Monday, August 23, 2010

Helping Without Hurting, part 1

One of the consistent topics I wrote about this summer was my growing passion for battling poverty and the things that cause it in this world. However, the more I have sought answers, the bigger and more difficult to solve the problem appeares. Poverty is completely pervasive in this world. It is everywhere. It is huge. Thinking about taking it on makes me feel like Apollo Creed about to step in the ring with Ivan Drago. (If you don't know Rocky, click the link).

Yet, no matter how huge the problem is (and it is), I am dead set on looking for ways to solve it. Why? Because my heart was broken. As I become passionate about one thing or another (such as my skepticism towards church, disgust towards Christian politics, etc.), I seek out ways to further my understanding of the subject. I have no illusions that my ideas are the best; rather, I choose seek out experts in their respective fields and hear what they have to say. After learning from people who know more than I do, I adjust my own ideas and beliefs and move forward from there.

If I am going to claim that I want to learn from experts, I need to back it up by doing so. There are some particular individuals whom I call friends who have a similar passion for social justice and helping society. Picking their brains has steered me toward a handful of books and experts from which to learn. These books include The End of Poverty by Sachs, When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert, among others.

Very recently I began reading the Corbett/Fikkert book (thank you Amazon) with a great deal of anticipation and excitement. One of the ideas I have struggled with in the last few months is the value (or lack thereof) of short term missions. It seems to me that the costs associated with providing a large group of high school or college students with travel (airfare), lodging, food and other things become extremely expensive, and in large part is wasted. Perhaps I should provide a fictional example to illustrate what I am talking about. Let's say that we have a youth group of, say, 20 high schoolers. This group wants to take a week long mission trip to, say, Mexico, and build a church (or school or orphanage or whatever). According to Expedia, a roundtrip flight from Cincinnati to Houston would cost roughly $200 per person. The people on this trip would have to eat, so there would be costs associated with that. $15 per day per person for food costs sounds appropriate. Day to day costs of transportation to and from the worksite (buses, etc.) might cost up to $100 per person for the week. And so on. In general, individual costs for a mission trip can get up to $1000, but for my purposes here we can benchmark it at $500 for each person on the trip. Not unreasonable at all.

Twenty kids at 500 bucks apiece adds up to ten grand. Ten thousand dollars. Imagine how much good could be done with $10,000 in an impoverished community in a second or third world country. Instead, we use that money to send wide-eyed students with no skills or experience into a situation where they are by and large useless except for basic manual labor. In my high school, these trips are happening with 200 kids, not just twenty. The money being spent is astronomical. Here is my alternative: pay contractors in the country to build the church/school/whatever. This creates jobs (both for specialists and for manual labor) in places where work is likely difficult to come by, and in doing so helps the local economy in addition to helping whatever specific group the building or whatnot was for. Or give the money to missionaries who live in the community and know best how it can be spent. Or use the money to plant a missionary. Et cetera.

This is the (very) basic idea behind my many thoughts on short term missions. I hate the idea of wasted resources, and it seems as though more could be done with the money we use to send kids (or whomever) on these trips. But Corbett and Fikkert take this to another level. To these men it appears that our well-intentioned missions work and charity to third world areas isn't just wasting resources, but it is actually hurting the communities there. I began reading their book with all this in mind, and encountered the following selection in the introduction:
"We write this book with a great deal of excitement about the renewed interest in helping low-income people that is so apparent among North American Christians. While materialism, self-centeredness, and complacency continue to plague all of us, nobody can deny the upswing in social concern among North American evangelicals in the past two decades. There is perhaps no better illustration of this trend than the exploding short-term mission movement, much of which has focused on ministering to the poor at home and abroad.

But our excitement about these developments is seriously tempered by two convictions. First, North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. We attend our kids' soccer games, pursue our careers, and take beach vacations while 40 percent of the world's inhabitants struggle just to eat every day. And in our own backyards, the homeless, those residing in ghettos, and a wave of imigrants live in a world outside the economic and social mainstream of North America. We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.

Second, many observers, including Steve and I, believe that when North American Christians do attempt to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the materially poor and the materially non-poor. Our concern is not just that these methods are wasting human, spiritual, financial, and organizational resources but that these methods are actually exacerbating the very problems they are trying to solve."

