by Keith Bateman
Even noble ends at times may lure us into questionable, sub-Christian means.
Allen Francis Gardiner was a man with a mission. He wanted to win the Zulu of southern Africa to the Lord. So, in 1834, he concluded an agreement with a notoriously bloodthirsty Zulu king. In return for permission to establish a mission station in the king’s land, Gardiner agreed to return those Zulu who had previously escaped from the king.
Quickly he rounded up five fugitives, one of them a mother with her three small children. He took them back in handcuffs and they were promptly killed. In spite of their murders, Gardiner did not renounce his agreement with the king, but continued to look for fugitives. A group of them had fled to a neighboring king, who had to plead for mercy for them from a Christian missionary.
Gardiner was a good man with a noble objective, but he had lost his perspective. In his zeal to gain entrance to a country for commendable purposes, he had sold out and lost the cause he had been trying to win. Later on, he returned home defeated, having lost his mission station to the rampages of the king.
Although we may find this story hard to comprehend, it reminds us as missionaries and relief and development workers that even noble ends at times may lure us into questionable, sub-Christian means. Gardiner’s downfall should lead us to ask whether we should, in our zeal to gain entrance to some countries, make agreements or otherwise join hands with despotic regimes. Specifically, in supplying relief and providing development assistance, could we in fact be providing a means for a repressive government to continue in power and keep on oppressing perhaps millions of people?
Mission agencies are not the only ones facing questions like this. For example, Nick Everstadt, a visiting fellow at the Harvard University Center for Population Studies, notes: "The peoples of sub-Saharan Africa live under governments that, with few exceptions, may fairly be as lawless. The rights to private property, personal liberty, due process, and even to life itself, are routinely ignored or violated by the overwhelming majority of sub-Saharan states."
And yet, he goes on, Western governments and institutions continue to subsidize these governments. He concludes: "Western aid directly underwrites current policies and practices; indeed, it may actually make possible some of the more injurious policies which would be impossible to finance without external help. The public in the U.S. and other Western countries must face this awful reality honestly and squarely. The West is, at present, directly complicitous with Africa’s rulers in the results they inflict upon their subjects."
Whether or not we agree with his assessment, we should at least pause to look at the record. Let’s begin with Ethiopia and its brutal Marxist government. This regime has repeatedly been accused of doggedly pursuing a policy of forced relocation and starvation of masses of who are antagonistic to the government. It has been accused of using food as a weapon, forcing people to come to government feeding stations so they can be sorted out and often deported to labor camps.
A former Ethiopian commissioner for relief and rehabilitation (1983-85), who has since defected to the U.S., says: "Any measure is justified if taken in the name of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The prisons are full of victims of arbitrary arrest injustice by a regime that routinely resorts to torture. Thousands have disappeared or have been summarily executed without trial."
Tasgara Hirpo, a former Ethiopian church leader, reports that arbitrary arrests, torture, and kidnapping of Christians is common, while others indicate "the Marxist government has used extraordinary measures to eradicate the Christian faith from Ethiopia… most churches have been closed, hundreds of church leaders arrested, Christian worship banned in most towns…"
But the record also shows that many Christian organizations are assisting in Ethiopia, and many more are trying to get in, often under agreements that guarantee that projects will bring in large amounts of money and/or fees payable to the government.
Why are they there? It’s simple. They want to help because the needs are great. But aren’t they also assisting the government by providing what it should be giving to the people, but isn’t? The reason the government isn’t supplying food and other essentials is that it’s using its meager resources for weapons and other things to maintain its grip on power. As the former relief and rehabilitation commissioner said: "Unless the regime changes its policies, there will always be famine and starvation and millions more will die." He predicted that "without foreign aid, there would have been bloody chaos, ultimately leading to the removal of Col. Mengistu and the ruling elite."
Across the border from Ethiopia is Sudan, where the Marxist Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) has been waging a guerrilla war against the Islamic government in Khartoum. Last year, Christian organizations and charities, moved by horrendous needs attributed to the war, tried to work out agreements with the SPLA to help people in their areas.
