July 6, 2015 / Praxis
A college intern interviews torture survivors for the United Nations in a refugee camp and finds herself struggling with secondary trauma.
August 8, 2005
We huddled around a solitary candle, the only source of light in the dingy room. Betty, our hostess, knelt on the floor while we all sat on make-shift stools and chairs. Her children’s voices could be heard from the street and front yard as they played in the dying evening light, clearly remaining outdoors to respect and honor the Mizungu (white) visitors. Betty’s kind eyes met each of ours, nodding as she handed us an abundant plate of steaming rice, cassava, and buffalo meat. Each bite a morsel of extravagance, we savored the food and company, aware of its significance and cost. Midway through the meal Betty’s son, Aaron, quietly interrupted our conversation to administer Betty her medications. Obviously part of daily routine, Betty did not even pause in her conversing and serving as Aaron portioned out her pills and handed her a glass of water. These prescription drugs sustain Betty’s health, warding off the extreme illness that AIDS threatened to bestow.
Toward the end of our dinner, Betty passed around a photograph of her 15-year-old daughter who died of AIDS just the month prior to our arrival. She offered a weak smile as she spoke of the strain of this difficult Ugandan life. Prior to her daughter’s untimely death, she boasted eight biological children. Beyond solely caring for her own brood, she also took in her deceased brothers’ children and widowed spouses, creating the need for this family of thirteen to share the meager, single-room home. She narrated her day-to-day activities: from teaching other women with AIDS the art of cooking chapatti, to visiting the family’s social worker who assists her in planning the future living arrangements for her sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews after her impeding death. Yet, as she spoke of these seemingly unbearable realities, her face glowed with contentment, peace, joy, and happiness. She knew something of life that I have somehow been “deprived.”
We carried a heaviness home with us that night – debriefing the day’s happenings of visiting refugee camps and attending a play therapy group for formerly abducted child soldiers. Betty’s tender voice and kind eyes continued to flash through my mind, swirling with all the other tragedies, atrocities, and horrors that had been relayed or experienced during my short time in this epicenter of human suffering. I wept, and felt more desperation than the relief I thought these tears might offer. “Please, please let the Gospel be true,” my prayer.
Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Is He the same Jesus for Betty and the other Northern Ugandans pleading for peace and healing in their ravaged land of war and disease as He is for me, an independent, financially secure, educated woman from one of the wealthiest cities on the globe? In this postmodern world of globalization, we comprehend Him differently than we did just a few decades ago. The Jesus we understood in the age of modernism was one of absolute, objective truth, one that could be digested and beheld through rationalism and logic. He was often a universal formula, one sadly having only White, upper middle-class characteristics. He could be applied to each person of any culture or background by one of the tried-and-true methods of the Romans Road, Four Spiritual Laws, or Sinner’s Prayer. But, in the now prevalent mindset of tolerance and pluralism, the benign, all-inclusive, and safe Jesus can be the vitamin supplement added to any belief or religion. On either spectrum, we risk losing His fullness.
What if, instead, we appreciate how postmodernism and globalization offer something to our impression of Christ? Postmodernism reminds us to hear and learn Truth through the voices of others, and only through these dialogues and meetings can we learn the complexity and magnificence of the God we serve. Once we move past the threat of these other voices deconstructing our digestible Jesus, we can marvel at the richness and mystery inter-subjectivity allows us to discover. Meanwhile, globalization, though frightening in the manner by which we, the “Great World Power,” could obliterate diversity, also opens the door to shaking hands with our Third World neighbors, appreciating their unique views and adopting their cultural practices. Instead of the isolated world where we once existed – when the only Jesus available was the one we modeled after our own Western image – this emerging “one global village” offers new possibilities for how we can partake in the Trinity.
An Indian theologian wrote, “Christian mission is about the boundary crossing activity of Christians or the Church who themselves follow the example of God who crossed the boundary between God and the world in and through Jesus Christ.” This boundary crossing can be understood literally, for geography (mountains, oceans, and harsh landscapes) no longer creates the limitations it once did, exampled even within my own family, where three of the six of us traveled to Tibet, Thailand, Kenya, and Uganda this year alone. The ease of communication because of the World Wide Web, cellular phones, video, and other technology shortened the distance between continents.
Border crossing also indicates a shifting philosophical and theological position. For though we (the First World) may be outgrowing even our postmodernism, our brothers and sisters “stuck” in premodernism (the Third World), clamoring to catch up, possess something we lack. Granted, I wish upon no one the kind of suffering and hardship that my friend Betty lives with day-to-day, but, I hunger for the Jesus she worships. Ironically, immense tragedy seems to couple with great joy and celebration. In such extremes life appears in Technicolor rather than the drab and drear tones so familiar here in the comforts of the United States. In Technicolor, the Gospel takes on deeper meaning.
In a recent interview, U2’s Bono, now known as the spokesman for the fight against AIDS and eradication of African poverty, spoke to the American Church. “When polled, American evangelicals in 2000, only 6 percent felt it incumbent to respond to the AIDS emergency. That’s outrageous. We went to work with them. I met with every evangelical church I could. I talked them through the Scriptures. I talked to them about leprosy. I talked to them about Christ and his mission to reach the people who were supposedly the untouchables of their age.” From the voice of this “other,” one we formerly deemed “outside” the fold, prophetic and priestly reminders materialize. Bono points back to the Jesus of 2000 years ago, the God-Man who physically healed and embraced the broken and sick. Bono begs us to turn and see the Jesus of today. Jesus asks us to join in solidarity those in need. But all the while, those in poverty, sickness, and war are also those who teach us His face, touch, and heart – for theirs is the Kingdom.
The Acholi, Betty’s tribal people, provided me a lens into the Jesus that is not new, but perhaps the Jesus we in our comfortable and more privileged lives have become somewhat estranged, unfamiliar, or forgotten. The Jesus in the dirt and grime of poverty, the Jesus in the midst of political unrest, the Jesus battling in not-so-subtle manners real evil, was the one I encountered as I learned the Acholi hardships and victories. Steeped in this gritty reality, Jesus felt less like an ideal or philosophy and more like the Answer and Hope. My desperate prayer that night felt resolved over the coming days as I participated in tribal dancing and singing, but also as I grieved with Betty and others over their threatening conditions. The prayer evolved from one of desperately wanting the Gospel to be true for them to desperately wanting it to be as real, tangible, and life-altering for me.
Hall, Douglas John. Confessing the Faith. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991.
Papathanasiou, Athansios. “Anchored in the future: globalization and church consciousness: an orthodox perspective,” The Ecumenical Review 56 (April 2004): 226-233.
Selvin, John. “U2’s Bono makes fiery case for rocking the world with ambitious mission to eradicate global misery,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2005.
Wilson, H. S. “Globalization for Global Community: A Challenge to Ministerial Formation,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30 (June 2003).
Yang, Guen-Seok. “Globalization and Christian Responses,” Theology Today 62 (2005): 38-48.