Almana Ger Yatom

Widows, Strangers, Orphans: Journeying with the Poor

The American gospel


Slow gradual stealthy subtle beguiling harmful ….

It may be likened to diabetes, a silent killer. What is going on the world today? There is a slow erosion of family values; society is fragmenting and people getting more isolated even amidst crowded and congested urban centres.

If we wanted to see what spirituality would look like for our society 20 years from now, we simply have to look at America. It is so far advance in modernization compared to the rest of the world. Some smaller countries, richer than America per capita, may be more advanced but not with the bulk and volume America has.

The Scandinavian countries are looser in their values, more liberal when it comes to sex and prostitution or even gay marriages. But the same thing placed within the context of America, the proportion bends the image to an exaggerated level. It is like, we can say we have not really seen the poor until we have gone to India. Seeing a few thousands or even a few million poor together can be depressing but nothing is like seeing several millions huddled together in one big slum. The number alone has a multiplier effect that strains the imagination. When that many poor congregate, all available resources and facilities are taxed beyond their limits – roads, hospitals, schools, food supplies, etc.

So, also with the size of America, the erosion of values can have large implications. New York State sent scary ripples worldwide and doubled the number of same sex marriages overnight.

If we look at America, we see where our future lies. People are so upset about waiting. A five minute wait at the ATM or the grocery cashier could result in trouble. Each Black Friday celebration of Thanksgiving, we watch with horror Americans a big mob fighting over shirts and pants or shoes on big discounts.

Americans are very independent and individualistic. Our churches used to be community churches but now, following this trend, we have large or mega churches but feels more like a coliseum than a family. We sit during worship and then go home after a couple of hours or more, never ever knowing who that guy beside us was. We don’t care. He could for all we know be so poor, so hungry, so suicidal and depressed – but we don’t care.

The best business schools are still in America no matter what the reports say about China or Australia beating America. One friend who attended both MBA in America and in Australia said, American business schools teach us to be very competitive. It hones the killer instincts. It was in Australia MBA that he learned about cooperation and how to work with national NGOs to foster growth. Americans will come in and kill all competition.

I have always remarked to newcomers to our country that they should try to link up with existing NGOs or mission groups. Why re-invent the wheel? Why spend so much on an expensive learning curb trying to understand the landscape of mission when in fact, others have already done it and you can ride on their experience, work with them and synergize?

In the more than one hundred years of American mission in the Philippines, you can always observe this. The Americans will never work with locals and when the local leaders grow up, the Americans will leave or let the locals form their own group. But having intertwined intestines or mixing up finances is taboo for Americans. So we have several large white mission groups and their counterparts across the street, separate and independent.

It is so hard to promote interdependence. Community is a bad word in a fast modernizing society. And the followers of this trend love it because with it they can take their profits, enjoy it for themselves and damn the rest. Many Chinese churches (outside of the house church movement of China) are more American than Americans when it comes to materialism, individualism and secularism. Like Americans, they are very orthodox, they are so afraid of syncretism (Hinduism or new age into the church) and will boot out people who teach so but they are not afraid of mixing capitalism with their doctrines.

Jean Vanier spoke in Harvard in the 80s. He noted how weird it was for him to speak about downward mobility in a place that taught fiercely about upward mobility. Harvard brainwashed people to connect always with the rich and powerful in order to succeed in life. Vanier was preaching to them to connect with the poor, the handicap and the powerless in order to succeed.

If we are not aware how the world is now being transformed, we will not notice that we are actually moving backward when we think we are moving forward. One step forward and two steps backward. We think we have converted a person to Jesus and made him into a Christian when in truth and in fact we have made him into an American more than a Christian.

Look at our courses on contextualization. They are simply a form of hyper marketing characteristic of American commercialism. They merely prep up people so they are helpless or defenceless against the marketing of American values. Contextualization effectively removes the audience’s ability to resist and to think critically, to evaluate the onslaught of American philosophy and ideology.

What we need to do is to teach our people to think critically and learn to examine the underlying philosophical and ideological biases of the American gospel and how that American gospel hurts the poor and is really bad news to the poor. The poor are the majority of the people of this planet. More than 90% of the Christian churches are non-white, non-English speaking and poor.

It is the poor who should dictate theology  and this should be one that proceeds from the bottom, that looks at Scripture from the bottom up, instead of from the perspective of power and wealth.

The American gospel is bad news because it defines the problem of the world as poverty instead of greed. Many Western taught missionaries are now invading the house churches in China to remove their biblical values of community and interdependence and to make them swallow the values of capitalism and secularism. Church is now side-lined completely. Solo Christians or lone rangers are the fashion and Christians are taught that we can do ministry without church and we can share the gospel without church.

