(Posted by Laurence)
I recently came across two opinion pieces – one old, one new – both written by atheists and both promoting the value of churches and religious organisations in international development. Matthew Parris – columnist for The Times and “a confirmed atheist” – is convinced that “Africa needs God,” and that Christian evangelism makes an “enormous contribution” to tackling poverty in developing countries. Duncan Green – strategic adviser for Oxfam and “a lifelong atheist” – asks “are grassroots faith organizations better at advocacy/making change happen?” and, after reviewing Tearfund’s report on their faith-based advocacy partnership with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Uganda, concludes that it is “powerful and convincing stuff.”
I will nail my colours to the mast as clearly as Parris and Green did: I’m a Christian, and an evangelically-minded one by many peoples’ standards. I work for a Christian NGO that provides design and construction support to faith-based partner organisations in developing countries, with a vision to see “people restored by God and the world restored through design.” So you might think I would be pleased to see writers from leading newspapers and NGOs coming out in support of Christian development work – and I am, because I agree that long-term change is best achieved through the local and global church. But I also think that both Parris and Green have missed the point – Parris by going too far and co-opting Christianity to solve what he sees as “Africa’s biggest problem,” and Green by not going far enough in looking for what he calls “the special sauce.”
I am overjoyed that self-proclaimed atheists are recognising that something different happens when the church is mobilised to fight poverty, but the catalyst is not a comfortable faith-based values system that conveniently motivates communities to better themselves, the catalyst is truth. Christian development organisations don’t base their strategy on their faith because it’s a helpful tool to make the world a better place, but because it’s true. And because it’s true, it can change people’s lives for the better.
The foundation for Parris’ argument is that the central problem in developing countries with a historically tribal society is “the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.” He goes so far as to claim that in this culture “people won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders,” and that the only solution to this is to supplant tribal values and beliefs with a more effective system – and for this he has chosen Christianity, over the alternatives of “…Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.” To me Parris seems to be in danger of falling into a colonial-era attitude of ‘civilising the savages.’ Why does he want to encourage a belief system that, as an atheist, he must consider utterly false? Presumably because he thinks it will produce some beneficial, practical outcomes for developing countries. Ironically, in another article Parris rails against agnostic political and societal leaders who try to protect religion. He refuses to accept that religion is useful to society regardless of its veracity, and concludes by saying “‘Useful’ be damned. Is it true? — that is the question… It is the only question.”
I have a lot of patience for Green, as an adviser to a secular INGO who is prepared to learn from the work of faith-based organisation. He has taken what Tearfund have written at face value, and has reasonably concluded that the church can be an effective agent for change due to the trust it often garners from communities and governments. But if he had dug deeper into what drives the work of Tearfund and many other Christian development organisations he would have found that what really makes these movements effective – “the special sauce,” as he calls it – is not the position of trust they occupy, or their positive attitude and values (as Parris would have us believe), but their faith. Not their faith in a good cause, but their faith in God. Not their faith in any God, but their faith in a God who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth in the first century.
I’m not saying that God is backing these organisations, giving them favour and success. Churches and Christian organisation can, and do, make horrible mistakes and abuses of power. This is because they are run by people. What I am saying is that when international development work is coupled with genuine faith in Jesus, the results can be mind-blowing. Yes, people’s attitude and outlook on life changes, but this is no truer in tribal cultures than it is in the capitalist west. To use Tearfund as an example again, they have produced a great video to answer the question ‘what is poverty?” They highlight how poverty is caused by separation between people on both a local and global level… but also by separation from God. People are not physically poor because they themselves are separated from God, people are poor because so much of the world today is separated from God, and the physical effects of that are often felt hardest in developing countries.
To claim that a God you don’t believe in can change the world is illogical. To seek to learn from the life-changing work of the global church without acknowledging the underlying truth is futile. Does international development need God? Yes, but only because we all need God.