A reflection on violence, poverty, fear, and Christian missions

Our response to violence and fear says a lot about us as individuals, as a society, and as people of faith. A lot has happened in the last few weeks. But a lot has been happening around the world and continues to happen under the radar that we don’t give a flip about.

It’s not our fault necessarily that we aren’t aware of every massacre that takes place across the world. To be honest, I know I couldn’t emotionally handle being aware of that much evil anyway. It is important to mourn when there is a catastrophe. It is important to put ourselves in solidarity with victims. It is quite curious to see which tragedies get headlines and which don’t. I certainly don’t want to add to the voices of people who think they can tell everyone which events we should be in mourning over. We all react differently. The taking of innocent life is horrific in any situation.

I try to be a relatively positive person so the purpose of this post isn’t to launch you into the depths of despair… but every now and then we need a little reality check.

Some recent world events and two great books I’ve been reading by Gary A. Haugen about the links between violence and poverty (The Locust Effect, Good News About Injustice) have prompted this reflection.

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I’m not an expert on economics or legal issues or theology. There are so many more experienced and more well-spoken people who could contribute to this discussion than me. …but well, I have a blog and I like to share my amateur opinion. 😉

I said yes to being a missionary as a child. I began that journey through short-term missions as a teenager. I admit that it started out as a largely glamorous and vaguely adventurous dream. When you travel in a secure group and stay in gated hotels and only spend a couple weeks a year in the country and don’t speak the language very well it is easy to carry out a very blissful existence more or less unaware of severe issues. Once you get a taste of the daily grit and grind, it gets way more complicated.

But I thank God that I felt Him nudge me toward missions and that I said yes in my naivety. I’m glad I committed before I knew what the heck I was getting myself into. It is a commitment that I plan to keep, even after I have since come to the realization that saying yes to sharing God’s love with hurting people means putting myself in the middle of suffering and probably coming face to face with violence. It is so messy, guys. We are all born with a natural inclination toward self-preservation. It isn’t wrong to be concerned with our own safety and that of our loved ones. But something in my heart whispers, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16:25)

I saw a FB post that said, “I should have known that following a man with pierced hands and feet wouldn’t be safe.” Ditto.

I’m either in this thing 100% or not at all.

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The violence is out of hand. And not just because a group of religious radicals decided to cause horrific terror and send a twisted message to the rest of the world a couple weeks ago.

This tragic event has made me think a lot about violence, and victims of violence, and poverty, and the refugees make me think about how people have been coming for centuries to this country in search of safety and freedom. Because insecurity and oppression is a daily part of so many people’s lives in the majority world, y’all. Like, millions of people live in extreme poverty — REAL POVERTY — not oh poor things they can’t buy new shoes. I’m talking poverty of every kind of resource that you and I enjoy. No freedom to even have a fair chance in court when faced with false charges by the very people who oppressed you. Every odd stacked against you, no way out kind of poverty. The kind of vulnerability that causes psychological damage. In developing countries, money is power and those without it have no fighting chance.

“Violence significantly raises levels of depression, suicides, panic disorders, alcohol and substance abuse/dependence, and post-traumatic stress disorders -to a point that the poor endure a level of psychological damage comparable to living in a war zone. The locusts of violence do not simply destroy your financial prospects – they destroy your life.

This is perhaps the greatest catastrophe of all, for the greatest devastation of violence is invisible – it is the destruction of the person inside. For victims of slavery, forced prostitution, sexual assault, and other intensely violent forms of oppression, the psychological wounds of trauma are invisible; they receive almost no treatment in poor communities; and they do not simply heal with time.” – Gary A. Haugen

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I realize that we do not have a perfect justice system here in the U.S. And even though is it mostly fair, there are those who abuse their power. They should be held accountable. But I know that if I am done wrong I will find someone to advocate for me. I grew up with the worldview and expectations that if something is dealt unfairly to me I will get justice.

A lot of people around the globe simply do not have this luxury.

“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will only be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” – MLK Jr.

Helping individuals who are victims of oppression and violence is a difficult task in itself… but confronting systemic injustice?? That is daunting.