Capitalism is like a pyramid with a place at the top for only one family, the Pharaoh’s (and his attorney, me). And everyone is at the bottom, slaves working day and night in extreme poverty. To institute the pyramid, stringent laws on boundaries and visas will have to be in place or else all these minions of poor will invade America.

The pyramid also uses boundaries to toss factories into Bangladesh and India to take advantage of cheap labor and not allow them to come inside America and ruin the American standard of living. 1% of the people of this world own 90% of the wealth of this world, this is so indecent and gross and immoral. We can say that we will not believe American Christians are serious about helping the poor unless they are willing to dismantle or at least humanize this pyramid structure.

I wonder what the Americans will do if the poor they help become rich someday and then fall under the curse of Jesus – that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. Will Americans dismantle capitalism that says one is wealthy based on the amount of wealth he has accumulated? Will they change their beliefs and say one is wealthy not based on how much possession he has but on how much he has given to the poor? Until now, American has only given less than 0.1% of GNP as aid to the poor as was agreed by all the rich countries several decades ago. The bigger reality is that in the latest Harvard study, the rich countries actually take more from the poor countries compared to the aid they have given to to the latter.

Capitalism also divides the church, so the rich worship in affluent suburbs and the poor in the slums or ghettos. This may be the most insidious effect of Americanism ever. It has not just effectively killed community in church but also the care for the poor. When the poor are out of sight they are also out of mind, meaning we don’t care anymore. We can be content with sorties to the slums every Christmas. The teachings about the poor in the bible become meaningless. The epistles of James and 1 John become irrelevant.

American theology teaches that it is the poor that needs the rich and that the church should take care of the poor at large in the world, not necessarily the poor Christian brothers and sisters. Because we have given up community and family and insisted that we are still part of the universal and invisible church, we have disowned the poor believers among us. American theology has given up the care of the poor to the state. It is the duty of government and not of the church to take care of the poor.

Because we have given up community and sharing, it is legislation that will take care of us when we become old and senile. The community is irrelevant.

The bible is always insistent that we take care of our own poor, our own brothers and sisters in the faith. God has no super agenda to help the poor in the world but certainly he wants to get rid of poverty inside the church, inside His nation, the people of God. But when we separate the rich Christians from the poor Christians, we no longer can see the relevance of that teaching. And yet, when we do, when we bring them together again, we find James and 1 John come alive again, even 2 Corinthians 8.

If we are worshiping in church on Sunday and sit beside someone who is hungry and who has not had a decent meal for days, we may want to look at 1 John 3.17 – he who has a surplus of the world’s goods and finds a brother in need and does  not provide for him does the love of Christ abide in him?

We see there that all our spirituality suddenly becomes empty and useless until we take care of our own poor. Brother there in that verse does not mean brother in general, a generic form of brother. It means a brand name brother, a Christian brother. It is the same with Matthew 25, what you did to the least of the brethren you have done unto me – fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, visited the prisoners. God will not judge us on how big our churches are or how much quiet time we observe but on how we treat the Christian poor.

When we look at 2 Corinthians 8, we begin to see the threat to the pyramid. If we sit on Sunday beside a poor man and we have lots of wealth, we have three cars for example, we may need to sell one car to help the guy seating beside us to survive.

Of course there is also a social malaise among the rich who label people as POOR though they really are not poor (they are poor only in the eyes of the super rich, all of America belong to the upper 1% rich in the world). It is the extreme gap of wealth and poverty that often makes people victims of labeling. Americans says there are poor in their midst, and they are poor because they have no insurance, they don’t own a house or a car. But 99% of the world is like that and even our relatives living in America as so-called poor don’t agree. How can they be poor when they send dollars to their relatives here in the Philippines, even though they may have no house of their own or simply do odd jobs (my brother in law has been doing odd jobs for most than ten years now and we don’t think he is poor).

It is a great parody of the gospel to make kingdom work outside among unbelievers but not among believers. If it will not work among believers why do we think it will work among unbelievers. We are the most qualified to do Kingdom living because we have been set free from bondage to material wealth but still we wont do kingdom living inside the church and instead insist that we promote kingdom outside among unbelievers and try to help the poor outside but not our own poor brethren.

Capitalism also puts a high premium on privacy and private ownership. This is ownership without a conscience. It is not stewardship but exclusion – to exclude the poor. When privacy and private ownership is held higher than the Scriptures demand for justice, sharing and community, we know how evil this gospel has totally become.

