In the aftermath of 9/11, I worked with a group of concerned citizens in Seattle to create Pangea, a nonprofit that supports nonreligious community-building projects in East Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Since 2003, it has awarded $1.5 million in grants.
I’ve found an interesting parallel between the culture clash we had in trying to do good in the developing world and that between Christianity and reality.
Not all projects go as planned
When trying to improve living conditions in the developing world, one quickly hears cautionary tales where well-intentioned efforts didn’t turn out well. Here’s one: some years ago, a high-tech executive who had been raised in Zimbabwe wanted to go back to help a community there. As a worthwhile project, he picked a busy dirt road that needed much improvement, but things were not as simple as they seemed. Simply giving money to the local department of transportation wasn’t enough. Palms had to be greased. After trying every avenue, there seemed to be no way to avoid paying extra for the bureaucrats to permit the work to happen.
Instead of working through the system, the frustrated philanthropist simply paid to have a road grader do the work. The work crew showed up on the assigned day, but so did one of the bureaucrats who had been bypassed, backed by armed soldiers.
The road work never happened.
Pangea and culture clashes
With Pangea, we had similar clashes between our approach and the local approach. In some societies, a person who is better off is culturally obliged to help friends and family who have less, and sometimes the local accountants feel obliged to help out the less fortunate with Pangea money. Helping the less fortunate was the goal of the project, of course, but we had a specific project to complete, and bleeding off money threatened its success.
This wasn’t like the Zimbabwe problem—I don’t remember anyone embezzling money or taking bribes—but the bigger issue was that as a 501(c)3, Pangea had an obligation to the IRS to see that the money was distributed as promised.
It’s important to understand local customs, and the last thing we wanted to be was the rich, know-it-all Westerners who would come in and remake the local environment in the correct, Western way. Indeed, the opposite was true, and we learned a lot. The projects were always initiated, planned, and run by local people. But the constraints on the money were nonnegotiable. We had made a promise to the IRS—a reasonable constraint in return for tax-free donations, which we were happy to enforce. Sorry—on money issues, these Western constraints must win out. If you’re a local organization that doesn’t like that constraint, that’s fine, but don’t apply for a grant from us.
Application to Christianity
This example made me think of two parallels with Christianity. First, when you’re a church that benefits from tax-free donations, you’ve made an agreement with the IRS. Stick to it. As the Good Book says, “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no” (James 5:12).
Pulpit Freedom Sunday is one ridiculous example of civil disobedience where Christian preachers demand yet more concessions from American society. They are delighted by tax-free money, but they don’t like the prohibition against recommending one political candidate over another that comes with it. If accepting a deal with the IRS is a pact with the devil, then don’t enter into the pact.
The second parallel is with local NGOs thinking that they can do things their own way, ignoring the contract they made with Pangea. Similarly, Christians sometimes want to come to conclusions their own special way, rather than using science, history, evidence, reason, and so on.
Reason is the way we find things. Understanding things by imagining communication from the Holy Spirit might be a venerable way to learn things in your religion, but don’t imagine that it works in the real world. You can imagine your own source of knowing, but reality trumps that.
“What do Churches Have to Hide?”
Not cool: “You can’t do that because of my religion.”
— seen on the internet
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/19/15.)
Image credit: Bob Seidensticker