Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections on The Poisonwood Bible-- Part 1

A few months back a friend recommended the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver to me. I had heard of it before from other friends, but last month I finally took the time to read it. It is a fascinating, well-written, tragic story about a fictional missionary family in the Congo in the 1960s. Through this piece of historical fiction, I learned a tremendous amount about the history of Congo. It has given me a lot to think about regarding the West’s contribution to poverty, war, and corruption in many African countries, but it has given me even more to think about as a missionary myself. (Warning: This post will be full of spoilers so if you want to read the book yourself and form your own opinions, stop here).

The word “missionary” often comes with a lot of baggage. In one of my social justice and human diversity classes during grad school, we had many discussions about “trigger words”—those words that immediately bring a visceral reaction when we hear them. My professor openly admitted that “missionary” was one of those words for her. And I get it. There are tragic and true stories of missionaries—some well-meaning but ignorant and some more self-indulgent than well-meaning— doing immeasurable harm in the communities they were called to serve. There are stories of self-righteous, proud missionaries bringing disease and discord, destroying family and social structures in an area, and depriving people of the beautiful, unique aspects of their cultures. Many people immediately associate the word missionary with an “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude. They hear about a missionary and assume that the person will judge and try to “convert” them. I have personally had a friend of a friend refuse to meet me because he heard that I was a missionary in Africa. As I said, there is a lot of baggage[1] and not completely unjustified.

Nathan Price, the missionary and villain in The Poisonwood Bible, is the archetypical proud missionary who demeans the people of Congo, as well as his own family. I would love to say that he was just a piece of fiction, but I know there have been Nathan Prices in our world and still are to varying extents. For that reason, great anger and sadness welled in my heart as I read about Nathan Price’s abuses. I hate that many people’s experiences with Christians have been largely negative and hurtful. I also hate that at various points in my own walk, I have hurt people. Some such situations are known to me and some I may never know. Because I am imperfect and always learning, I cannot claim to have done it all right in my life, much less in my work in my host culture. Yet, as I read the story, I was also amazed/appalled by how the fictional missionary caricature, Nathan Price, perceived the world and God and by how incredibly different his missionary experience was from my own.

There were so many red flags regarding Nathan Price.
Red Flag #1: He had emotional baggage from being the only surviving member of his unit to escape the Battaan Death March during World War II. Out of survivor’s guilt, he decided to earn God’s love and his way into heaven by “saving souls.” Instead of work as a missionary, he needed extensive therapy and to relearn the basic premise of Christ’s message-- “You can’t and don’t earn your way to heaven. I love you as you are, and want a relationship with you. I will do anything, even die, for that relationship.” Many missionaries these days are required to meet with a counselor before, after, and/or during their time of service, because whatever emotional baggage you carry with you is only heightened when you enter into a new place and culture. Before my missionary service as an HIV educator in Papua New Guinea, I attended a weeklong training where we learned many things about culture, expectations, and potential struggles I might have. I was asked to take four different personality tests and met with a psychologist to discuss the results and to increase my self-awareness. During my time in PNG, I had regular meetings with both American and Papua New Guinean mentors and completed monthly reports to the Education/Formation Director of the Lutheran Deaconess Association. I also met with a counselor for multiple sessions before and after my year in PNG. During my time in Tanzania I have also worked with a counselor via Skype on and off for the last 3 years. I’ve been taught that if you aren’t in a good place emotionally/mentally, you won’t be able to serve your community well. Unfortunately, Nathan Price didn’t have or want that kind of support, and his shame exhibited itself in many forms of abuse, including verbally and physically abusing his wife and children. He did not love the people around them, but only sought to manipulate them so that his own tortured soul could be saved.

Red Flag #2: He did not enter Congo with the blessing of a mission organization. In fact, the mission board rejected his request repeatedly but finally relented to give him a one year post. Thus he had little to no training or accountability. Later in the story, when Congo gained its independence from Belgium, Nathan Price and his family were told directly to leave. Yet Nathan refused and also would not allow his family to leave. As a result, he put their family and community at risk and became a burden to the very people that he was supposed to be serving. We have numerous missionary friends who have had to leave their homes very suddenly, and it is always exceptionally difficult. However, they realized that it is important for an outside source to be able to make that call, especially when children are involved.[2] Accountability, prayer, and support are so important in the work that we do. One of the things we love about our life in Tanzania is that we have multiple layers of accountability and support. We have individuals from eighteen different churches who pray for us and to whom we regularly report via newsletters and visits during furlough. A member of the Global Lutheran Outreach staff comes out to visit us at least once a year and guides us through reflection activities meant to assess our physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health. What is especially unique to our situation, however, is that our primary accountability is to our Tanzanian colleagues.  We work directly for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT); our permits list the ELCT as our employer. This is not always possible in countries with less established churches, but I do think that following the advice of mentors and leaders in one’s host culture is critically important. At school we listen to and act on the priorities of our headmaster, Rev. Nzelu. In regards to community development projects, we listen to the priorities of Bishop Makala and never initiate a project without his blessing. Nathan Price listened to no one—not the mission organization, not the local leaders, not his family.