I have the Law and Order: SVU mentality of justice. Like, defend the victim, find the dang perpetrator, and bring him to justice. Get detectives Benson and Stabler on it. (Don’t get me wrong, I totally pray for a change of heart on behalf of the perpetrator. God has turned terrorists into evangelists so who am I to doubt?) And if nothing is being done, raise your voice! That is our right here in the U.S. We speak up when things aren’t just. We call authority into accountability. We believe that as members of this nation we have inherent rights and power.

This is not the case in the developing world.

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>> A friend from Guatemala told me bluntly that growing up in her small village there was a known policy that if a thief was ever caught that he would be publicly beaten by members of the community. Sometimes even kids would join in. This was their kind of “justice” and it was just a way of life. You had to take care of yourself because the government surely wasn’t going to defend the poor or powerless.

>> I remember being told by a friend in Honduras that he had just witnessed a murder. Infuriated (and quite naively) I asked, “Did you give a description of the shooter to the police??” It wasn’t until years later that I learned that many gangs and drug traffickers operate under complete impunity and/or in cooperation with “public safety” officials in Honduras. And many times the murderers or “hitmen” come back for any witnesses. Their message gets through loud and clear: Keep your mouth shut. Or else.

  • Which is why I was advised not to even publicly acknowledge when a dear, young former student of mine was found brutally murdered last year. I can’t describe the suffocating feeling of hopelessness that came over me knowing that justice would likely never come for his family. (Honduras doesn’t have enough forensic scientists in the country to even investigate half of the homicides that occur. Families of victims are left knowing that their loved ones’ murderers walk free.)

>> Just last week at my Spanish interpreting job I was chatting with a lady from Michoacán, Mexico. I asked if it was a nice place and if she ever wanted to go back. She casually said, “It used to be. The delinquency is too much now. Just recently I got news that some friends of mine were found decapitated. I won’t ever go back.”

I thank God that I have not personally experienced violence in my travels. But I hate to admit that I have let fear intimidate me to the point that I have questioned my calling.

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A couple years ago on a typical trip to Honduras I was traveling by bus with Natán and we had planned on catching a taxi once we arrived at the bus terminal. As we got closer and closer to the terminal and the bus was swerving faster and faster along the twisting mountainous roads my breathing starting getting faster and more shallow. This had been an especially difficult trip because just a week earlier while I was still in the states I got news that an acquaintance from the church in Honduras had been gunned down and killed while in his car coming home from work during rush hour one evening. I was distraught. I’d never had to deal with news like this before (unlike many of my friends in Honduras who have had to face similar difficult situations) Once we got to the terminal I could barely speak and starting freaking out when Natán tried to help me into the taxi. It was the closest I have come to having a panic attack. I refused to get in the taxi. I was so irrationally fearful. We had to call a friend to come pick us up.

I just pray, God, don’t let me give in to fear.

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Author and founder of IJM, Gary Haugen, explains that most violence is hard for outsiders to see for three important reasons. 1. The perpetrator works really hard to hide it. 2. Paradoxically, the victims might even hide it due to the intensely sensitive and traumatic nature. (This means that when you are on a short-term mission trip, it is very likely that many you come in contact with are victims of horrific oppression and violence and they wouldn’t even consider letting you know it. You think their greatest problem is that they only have 2 tortillas to feed their entire family but you don’t see the underlying issues.) 3. “Finally, for many poor people, the threat of violence has become such a part of the air they breathe that they rarely speak of it as a distinct phenomenon. They simply absorb it.” (I will note that it doesn’t specifically apply to the “poor” but anyone who has grown up in a society where violence is the norm)

That last point for me has probably been the most shocking realization that I’ve had during my time spent in Honduras. I have found myself on many occasions getting outraged by some act of violence I heard about while those around me seem to be unaffected. My questions of, “What can we do??” have been met with blank stares and shrugs of shoulders.

The simple fact that I even have a choice as to whether I use my voice to raise awareness about violence or stay silent shows one of the great disparities between my life and those of the majority world.

God’s desire is to defend the powerless and to bring reconciliation of all creation to Himself. If He weren’t the one with the master plan it would be a hopeless situation. I am thankful that He invites me into the larger redemption story and that neither my courage nor my intelligence determines the outcome. What he wants is obedience and willingness. In my weakness, He is strong.

photoHere I am, Lord, send me.

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