Thanks so much for the input. I have often wondered about those “mission trips” from Western churches. I have gone on a couple myself. It always consists of relatively large amounts of Western currency being raised to cart kids over to developing countries for some kind of activity – building churches, schools, etc. On a certain level, having the sheer numbers of workers means that work gets done. But that is about the most tangible thing I see happen. Generally, religious outreach work also happens but the effects of it tend to fizzle when the exotic foreigners leave…

      The money spent on these trips may be well-spent from the point of view of the parents of the Western kids because it expands the horizons of these kids but, I agree, the tangible bang for that kind of buck would be a lot bigger if simply used to pay for local workers to building the school building (or the 10 buildings you could build with the money being spent on one construction project when you think of everyone’s plane and food expenses)…

  11. Hey Bjorn! I’m really respect what you and Jammie are doing. I’m also a little jealous and would love to do something like this with my family one day.

    There are some distinctions that need to be made. There’s a big difference between requiring a person to convert before giving them a loaf of bread, and sitting through a worship service before partaking in a community meal. Furthermore, I’m skeptical (perhaps naively so) that any of these Christian NPOs/social service organizations would require ‘visual confirmation’ of an individual who attended their service before giving that person a plate of food. In other words, if someone chose not to sit through a religious service, but jumped the queue to get their food, it’s highly unlikely this person will be asked to leave. I think these scenarios you’ve suggested are equivocal and therefore not deserving of the same criticism.

    I don’t know Annika, but I can understand her concern and what appears to be a quid pro quo, as you mentioned, with some Christians. In talking with folks who aren’t Christians, I also hear the concerns of an ‘other worldly’ dualistic spirituality that sometimes comes through, not to mention the long Christian hegemonic history. However, I kinda suspect there’s something else going on here. Perhaps the real underlining issue for Annika, and her sympathizers, is the uncomfortable feeling she gets when hearing a particular version of the gospel proclaimed (i.e., some form of exclusivism/particularism) in connection with providing aid.

    Personally, I’m a Francis of Assissi ‘preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words’ kind-of-guy. I’ve pastored for many years, taken various church members with me in serving a variety of folks in the community. I’ve worked as a pastoral counselor, community and hospital chaplain, and spent a lot of time serving the poor around the world, as well as ‘the poorest of the poor’ with Christians such as the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in L.A. I also have a real interest in the study of compassion, both in terms of scholarship and practice.

    With that said, however, I don’t have a problem with a Christian organization (or any religion for that matter) wanting to share what they feel is “life-giving” (the gospel) in connection with offering some kind of service to the community, e.g., food, shelter, etc. Obviously there are some lines that need to be drawn and motives checked.

    If I walked into a Buddhist monastery seeking refuge I would expect there to be some kind of Buddhist influence. Contrariwise, if a medical humanitarian organization, such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), set up a triage tent in a refugee camp and I limped in badly wounded, I wouldn’t necessarily expect someone to talk to me about Allah.

    If there’s anything I’ve learned while being a part of the interreligious education project at Claremont School of Theology/Claremont Lincoln University for the past several years, it’s this: if you say you’re a Christian people of other faiths (or no faith) expect you to say something about Jesus. This goes for many people who frequent Christian organizations involved in primarily humanitarian work as well.

    I think we, as Christians, are the one quibbling over these ethical issues more than those just wanting someone, anyone, to help them meet their basic needs.

    1. Erik, thank you for such a nuanced, balanced comment. And, let me first say that I am very impressed with the work you have been doing. It sounds fascinating. Next time I’m in the LA area I would love to sit down and chat about your experiences.

      As for the points you made, I agree to an extent. I agree that forcing conversion (impossible) and simply exposing aid recipients to religion are two different things. Also, I agree that, depending on the brand of faith being shared, there may be an exclusivist tone that puts people like Annika off and comes across and domineering and colonialist.

      However, the mere fact that the majority of Christian aid organizations are unlikely to require “visual confirmation” that someone hit chapel before the breakfast table is not quite the point. Sure, you might be able to get away with it. My problem is with the fact that the unspoken message is “your going to listen to this if you want to eat.” Whether you can game the system or not is not quite the point. Also, I understand that people expect religious charities to be just that, religious. However, that should not justify proselytizing to people that are in the bread queue.