The goal, then, becomes to discover methods that do not harm the people we are trying to help. The reason this post has a "part 1" at the end of the title is because I hope to relay what I learn as I go through the book. Maybe I won't learn anything and the book will turn out to be a complete waste of money. I hope that is not the case. We will see. But either way, I'm going to keep searching for ways that I can help solve this problem. Or maybe push/inspire/convince other people to solve the problem in ways I cannot. The only thing that is unacceptable is doing nothing.

And so on...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In Brief

My apologies for the lack of content in the last week. Training for my position as a resident assistant has taken up all of my time, energy and enthusiasm since coming back to school. Due to a series of events in the last week, I have been as tired, broken, worn out and worn down as I have been in a very long time. Life isn't easy, and having to deal with the rougher parts of it can sometimes be difficult.

In the last week, I have received two of the most exciting phone calls in my short life. Hearing that one of your friends has just become engaged is terribly exciting. Getting that call twice in one week is nothing less than fantastic. Based on some things I have written in the past, some people thought I might be unhappy or mad or something that my friends are engaged/getting married. Nothing could be further than the truth.

Sleep is extremely valuable and important. Learned that in the last couple of weeks. "About time", some might say.

I hope to get back to writing on a more regular basis. With classes starting next week, combined with the job and community I am now responsible for, that might be difficult. Bear with me. If there are any topics or ideas you would like me to write on, by all means let me know. I am up for anything.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Making Lists: Film

I absolutely love cinema. Films can often drive a point home better than any other artistic medium, and I have learned a great deal about myself and the world through them. In fact, I watch and rewatch the movies I love so much that I begin inserting quotes and references into everyday conversation. So much so that its probably a bit obnoxious. But I digress.

This 'list making' will be of the ten films I love the most. This is certainly not a greatest or most important films of all time list; you will not find The Wizard of Oz or The Godfather listed below. Instead, these will be the films that have stuck with me the most, be it because of their message, content, acting performances or sense of humor. I would love to hear what some of your favorites are that did not make my list; leave your list in the comments section below (I have set it so that you do not have to be logged in or have a profile to leave a comment).

Spoiler alert: some of the scenes I link to will give away plot points or the ending of the film. Don't watch them if you haven't seen the movie before or if you don't want the end ruined for you.

1. The Shawshank Redemption
This movie is, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time. I'll be brief here as I plan on a future post concerning Shawshank. The message of hope and perseverance is powerful and the story is riveting. Plus, Shawshank has the greatest bromance this side of Scrubs. Can you go wrong with Morgan Freeman? Perfect story, perfect characters, perfect ending. I could watch this again and again and never get sick of it (and I do).
Most memorable scene(s): Andy Escapes, I Hope

2. V for Vendetta
My clear cut number one for a long time until recently. Now V and Shawshank are virtually 1A and 1B for me. I love the political undertones and overtones throughout this film. The visuals are stunning as well, and having Natalie Portman certainly doesn't hurt. Spending a semester living in London allowed me to interact with the setting of the film on a regular basis, which was pretty cool. Seeing the Old Bailey and Trafalgar Square daily was special for me considering how much I enjoy this film. Not that seeing those things wouldn't have been exciting anyway, but you get the point.
Most memorable scenes: V's Introduction, "My Turn", Dominos

3. The Prestige
Christopher Nolan never fails to impress. The director of Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and now Inception made his biggest impact on me with The Prestige. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play dueling magicians in this film, with major roles played by Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine and David Bowie. The mantra of the movie is "Are you watching closely?", and it certainly rings true throughout the film. Fantastic ending that will keep you on the edge of your seat and not dissapoint.
Most memorable scenes: The Real Transported Man, Goodbye

4. Fight Club
I could write all day about this film, but I'll limit myself here. If you have read this blog for a while, I'm sure you have noticed that I reference Fight Club a great deal. And for good reason. Many who see the title of the film assume that it is a mindless bloody action flick, with no real purpose or message. They would be wrong. This movie is filled with thought and philosophy, much of which has influenced my own views on society. Anti-consumerism, the destruction of masculinity, the folly of advertising, individualism...all these are ideas brilliantly woven into Fight Club through the character Tyler Durden. There is little I can mention about the actual story without betraying important plot points, so I won't. Just go see it if you haven't already.
Most memorable scenes: Middle Children of History, Human Sacrifice, Homework Assignment

5. The Life Aquatic: with Steve Zissou
Wes Anderson plus Billy Murray equals funny. This is one of the quirkiest films I have ever seen, but the dry humor and subtlety of the plot is brilliant and right in my comedic wheelhouse. Wes Anderson uses music brilliantly throughout the film, with the highlight being Seu Jorge's everpresent acoustic picking of David Bowie songs in Portugese. And strangely enough, I really connected with Murray's character Zissou in a fairly significant way. The climactic moment of this film is perhaps my favorite scene in all of cinema.
Most memorable scenes: Jaguar Shark
It's not even worth mentioning any other scenes.