I was at the great convention of evangelicals in South Africa, the Lausanne 2010 in Cape Town and there noticed for the first time that the real actors and celebrities are the parachurches and NGOs. We used to say church is for mission and mission is for church. Now, we can no longer say that because the NGOs and parachurches have hijacked mission and trashed the church. The bible says church is central in the plan of redemption but we have redefined church to mean a bodiless being.

How quickly we argue that we are part of the universal church to dismiss the local church. We could escape involvement in local churches as long as we were Christians who belonged to the invisible church. But we forget that without a visible expression, the invisible church theory is pure imagination. This was the old criticism of the European church of the American church, that the latter was engaging in so much speculative theology.

In the past, we were so apologetic about being a parachurch. We are always careful and we were so ashamed that we were a parachurch. We always corrected ourselves and explained frequently to people that we were just a parachurch, which means coming alongside the church to help the church but we were not the church. But today, it is the opposite. People are ashamed of being just part of the church and what we glorify are the parachurches. They are the stars in our conferences. We just got back from Mumbai (November 2013) for a gathering of several hundred Christians involved in justice work among the poor. All the speakers and experts were from the parachurch. Basically we have given up hope on the church ever shaping up and getting back on her feet.

The church has been the most pathetic delinquent of all the actors in the Kingdom. We may argue about the hiddenness of the church but after a long time it really gets to you, like you want to hate the church already for being so despicable – so much fighting, envy, materialism, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and greed. How can she be the most important part of the plan of redemption of God?

So, we see, the tide of modernization has swept away the church and all our biblical values of sharing, interdependence, the unity of believers (without it the world would not know we are Christ’s disciples). But the most insidious work of all is that we are not aware this is what is happening, this is where we are going. We are not aware also that the most aggressive salesman of modernization is America. Americans are born salesmen. They will easily sell themselves and people will buy because they are so credible. Hollywood and Wall Street are their main machineries for this global sales effort. They basically sell their lifestyle and values, the American way, lifting yourself with your own bootstraps, the rugged individualism.

Western Christianity really has nothing to sell anymore. Because of such emphasis on individualism, the culture is into much introspection and obsession with self actualization. Marriage is now being sacrificed at the altar of self actualization and divorce is almost a normal and daily occurrence. And yet, America continues to be the top salesman of the world. We can understand this better when we listen to a Tibetan monk who wrote years ago, that the world has mastered the art of selling illusions and fantasies.

We sell celebrity, extreme experiences, fashion, glamour, luxury – all emptiness and deceptions. Stock certificates, money, fast cars, big homes, splurging, binging, anorexia nervosa, credit cards, slim bodies, muscular bodies, fairer skins, smoother skin, are all illusions that we sell to so many desperate buyers who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.

How do we live then? We must look at their spirituality and study them carefully and our own spirituality must be so informed, and that years from now we will lose all our interconnectedness and be fragmented. How? We can emphasize a spirituality that will counter-act this modernization trend. We can live counter-culturally so that we balance off this influence. We cannot just be neutral because every time we evangelise someone already he is being turned into an American – secular, materialistic and individualistic.

People who are very individualistic and independent cannot plant churches. Any effort to plant churches will find itself sabotaged by these principal values. The Christianity Today published decades ago a study that showed that American churches survive for ten years and then die, if they live longer, they will eventually violently split. It is an internal conflict existing within the DNA of the church planter which is inherently opposed to intimacy, community and interdependence. Scott Peck, Harvard psychologist said the biggest obstacle to community is competitiveness which he finds a lot in American society.

If American church planter do succeed, what they end up is successfully promoting Americanism or modern day capitalism. We have churches that are huge, with big budget and highly paid pastors, fantastic sunday programs and global outreaches – no different from American multinational companies. The new trend, called the emerging churches, are reacting to these and going to the opposite extreme – small, casual, spontaneous fellowships, inside homes, no hired staff, no budget and no formal programs.

The problem is that the old format of big churches and big budget actually complements the small, casual spontaneous emerging churches. This is another American dilemma, because American society like all modernizing societies, are steeped in Cartesian way of thinking, very dualistic. Americans cannot embrace the tension of contradictions. They cannot embrace success and suffering at the same time or intimacy and work. Although they talk a lot about sustainability and holism, like all good salesmen do, it is really impossible for them to obtain those.

Thomas Merton said, spirituality is about finding the complementarity of opposites. He only could achieve this by leaving America and being mentored under a Japanese Zen monk in Japan and later in Thailand.

The emerging churches represents another reaction of the dualistic mindset of America and is no different from the former format they are trying to escape from. Running from one opposite end to the other does not lead anywhere. What is needed is for American churches to embrace both formats and that means embracing a basic contradiction. The Cartesian mindset works on polarities, mutually exclusive propositions, that the opposite of true is always false and that is how science is built, how rockets are built and how cellphones are built. Without it, everything would be muddled and in chaos.