      Perhaps we are on the same page and that what needs to be ironed out is simply what you refer to as “a Christian organization (or any religion for that matter) wanting to share what they feel is “life-giving”” as well as “the lines” and “motives” you mentioned:) Thanks again for the comment!

  12. Interesting post. Definatly food for thought. Most of what there is to say has already been said on the discussion by now :). Great comments overall! I don’t think it’s possible for a person who loves Jesus to keep Him hidden. However, such a person must always be aware of whether their approach is Christlike. That’s a balance that applies not just to the mission field but in every place where we try to live a Christians in the world. I really see nothing fundamentally different between the mission field and here at home in that respect. If I’m only showing interest in people to twist their arm into becoming Christians, I’m not being Christlike. The Christian understands that they are to love and show interest in people unconditionally and share as the opportunity provides itself – but God must do the converting. We should not condition our help or friendship on conversion. Help should be based on need and the territory we are trying to cover. I’ve always found that if a person wants nothing to do with Christ, they will be the ones to pull away from the relationship. I see nothing wrong however with helping people and then inviting them to a seminar. But we need to be careful that to make sure that if they only want aid, that they can get it without constant harassment.

    Like many have already said, Jesus helped people no strings attached. But He loved them too much not tell them about their greatest need. He knew that all these sick people he healed would only live several decades max before they got sick again and died. I don’t know enough about missions in general (never been on a mission trip) to give you examples of organisations that follow these principles, but they are simple enough to be followed.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Jonathan! I think the ideas you shared above in regards to Christian charities and the ideal approach for them, applies to charities that are supported by other faiths as well. The physical help must come first and foremost. Sharing faith often comes naturally.

  13. Bjorn! Reading this hits home for my memories of being in a similar Asian country working for a year as a missionary where similar events seemed to take place to get people to be baptized. I know for sure there are a lot of SDA baptized people walking around over there and they don’t even know what that means. It was all about how many they could get baptized. I remember times of really being frustrated by what I was seeing and was a part of and that made me not want to be a part of it anymore. Its the kind and silent helping with out strings attached that will touch someones heart. What has happened tat people are going to such crazy measures?
    Keep up the good work my friend!

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories of overseas work, Jamie! And the numbers game is one of the most frustrating things about faith-based work… it is as though the schools or humanitarian agencies are not considered effective unless they bring with them conversions….. ughhghgh!! Hopefully we will mature:)

  14. So, my dear cousin, from one Agnostic to anoth..oh wait wrong forum ;)

    Religion, can, from an outwardly perspective be written off as big business these days. One would feel that most of the programs installed by “big religion” are for the betterment of humanity and I agree to an extent. I use the opening scene from “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Catherine Hepburn (1951) as an example here:

    Deep in the wilds of Africa, a minister and his colleague play and sing hymns with the native population in a makeshift Chapel. The Natives can not speak or sing in English and the minister and colleague become extremely frustrated with the service.

    Just this 2 minute scene plays out, for me, the old-school religious “indoctrination” method of “forcing it down their throats”. In today’s world people are savvy, educated and curious. SO, what do you do as a business, excuse me Religion, when information is so widely accessible that you cant simply hide your motives behind naivety. You build schools, hospitals, camps, community programs and funding centers. Whatever has the most reach in a community, be it around the corner from home or halfway across the world, it doesn’t matter as long as the bottom line is in the black.

    Now, I’m not trying to rant about how religion these days has become pure capitalism, BUT just like my friends and I can sit and talk about the wrong-doings of lobbyists and fat-cats in Washington because we have facts, we have proof, we have information yet nobody is able to send a clear message to these folks that we simply wont stand for it any longer. Might be premature, but give society 20 years and we’ll see incredible change as people become aware.

    This is not true of many religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Yogi’s, Native American religions, and other “spirit” religions dont seem to convey the same need to dig into people’s wallets. You seem to enter a Buddhist community with open arms and invitation to experience faith in your own way. You do Yoga in the morning to center the body and focus your energy on repairing yourself on the cellular level.

    I couldn’t become a camp counselor at my favorite SDA camp simply because I wouldn’t be baptized SDA, and I saw my fellow campers look at each other and say “aint no thing, we’ll have a swim and then I can be a counselor here”. Why, oh why would you deny someone who is passionate about the community they are involved with, and the people you want to help look after and support, the chance to do so simply because of your “on paper” religious beliefs.

