Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2012/ Bibles for Missions

Bibles for Missions

Conflict of Interest Disclaimer 1: My workplace (The Working Centre) operates a thrift store (The Green Door) which is just down the road from the Bibles for Missions thrift store, and in some sense is a competitor. Therefore any disparaging remarks I make in this entry can (and probably should) be seen as cynical partisan sniping.

Conflict of Interest Disclaimer 2: My current housing situation has a direct relationship to Christian missionary work, and (in typical hypocritical fashion) I do not have intentions of changing that housing situation before I have to (which in the worst case might be very soon, given that some of my housemates know that this blog exists and might take offense).

Conflict of Interest Disclaimer 3: As I have said several times, a good fraction of my readership is Christian, and some are devoutly so. I apologise in advance for the awful things I am about to write (so why am I writing them? Am I trying to alienate the rest of my audience?). Have I mentioned that I work with lots of Christians, socialize with lots of Christians, and admire lots of Christians? Also that I work for an organization that -- although officially secular -- has its roots and draws its mythology from the Catholic Worker movement?

Enough disclaimers. Lets talk about thrift stores -- namely the Bibles for Missions thrift store that moved to Scott Street, where the Braun's bicycle shop used to be. When I learned that Bibles to Missions was moving in I was both apprehensive and excited: apprehensive because The Green Door had just opened a couple of months earlier, and excited because downtown Kitchener has suffered a dearth of affordable clothing thrift stores for a couple of years now. During these dry years -- approximately after the Rockway Mennonite Thrift Store closed up -- I found myself taking trips to Value Village on Ottawa and the Goodwill way down by Fairview Mall to find clothes, or just doing without. (Yes, there was also the Generations Thrift Store on Bridgeport in Waterloo, and a small Mennonite thrift store on Lancaster. I still found myself needing field trips.) (Yes, complaining about a lack of thrift stores given my last blog entry is also hypocritical.) The idea of having an addition thrift store destination for my weekly shopping rounds definitely had its appeal.

Anyways, I wanted an additional blanket to fend off winter, and the Green Door didn't have anything. So I ventured into the Bibles for Missions store to scope out some deals. The store was nice! It had lots of clothing, lots of housewares in the basement, and reasonable prices. I picked up a large warm blanket for $3, and a stuffed walrus for $1. Overall I felt pretty good about my purchases. Then on the way out the door I picked up a pamphlet -- "Mission Summary 2011" -- by the Bible League of Canada, the destination for the store's profits. After reading the pamphlet, I did not feel so good about my purchases any more. After thinking the matter over in preparation for this web entry, I no longer know how I feel.

According to the Mission Summary, the Bible League of Canada has four focus areas:

It is not surprising that the proceeds of a store called "Bibles for Missions" is going towards missionary work, and none of the above programs are surprising given a Christian missionary mandate. But upon reading the pamphlet two of the programs got my hackles up. The first was the "Adult Bible-based Literacy". According to the pamphlet:

The Adult Bible-based Literacy classes are designed to teach people to read and write at a grade 5 level. All the literacy materials introduce learners to Jesus. It is estimated that up to 35% who complete the program come into a life-changing relationship with Jesus and join a Christian worship group or Bible study.

Social and spiritual poverty is broken as people learn to read and write through God's Word.

A website description of the program elaborates further:

In the developing world, illiteracy is rampant and is the strongest indication of poverty, malnourishment and premature death. Because of practical lessons taught in economic skill, basic hygiene, and marketplace math, income often triples in the first year, disease and sickness are abated, and above all believers blossom with new hope in the Lord.

There appear to be two objectives here: teaching poor people basic literacy to alleviate their poverty, and winning converts to Christianity. I support the first goal, but feel deeply uncomfortable about the second. I do not know how to resolve the tension between the two.

The Children's Ministries descriptions troubled me even more. From the pamphlet:

Thousands of children in developing countries are living without some of life's basic needs. [...]

Yet children aged between 4 and 14 are the most open and receptive to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible League of Canada is actively working to give children the opportunity of having a basic education in the form of Children's Clubs, Alternative Basic Education, Values Education classes (a program specifically developed for children in the Philippines), and Vacation Bible School.

The programs developed for children are designed to introduce them to Jesus Christ and give them hope. Once the children come into a relationship with Jesus, they share their new love for Jesus with their family. Many parents have testified of the changes they see in their child's behaviour and attitude; how they are more respectful and obedient. As the children share with their parents the Bible stories and songs they have learned, the parents also come to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord,Many parents have testified of the changes they see in their child's behaviour and attitude; how they are more respectful and obedient. As the children share with their parents the Bible stories and songs they have learned, the parents also come to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord.

Again, the website elaborates further:

Children ages 7-14 have the highest conversion rate to becoming followers of Christ and are least likely to abandon their faith as they become older.

To me, the Children's Ministry work smacks of cigarette company reasoning: get 'em while they're young. Children are impressionable -- they have not developed their critical reasoning faculties fully, and they don't have a lot of life experience to compare against the messages they are given. So it does not surprise me that proselytizing to children is effective. That does not mean it is ethical.

But it doesn't mean that converting children (or adults in poverty) is unethical either. In my disclaimers above I frantically claim to like Christians, socialize with them, admire them, and so on. Why would I be opposed to efforts that result in more Christians?

