We’ve been talking about moving past our Christian cloisters to make friends with “normal” people, and yesterday, about what some first steps might look like We still have some good conversation going on in the comments attached to that post, so if anyone’s got some ideas about how to begin, head on over there and share your thoughts. In yesterday’s post, I did promise some further thoughts today — and these are perhaps some more of the more controversial (or at least harsh) ones. In thinking about missional themes and making friendships outside the Christian community, it seems that there’s one particular idea that may prove one of the harder ones to fall, and that’s what I want to explore a little… it invades our thinking from our attractional evangelistic days, and we need to eradicate it from our thinking.
Policitcal colonisation is something the church has historically been complicit in through their Christian Mission, naturally with the goal of spiritual colonisation… and perhaps of “civilizing the natives” along the way. The two went hand-in-hand, and there’s very little argument of the fact. Colonialism though, has not been recognized as one of history’s brighter moments or ideals, and the need for Decolonisation has been clearly identified.
Holding that thought for a moment, It is argued that pornography objectifes and dehumanizes women. There are arguments against this view, but they would certainly form the minority opinion. I don’t want to get off-track into a discussion of pornography, but one alternative has been to make a distinction between types of pornography — dehumanizing vs. erotic pornography. The greatest objection is obviously to the former, but it is at least anecdotal if not axiomatic that a steady diet of the latter will lead eventually to the former. Distinction or no, it has been shown that there is a link between (dehumanizing forms of) pornography and opinions (at the least) toward violence to women. Are women objectified and dehumanized? I think we’re on the path to general agreement on the point.
The same is said of the media, of advertising… not only in their use of women in advertising. This is true enough to have made Pamela Anderson a celebrity based on the chance Jumbotron appearance that famously landed her a Labatt‘s campaign as the Blue Zone Girl. Maybe it culminates in the Abercrombie T-shirt that for $24.95 proclaimed (emblazoned across the chest), “Who needs brains when you have these?” The need for a counter-revolution has been seen, enough that it was a notable anti-trend when a campaign for Dove soap decided to buck the trend.
Advertisers (or marketers) have also been criticized for a dehumanizing ideal in their treatment of the market itself. You have to imagine that anything defined as a “target” isn’t puting humanity at the top of the list of considerations… and it doesn’t help to refer to it colloquially as a “demo“. The first five theses in The Cluetrain Manifesto illustrate the point:
- Markets are conversations.
- Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
- Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
- Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
- People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
The manifesto goes on to describe how the market has come to view the marketers, and how they’re essentially asserting their humanity. We’re on-side with these responses — nobody wants to be treated as less than human. This is the essence of the Civil Rights Movement… both in America and elsewhere. (Not to mention the more basic Human Rights.) We want to be treated like people, and people who have value as individuals, as people.
We don’t want to be dehumanized… and this is where we’ll start to tie up the preceding material: dehumanization is a weapon of colonialism. Even the mere gathering of information has been seen to have been objectifying and dehumanizing practices:
Historically, research has been a tool of the colonizing forces to objectify/dehumanize, study, categorize/divide/dis-unify, control, disempower and colonize our communities. For the communities most impacted by the lingering effects of colonization, gathering our own knowledge about, by and for ourselves is part of a process of building power in our communities; it is essential to community self-determination and part of the process of liberation. Reclaiming the central place of community in building and guiding knowledge for community benefit and action is critical in decolonizing research.
By challenging the colonizing dynamics within our mental, intellectual, political, social and spiritual institutions, decolonization changes victims into actors, liberates the oppressed to achieve our full human potential. Decolonizing research involves reclaiming community knowledge to build grassroots power, self-determination and liberation.
I don’t mean to disparage all missionary endeavour, but with that caveat, I’ve already noted that early missionary efforts were largely those of colonialism. I would suggest that our practices in this regard haven’t changed much. We’re still trying to conquer or overcome the culture we live in and are engaged with — or not. How far removed are we, really, from the pith helmet? Leaving behind the concept of the traditional cross-cultural missionary, our local evangelistic efforts have still been largely concerned with making other people more like us. Whether we start with beliefs or habits, the real intent is that we’ll convert both.