    Faith is based purely within your heart, however you want to perceive it, live it, cherish it or deny it, Faith is what religion is all about. Not money, not programs, not loans and certainly not “down the throat”.

    As you say Bjorn, religion can be cheapened, and unfortunately it already has been for a long time.

    AWARENESS is the ammunition, our willingness to learn and speak up is the cannon. Which is exactly what your post brings to the table.

    Keep up the good work Cousin, send my love to all.
    – Alex Karlman
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    1. Stellar comment, Alex!! I’ve got to become a better student of the movie classics, I see.. starting with “The African Queen”! But yes, even without seeing the movie I definitely see your point – the illustration of old school colonialist Western Christians coming over to show the natives what’s up… I also agree that they style of the work being done and the vehicle that is used, has been changing. But yes, often the motives still seem to be conquest. Conquering… Ugghghgh.. Very condescending. I will say that I don’t think pure Christianity or faith in general is about this. I think there is a way to share faith that is not as “top down”. Faith can be a very beautiful thing.

      What happened at the summer camp is disgusting… no two ways about it. Super, super disappointing. Maybe you should write them and honest letter as an adult and talk about the disappointment you felt as a teen and how they could better their approach. They could grow from that.

      Alex, I miss you man. Thanks a lot for commenting. Say hi to the fam for me. I miss them all…

  15. I agree with many of the comments already written. What I don’t hear however, is a respect for the Thai people, their culture and their gentle nature. I visited Thailand last year and fell in love with the people and culture. I would love to go back and work with them. One of the things that impressed me most was a sense of spirituality that seemed to permeate the very core of their country. It was inescapable. Additionally, one can’t walk more than a few blocks without tripping over a Buddhist temple anywhere you go in Thailand. I was deeply touched by the Spirit I felt within the walls of those I visited…large and small. It was palpable.

    At one point, I asked our guide why humanitarian missions and schools were sponsored mostly by Western Christian organizations (considering there were so many temples and monks, etc.) In response, he explained their concept of karma and their philosophy concerning the balance of continuous lives…a concept very foreign to many of us raised in traditional Christian thinking. It was sobering and thought provoking.

    My point is that so often we insert ourselves into another culture and insist on CHANGING them…sending a message that we think we’re BETTER, and that THEY need a “cultural upgrade.” We assume that because they don’t have our standard of living we need to make them like us. We don’t seek to UNDERSTAND before asking to be understood. Then we are disappointed when the results are a disaster to those whom we thought we were providing aid and assistance. We don’t have to look any further than the indigenous tribes of North America to see what happens when we intervene in such a manner…culture lost that ultimately has left them with no underpinnings for simple daily living.

    I feel that the Thai people have so much to teach us about living…about being…that our first obligation is to live the Golden Rule and accept them as they ARE…to learn from them and then TOGETHER to find a solution that raises their standard of living to a higher level without sacrificing the values that are important to THEM. As I got to know our native guide over a short period of time I am convinced this is what THEY would do if the roles were reversed. They are very much a culture that takes the best of what they see around them and improves upon it.

    As I read this blog, the parable of the Good Samaritan came to mind. In this metaphor the Samaritan provides for the stranger’s needs and comfort and asks nothing in return…he does not even leave a name or calling card…no conversion necessary…stay the same or be different but just be well. The gift was free…no strings attached. I think this is the template that Christ wanted us to follow. Anything else IS coercion and it’s not the model He left us.

    Additionally, research in psychology suggests that certain basic level “needs” must be sustained before individuals have the leisure of time and thought to tend to so-called spiritual issues. In other words, it’s hard to think about your relationship with Source when you or your family are starving or dangerously ill. Organizations that insist on putting the cart before the horse (conversion first; help second) are bound to failure…people desperate to save themselves will go through the motions…but true spiritual conversions will be the exception rather than the rule.

    I also understand that some organizations use conversion as a means of screening…the fear being that they don’t have enough resources to help everyone. While I understand that concern on a logical level, on a spiritual one, it makes no sense. Rather, should we not have faith that God can overcome ANY lack when involved in a mission that mends the bodies and ultimately the spirits of His children?

