Yesterday I caught up on a high school friend’s blog.  He spent pages and pages complaining about, well, imaginary problems.  He’s really pissed about the low quality of bottled water in this country, for instance.  I spent a good ten minutes actively resisting the temptation to send him a scorching email explaining that bottled water is, in about 95% of circumstances, an utter waste of resources and that one in six people around the world have no access to safe, clean drinking water, that every twenty seconds or so a child dies of diarrhea caused by poor sanitation.  I wanted to tell him the names of people we know from high school who live three miles down the road from where he grew up who carry their water in empty milk jugs from a nearby gas station because they can’t pay to keep their water on.  Whether or not Evian feels greasy–which it does a little, I’ll concede–should be the least important question we have about water.  Prolonged discussion of the various merits of $9 liters of water makes you, in my book, a privileged asshole.  Especially if a) have no plans to recycle the empties and b) you occasionally wax poetic on how much you wish you had disposable income to give to a charity.  I kind of want to punch this guy in the face.  And I probably would except 1) he lives a good 900 miles away and 2) I’m pretty sure his wife could kick my ass.

Should I add that this high school friend’s father is the pastor of a prominent church in a nearby community?  Should I also add that there’s a link from his blog to his brother’s mission trip fundraiser’s website?

I am really uncomfortable with short term mission trips.  The college I went to was pretty into them, though, and that’s where I learned most of my discomfort.  I’d come back from a spring break trip to, say, a friend’s home in suburban Massachusetts to find the next week’s chapel services were entirely dedicated to tales of serving the poor and indigent.

A handsome, broad-shouldered senior came back from a week teaching a soccer clinic at a Mexican orphanage and told us all about this little boy named Phillipe who had, basically fallen in love with this senior.  Phillipe followed him every where, wanted to ride piggyback and started to call him Papa.  The senior was so happy he’d been able to “build relationships” and to “minister.”  I was  disgusted.  This kid was back at school studying youth ministry, eating pizza, and playing ultimate frisbee.  I’m sure he thought of the kid for a while and sent him letters and maybe emails if it was that kind of orphanage.  But I’m equally sure that the kid’s still in that orphanage or has moved on to whatever probably terrible life Mexican orphans go on to have as adults.  Tell me who benefits from the senior’s heart-warming anecdote.  I doubt it was the kid.

The short term mission trip seems to me a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided form of poverty tourism.  I admire a willingness to, say, build a church under a sweltering tropical sun.  But I wonder how much more a community could benefit if the native congregation was, say, given even a half of the money spent on transporting those American teens and spent it paying native workers to do the job.  Or if the inoculations or anti-malarials given to would-be missionaries were given to people living there instead.

In college I read a classmate’s essay about visiting a town built on a dump in Africa.   She would, she wrote, never again look at coke bottles without having her heart a little broken by this vision of poverty.  While I read her essay, we both drank cokes without any apparent sense of irony.

My sister, who went to Guadalajara in 1989 when I was in no position to make reasoned protests not about Rainbow Brite, says that maybe mission trips work to change the world by changing individuals.  That makes, I realize, a certain kind of sense.  Maybe we can best understand the difficulties faced by others by seeing those difficulties up close.  And I know more than a few people who went from short term mission trips to doing things like prosecuting pimps or running rural medical clinics or teaching sustainable agriculture.   Maybe they were, as my sister might claim, changed.  Maybe the world’s improved.  Maybe my asshole high school friend is the Christian missions equivalent of, oh, someone who drops out of medical school to sell pharmaceuticals.

But it seems to me that if we were better connected as Christians with our neighbors and the people of the world, we wouldn’t need these little two week rites of teenage passage to open our eyes to the problems of the world.  We’d see in on the news, we’d read it in our newspapers, and we’d see it in one another’s faces.  And it seems to me that Christians concerned about presenting Christ meaningfully to the world should have more pressing concerns than our own conspicuous means of consumption.

Our disconnect, though, is older than bottled water, the American middle class, or even Protestantism.

Last night while I took a bath–in, yes, gallons and gallons of wasted water–I could hear my parents talking about a conversation my dad’d had with the sheriff.  Demon rum, it seems to local law enforcement, is the cause of all our local domestic violence.   Sober men don’t beat their wives and sober women don’t get beaten.  We don’t need to worry about violence against children creating a generation of violent adults or about mental illness or about poverty or about lack of access to birth control.  As a culture, we could all prevent domestic violence if we just got together and glared at people coming out of liquor stores.

That attitude is why I bought the six of Sam Adams I’m working on two towns over, by the way.

With prosperity comes a sense of our entitlement to such prosperity.  We have what we deserve.  My asshole friend isn’t an asshole: he earns his money and should buy whatever non-greasy water he likes without my excoriation.  The necessary corollary is, of course, that people who do not have what we have do not deserve what we have.

That’s not something most people are comfortable saying right out loud in words, although this wonderful Tea Party movement has made it somewhat more popular to do so.  People are poor because they don’t work because they are lazy.  People don’t have health care because they are too dumb or too lazy to go to college in order to get jobs that have benefits.  Those people I know who get their water from the gas station’s spigot?  If the guy’d just worked harder in high school he could’ve gone to college, gotten a good job with health insurance and wouldn’t’ve fallen off that girder and wouldn’t’ve been tempted to supplement his disability checks with acts of petty theft and gone to jail and left his wife with five kids and no running water.  And she’s in the pickle she’s in because she’s a total slut.   Total.  Slut.  Everybody says so.  Besides, you don’t end up 27 and with five children if you don’t put out.

I don’t mean to assign this attitude to Right alone.  What I’ve written here is not much different from things I’ve heard Privileged Asshole from High School say: it’s just more politely worded and cozily couched in the certainty that he knows what’s best for people who aren’t him.  Facebook still lists his middle name as “Hussein” in honor of the president.

This whole line of reasoning is one that marked early Protestantism in ways that are somehow both horrifying and familiar and that helped to form modern capitalism.  We are blessed because, inexplicably, God has loved us best.  We are within our rights to grab what we can grab.  If we don’t deserve it, God won’t give it to us.   The poor we will always have with us.

We can hear this same argument with a less deterministic bent from tv preachers: bless God–by sending me a check, pleaseandthankyou–and God will bless you.  I briefly volunteered with an organization founded by people who sought to help the urban homeless in all the regular ways people help the urban homeless but who soon turned to exposing televangelists after discovering how many of their clients had sent their last fifty bucks to the tv preachers who promised God’d send them $500 back in return mail or who had taken out mortgages they couldn’t afford based on something they thought was faith.

This is the conclusion, the paragraph that’s supposed to sum things up as nice as pie.   But of course it won’t.  In the end, I think, the truly impossible feat that faith demands is not paying a mortgage we can’t afford or finding comprehensive dental coverage or a decent fucking bottle of water.   The feat is to love our neighbors, wherever we may find them, more than we love the things we buy or the politics we believe in or the other pleasurable trappings of being here, now, and to consider their benefit more than we consider our own.  Even if those neighbors’re total fucking assholes.

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