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The money factor: relatively rich mission agents

In this, the second of six articles on humility in mission, former CMS missionary Bishop Greg Anderson considers how missionaries might deal wisely with the gap between those materially rich, and those living in poverty. (The first article is here. The third article is here. The other links will appear as the series continues.)

I wrote last month about a missionary friend who had worked in South Asia. He was poor in the context of his own passport country, but rich in the context of the South Asian people he worked among. He felt he was seen by local people as a walking wallet. Being perceived as rich in this way was very uncomfortable for him, and in the end a significant factor that led him to return to his original country.

What are the implications of the disparity in financial resources around the globe for Christian mission? In our own mission thinking and practice, what are we to do about that disparity?

What the Bible says about wealth disparity

In the New Testament we have some examples of wealth disparity, but the action of at least some of the early Christians seems radically different from Western cultural values. In Jerusalem, Christian property owners sold their real estate so that the proceeds could be distributed to equalise the assets throughout the community. Paul tells the Corinthians that his instructions about giving are designed to bring about equality.

My own tendency seems to reflect what might be described as longer-term interests—holding on to assets so that they might become income generators, or at least so that they will provide self-sufficiency rather than me becoming a burden on others.

Paul, on the other hand, doesn’t tell Timothy that the rich must divest themselves of their assets, but that they should work to be rich in good deeds, and to trust God rather than money. Unlike the Christians in Jerusalem, it seems that Lydia (and Nympha and Philemon and Onesiphorus) did not sell their assets, but used them in the longer term as a base for Christian hospitality. Being generous and willing to share can take different forms.

‘Rich’ and ‘poor’ missionaries

These days, many missionaries can fall into one of two categories: richer than most of the people they live among, or on the other hand (in wealthier locations) unable to do anything to boost their income, and therefore more likely than some of their neighbours to feel the pinch. Both situations create significant frustration.

The effect of values and worldview

As always, it is helpful to understand how our own values and worldview are affecting our feelings, and how the values and worldview of those around us contrast with our own. It may also be helpful to talk explicitly about different values with local people to understand their own perspective.

Many Australians that I know not only don’t see themselves as being rich, but also wouldn’t want to be seen as rich by others. Perhaps this corresponds with the Australian suspicion of tall poppies. And yet it might be that in some other parts of the world, people accept that others are wealthier, and this leads to opportunities for tapping into that wealth rather than resenting it.

If we are rich in a relatively poor location, we are almost certainly going to be viewed as (at least potential) patrons. This might be as simple as receiving repeated requests from beggars, or much more relational as local colleagues or neighbours seek help or protection.

The effect of patronage

It is always challenging to know how to give and who to give to, even how much to stick to or modify our own ‘rules’ about these things. One way forward is to understand how patronage works in a particular context. What are the obligations on both the patron and the client as this culture sees it? There might be a biblical critique to be brought to the system (as Paul does in Philemon), but if we don’t understand the system we can hardly engage in the critique.

I remember an Australian missionary colleague being challenged by the apparent relative opulence of missionaries from a different country, but becoming aware that on the whole people from that country stayed on location longer. Perhaps they had worked out how to be good patrons, using their wealth to bring blessing to their new community. It was a cultural challenge for my friend because his own default settings were anti-wealth.

Individual or communal

People like me tend to have values that revolve around fairly individual or small-scale family financial independence. I need to recognise that a communal perspective might value wider relationships and the opportunity for relational maintenance and development that giving and receiving can provide.

Again, finding a local person who is prepared to help me understand what is going on from a local perspective might enable me to work out how my relative wealth can be used within the system in appropriate and strengthening ways. In my Northern Territory context, ‘humbug’ (in our Northern Territory context, meaning being asked for financial help or other services), is a fairly constant experience.

But it is not confined (as some might imagine) to Aboriginal people asking whitefellas for handouts. Aboriginal people themselves recognise when they are getting humbugged (and they don’t particularly like it). But even within that system, they have ways of responding that can limit bad or excessive demands, and that can demonstrate personal respect for those who are asking. And traditionally there are reciprocities that mean honour as well as wealth is shared. Nobody wants welfare dependency, but the best way to avoid it might not be just to refrain from giving.

Concluding comments

As we wait for the Lord to return, of course we seek long-term advancement rather than just what will ease an immediate problem. There may be ways that I can be a player in changing the system for better over time, not just reiterating what is good in the current arrangements. Finding ways to discuss openly with trusted local Christians what this might mean in practice is better than acting unilaterally.

The world we live in is likely to keep being an uncomfortable mix of the richer and poorer. It is a dynamic that can be so challenging for missionaries. The sweet spot will be when we understand more about what underlies our own responses to the situations we face and understand more about the system we find ourselves in. What we do with our relative wealth (or relative poverty) is part of the discipleship that we are seeking to model as well as encouraging others to follow.