Real service, real change

By Marion Bontrager – Instructor of Bible and Religion/Horizon Guest Writer

Samira Ibrihim walked out of court on March 11 a tearful but undefeated woman. One year after she and six other Egyptian change activists had been subjected to acts of torture, including a highly invasive “virginity test,” a military court acquitted the army doctor accused of performing the test on the women. While the current military government in Egypt will not be held accountable for these heinous acts, Ibrihim was unfazed. The New York Times reported her online response: “Nobody violated my honor, it’s Egypt whose honor was violated. And I will go on till the end to get her rights.”

Ibrihim could have merely set up an organization to provide therapy for the women who were personally invaded with the exams.  Instead she sued the military to change the “powers” so other women would not be so invaded sexually in the future.  She addressed the powers (causes) rather than only the victims.

Real mission, like Ibrihim’s, is a far cry from what our churches today are calling service. First, it goes beyond the “Band-Aid” approach. It works prophetically at changing systems and powers. Short-term, so-called “mission trips” by churches and colleges are really more about learning than about doing real good for those we’re supposed to be serving.  Those so-called mission and service trips are often feel-good, narcissistic activities that further blind us to the underlying systems and causes of poverty and suffering.  The “short-term service” activity may actually get us off the hook from giving any long term, authentic sacrifice.

But the short-term service experience is a popular church activity today. Food packaging, clothing drives, month-long relief fundraisers have all been done at Hesston, as well as area churches. Some so-called mission trips even involve wealthy Christians spending large travel funds to go to far away countries to build houses for the unemployed poor.  These projects not only fail to create a lasting solution, they often fail to empower. Why not furnish the money and a supervisor so the poor could be employed and have the dignity of having built their own homes!

Second, they also require little commitment or sacrifice. Let’s be clear: Providing relief by giving food and clothing is a kind of service that is certainly needed.  But if followers of Jesus stop there, they fall far short of what Jesus calls us to be: “Wise as serpents and harmless as doves” peacemakers.  Shouldn’t educated Christians be a bit smarter snakes?

Mennonite Central Committee got the message. MCC used to be only a “relief in the name of Christ” organization.  Thank God after WWII,  some wise MCC leaders moved from being a “relief only” organization to the type of organization focusing on “development in the name of Christ.” They’ve also become the kind of organization that addresses the political sources of crisis,  “testifying in the name of Christ to Washington powers” that often support governments and multi-national corporations (powers) causing the need for relief.

Real service can be unpopular and even dangerous. Dom Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic archbishop said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”  Mennonites have experienced this firsthand. When Mennonite Christians have picked up the pieces after wars, they are applauded.  When they protest or seek to stop a war they are condemned by many. Providing services to veterans with post-traumatic stress is applauded.  Challenging the militarism powers and mythologies that cause the illness is instantly condemned as unpatriotic.

And this is where the real sacrifice lies. When the powers are challenged and exposed, they fight back. Prophetic service like Martin Luther King Jr.’s can become unpopular, even dangerous.  Prophetic protestors are often called “unpatriotic,” “naïve,” and “negative.”  It’s an uphill battle, like we witness during the Occupy Wall Street movement: The banks fought back against those trying to expose the secretive banking practices that exploit the 99 percent. Even the media, often self-serving for corporate profits, get co-opted into condemning the protestors!

Is so called Christian service any different from other service?  It ought to be.  First, the motivation ought to be “gratitude to God.”  Secondly, it needs to go beyond mere crowd-pleasing “Band-Aid” relief doesn’t fully address the problem and contributes to our own narcissism. It needs to be more insightful.  It needs to include the prophetic exposing of the powers; companies, organizations and systems that cause the need.


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