6. Good Will Hunting
Troubled but smart kid gets discovered and has emotional problems. Or something like that. Robin Williams gives an incredible performance in this film, and Matt Damon turns in a fine performance as well. But beyond the acting, the story itself is riveting and makes you root for Will Hunting to figure himself out.
Most memorable scenes: Park Scene, How do you like them apples?

7. The Last of the Mohicans
I maintain that this is the ultimate chick flick/guy movie combo. Great story, beautiful scenery throughout the film and my favorite soundtrack of any film (O Brother Where Art Thou? is a close second). For the ladies, there is a fairly sappy and slightly predictable love story that permeates the film; for the guys, the French and Indian War is the backdrop and driving force behind the plot.
Most memorable scenes: Waterfall, End Scene

8. Gladiator
Historically inaccurate but historically entertaining. Ridley Scott does a great job setting a worn feeling to the film, giving it a roughness and level of grit that is fun to watch. The lasting mark of this film is Joaquin Phoenix's character, Commodus. I hate Commodus more than any other character in film. I can't stand the sight of him, his whiny voice, his cowardly actions. And the fact that the writers created a character that I vehementely hate is quite an accomplishment. Oh yeah, and Russell Crowe.
Most memorable scenes: Are you not entertained?, Maximus

9. Braveheart
Say what you want about Mel Gibson, but the man knows story structure. Braveheart is a fantastic action/war epic that contains a worthwhile message (freedom) and combines the two with Scottish accents and blue warpaint. Doesn't get much better than that. Plus, this is one of the last times society considered Mel Gibson to be a fairly normal person. So there's that.
Most memorable scenes: Sons of Scotland, Betrayal

10. The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger gives the single greatest acting performance I have ever seen. His portrayal of the Joker is one that hides Ledger completely within the role; when Jack Nicholson played the Joker, you were never unsure of who the actor was. With Ledger's Joker, you actually begin to believe that this character might exist. Christopher Nolan delivers the goods as usual, and Christian Bale's Batman is as flawed but realistic a portrayal of the superhero that we have been presented. A trifecta that stands out.
Most memorable scenes: Pencil Trick, Why So Serious?

So close: O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Boondock Saints; Lord of War; American History X; Anchorman; Memento; The Matrix (trilogy); Bourne (trilogy); The Departed; Caddyshack; Forrest Gump; Saving Private Ryan; Amistad; Stardust; The Princess Bride

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The $600 Billion Challenge

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have teamed up to challenge the 400 wealthiest Americans to donate at least half of their wealth to charity either throughout their lifetime or at death. This challenge is known as The Giving Pledge. If all 400 participate, $600 billion would be donated to charity as a result. The Fortune/CNN story is here.

This is cool. Very, very cool.

Think about it: 400 people with the ability to give (at least) $600 billion to people in need. Imagine what the next 400,000 wealthiest Americans could do, or the next 4 million. We have the capacity to change the world significantly for the better. If our will to create change begins to match our capacity to do so, we can improve the world in incredible ways. I find it wonderfully refreshing to see Buffet and Gates not only willing to give, but willing to lead the crusade. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

And so on...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living by the Book

Thanks to DS
To explain every facet of why I hate religion is going to take a long, long time. I have gotten my feet wet in that discussion a few times in this space, including my thoughts on Anne Rice leaving the church, Christian bookstores and how Gandhi viewed Christians, among other examples.

The sticking point in all these posts is common between them: people trying to act Christian rather than like Christ are creating problems rather than solutions, and doing it all in the name of a God who is likely ashamed of their actions (I would never presume to know exactly what the reactions of God are, but I am willing to lend an educated guess). The motives of churchy people trying to "be" Christian are likely good and real, consistent with what they think truth is. The problem is not the initial motives of Christians, but rather the way Jesus has been institutionalized, prepackaged and made into a formula and set of rules that must be upheld or else.

The title of this post - living by the book - comes from something a high school teacher of mine passed along during class my senior year. He said to us, "you can live by the book, but it's slavery." This simple statement is one of the most profound and important things I have learned thus far in life, but I do think it requires a measure of explanation before I continue.

