Charitable motives and ulterior motives


I recently returned from a trip to Nicaragua where I was involved in a project to help build latrines in a remote and extremely impoverished community. Spending time with people who are so poor and yet so warm and welcoming can be a life changing experience.

On the plane trip to Managua, a fair number of the passengers were all wearing the same t-shirt that indicated that they were part of some sort of American based religious based mission trip. Similarly, on the return trip, a different group of people were all wearing a different t-shirt that indicated that they were also participants on a religious mission trip.

There is no question that helping the poor is often a religious imperative. Certainly the Bible talks about this. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable that states, "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." But they question I had was whether the people on these mission trips had ulterior motives in whatever it was they were doing. Were they building schools for its own sake, or were they also "saving souls" on the side?

In talking with some other people who were on the same project that I was, and who had some familiarity with these sorts of religious based mission trip, the answer appears to be in most cases that that these service trips have a component of proselytization.

If this is true, then I find this particularly offensive. I think that proselytizing is bad enough under any circumstances, but to do so as part of a mission directed at helping those who are disadvantaged, I it is doubly offensive. If one is going to help the poor, by all means I think they should. But if there is an ulterior motive, if proselytizing is part of the same mission as well, then it seems to me that one is essentially holding those one helps hostage to one's good graces. "Sure, I'll help build your school, but only if you'll listen to me tell you why my religion is better than whatever you currently believe."

I have this silly idea that helping others in need should serve as its own reward, should be done for its own sake. I have no problem with demonstrating that acts of charity and social justice are performed as an expression of one's religious faith. But there is a difference between saying, "I help you because my faith says I should," and saying, "I am going to use this opportunity to help you in your time of need as a means of trying to convert you to my faith."

Even the wearing of identical t-shirts on the plane seemed like a way of advertising their religious faith. I am reminded of what Jesus said about prayer in Matthew 6: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Perhaps I am being too harsh, but I can't help but wonder if a group of people all wearing a t-shirt on the airplane boldly advertising their religious mission trip is a little bit like praying in public to make a show of what you are doing.


Sherry said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I don't know as other faiths do this but Chrisitanity has been very guilty of trading help for conversion for centuries. It's a bad practice and I think reaps very bad results over time.

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree with you, Sherry, about the long term implications of this.

CT said...

Perfectly put Mystical. Helping others in putting faith into practice, but using the goodwill created to then convert people is offensive. It smacks of our colonial past where we assumed that every thing we did and believed was/is superior.
Problem is that you've got quotes like Matt 28:16 that report Jesus as saying believers should go out and convert. ( Doesnt seem to reflect his other teachings/ parables - I wonder why that is ?? :-) )

Mystical Seeker said...

CT, you raise a good point about the "Great Commission" in Matthew, which I think has, unfortunately, served as a the basis of a lot of this sort of patronizing attitude towards people in other cultures.

CT said...

But did Jesus actually say it ? It's doesn't seem consistent with most of his other teachings. 'Go out and convert' sounds more like the early church leaders looking to gain followers.

Mystical Seeker said...

CT, I agree. I does seem unlikely that Jesus actually said that.

Cynthia said...

Let me speak as one who does go on religious mission trips, wears the same t-shirt as the group, and whose church group DOES NOT proselytize. We go to not only to help but to learn, to be pulled out our self-absorbed, middle-class, U.S. empire way of thinking, to be ministered to as much we minister to others.

Incidentally, we wear the same shirt, usually our Strawberry Festival tees or one from the mission itself (check Simply Smiles), to keep track of the group in a crowded airport, for group identity and pride in who we are.

Rather than speaking to a someone in your own group, it would have been interesting if you had asked a member of those groups about their shirts, their mission and see what they had to say for themselves.

Mystical Seeker said...

Cynthia, thanks for providing that information about Simply Smiles. I am glad to hear that there are mission trips that do not involve proselytizing.

sfirongirl said...

I did talk to some members in a religious group on a plane to Nicaragua. One woman emphasized singing songs with children and building churches. An older man with the same group emphasized building schools. The t-shirts didn't bother me but the idea of "helping" people by proselytizing does.