Thursday, 27 March 2014

World Vision, The Biblical Text, and 'Good News to the Poor'.

It was less than a week ago that World Vision, an Evangelical Christian humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization, announced their decision to hire and extend equal employment benefits and opportunities to same-sex married couples. At that  time, Vice President Richard Stearns made clear that the organization was not changing its belief that sexual relations outside of marriage were sinful, but rather that:

changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues. It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage.
Stearns went on to say that the decision was World Vision’s alone, not the result of outside pressure, and that the board were ‘overwhelmingly in favor’ of the new policy. He went on to reassure World Vision supporters:

…we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work. We have always affirmed traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution. Nothing in our work around the world with children and families will change. We are the same World Vision you have always believed in.
Regardless of those assurances, the backlash from certain segments of the Evangelical Christian community was immediate. The Assemblies of God, one of the largest denominations in the US, urged its 3 million members to cut their support. This was no idle threat; according to Christianity Today, about $567 million of World Vision’s $1 billion budget comes from private contributions, according to the 2012 annual report. Individuals can personally sponsor a child in an undeveloped or underdeveloped nation for $35 a month. Through this programme, World Vision is able to sponsor 1.2 million children worldwide; within days, 2000 supported children had been dropped.

In the face of this backlash, World Vision have been forced to withdraw the new policy. In a statement, they said:

The board acknowledged they made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness within the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman…
Stearns told reporters, ‘We’ve listened. We believe we made a mistake. We’re asking (supporters) to forgive and understand our poor judgement in the original decision.’

Needless to say, my emotions over all of this have been on a roller coaster, from surprise and delight with World Vision’s original decision, to anger and depression in the midst of their subsequent decision. I was so angry last night I could barely speak. 

Thankfully I could type, and what you’re reading now is the result.

I am so embarrassed for the World Vision board, its employees, and the many supporters of the organization who supported the original decision. I am outraged for World Vision’s LGBT employees- and for those who honestly believed that World Vision had become a safe and embracing place to apply to work. And I am positively furious that a large portion of World Vision’s global work, and so many children’s lives, were put at risk- and remain at risk.

Make no mistake, that risk is coming from a portion of the Christian community who believe their reading of scripture is more important than the lives of the most poor and the most marginalized people on Earth. The wealthiest Christians on Earth- those in the suburban US- took the poorest and most vulnerable children on Earth hostage, threatened to refuse them food, shelter, medicine and a their advocating voice, all over an employment policy, an issue that the children had never heard of and which didn’t affect them in the slightest.

This is not Christ; this is anti-Christ. This is satanic.

I’m not going to take the time here to get into a biblical exegesis of the issues surrounding LGBT people; regular readers know my views on that topic, and I'm conscious that it is not my area of expertise. My field is liberation theology, and my thoughts on the World Vision issue that I'll give here come from that direction.

Liberation theology arose out of Latin America in the late 60s in the wake of Vatican II and the watershed 1968 meeting of Latin American Catholic bishops in Medellín, Colombia.  Over the next two decades, Latin American theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, José Bonino, Leonardo Boff, and Jon Sobrino developed and broadened the movement, but liberation theology is not so much a corpus of their works- impressive as it all is. Rather, liberation theology represented a new theological moment, an attempt to do theology in a new way.  It begins not with doctrine but with a focus on social reality, the social reality of poverty, oppression and marginalization. It prioritizes theological reflection as a means of drawing on the experiences of the people and helping to build their consciousness as the people of God, finding themselves and their circumstances in the biblical text. Liberation theology was methodologically rooted in an attention to praxis, the cyclical process of reflection and action which saw theological reflection not as an end in itself or simply a means to develop a stronger personal piety, but as a component of fundamental social transformation. Finally, liberation theology represented a new theological direction; it was theology done from the perspective of the most poor and the most marginalized. Liberation theology emphasized God’s ‘preferencial option’ for the poor; it recognizes a fundamental incompatibility between the priorities of capitalist economy and the Christian Gospel; In God’s economy, the liberationists contended, the needs of the poor come first. This is not to say God loves the poor more, but in a world where wealth, power and command are prized, God, so said the liberationists, was to be found with the poorest, the most marginalized and the powerless… And so should his Church.

This is why, as a theologian who roots his work in liberation theology, I don’t blame World Vision for reversing their decision. The primary idea that underlays the 'preferential option' is that, when decisions need to be made, priorities set, resources allocated, or money spent, we should begin all discussion from the standpoint of the effects of any action on the poorest or most marginalized in our community. I believe World Vision did that. Faced with a  situation where the health, safety and indeed the lives of children and communities in which they work and for whom they advocate were put at risk, they opted for the poor and for their communities. That is their calling. It is all of our callings. There are any number of things they could have done- many things that I personally believe they should have done. But I want to keep the focus on what they did. 

Don’t blame World Vision; blame those who threatened those in World Vision’s care.

When I first heard about the circumstances that led World Vision to reverse their decision I was immediately reminded of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, the prophets Hosea and Amos, who announced God’s solidarity with the poor and his judgment against the seemingly righteous who couldn’t care less for them. The similarly-themed Sirach 4:1-6 came to my mind:

My child, do not cheat the poor of their living, and do not keep needy eyes wanting. Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. Do not reject one in distress, or turn your face away from the poor. Do not avert your eyes from the needy, give no one reason to curse you; for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you, their creator will hear their prayer.
These are the Hebrew biblical texts known so well by Jesus, that serve as the basis of his proclamation of the Gospel, which will always be, first and foremost, ‘good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18) and very bad news indeed for those that oppress and defraud them. The Sirach text goes as  far as to give us an image of the poor- frustrated, desperate, angry with the massive injustices daily heaped against them- crying out ‘God damn the rich!’, and the prophet assuring them that God heard and answered…
In the reality of all these biblical texts, how do those who threaten the poor in World Vision’s care have the unmitigated audacity to dare say that their actions are motivated out of a reverence for scripture?
How can any of them dare to declare themselves ‘Christian’- ‘follower of Christ’- and yet idolize their own reading of the biblical text- their own intellect, their own opinion, their own interpretation- over human lives?

How dare they idolize random proof texts that seem to confirm their cultural biases over the person of Jesus revealed in the Gospels?

Jesus’ love and care for the ‘least of these’, for the desperate, the marginalized and the vulnerable is the foundation of the Gospels, and stands in utter contrast to those who threatened World Vision. When asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus did not call a heterosexual married man and woman to him; he called a child- a vulnerable child, weak, in need of care, trusting and innocent. These, Jesus insisted, were the greatest in God’s kingdom. With that, he issued a warning: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones who trust in me to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and be thrown in the sea and drowned; Woe to those who cause the weak to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!’ (Matt. 18:6-7)

It was Jesus who said, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them, for God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.’ (Matt. 19:14)

It was Jesus who said ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was destitute, sick, imprisoned, a stranger…’ (Matt. 25)

It is the Gospel of Jesus, ‘good news to the poor’, that invites us to find ourselves in these texts. Are we feeding the poor, or are we starving them?

Are we giving fresh water, or are we dumping pollutants in the river?

Are we  giving, or are we withholding?

Are we healing, or inflicting?

Are we welcoming, or are we abandoning?

Are we liberating, or are we incarcerating?

Do we wear the cross of salvation round our necks, or a millstone?

Where do you stand? 

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