Living by the book can have two distinct meanings in this context, one that I believe to be beneficial and one that I believe to be harmful. First, the beneficial way of approaching the phrase: as Christians we are called to live a lifestyle consistant with that of Jesus. This means treating people like Jesus did, loving people without conditions, judging no one and seeking to help everyone. If the Bible is taken as the Word of God, its words should be revered and its message followed. And without question, the message of the Bible and of Jesus is love. Love God, love your neighbor. In this sense, living by the book is the greatest thing we can do as people and as followers of Christ, and I believe that we are all called to do so. But I hesitate to call that "living by the book", so instead I will refer to this idea as following the message of Jesus.

Unfortunately, the second way the phrase can be taken is much less positive. Today, the phrase living by the book means following the rules, being a "good" person, or something to that extent. This is the sense in which my teacher meant the phrase, as I am sure you immediately understood upon reading his quote. Within the context of Christ followers, 'the book' can again refer to Scripture, but not in such a positive light. Rather than considering the message of Jesus (love), this way of approaching Scripture means turning the Bible into a rule book. A rule book that must be followed at all costs, as if God expects perfection from his imperfect creation. A rule book that allows us to judge people who are different than we are, one that we can tailor to cast ourselves in the best light. This is what I am referring to when I say "living by the book" from now on.

This second version of living by the book had a grip on my life for many, many years. Being raised in a Christian household, going to church every week and attending a Christian school meant that I was constantly surrounded by people telling me what I could and could not do within the context of making Jesus happy. I was constantly being shown (almost exclusively at school) that this Lamb of God was spending his every waking moment spying on me, hoping to catch me slip up. Hoping to see me fail. Perhaps not always explicitly, but it was certainly implied and pounded into my mind. I was raised to fear sin and sinners (and to ignore the fact that Christ followers are sinners just like everyone else). I was told that dancing is dangerous (it leads to sex...gasp), that drinking alcohol makes you a bad person, that Democrats are evil. I was molded into believing that once a person commits a "big" sin, I have to label them as whatever their sin was: druggie, alchie, slut, liberal, Catholic (yeah, I know, ridiculous, but no joke). I grew up in a context that made me a slave to the book. A slave to the rules. I was afraid to slip up: for fear of being labeled as one of those naughty sinners, for fear of Jesus seeing me and shouting "gotcha!", for fear of people losing respect for me. If I did slip up, the guilt train came hurtling into the station and ran me over every time. There was no escaping it. Turn on the television and you will find televangelists preaching fire and brimstone and fear. "God is out to get you unless you follow the rules." I believed that if I sinned, Jesus would disown me. That lie is something I have had a difficult time overcoming, and is something I struggle with to this day.

Thankfully, there are people like Brennan Manning who are determined to speak truth against the lie of living by the book. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning wrote:
"Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace."
Grace means that the rules carry no weight any more. It means that there is no value in living by the book. The value comes from following the message of Jesus, from living a life focused on love rather than keeping score.

My teacher was spot on when he said that living by the book is slavery. No good comes from following the rules for the sake of the rules. Instead, it creates cynicism, sows dischord and pushes people away from the message of Jesus. I believe that living by the book and following the message of Jesus are two mutually exclusive things. If I am following the message of Jesus, I have no concern for whatever mistakes a person made in their past, no desire to judge or label them. Rather, my sole concern is to show them love. I am drawn to accept them for who they are and to approach them with no pretenses or hangups. In contrast, a person mired in living by the book will likely be so concerned with following the perceived rules themselves that they become covered in guilt from the times they make a mistake. And often they will begin watching to see if everyone else is following those rules as well. And if the people they watch are slipping up (or just ignoring the rules altogether), there is a more than small chance that judgment and contempt will soon follow - two things that have no place within the message of Jesus.

I refuse to be a slave to the book any longer. Consequences be damned means living my life free from fears and worries. If I make a mistake, so be it. I will clean that mess up when I come to it. The message and actions of Jesus mean that I do not need to fear failing or screwing up because he paid for my mistakes already. To live explicitly by the book is to deny the message of Jesus, the gospel of grace and love. Sure, many of the rules have merit. But to follow them for the sake of following them is unhealthy and (dare I say it) wrong. Instead, I choose to live my life focused on loving people. I have found that if I live my life focused on love first, I find myself following most of the "rules" anyway, without even thinking about it. Funny how that happens.

And so on...