    How many of us who lived through the “Cold War” ever thought the Berlin wall would come down? Yet it did…with not a shot being fired. Barriers of all types can be breached in the same manner…not by coercion or threats…but by the power of example. My opinion is that Christianity will not make big inroads in Thailand under the circumstances described. The Thai people don’t respond to coercion. That’s not their style. We need to learn from them…as they learn from us. I hope I have the opportunity to do just that.

    1. What a wonderful, thoughtful comment, LoisAnn! Thank you so much. And I very much agree that we often have our approach completely wrong. One of the reasons I started CultureMutt back in 2009 was to help us all seek to understand before we asked others to understand us. So much more is gained when we take this approach. And you are right, Thailand is the perfect example of this. Thank you for reminding us that attempts at spreading faith without regard to the culture and sensibilities of the people you are working with is a dead end.

  16. While I agree there have been many abuses, what is the purpose of religion? Is it to relieve suffering or spread the gospel as much as possible? You could easily argue that life’s sufferings are temporary and less important than an eternity in heaven. Following down that path, you could say that church resources should only be dedicated to spreading the gospel. If you can’t use aid in conjunction with that, then you shouldn’t provide aid at all. Isn’t it more beneficial to everyone if you can spread the gospel *and* provide aid? :)

    Ok, so it’s not that simple. Even if you only used resources for spreading the gospel you run into questions such as, should they only be used for the most effective methods (i.e. most numbers)? Anything else would appear to be a waste and we’re commanded to be good stewards.

    I think we can all agree there needs to be a balance between relieving suffering and spreading the gospel, reaching with various methods and using only effective methods. But what is that balance? Truth is, there is no hard fast rule, otherwise it would be easy.

    Since I don’t have the answer, I’ll get to the point. While we should be good stewards and make effective use of the talents and resource we have been given, the root problem in all this is human deficiencies and improper motivations. The only solution is to draw nearer to Christ. The closer we all are to Him, the less abuses there will be and the more effective we will be, whatever that ends up being. And hey, this is the problem with every other aspect in life! It is constantly being regurgitated in different real-life examples and we’re still talking about it… sigh

    1. Nelson!! Thanks for the world-weary response… and thanks for stirring up the waters in this comment section:) I wasn’t expecting this angle:) I guess if you are looking at things from a strictly denominational standpoint, you would want to prioritize proselytizing… The idea does make me feel uncomfortable though. But then, it also depends on the kind of organization we are talking about. A church or a mosque is going to prioritize getting the message out. An aid organization should prioritize the relief work…

      Thanks again for your thoughts..

  17. While I was a teacher in Korea we had to teach one Religion class per day and many students would attend but it was well known that attendance was simply another way to practice English conversation. I seem to recall one student saying he couldn’t understand why we would teach western philosophy/ thought in an eastern country. So perhaps as religion was taught alongside English the message which was propagated was we will give you language skills but you really should become a Christian. The sad thing was when people got baptised there was often none or her little continue support or guidance. I don’t know what the solution might be but perhaps religion should be taught in a institution separate to language classes. It needs to get out there but in a way which is honest and practically meets the needs of each individual where they are.

    1. Thanks Graeme! The Christian English Teaching model is an interesting one… I’ve seen the same sort of thing offered in Thailand – “come learn English at our church…” Interestingly, I have also seen Thai lessons being offered at a Buddhist campus that I visited. I guess faith communities find language teaching to be an effective avenue for exposing the general population to their ideas. Easily abused but I can also see it being done in a non-threatening kind of way…

  18. I Agree. Aid shouldn’t be used as bait for Religion.

    There is definitely a line connected from an aid to religion.
    Aid is the result from a religion/belief/faith.

    What is the best way for religious organizations/charities in delivering help to the those that need it?
    It depends on the people in the specific organization/charity groups’ program/chosen program/way plan.
    From me, personally, i would deliver aid/help with unconditional motive, and sees quality, more than quantity(statistical parameters)as for its measurement (if needed to be measured), although it’s harder to be measured on quality :)

    1. Donny! Thanks for taking the words straight out of my mouth:) I like the idea of unconditional help! Much more palatable. And yes, could someone come up with a standardized measure of how we improve the quality of people’s lives through aid?:) That would be amazing!

