Decolonizing relief: A biblical approach

by Michelle Armster

The pandemic has forced Western-based international agencies and ministries to take a deep look into the mirror. Unable to travel, unable to rely on normal methods of aid delivery, they became more dependent on local people to carry their work forward. Revealed in the mirror is the captivity of humanitarianism and Christian mission to a “donor-recipient” model with roots in colonial history. A biblical lens can help us see how to redeem that flawed model.

A photo of Michelle Armster. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Armster)

Let’s start with working “in the name of Christ” (part of my organization’s tag line). Those words come from Jesus’ “Great Commission” (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Mt. 28:19). Yet this very passage was abused and transformed by powerful European Christian institutions into a kind of righteous doctrine of justification to seize land, subordinate, and enslave. As Pope Nicholas V wrote in 1455, claiming a kind of spiritual lordship over lands in the “new world,” the mission was to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue … enemies of Christ … and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery … to their use and profit… (Bull Romanus).”

What we now call the “Doctrine of Discovery” as continuing trajectory, infecting our assumptions about people of other ethnic groups and nations, about who is “helper” and who is “helped,” who has power to make decisions and who does not. When we say “in the name of Christ,” we must learn to ask, “Whose Christ?” What ministry and agency approaches quietly protect the assumptions of that Doctrine of Discovery?

Second, a biblical lens helps us see reforms needed in the work of relief and development. Relief is the faithful response to Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:34-40). Relief responds to immediate crises of food, water, and housing, and the pandemic opened our eyes to see better approaches to this.

In Lebanon, when the Beirut explosion destroyed large parts of the city in August 2020, MCC saw that while international NGOs (including MCC) faced many restrictions from governments, our local partners were much more effective and innovative in identifying problems and solutions because of local relationships on the ground. This pandemic time is an opportunity for NGOs to make lasting structural changes that reflect trust in and give power over to the better knowledge of local communities.

Maya El Jundi, MCC project coordinator for the European Union peacebuilding project, helps to clean up the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayze with MCC partner Development of People and Nature Association (DPNA). MCC is working with its partners that have requested assistance to meet a variety of needs, including cleanup and rehabilitation. (MCC photo/Farah Al Moussawi, 2020)

If relief responds to “what is needed now?” development responds to “why did this happen?” If relief is about helping people cross flooding rivers, development is about both building bridges and looking upstream to stop the sources of flooding. To do these things, both government and the agency of local people matter. We can look to the story of Nehemiah for guidance (Nehemiah 1:1-7:73). As cupbearer to the king of Persia, learning that Jerusalem’s walls were torn down, Nehemiah used his proximity to power to gain access to resources on behalf of his Hebrew people. He saw that his people suffered from both external and internal oppression, so he called the rich on their abuse and organized the people to articulate the solution to their challenge, honouring their cultural, religious, and problem-solving approaches.

How does this speak to reforming mission and agency structures in relationship to political power, addressing social patterns of abuse, and investing in local communities and their quest for hope?

Finally, in working for peace, what do we mean by peace? The Western concept of peace as security and stability is not the same as the biblical understanding. Does our version of peace protect the status quo of haves and have nots? Or does it lead to people at the margins imagining a new reality that disturbs the way things are? Does our peace provide security and stability to those who are comfortable and in control? Or is it a peace that transforms both abusers and abused?

Loreto Primary School teachers (wearing white shirts) take the primary school students through peaceful play activities at the school compound in Rumbek, South Sudan. in 2019. Through the Loreto peace club project, MCC supported the training of teachers in peaceful play. Peaceful play is an approach that embraces peacebuilding in everyday learning and problem solving through play especially among children and agrees with the notion that learning among children happens with active play. (Photo courtesy of Loreto Schools)

Biblical peace is costly, courageous, and changes the structures of how things are normally done. In Genesis, Joseph’s reconciliation with his family includes them acknowledging their wrong and repenting (45:1-15). And it includes Joseph forgiving and relieving them of their burden of guilt. In Exodus, the Egyptian Pharoah, threatened by the rising numbers of Hebrews, ordered the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill baby boys (1:15-21). In her book Womanist Midrash, biblical scholar Wilda Gafney retells the story of the creative resistance of these two midwives, who quietly organize a group of women and tell them: “This is what we shall do: deliver the babies; hide as many of the boys as you can… Do not worry about the Egyptians; they will not come house to house to check on women! They cannot imagine that we would defy the pharaoh whom they revere as a living God.” And the women continued to bring life. Acts of resistance are critical to the work of peace.

The pandemic has been like an X-ray, exposing problems in the Western “sending and giving” model which dominates international development and Christian mission. Post-pandemic, it is time for a new chapter of creating new models of sharing and receiving.

Michelle Armster has worked with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for close to 20 years and has served as the executive director for MCC Central States since 2013. Her work has focused on conflict transformation and restorative justice, with her serving as a mediator, facilitator and teacher. Michelle lives in Wichita, Kansas. In 2021 Mennonite Church USA honoured her with its first #BringthePeace award.

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This article was originally circulated as part of MCC’s bi-monthly newsletter – UN Office Global Briefing. You can sign up for this newsletter here.

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