“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ “ 1 Corinthians 12:21
Last evening the news was full of the vulgar comment made by the U.S. President about certain countries and the entire continent of Africa. The comment was made during a meeting with senators regarding U.S. immigration policy.
The BBC World Service interviewed a person who defended the comment saying that he voted for the president because he didn’t “sugarcoat” comments, and that he and his friends often spoke of African countries with similar derogatory language. He stated that the African continent wasn’t “very stable” and due to that he didn’t approve of people immigrating to the United States from African countries.
This man did not discuss his faith, but the president has identified himself as a Christian. Christians have an obligation to value all God’s children as part of the body of Christ. We are not to treat them with less honor or dignity for any reason. We are to remember that we are all part of the body of Christ, and if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it.
The Complexity of Mission
I have spent many years going on short-term mission trips and studying mission. The history of mission is complex, as is the growth and expansion of Christianity. While on a mission trip outside the U.S., I am always acutely aware of how I am a guest of the people I go to serve, and how my humanity is bound up with theirs. When I come back home, I’m left with the problem of how it is that the place where I live has more than enough – enough food, enough clothes, enough shoes, enough housing for everyone – and yet not everyone has access to those things. And this complexity is in stark contrast to the situation of the people and place I’ve just left. It is never easy. There are no easy answers when examining the disparities of our world.
Part of our current global economic situation is due to colonialism and the ways in which international financial aid maintains inequality rather than eradicating it. The missionary movement took advantage of colonialism and global trade routes. This meant that missionaries were sometimes complicit in colonial mindsets and abuses, but quite often missionaries were active in standing with people against oppression and injustice. The history of missionaries who lifted up indigenous leaders, who immersed themselves in new languages for the sake of being able to translate scripture, who worked to establish clinics and schools so that the people they served could be healed and educated – and then those people could teach and serve as doctors and nurses – the history of these missionaries is often forgotten because the work they did was for others, lifted up others. The work they did lived out the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 – that the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.
As Christians engaged in mission today, and as citizens of a nation of economic wealth and privilege, we have a responsibility and a calling to live into 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. We must live out what it means to honor the whole body of Christ, and we must witness with both our words and our actions. When we hear other Christians speak disparagingly or condescendingly about people, we must speak up to say – they are valued, honored and respected. Grace is found when we honor each other.
Ubuntu and the Body of Christ
The work of short-term mission doesn’t always allow time for developing deep relationships with Christians in other countries. However, we can plan our trips carefully, making time for worshiping together, honoring our hosts by giving them the authority to set the agenda for the work, and by learning their language before we go. When churches welcome U.S. teams to come and work on a project, they are saying “we honor you as part of the body of Christ” to us.
The Kenyan theologian John Mbiti describes the concept of “ubuntu” in this way: Because we are, I am. Ubuntu is a fundamental concept of community. My humanity is bound up in your humanity. We need each other. I cannot say that I have no need of you. The fact that we are part of the body of Christ together defines my humanity – I cannot flourish unless you do as well. If you suffer, so do I. Our Christianity requires that we never forget we need each other.
Regardless of your view on immigration policy, if you have participated in short-term mission and you hear other Christians speak disparagingly of countries where you’ve been, be courageous and speak out. The work of mission does not end when we come home. The work of mission calls us to live with ubuntu in mind, to remember always God’s call to honor and respect the diversity of the body of Christ.