      Good to hear from you, bro!

  19. It seems that the most salient points relating to your article have already been covered in the comments above. There is however a thought that I think has not been discussed and I consider it pivotal if we are concerned with the rationale behind unapologetically merging service with evangelizing.

    I think theology has a lot to do with it. Or perhaps to phrase it in a way that sounds less steeped in the kind of scriptural splitting of hairs that dogmatists so often engage in: I think understanding spiritual principles has a lot to do with it. Great, now I sound like a self proclaimed Yogic Sage but to me the point stands. Those who advocate a’conversion for aid’ approach have fundamentally misunderstood something about the point of this faith thing.

    It’s easy for me to say this. I am not an evangelical Christian (although I do believe in Christ and the Bible) and by virtue of this I do not believe that organising your thoughts about Jesus and the cross incorrectly could result in you literally burning for an eternity after your death. I do not believe that the spiritual journey is less about personal growth and noble conduct and more about ensuring you don’t have the wrong ideas in your head because in the next world wrong ideas serve as a ticket to an infinity of torment. It’s in this context that we see words like ‘salvation’ emerge. The emphasis becomes less about ensuring people are equiped to make measured and authentic decisions for or against God and it becomes more about making sure more people are ‘saved’ from burning…We can sort the sincerity stuff out later.

    In this sense I cannot blame those who sincerely hold such convictions to readily implement a ‘conversion for aid’ approach to service. I mean the stakes are high and there are no second chances. Everyone in disagreement with your Divine model is heading for the worst existence imaginable. If ever the saying ‘the ends justifies the means’ applied it would be now. Being seen as a zealot by some, insincere by many and dismissed as a nutjob by most is a small price to pay for the sake of someone avoiding an eternity in hell.

    This is where I see a division between those who endorse coercive means of eliciting conversions from the vulnerable and those who strongly disapprove (like me). For the former it is about eternal consequence, softly and politely offering the Gospel as if it’s an invitation to a birthday party while the world is going to hell is absurd. The latter camp (where I would place myself) operate in a completely different paradigm. I consider the ONLY way spirituality can work is if people make authentic decisions about the big questions. A scenario where all individuals are free to make well considered and honest choices regarding their own spiritual destiny is predicated on the elimination of dogmatism, indoctrination and other fear driven control tactics.

    For reasons that maybe be too profound grasp entirely God decided that the free will of man was so sacred that even He would not violate it in the face of horrendous inhumanity. Would it not follow then that we should do the same? When we view everyone’s spiritual journey as sacred I think we avoid the kind of religious manipulation you have written about but this first requires a deeper understanding of the essence of religious teachings. How do we encourage the deeper meanings of religious ideas to not be swallowed up in a swamp of dogmatism? Well I think that’s clearly another conversation but in my mind it’s a question rooted in the heart of this one.

    1. This comment could honestly stand on its own as one of the best blog posts I’ve read on the topic of religion. The idea that you would be sent to eternity of hellfire based on whether or not your have correctly organized your thoughts around the sacrifice of Jesus is, very, very unfortunately, very prevalent in certain circles. I am a Christian and believe that all that accept this sacrifice are offered eternal life. How exactly this happens in every person’s sacred journey around the globe, however, is beyond my comprehension. I think that God works with each person and with each journey. I don’t think that the formulaic approach I see at Evangelical Christian events – saying a few words “right”, does the trick. I think there will be people in heaven that have never heard of Jesus but have lived life in a way that responds positively to the divine as it has been revealed to them. I don’t think coercion (whether orchestrated through the “aid for religion” model or otherwise) produces real faith and therefore I don’t believe in the high-pressure “ask”. I think you are absolutely right that this strikes at the heart of what is being discussed in this comment section. If we don’t feel the need to force conversion on the spot (a completely fruitless exercise at best), we are more able to respect the faith journey in each person and actually do our jobs as actual aid providers…

      Thanks again for the thoughts…. More to come on this but I am thinking of starting a second blog to run along CultureMutt… I think I could really use a fleshed-out version of this post as a guest post…..

