by Byron Rempel-Burkholder
Peter and John have something to say even to Africa’s tangled economic, social, and spiritual problems.
I never thought the miracles in Acts would show me how to apply the gospel to Zaire’s social and economic problems, but there I was, staring at Acts 3, almost convinced that 20th-century Africa must have been dominating Luke’s Spirit-led subconscious as he wrote. Luke, I imagined, wanted to say something about how to bring true healing to people suffering from poverty, inferiority complexes, and social and spiritual lameness. He wanted to teach the importance of building relationships and of rejecting easy material solutions.
Peter and John, fresh from their afternoon prayers, encountered a lame beggar. What struck me in Luke’s story about his healing is how he emphasized the eye contact between the apostles and the beggar. He described the four visual encounters with different words. What was the point of Luke’s noting Peter’s intent look at the beggar and his command to the beggar to turn back his averted eyes (Acts 3:3-5)?
Luke seems to suggest that the beggar’s deepest problem is spiritual and psychological. He could not look Peter and John in the eye because he suffered from a crippling inferiority complex, and felt powerless to change his life. This is why I was sure Luke was talking about Zaire. We who work among the poor can easily recognize in the beggar not only personal inferiority, but also the collective inferiority that reduces groups and even nations to hopelessness and dependence.
The question is, How can we as God’s apostles be healers of the lameness of inferiority? How can we add to the proclamation of the gospel in Acts 2 the psychological healing of Acts 3?
When I first came to Zaire I was struck by the expressions of self-denigration. When I asked people, "How are you?" they would often respond, "Not any better than you." The implication was that I, the white person, was automatically endowed with health and material comfort, of which they were deprived.
"You always do it better in Canada," people would say of things technical and cultural. Their voices sounded a note of longing that by some magic they could be transported out of their situation of want into our world of plenty. Every student in this country dreams of a scholarship abroad.
African intellectuals used to abound in optimism that after colonialism Africa would catch up to the West. Many looked to Marxism to bring solutions. Now, many intellectuals are in exile and Marxism has lost credibility. Rich Africans, few as there are, invest in Europe because they’ve lost confidence in their own economies.
Africa is becoming less independent than ever. It is less able to feed its own people, and famine persists. International financing agencies, governments, and relief organizations are growing weary of seeing their aid produce corruption and meager results.
In sum, Africans are painfully aware of the Western image of their continent as "the number one international welfare problem Eyes that used to look up are now diverted in shame. Western missionaries will continue to be looked at as providers and care-givers. People will continue to ask us, with perhaps decreasing hope and expectation, what one youth leader in Zaire asked me, "Mr. Byron, what will you be doing for us?"
How can we become modern Peters and Johns in Africa and other regions plagued by crippling self-perceptions of inferiority? Before contemplating an answer, we need to admit that we and our forebears are in some ways implicated in some of the causes of the lameness we are trying to heal. Without going into detail, we must at least acknowledge some of our past mistakes: (1) the perpetuation of a philosophy, sometimes defended by Scripture, that blacks are inferior by nature; (2) our emphasis on personal salvation and the lack of a vision for social betterment; (3) the establishment of institutions that would have to remain dependent on outside funding and expertise, thus discouraging the development of grassroots institutions. When we come to Africa as Christian workers, it must be with much humility.
Now, what can we learn from what Peter and John did to make the beggar leap and shout praise to God? I see three stages in the miracle: (1) a personal engagement; (2) a rejection of overconfidence in material solutions; and (3) the offer of Christ himself as the healer.
THE PERSONAL ENCOUNTER
If the beggar’s aversion of his eyes was symptomatic of his true disease- his inferiority complex-then Peter and John’s establishment of eye contact was the first step toward his healing. Eye contact is important for establishing trust and confidence. You cannot truly know someone over the phone; lovers don’t talk back-to-back. Something happens when your eyes connect: Communication flows and love is possible.
Peter and John were not interested in arm’s-length service that is content to hand out a tract, to "reach" as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. They faced the problem head on. They had to talk with the beggar.
So I asked myself about how I meet the people I’m trying to help. Am I eager to get on with the business of "ministry" without first knowing the people? What does eye contact mean for North Americans working in Africa? Let me apply these thoughts to some specific missionary situations.
1. Language study. Do we and our boards appreciate the importance of being able to speak the language of the people we are trying to heal? It is with some sadness that I see some of my colleagues floundering and quitting early because they, or their board, did not allow enough time and budget to learn the language.
2. Long term and short term. The craze of the last couple of decades has been short-term missionary service. But how real has been the encounter, especially considering the linguistic and cultural barriers to be crossed? How much healing takes place? Is the sending of short-term workers a matter of filling our North American needs to have such experiences, rather than God’s interest in establishing the church in the long term?
3. Living arrangements. One of the things for which my Zairian colleagues sometimes reproach the proverbial missionary of the past is the arm’s-length practice of establishing mission stations, usually a mile or two from any village or town. Missionaries would admit the "natives" into their houses only for life and death matters.
Today the "station" mentality is on its way out, but the sociological separation of missionaries and Africans still hinders ministry. Jon Bonk goes so far as to say, "Since the Christian faith is above all a relational faith, it is not only sad, but sinful, when personal possessions and privileges prevent, distort, or destroy the relationships of Christ’s followers with the poor. But this appears to be an almost inevitable consequence of personal affluence.
