Thursday, July 5, 2007

Values 21/05/07

Monday, May 21, 2007


Recently a friend wrote me asking about something a friend said to her, asking my opinion. It was a very challenging question to me, so I took advantage of the fact that I'm on a family vacation/holiday to discuss it as a question. I thought I'd share some of our thoughts here.

In essence, the question is whether it is valid to say that because of the Judeo-Christian values/moral foundations of the United States - which is lacking in most other countries of the world - U.S. involvement in other nations always results in improvements in those nations (an overall improvement in the world).

First, why is this such a hard question for me? Well, it is a gratifying thought that my faith (I am a dedicated Christian) spreads good things in a straightforward manner. It makes it much easier for me to believe that what I think I believe is really true. To question the inherent benefits in spreading my values is in some ways to question my own faith.

But I've been doing field research in the Arab world for several years now, and the data simply does not support such a statement, at least not not in the direct manner I would like to see. Politically, increased U.S. involvement in Arab countries has correlated closely with factions, totalitarianism and religious hatred. Spiritually, even Arab Christians can go on for hours telling of stories of how American missionaries and representatives of U.S. churches messed up and made a fragile religious atmosphere even more tense.

So my family's immediate response to this question was that what is suggested simply does not happen. It's a fallacy to assume that the presence of Americans somewhere means American values are spreading. U.S. presence on the moon has done nothing for the moral fibre of the moon, and there are many reasons the U.S. gets involved in other nations on earth other than spreading moral values.

But I think we would be avoiding the real issues underlying this question to stop there. When I was in Washington interning with a human rights office of the U.S. government, there was definitely a sense that we have morality figured out, and if we could just get other governments to share our morality, the world would benefit. In other words, I am questioning that even when we intend to spread American (Judeo-Christian) values that we are doing so.

In our family conversation about this, we tried to question any assumptions: We asked, what are values? What does the phrase Judeo-Christian mean in the first place? We don't agree about much when embroiled in a deep discussion like this one, but I think we agreed that Judeo-Christian values/morality probably refers more to Englightenment values, or perhaps to the Protestant Work Ethic, than to something straight out of the Bible.

(As such, I personally suggest that the prefix "Judeo" does a great disservice to these discussions because when we look at Jewish traditions and doctrine and how those inform communal values, we often find close parallels with Muslim traditions, doctrine and communal values. Many Muslims put me to shame with their strong sense of morality. Because right now most U.S. foreign policy interacts somehow with Muslim countries, we need to distinguish between Muslim morality and non- (or anti-) religious morality. In our family we disagreed on how exactly to elaborate this point, so I will just here issue a warning: Islam is a monotheistic religion that sees itself as sharing a tradition with Judaism and Christianity, so don't simply discount Muslim morality while praising "Judeo-Christian" morality).

So is it fair to say we are spreading Englightenment values and as much as we can do so, that's a good thing? I just finished reading a book ("Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, see below) that would say that is our goal. As a Christian, though, I deeply disagree with her because her conclusion was that there is no God. That's a natural though progression, since the same movement that developed ideas like "human rights" and "basic freedoms" also produced famous phrases like "God is Dead" and "Religion is the opiate of the people." So as a Christian, I think I would be doing my own faith a disservice to say that what the world needs is those values spread. Not only for the sake of my faith, but because I believe Enlightenment thinking is somewhat flawed and culturally insensitive, but more on that later.

Of course, Christianity DID survive the Enlightenment intact and, arguably, improved, embodied in the Protestant Reformation and the accompanying Protestant Work Ethic. And Western societies built around the Protestant Work Ethic, including much of Northern Europe as well as the United States and a few other countries, have done well in terms of economics and autonomy, as well as showing respect for their individual citizens.

But this value system is all about the individual: individual freedoms, individual rights, individual expression. Who is to say that this is the "way of Jesus"? Jesus's teachings valued individuals, especially the poor, women and crippled. But he also spoke of forming a community and of blessing whole regions of the world. If the U.S. goal is to spread Enlightenment values, or Protestant morality, I can see that as a noble goal, but far from the definition of what is right.

So, is this re-defined intention in foreign policy working? Is U.S. involvement in the rest of the world leading to a closer approximation to U.S. values (based on a marriage of Protestantism and the Enlightenment) in the rest of the world? And is that a good thing? That's a discussion that our family didn't really cover, since we didn't really get past definitions and categories.

But here's my personal take: yes, I do see those values spreading, for sure. And in some places in some ways the world really is getting better. But in other places in other ways, these values are being mixed in with other cultural frameworks and creating something worse than what existed before. (For example, democratic elections and tribal loyalties do not always lead to a strong government of and by the people - sometimes they lead to increased financial support for certain tribal leaders, at least so far.) Missionaries have done loads and loads of good (economic, material and spiritual) in many countries, but they have also managed to set off rivalries and tensions that weren't necessarily recognised or acted upon before, inadvertently leading to greater bloodshed and bitterness. Anyone who thinks the connections are straightforward is simplifying the complex world our Lord created. God is not that simple, nor is my faith. It doesn't mean I deny my faith, but it means I need to trust more deeply while still asking hard questions.

(I'm going to ask my parents, brother and sister-in-law to add comments if they want...)

Then first comment from Tony:

Hey Katie,

How are you doing in England? But I'm with you on this one, being a student of US foreign relations. I recently had a conversation with a friend who said the US actually is winning in Iraq and we won a victory in Vietnam and we merely failed to follow up our victory. Sufficed to say I was shocked at this. Circular logic and denial of US wrongs abroad because we bring "peace" and "democracy" is a bit pre-mature and in my opinion naieve. Still what are we to do as Americans except to try our best to understand the world?

There’s a line in the movie Amistad where Anthony Hopkins as John Q. Adams says,

“We've long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which we so, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we've feared an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we've come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, we've been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding that who we are is who we were. We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.”

The individuality that we revere, cherish and laud in our society is adrift without context or place. The freedom of thought and of conscience the Enlightenment produced was not meant to be explored without context or place. It was breaking away from autocratic rule so that one could follow their conscience rightly formed by God. Yet, we forget to invoke the spirit of Christ and thus end up lost. It is always right and proper to ask God to lead us and guide us. We should question and practice our faith. But we must not forget even in our strong individuality that as Christians, we are to be solely centered upon the Lord. And this is not a simple faith, for it is a faith that requires the most of us. We must in the end be humble and invoke God.

Then second comment from Stephanie:

im Wallis, in his book "God's Politics- Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" reminds us that, both in terms of individual spirituality and collective responsibility, Jesus admonishes us to remove our own ocular masses before digging after the other's mite. We need always to be asking the Lord and ourselves "Is my help really being helpful?" "Lord, is there something You'd rather I be doing, or in some other way?" Missions, foreign policy, even the way we love each other in families, all need to be accompanied by constant, humble evaluation, linked to a genuine willingness to change, should He direct.

No, Western missions have't always gotten it right. Nor have governments. Nor have we. Lord, please forgive us. Have mercy on us, and help us to do it a bit better tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Love you!

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