  20. Dear Bjorn

    A very relevant topic going to the core of faith and “mission”. Annika, your Swedish friend, has every right to be angry and upset. Love, God and faith are not genuine and real if you expect something in return, of if as a recipient you distinctly feel you need respond in kind. BECAUSE we love and have experienced God’s grace, to share it just because I am asking and allowing God to shape me into being such a person, that is valuable motivation.

    Churches, mine included, and religious folk who act in a quid pro quo fashion act out of fear. Fear, that what they believe in – God, love, grace, etc. – that actually, on it’s own, many may not respond to it. Fear, that we won’t be successful in converting people. Fear, to let God, love and grace do its own talking – maybe now, maybe later, and maybe never.

    I am a salesperson by profession. And it doesn’t matter in what country or culture you are in – the best sales job is done when you allow people to come to their own conclusion, make their own decision. Granted, in my job I will present the best arguments I can. But unless I have the courage to give up my need to try to control the outcome (which I can’t), unless I have the courage to walk away – no active decision on the other side will take place. And a decision out of own volition is the most valuable.

    God’s love is not a sales job. It’s a life’s choice. Let’s have the guts to let people make up their own mind – in a genuine way.

    I’m really pleased and proud to hear your thoughts and to see what you’re doing, Bjorn. Godspeed with you, my friend.

    1. Danilo, thanks so much for the encouragement! This new phase in life is quite the adventure:)

      I really liked your perspective… the fear angle is one that we don’t talk about enough. Shouldn’t genuine faith be able to stand on its own two feet? Why do we need to use coercion? Faith-based aid organizations that use this approach are shooting themselves in the foot as they are not at all exemplifying the faith they profess to want to share..

      I really appreciate your thoughts, Danilo. Thanks for sharing.

      Where are you nowadays, BTW? I’d love to bounce some ideas off you:)

  21. This is very interesting thoughts about charity and religion. There are many strategies to reach out people. I can’t judge the others how they introduce religion or their motives to help those in need. We see only the outward view which is perhaps base to our own experiences (bad or good), personal struggles, predudices, cultural background, family etc. As for me, It is a high calling and required a commitment to do the humanitarian/charity and share the love of Jesus Christ. As Christian, Jesus Christ is the center of everyhting and He is the foundation of all the good things we are doing. He gave us an example to follow. We just give the glory and praises to Him.

    Some years back, I have been in Bangkok together with a Finn friend. We tried to find out how to reached the bar ladies and we encountered the Rahab ministry and the expat lady who did a tremendous job in helping those bar girls. She put up a beauty parlor and vocational school after five years of sitting in the bar making friends with the girls and homos.We also meet an expat nun who was encharged of the Safety house. This Safety house worked together with some Orphanage. When the ladies got pregnant they came to the safety house, delivered they babies and stay there till six months. They decide to keep the babe or give for adoption. they learned handicraft while staying in the safety house.We also visited some Orphanage. All of these institutions were run by Christians (different kinds of Religions).They attend the needs of those people (four aspects of human needs) Some who open their hearts for Christ become converted but the percentage was so less. According to those expats they mainly offered their services and make the people aware that they deserve to be happy and have a real satisfaction and meaningful life that the fellow human being can’t give. We have a mission to spread the good news. But it’s up to the people to decide. Salvation is a free gift. We just share it.

    1. Thank you for the excellent comment Gina!! It reminded me of why I look up to you so much! I really admire your desire to help others and live out your faith. And the Rahab ministry sounds SERIOUSLY interesting! I was talking to someone who was connected to a prison outreach program here in Bangkok who was telling me about a similar organization but it wasn’t the Rahab ministry. The nun’s work with the Safety house sounds like an excellent organization as well! Do you still have any contact info? I would love to talk to them.

      Thank you so much Gina! I hope all is well with you:)

  22. I’m not sure about aid packages but throw in free food at any religious event and I’m there. Throw in free food regularly and I’m ready for a conversion.

    1. Haahaha!! Reminds me of when I went to a restaurant run by a really intriguing sect…. I forget the name. It was a vegetarian one in Seoul… I bet they got all kinds of people filling out interest cards based on their appetizers alone!

  23. Interesting post Bjorn! There’s definitely something ‘urgh’ about making aid conditional on religious views/behaviours. Even if you want evangelise, there are probably more efficient ways to do that, which don’t entail restricting who you give aid to! Hope all is well in Bangkok! :)

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