Again, it was a noble thought. People were suffering, but other considerations came to mind: not only how the assistance might end up being used, but also the nature of the SPLA itself, which has strong links with the Ethiopian regime. SPLA fighters get their ideological training in Ethiopia. Ethiopia offers supplies, training, and bases to the SPLA. Conceivably, the SPLA could do to the churches in southern Sudan what the Marxists in Ethiopia did to the churches there. These issues should be carefully explored by relief organizations, lest they be perceived as giving at least tacit support to the SPLA.
Or, take the case of Nicaragua. The government has yet to prove that it is as concerned for human rights as it is in staying in power. Needs are critical and Christian organizations have been trying to help. But while the regime has been known to pose as Christian, Jimmy Hassan, former director of Campus Crusade for Christ in Nicaragua, has seen a different side. During one of his several arrests he was bluntly told by his captors: "The problem is that you preach to young people about Jesus Christ, and because of that they separate themselves from Marxism. And we will never permit that in Nicaragua."
Are we in danger of losing our perspective? The issue is clearly focused when you look at statements like these. Rony Brauman, of Doctors Without Borders, wrote that he was convinced that it is morally wrong for relief organizations to continue working in Ethiopia, due to the gross abuses of the assistance by the government. On the other hand, the leader of a large relief organization maintains that "God commands us to assist those in need, without stipulation."
His is a compelling argument. No one likes to see people suffer. But does compassion mean that our love must be unthinking, "without stipulation"? Is need always the bottom line?
The apostle Paul prayed that "your love may abound more and more in real knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent" (Phil. 1:9, 10). Matthew Henry comments: "It is not blind love that will commend us to God, but a love grounded upon knowledge and a settled judgment. Strong passions without knowledge and settled judgment will not make us complete in the will of God, and sometimes do more hurt than good."
The Scriptures command us to feed the hungry, but they also command us to "loosen the bonds of wickedness… to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke." Can we do this with CARE packages to brutal regimes?
Jesus told us to give to those who ask, but would "approving the things that are excellent" include giving a gun to a felon, or a glass of beer to a drunk driver?
Jesus helped many who were in need, but he chose not to help everyone and often stipulated that faith was an essential ingredient in the process. The Syrophoenician woman had to argue with him for his help. Why? Perhaps because Jesus had some stipulations attached to his giving.
Jesus kept his perspective on human needs. If mission relief agencies, faced with not only a needy but also a corrupt and brutal world, do not do that, they might find themselves in the shoes of Allen Gardiner. They could find themselves helping the cause of inhumanity rather than humanity.
What can these organizations do? What should their perspective be? Here are some suggestions:
1. Avoid agreements with governments suspected of using assistance for harsh political ends. I specify agreements with governments. This has nothing to do with missions being in countries with despotic regimes. Perhaps we should avoid making commitments for large amounts of material assistance, if such aid frees the government to ignore the of its people, or if it uses the aid as a club against them.
2. Avoid agreements with governments that are avowedly anti-Christian. This is not speaking of missionaries being in such countries. Perhaps we should not supply material assistance to such governments. In the case of Ethiopia, at the same time in 1985 when they were receiving aid from Christian groups, the government was closing down 748 churches in one province. One would think that some kind of quid pro quo under such circumstances might be a logical stipulation.
3. Avoid being used as political pawns by oppressive regimes. If, by our presence, the government is able to trumpet the myth of tolerance, perhaps we should leave.
4. Avoid giving large amounts of material assistance where missionaries are not allowed to speak about Jesus Christ. If we give aid without the gospel, who gets the glory? The government? The American people? Jesus was very careful to make sure that God received the glory. If he doesn’t, why do it? Perhaps it would be better to send aid to places where God will get the glory. Places where that is not possible should perhaps be considered closed, not to missionaries, but to large Christian relief projects.
Does the end justify the means? Will the world be won by our aid? Or will it, rather, be won by the gospel, helped of course by our wise and compassionate giving of relief in places where it can work for the good of all people?
We are enjoined to do what we can for the hungry and the homeless. But we are also commanded not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. A marriage of Christianity with despotic regimes may just be a marriage of convenience. Unfortunately, history and people like Allen Gardiner remind us that marriages of convenience rarely work.
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