But Niels Bohr, a Physics Nobel Laureate argued that in the physical world, that would be true but in the spiritual world, it would not be true. In the spiritual world, the opposite of a truth could be another great truth.

American churches therefore can never attain what it wants. She will always sabotage her own works. She cannot embrace this dualism and therefore cannot reach the spirituality Merton speaks of. Neither can she minister to the poor because the poor are so immersed in contradictions – they worship on sunday a God who is mighty and they watch helplessly as the bulldozers demolish their illegal shanties, a God who is the great provider and they go to bed at night without dinner, and a god who is the great healer but they watch their son die slowly because they cannot afford to buy medicines.

Americans cannot enter the slums without exploding. They believe that they can help the poor, and try their best to get rid of poverty in their community but they also know that in the end, most of these people will remain poor, will grow old poor and will die poor. They cannot articulate in their hearts the truth that God has willed that these many would remain poor and die poor. This conflicting truths will explode inside of him and will either create a demandingness among the people he work with or skew God’s image as indifferent to the plight of the poor.

We also need to ask American Christians to speak out. Their real message is this: hey world, don’t follow us, we are a bad example. We thought we were following the right way but realized too late that we were lost. You still have a chance before you lose community and intimacy, you can change course and not get lost. American churches will never recover the true biblical gospel until they do some serious self examination, a critical examination of their biases, the philosophical and ideological foundations of their gospel and how that is so bad news to the poor, the 90% of the people of this world.

Many will get mad at me for writing this. The statement here is not true for all for there are certainly outstanding Christians who are not at all like those described here. Not all people in America are like this. That is the precise meaning of generalization. It only refers to the majority or a certain public identity. In 2010 the Manila hostage crisis happened. Almost all who died were people from Hong Kong. Four years later, Hong Kong is still seething with anger against ALL FILIPINOS. There are movements in Hong Kong to ban all Filipinos from entering Hong Kong or even to deport all Filipino workers in Hong Kong, up to now. I was also angry for the botched job, angry at the police and at the government as a whole. I never felt like the Hong Kong generalization of all Filipinos applied to me just like the press generalization of Japanese applies to all Japanese, regarding the Second World War atrocities in the Philippines. America during the Marcos regime supported the dictatorship of Marcos very openly and brazenly. We were all anti-Americans then but we had many supporters in America also at that same time. In fact, our hero then, Ninoy Aquino was being protected and housed in an American home in Boston. Again, this is a generalization and there are many and wonderful exceptions, beautiful Americans who totally oppose the same things I oppose here.

How do we fight a foe who is so real and yet not be able to generalize in order to label its insidious acts? I find it interesting that some Americans are so crossed with what i write. The most popular expression in America is, dont take it personally. And yet Americans, from the mightiest and riches country in the world, are so defensive and will silence any criticism of their lifestyle, even from a pipsqueak like me from a poor country like the Philippines. If this will create anti-american sentiments, which are already too many to count and not become better or worse by what i write, it can perhaps be balanced by what it intends to achieve, that Americans stop selling Americanism and stop sharing their American gospel and get on their knees and look again at the biblical idea of the gospel – which is a call to a people, not individuals, not lone rangers, it is a call to a people to live out the Kingdom, to demonstrate it to the whole world, a Kingdom living display by believers living in community, of sharing generously so that there is no more poor among them. This Kingdom living display is a contest between the people of God, the church versus the Kingdom of Satan, the world. We need to become united, rich and poor Christians to show the world that our gospel actually works. This is the indispensable element of the gospel – we are not just saved to Jesus, we are also saved to the Body. Americanism does away with the Body which is why the American gospel is bad news to the poor.

Many too will say it is a cultural difference. But in globalization, culture is the real power. Efficiency is the byword in globalization. If you are producing a product and one day someone can produce it better, faster, cheaper, then you have lost the business.

The work in globalization is acculturation which lays the ground work for successful brainwashing or propaganda or what is called benignly as advertisement. When you have everybody living the say way, the same lifestyle, the same social values, then you have succeeded in your marketing. It is the dominant culture that holds sway in this global market and Hollywood and Wall Street are tops.

When people have the same culture as America, everyone will buy Ford and Macdonalds. Materialism will be fashionable. Americans buy lots of things they do not need. Capitalism operates on the principle that people should spend more than they earn. And Americans are the best salesmen for this. They talk about justice without critically examining their underlying biases, their philosophies and ideologies. They succeed only in selling their Americanism and not justice. And people will buy because it is an irresistible lifestyle.

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