A philosophical approach to missions work
A few years ago, I switched from the corporate sector to the nonprofit world. While my organizational mission has changed greatly, my work is still within IT and information services. Thus my day-to-day has not changed dramatically; it is still consumed in lines of code, flurries of emails, and back-to-back virtual meetings online. I don’t get to see firsthand, unless I leave my country, the tangible good that I am helping to bring about.
Since I don’t have this immediate gratification, it is important for me to be disciplined in my purpose and intention. I want to share a few quotes from George Kunz’s The Paradox of Power & Weakness that concisely sum up my purpose in pursuing altruism as a mission. These are quotes that I come back to in order to remind me of what is true in order to align my intentions and actions.
(The quotes, especially the one below may be rather dense, but take your time through it. Or you can just skip ahead to my reflections on the quotes).
- “When the [missional] call goes out to us we obviously have our individualized liberty either to give or to turn away from this call of [helping] the weak. We have the power, in the form of freedom, to respond either with help, or with selfishness, even viciousness. But we do not have the freedom to choose whether or not we are called. The call has its source outside of us coming from the weakness of the weak. The power of the weak is the Other's neediness. It commands us to respond to weakness."
Most academic theories of ethics presume that people do good out of enlightened self-interest. We want to act fairly to others so that they will act fairly to us; it’s a quid-pro-quo. We want to do good because doing so makes us feel good and happy about ourselves.
But while all that may be true, these reasons are ultimately secondary and subsequent to what is primary and what happens first: the ethical obligation that we feel from other people’s neediness and worthiness. The ethical call begins from outside of us, not exclusively from within. The next two quotes will elaborate on why this point matters.
- “Both the deserving and the undeserving suffer. Their suffering calls out to us to help. It does not call for our judgment about their previous free choices and therefore deservedness.”
This quote is a nuanced version of the first quote. The ethical call begins from other people—from their “neediness” and “worthiness,” not from their “deservedness.” A homeless man on the street has both “neediness” and “worthiness”: he is homeless, and he is a man created in the image of God. Our call is to respond to him, however we deem best, not to make a judgment about whether he truly deserves our help, whether his homelessness is mostly of his own doing or of others.
Imagine that you are a parent with a small child. The child is throwing a tantrum and flailing her hands around. She accidentally hits a bookshelf and cuts her hand. Do you, as the parent, stop to calculate whether the child deserves help because she threw a tantrum? Most likely not. Her hurt – and the fact that she is worthy of help – is what matters most.
- “Being appointed does not give me dignity deserving honor; it only gives me responsibility.”
This point has been a good one for me to learn. Growing up, I pictured missionaries whom our church supported as spiritual honoraries receiving praise for their work, sacrifice and spirit. While these missionaries may very well be role models of virtue, the truth is that we do not help others primarily because of something grandiose within us.
We help because we hear the call of others to come and help. This means that the ultimate aim of our missio work is not ourselves, but those whom we are helping. Our inward life may be fulfilled and improved as a result of helping others, but that is a secondary effect.
This is what it means to put on the mind of Christ. It is more difficult than it seems in modern life. As missionaries, we are at risk of going through our day puffed up with self-honoring pride and flattery that people are supporting our cause. But that's a dangerous humanistic motive that leaves the inward life empty. Kunz concisely sums up the key distinction here: Responsibility is other-oriented; honor is self-oriented.
These three quotes act as a compass with which to align my actions and intentions. I hope they are beneficial and helpful to you.