St. Matthew concludes his 28-chapter biography of Jesus of Nazareth with an incident Christians call ‘The Great Commission’. My father’s entire career, indeed, his purpose of living arose from this supposed final command of Jesus before he left Earth for heaven.
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28: 16-21)
What had urged me to laugh the first time I heard the term Humanitarian Imperative was the realization that it was an echo of The Great Commission. My laughter, which I did suppress, was the mirth of a child who makes an unexpected connection, rather than a chortle of derision. Although I no longer subscribe to an evangelical worldview, or any worldview that could be labeled Christian, I understand this mysterious experience called Life looks different to everyone. If a humanoid God helps you make sense of it all, more power to you.
The moment that connected these two grand declarations-of-intent in my mind marks the instant when for the first time I had a conceptual framework within which I could try to make sense of what exactly I was doing with my life. I also understood that I had not moved quite so far away from my father’s shadow as I imagined.
From that moment I’ve seen aid workers as secular missionaries. People driven by deep, sometimes ideological, sometimes inarticulate urgings to make things ‘right’ for other people. Just as the need to maintain good personal relationships was one of the rips that pulled me away from aid, the superciliousness of it all was another.
The similarities between missionary work and aid work are numerous and I’ve come to see the motivation of both species of worker as essentially the same. Lets take it from the top.
- The Humanitarian Imperative is essentially a modern paraphrasing of The Great Commission. Both are bloated with smugness, arrogance, self-righteousness and hubris. Both statements are exercises in ‘self-aggrandizement’ every bit as ridiculous as Bonaparte crowning his own head. Both are interventionist in their intent and dismissive of ‘others’ in practice. And both are all the more insidious because they proclaim ‘salvation’.
Many of my aid colleagues will be horrified by this description. ‘We are not out there shoving God down people’s throats,’ they say. ‘We are completely non-sectarian. Our laboriously drafted Codes of Conduct restrict us from proselytizing. We are impartial. We don’t take sides in cultural/religious skirmishes.’
These arguments are correct as far as they go, which is not much beyond the surface. Sure, most aid agencies do not care about an African’s or a Papuan’s idea of God much less want to change it. Other than Henri Dunant (founder of the International Red Cross Movement), Marie Stopes (family planning campaigner), Eglantyne Jebb (founder of Save the Children Fund) and a handful of others, aid agencies don’t beatify mere humans in the way faith-based/missionary organizations do Jesus. But in other respects they are in fact, secular churches promoting a Gospel to ‘all nations’.
The very word ‘gospel’ which means ‘good news’ is the outcome most aid agencies would define as ‘development’ or ‘humanitarian assistance.’ By bringing clever ideas to isolated, poor and ‘disempowered’ communities, the development industry believes and promotes (evangelizes) its ‘good works’: making people more informed, healthier, better educated and empowered. The energy is focused upon righting a wrong, filling a deficit, correcting an injustice, bringing salvation to the benighted. Even though many agencies and development practitioners reject the ‘deficit’ model in favour of an approach that supposedly puts ‘poor people/women/children/the disabled/refugees’ at the center what is still going on is an attempt by outsiders (who operate within a theoretical paradigm that is for all practical purposes a creation of western minds, ideas, and assumptions) to deliver (at worst) or broker (in the current lingo) results that serve as ‘evidence’ to further support the aid/development /humanitarian paradigm. The sector is a self-perpetuating echo chamber in which ideas are quickly reduced to loosely defined catch phrases like innovation, resilience, capacity building and sustainability.
One has to ask, who mandated all of this activity to occur? On whose authority do western-educated people decide that entire populations and countries are failed, or require solutions that their western-funded agencies are best placed to deliver? The answer, not surprisingly, is themselves. It is the Western aid agencies supported by a now very robust cadre of theoreticians and funded in the main by the richest Western governments that frame the debate, define the issues, promote the methodologies and develop the arguments for why they are still needed. When Indian, Brazilian, South African and Moldavian NGOs figure out how to do the same stuff cheaper and more effectively, the big western NGOs create new fields of expertise (gender studies, cash programming, resilience) that only they have capability in (at least for a decade or so) and therefore continue to justify their existence.
In the Christian world, the echo chamber is even more air tight. The ultimate Boss of the whole missionary effort is none other than Jesus, the Son of God Himself. When one asks, ‘on what basis should I believe the passage in St Matthew?’ the answer is, ‘Well, the Bible is the Word of God.’ It’s true because I believe it to be true. At least in aid there is the eternal hope that new arguments and approaches, if not History, will prevail and new paradigms will emerge. But in the missionary, faith-based sector, this hope is stillborn. There is no arguing against Scripture and the Almighty.
So, whether you are a humanist, atheist or fundamentalist, there is a career path for you that allows you to travel to faraway places, meet interesting people and screw up their lives. Not just allow, but demands it. If you’re a secular missionary you MUST intervene to help people. And as we’ve seen with clockwork regularity humanitarian action can be used as cover for war and bombing entire modern cities. If you like your bread buttered on the other side, you can belittle and intellectually demolish ancient philosophical/cultural systems because your personal God has ‘commissioned’ you, like an officer in some holy army, to do so.
If I was sharing a beer or a cup of tea with friends from either side of the aid/missionary divide I would be told that I’m being too sweeping in my brush strokes. That there are good projects delivered by secular and faith-based agencies. That most of the Christian soldiers and aid mercenaries are ‘good people at heart’. And that the not-very-hard-to-discern logical conclusion of my rant is that no one should do anything to help others.
I wouldn’t disagree with those counter-arguments. But ultimately it is the arrogant power play embedded like Mohammad Ali’s fist in a woman’s silk glove in both the Humanitarian Imperative and the Great Commission, that ultimately turned me away first from my father’s profession and then from one I chose.
Any relationship in which the power equation is so imbalanced is not healthy.