Red Flag #3: Nathan Price believed in the Apocrypha. For those unfamiliar, the Apocrypha is a collection of writings that have unknown origins and are not generally considered part of Jewish or Christian scriptures.  Sometimes they are included in Jewish scripture or Christian Bibles as interesting and potentially useful texts, but not of the same caliber as other scriptures. Often the Apocrypha is in direct contradiction to texts that have evidence of being written by eye-witnesses and early disciples of Jesus. In the early days of the Christian church, leaders had to determine what would be part of the Christian canon (Bible) and apocryphal texts were considered but rejected. And yet, Nathan Price decided that they are of equal value to other texts in the Bible. It becomes hard to establish any kind of theological common ground if you can’t even agree on which texts should be considered.

Nathan Price also claimed certain phrases that sound like they might have come from the Bible, but absolutely didn’t. For example, “The Lord helps those who help themselves” is nowhere in the Bible and is actually against the very concept of grace. God helps all people, especially those who realize that they cannot of their own power help themselves. Likewise, “You have nothing to fear but fear” cannot be found in the Bible. Fear can be perfectly reasonable and a gift of protection or fear can be a prison. The Bible does say that perfect love drives out fear.[3] Unfortunately, Nathan Price only knew fear, the fear of God’s wrath. He never knew God’s love and was never able to extend love to others.

Red Flag #4:  Nathan Price was full of –isms. Racism. Ableism. Sexism.  He left the U.S. at the height of segregation and entered Belgium Congo at the height of colonialism. He had been taught that Africans were a cursed people, a curse which dated back all the way to the time of Noah’s son Ham. Because of this, Nathan only ever saw himself as the teacher and superior of the people in the village of Kilanga and never as their student and servant. Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians today have realized that the concept of “the curse of Ham” is incredibly inaccurate and damaging. I highly recommend the DVD series “Africa and the Bible: The Earliest Roots of the Faith” with Wintley Phipps. It shows how isolated Scripture passages have been used to justify racial oppression and explores the unique and meaningful role of the African continent in the Bible and in the early church. Admittedly, American churches and society generally still have a long way to go before all people are treated as equally loved and valued by God. However, I am glad that the church has generally denounced any “Biblical” reasons for racism.

Likewise, Nathan Price looked down on people with disabilities, which included a large number of people in the community given how hard their work was on their bodies. His own daughter, Ada, who was differently abled from birth, felt that she was valued less than others and actually found comfort from living in a community that did not look down on her for her limp. Nathan could not see Ada’s unique gifts and all that she could have taught him.

Nathan Price also looked down upon women. Instead of encouraging and nourishing the gifts God gave to women in his life, he saw the education of women as “a waste.” I was taught that men and women were both made in the image of God and are partners in life and in ministry. To this day, churches that cannot see this truth frustrate me. Again, this could be a post in and of itself. In fact there are many, many books written about how women are integral to the Bible and to Christian theology generally, so for now I will just say that had Nathan Price treated his wife as his equal and listened to her, much if not all of the tragedy in their lives could have been prevented.

Red Flag #5: Nathan Price believed he was only there to the change those around him, not to be changed himself. I was taught that if you don’t come back a different person than when you left, something has gone terribly wrong. The culture and people around you should change you as you learn from them. He believed he was only there to teach instead of approaching as a learner first and foremost. I was taught to find teachers and mentors as soon as you can when you arrive in a new country. One of my favorite definitions of humility is being teachable, and Nathan lacked any ounce of humility. If he had opened himself to learning, someone might have told him that with his mispronunciation instead of saying “Jesus is glorious” at the end of every service, he said “Jesus is poisonwood.” We were taught to learn to laugh at ourselves, but Nathan never learned to laugh at his mistakes or even admit he might make some. He also believed he had all the answers instead of acknowledging that there are some things for which we just don’t have answers and won’t this side of heaven. This book touches many huge questions that Christians have been wrestling with and writing about for centuries. How can a good God allow such suffering? Does God cause the pain?  I can’t fully answer that question, and though many have tried and there are some profound answers out there, I don’t thinking anyone can answer the question fully. What I do know is that much pain is caused by humans, not God. I know that God can use pain and suffering and can bring healing and resurrection, if we allow him to. I am skeptical of people and churches who believe they have all the answers, because if they do, where does faith come into play? Faith in and of itself means that we rely on something or someone that we do not fully understand. It means taking a leap without fully knowing what lies beyond. It means trust. While I definitely would love answers and have at times angrily told God as much, I am also glad that we have a God bigger than our comprehension. How sad it would be to have a God that was only as big as our mental capacity.

Based on these factors alone, Nathan Price never should have been allowed to pastor anyone, much less a community completely foreign to him. In my next blog I’ll further explore some of the theological concepts that he warped and used for evil. Stay tuned…

[1] As a side note, in churches it can be the opposite extreme—people putting you on some kind of spiritual pedestal. That can also feel like heavy baggage, but that is probably a different post for a different day.
[2] We were taught that when children are involved, missionary parents have to be especially aware of their children’s needs. Obviously there is always a period of adjustment for kids who move to a new country, so that needs to be taken into consideration. However we were also taught that you “never sacrifice your children on the altar of mission,” meaning that there are many ways to serve God. If serving in your living situation is jeopardizing your children’s long-term well-being, it is probably time to find another way to serve God. That being said, tragedy can strike in any land, even to the most discerning parents. My own great-grandparents suffered the death of a child when they were serving in China.
[3] 1 John 4:18

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