The answer is simple and uncomfortable: despite all my promises to the contrary, I really have turned into an atheist bigot. The more I have learned about Christianity the less sense it has made to me. That is kind of the point; at its heart Christianity is a belief system founded on blood sacrifice and miraculous claims. If you cannot buy into those values, then you can't be Christian. Then there are the aspects of social control and power that have been at work in Christianity throughout its history. When I look at this religion I do not see God's hands at work; I see human hands motivated by the same lusts for power and control that motivate all the other humans. I may like Christians, but I am not sure I want more people in the world adopting the associated beliefs.

Although I am an atheist bigot, I do see value in religion. Some qualities of Christians that I admire -- hope in the face of evidence to the contrary, openness and charity to those in need -- have something to do with the religion. Maybe these are qualities we should cultivate (and qualities that secular institutions do not cultivate). Does the good outweigh the bad, especially given that the Bible League of Canada attempts to alleviate poverty as it attempts to convert souls? I am torn on this question.

On the one hand, my suspicion is that missionaries and religious people are motivated to work in situations and with poverty that secular people write off as hopeless. Christian Peacemaker Teams deliberately "get in the way" in conflict zones, attempting to mediate peace where they can. Missionaries and aid organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee (which I support when I shop at Generations thrift store) seek out poor people in many forgotten corners of the world. Often religious organizations are funded by their congregations to work in those forgotten places. Just having Western eyes and Western voices on the ground might be helpful; they can report on injustices and corruption in ways other powerful Westerners can understand. Even if I find the work of the Bible League of Canada distasteful, maybe their mere presence does some good in the world.

On the other hand, missionary work has resulted in all kinds of evil, and I am not sure that Christians feel any repentence for this evil. Here are some examples:

These examples stay in my head when I think about missionary work directed towards children. Have modern missionaries learned from the mistakes of their predecessors? Do they even see them as mistakes? Presumably Children's Ministry work that leaves families intact is superior to residential schooling, but those who funded residential schools through their churches also thought they were doing good work. At least part of this missionary work is intended to destroy culture -- namely the non-Christian belief cultures of the people who live in the local areas. Will children (and adults) introduced to Jesus then go on to support backwards homophobic legislation -- legislation that gives them a bad reputation internationally? Will they be trained in anti-empirical, anti-scientific thinking? These are not the kinds of attitudes that get people out of poverty, in my unhumble opinion. But I could be wrong, and it is not as if there is a superfluity of educational resources in poor countries. So I am torn.

There is also the predation aspect to consider. Christianity in particular values poverty, and although I do not believe that missionaries actively want people to live in poverty ("Blessed are the poor in spirit" notwithstanding) the idea that missionaries prey on the poor and vulnerable for souls to convert bothers me a great deal. The key question in my mind takes the form of a tradeoff: If the choice was between converting a soul and leaving the person materially impoverished, or lifting a person out of poverty but not converting them, which would the missionaries prefer? When asked this question, I think most people would dance around the issue by saying that the two are not in conflict. Some might even say that a belief in Christ helps alleviate poverty. My question still stands, and I do not think it is academic: ineffective abstinence-only sex education keeps people in poverty. Taking away family planning measures from poor women keeps them in poverty. It would be nice if we lived in a world without such tradeoffs, but we don't, and if the cost of basic literacy is a lifetime of poverty, I am not sure the benefit is worth the cost.

But before pointing the finger at the missionary work of the Bible League of Canada, perhaps I should point it right back at myself: who am I to judge what the Bibles for Missions stores do with their money? My interactions with Bibles for Missions is not moralistic, but capitalist: they have blankets and stuffed walruses on sale for prices I appreciate, and I purchase those items. We both get what we want, and provided I get what I want out of the transaction I should not have any further say in the matter. Certainly, I take this attitude in other situations: I give money to buskers knowing full well that many of them will use the money for booze. My attitude is that I am trading money for the service of their music, and that they can do what they wish with their earnings. (Meanwhile I do not give to panhandlers, because they are not offering me goods or services in exchange for my charity.)

The idea that we are not supposed to care what people do with the money we exchange with them in capitalist transactions might be one of the strongest forces for peace in the world today. People of widely divergent views have a platform to exchange goods with each other, and as a result they come to depend upon each other for their mutual well-being. This makes them less likely to fight. That's the theory, anyways, and in many cases (when one party is not so powerful that it has little interest in the well-being of the other) it works well. By boycotting Bibles for Missions, I am undermining this force for peace.

Unfortunately, I am a bad capitalist, and sometimes I do make moral judgements on those who would sell me goods. I disapprove of the power Walmart has in the world, and of the many ways it uses that power to impoverish its suppliers, so I do boycott that store. Even presuming that I disagree with its mission, it is not clear to me whether Bibles for Missions is more like a busker or more like Walmart. It is not even clear to me whether this is a legitimate argument -- the entire field of "consumer as power broker" makes my brain hurt.

In fact, the process of writing this web entry has made my brain hurt. It has opened cans of worms that I do not know how to deal with. Not only am I confused about whether I am ethically okay with shopping at Bibles for Missions, now my patronage of other thrift stores (such as Value Village and Generations) has been thrown into question. I am also thoroughly confused about capitalist economics, religion and its virtues, and even the morality of thrift stores and secondhand goods in general. THIS IS NOT HOW ESSAYS ARE SUPPOSED TO WORK.

At the end of all this, what do I know? I like my blanket and stuffed walrus. The store is certainly nice, and is a great source of cheap secondhand goods in downtown Kitchener, so if you are comfortable with the mission of Bibles for Missions (or you don't care one way or the other) then it is probably a good shopping destination for you. Whether it is a good shopping destination for me remains to be seen. I am not exactly known for ethical behaviour, so don't be too surprised if you find me skulking around the store one day, even if I loudly proclaim that it is unethical to do so.