Relationships must gain priority. Too often we use our accomplishments and the fulfillment of a job description as the gauges of success. Even though we may achieve success on our terms, we don’t always get to know the people we serve. Peter Bachelor quotes this advice given to a Western development worker: "When you leave Africa you won’t be remembered for what you achieved, but for how you fitted in
REJECTION OF THE MATERIAL SOLUTION
The first thing Peter did was to dispense with the usual, expected solution: "Silver or gold I do not have," he said. This strikes me as odd, given the fact that the Christians had pooled their money and goods, having sold their possessions, fields, and houses. Surely the apostles had enough to perform their alms-giving duty.
Regardless of that, Peter made his point: Money is not the solution to every problem. The beggar needed something much more than the immediate filling of his stomach.
What does Peter’s response say to us? Coming from a culture that has idolized money, we often act as if money-and the technology it can buy-are the key elements to the success of our project or ministry. Ironically, we have thus taught the "lame people" we work with that if only they had more money, their problems would be solved.
When I came to Zaire, it was not too long before I was overwhelmed with requests for things: Could I find some sponsors for the purchase of instruments for a band? Could I help them buy pictures for Sunday schools and sports equipment for youth groups? If only I could exert some influence on the mission board to increase its subsidies to Christian education ministries. Naturally, these requests pulled at me, because the needs seemed obvious and bringing out the requested aid seemed like an obvious solution.
At the same time, as a new missionary I felt I needed time to sort through priorities, if I were to become the source. I also doubted the effectiveness of material solutions and worried about creating dependencies. After all, massive international aid and development programs had not produced the desired results.
White elephants litter the African landscape-from factories rusting for lack of spare parts to agricultural cooperatives languishing in corrupt management. Most countries south of the Sahara now import more and more food as their own agricultural economies deteriorate. The lameness continues. Dreams of walking and dancing remain dead, and Africa remains without power to pick itself up.
Even so, churches and missions too often fall into the same trap, even in their evangelistic ministries. In Zaire, for example, foreign missions have spent a great deal of money on films, literature, and evangelistic campaigns. Thousands of people have professed faith in Christ, so that about nine out of 10 Zairians would say they are Christians.
But have we addressed Zaire’s lameness? Why does Zaire stick out as an example of an entire social and economic structure gone rotten with corruption? Why do so many Christians-including evangelicals-lead double lives, practicing Christianity most of the time, but reverting to paganism in crises? Zaire’s Christian leaders are concerned that the impact of Christian faith on ethics and values has not yet taken hold in their country.
My colleague Nzuzi taught me what it means not to rely on "silver or gold." When he became the coordinator for youth programs in Kinshasa, unlike many missionaries and church colleagues, he did not first set up a bureaucracy and a budget. In fact, for the first several months he did not touch the small subsidy the mission gave him for his department.
Instead, he first started a prayer group of key youth leaders, which became the core of a spiritual renewal among young adults in the church. This movement is not dependent on financial or organizational solutions from the outside. "In the work of the Lord," Nzuzi told me, "you have to begin with nothing."
Nzuzi’s advice and example squared with Peter’s declaration to the beggar that he had no silver or gold. This was a necessary prelude to healing. Even if we have money, we need, in effect, to strip ourselves of reliance on it for solutions.
CHRIST HIMSELF THE HEALER
When you "begin with nothing," you are forced to Jesus as the source for ministry. Peter had learned this less-son on the Mount of Transfiguration. His proposal to build shelters betrayed his love for institutions and material responses. Responding to Peter, God spoke from heaven and focused on the person of Christ, not the shelters.
All Peter brought to the lame beggar was the name (the authority) of Jesus Christ.
Jesus never relied on money or institutional religion. Instead, he filled the disciples with the Holy Spirit and knocked out their false securities. In the end, relying on money and material solutions brings only dependency and powerlessness. But Jesus brought healing. He empowered the beggar to know and serve God with joy.
This healing challenges our methods and emphases. We often tend to be shy about Jesus and to think it’s too simple to keep coming back to him. We build our institutional "shelters" for Jesus, instead of letting him work through us with transparency and simplicity. This healing demands that we exchange our fixations on material solutions and institutions for a commitment to share Jesus alone.
This is where I face the most difficulty. When I emphasize Jesus only, I seem to say that money and institutions are dispensable, but in practice they are not. Jesus and his team had a treasury supported by a group of well-to-do women. The disciples after Pentecost soon had to set up a committee to dispense aid to the widows.
But let’s not be too quick to duck the implications of this paradox. Perhaps we need to mull it over for awhile, and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us in fresh ways. We must allow him to pull us back to the stark tensions (and no easy answers) between the means of this world and the means of Christ’s miracles, even if this sounds like other-worldly idealism.
When we face this tension squarely in places like Zaire, perhaps God will give us a vision for total healing, not just almsgiving. We need to make stronger commitments to "eye contact" and building relationships. Having established such a base, we must not hesitate to go further utter the word of the Jesus only gospel, which gives healing to the lame, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
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