Now, friendship evangelism is defined as “an approach to evangelism characterized by Christians developing relationships with people in order to show them kindness and talk to them about God eventually”, and it’s the “in order to” that I’ve got a problem with… because even though friendship is good, friendship with ulterior motives is not. It isn’t even real friendship. Although the whole “friendship evangelism” model gets it right in trying to model how Jesus related to people, there’s still an ulterior motive… it isn’t pure.
I remember back in my college days we jokingly referred to “missionary dating,” the process we observed whereby a Christian would date a non-Christian… and typically after they had made a profession of faith, the dating relationship would end and the missionary dater would move on. We disparaged the practice… it may have been motivated more by thoughts of the missionary position than of the missionary endeavour. (Well, it was conquest either way.)
I recall in my CLB that we had a target on the wall — inspired by Rick Warren, I think — which had a metalic background of some sort. We then had a whole bunch of little magnets on which we would write people’s names that we knew… and then we would pray for them as they progressed from the community to the congregation to the committed to the core. From outside to inside, from the outer ring to the center of the target.
It’s my contention that all of these notions and practices underly or promote a view of the unchurched that treats them as objects, as targets, as currency, as conquests… in some way of course, dehumanising them in the process. Oh, we’d never say it that way… but the distinction is not abundantly clear to me. Jesus dined with people, talked with people, and healed people somewhat indescriminantly. If he hadn’t, he would not have been nearly so offensive to the establishment. He didn’t withold healing for those who responded to the gospel message, and neither should we withold our friendship from others, for any such reason. Remove the ulterior motive, and you can actually have a friendship. Have a friendship, and you can actually impact people’s lives. It’s for this reason that I say, “Live your faith. Share your life.” And this is what I meant yesterday, when I said:
But it’s worth noting, probably as a ‘cardinal rule’ something repeated in each of the three quotes above. Friendship must be for its own sake, with no ulterior motive. I think that’s how Jesus did it, and it’s why he didn’t seem flustered if someone got healed and went away before he could finish passing out the tracts.
In the 1999 Movie The Big Kahuna, based on the Roger Rueff play Hospitality Suite, there is one of the most poignant examples of the fact that people see right through this falsely extended friendship, and they see it for what it is. Wikipeda’s plot summary:
Kevin Spacey plays Larry Mann, a relentlessly foul-mouthed cynic; Danny DeVito plays Phil Cooper, a world-weary average Joe; and Peter Facinelli is Bob Walker, a devout and earnest young Baptist. The three are industrial lubricant salesmen, sent to land a very important account, a rich businessman they refer to as The Big Kahuna. As the night progresses, Larry unleashes a torrent of scathingly funny witticisms, most directed at Bob, but finds himself relying on the newest member of the trio when their quarry invites Bob (and only Bob) to an exclusive party. While Phil and Larry wait for Bob to bring them the news that could end their careers, they muse over the meaning of life. Bob finally returns and offers a bombshell: rather than try to sell their product, he has instead chosen to talk to the man with deep pockets about…religion. In the face of Larry’s towering outrage, Bob stands fast for all that is pure and true. But Bob is unable to muster any reply at all when Phil quietly explains how he sees no difference at all between Bob’s preaching and Larry’s fast-talking.
Kevin Cawley discusses the movie in more detail, but the particularly poignant moment is when Phil gets down to brass tacks with Bob.
Phil Cooper: It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.’ That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are – just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.
It reminds me of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, with Alec Baldwin berating the sales staff: “A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing!” We need to be able to present our faith as something more, something far deeper than just a pitch, don’t we? I don’t see Jesus “pitching” people… just loving them and treating them like… well, like people. I never got the feeling that Jesus practised A-B-C. With him, friendship wasn’t a pitch, it was just friendship. It was loving his neighbour. For some of those people who encountered Jesus, this was a novelty, and that’s the subversive nature of the gospel. So are Phil and I overstating the point, or are we really dehumanizing the relationship when we add the baggage of ulterior motives? If we approach people to engage in a “friendship” based on the motive of “witnessing” to them so they become Christians, are we no better than colonialists, pornographers, or ad-pushing pitch-men seeking not what we can put into the relationship, only what we can get out of it?