I was so excited by the conversation in the comment section and on Twitter about the Questions of Travel idea I had this week that I decided to define the series a bit better. In the next two months, I will be writing and seeking guest posts to begin a conversation that I hope will prompt us to think and spur us on to deeper conversations.
When Christians talk about “the poor,” we use specific language and tropes with specific cultural connotations for our groups. We are essentially translating people into ideas that we understand or are predisposed to expect. We make “the poor” familiar, palatable, stereotypical.
This is not new. Missionaries have served alongside ethnographers and travel writers for hundreds of years in journeying to a place and returning to tell stories, show pictures, bring souvenirs or bodies back from far off regions. Christians have played an integral part in exoticizing, primitivizing, racializing and other categorizing of people from other countries or regions.
For generations, we have made them “Other.”
We use different terms. We have different motivations. We speak different lingo. But let’s be clear–Christians are often implicit in asymmetrical relationships that privilege First World over Third World, white over black, men over women, urban over rural, Western over Eastern, cosmopolitan over “primitive.”
So many of the imperial relationships that broke down in the twentieth century have been examined in-depth in academic and political settings, and yet we barely touch this subject in many churches.
We travel. We bring back slidshows and videos. We talk about “the poor,” “orphans,” “the least of these.”
We are guilty of not examining the acts of translation that turn an ordinary Bolivian into an object of sympathy for our mega-churches. We are guilty of using the degrees of removal that separate an upper-class white Midwestern Christian from a Haitian mother as guilt trips or morality moments. We are guilty of objectifying Ethiopian villages by making their stories about our reactions, our acts of generosity, without really stopping to see what is happening their on the ground.*
We are guilty of using “the poor” as objects or foils sent to teach us about ourselves rather than people in their own right.
In the next few weeks, I’m going to use the tools of postcolonial theory to identify terms, language and concepts that are common in the churches I am familiar with to help us delve more deeply into our conversations about poverty and helping and changing the world.
I’d love guest posts on three things:
1) STORIES: If you have a story that made you uncomfortable of a time when a church shared a picture or told a story about someone in a way that you thought was concerning, please share it. Or if you have a story of a way in which your church handled this issue well, I’d particularly like to hear that. Write in an anonymous way, please–hide your name or change the details. I don’t want to make this about specific places. I think stories help us to think and I’d like to draw from a variety of interactions in this conversation.
2) QUESTIONS: What questions do you have? What do you NOT know? What are you struggling with? I’ll be honest, those of us who have more than a few years of experience working with “the poor” have more questions, more doubts, more fears than we do answers. And working with people in Haiti and Mali and Thailand and in the United States are all completely different.* Working with people in different apartment complexes or neighborhoods changes the story completely. What are things you are struggling with? How can you turn the story on yourself–either you want to be in better relationship with people who are different from you or you continue to struggle after years of interactions like me?
3) CONCEPTS: I’d love a little help from my friends. Is there a postcolonial theorist or a development book or a theological work you found helpful? I’ll take this in any form–quotes or book reviews or epiphanies from reading When Helping Hurts. Any concepts or terms or ideas you can give us to help us frame this discussion?
I’d love something between 300-1,000 words or so. Pictures are great if you have them, but since they can be dicey in a discussion about objectification, not necessary.
Even if you don’t guest post, follow along and share in the comments section and Twitter.
I’ll use the hashtag #QofT for the series.
If you’re interested in guest posting or know someone who should be in on this conversation, leave a comment. I’ll send you an email and we’ll schedule it. Can’t wait to launch this conversation!
The Questions of Travel Series page has a list of the current posts.
*I changed these two sentences because Rachel Pieh Jones astutely noted that I had used “Africa” in parallel descriptions with other countries, which conflates the concerns of an entire continent as if it were one monolithic country. It’s one of my own pet peeves–I love good dialogue that spurs us on to more thoughtful language! Thanks, Rachel!