The Friday morning plenary address at last week’s Assembly of World-Wide Partners was given by Ruth Padilla deBorst, a 15-year veteran of work with Christian Reformed World Missions. Padilla deBorst’s talk focused on relations between the global north and global south, “Together in Missions in the 21st Century.” In the following I’ll summarize her talk and intersperse the summary with some of my own reflections. One general comment, with Acton University beginning today: the valuable uniqueness of a conference like Acton U comes into sharp relief given the economic, political, and ideological attitudes on display at an event like the Assembly of World-Wide Partners.
Using the narrative account of Jesus’ calling of Nathanael, Padilla deBorst likens the attitude of the wealthy and powerful north toward the global south to the first words of Nathanael, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” It seems that the north wonders if anything good can come from Latin America.

Emphasizing the biblical truths that Jesus’ model of ministry embodied suffering and weakness, in opposition to the strengths valued by the worldly powers, Padilla deBorst contends that evangelicals in Latin America are following the northern pattern of accommodation to the powers of government, business, and media. Under that pattern, the need for suffering and the value of persecution is crowded out.

Padilla deBorst cites Roland Allen’s observations of past patterns of mission work, “We have done everything for them, but very little with them…We have treated them as dear children, but not as brethren.” So key questions moving forward are: How much of the missionary work coming from the north has been done with the people? Are lasting Christian partnerships established?

Padilla deBorst answers these issues by engaging Nathanel’s confession to Jesus, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” What form does Nathanael’s confession take for the global church in the 21st century? How do we recognize Christ as King today?

We must look for Christ in unlikely places. The wealthy north has been quick to emphasize the syncretism of Christian cultures in the south. But the northern church is not free from its own syncretism. Here the gospel is shrouded in affluence, consumerism, and power, which drown its transformative influence.

We assume mission will flow from the powerful centers to the impoverished ones. We all need to walk away from our blinding pretensions of power, seeking to encounter Jesus in unlikely places. We must be willing to embrace suffering as a mark of our following after him. Wanting to avoid pain and to hush any inkling of conscience, we wrap ourselves in the insulating walls of consumption. We consume even one another in order not to feel for one another, oblivious to the suffering of many at the hands of the few.

As valuable as our global partnerships are, says Padilla deBorst, northern Christians need to scrutinize their own churches and see to what extent they are being counter-cultural amidst the individualism, consumerism, materialism of the broader culture.

Padilla deBorst concludes that a return to godly stewardship will not allow us to sit under our fig tree securely in our own homes while so many suffer under economic, political, and military oppression. Here Padilla deBorst notes that people in the United States emit 3 times as much carbon as those in Latin America, contributing to global warming and water shortages (I’ve debunked this kind of economic canard previously).

By God’s grace it is possible to forge a north-south partnership. Hope rests in the fact that God, the sovereign triune community of love, is on a mission: God will not give up on his creation.

There is much that is accurate in Padilla deBorst’s portrayal of the vacuity of Christianity in the United States. Materialism, consumerism, and greed are certainly rampant in American society, and to the extent that these are being exported to the world, American Christianity deserves blame.

One word of caution, however, is to note that the extreme emphasis on the material poverty of those in what Padilla deBorst calls the “two-thirds world” can just as easily be the expression of a materialist and consumptive worldview (albeit without the means to gratify those desires). One of Max Weber’s valuable observations was that the advent of dynamic capitalism did not invent greed or covetousness. It is true that greater wealth can be an occasion for greater exercise of greedy and illicit action. But it can also be the occasion for the exercise of greater stewardship.

Clement of Alexandria rightly notes, “When someone lacks the necessities of life he cannot but be broken in spirit; he will have no time for better things since he will make every effort to procure what he needs however and whenever he can.” This does not derogate wealth, however, but rather values it rightly as necessary and temporally good.

Clement also observes,

The one who renounces his worldly wealth can still be rich in passions, even when his material possessions are gone. For his disposition produces its own effects, strangling and stifling his reason, inflaming him in inborn lusts. Thus it is of no advantage to him to be poor in material things, while being rich in passions. The things he has rejected are not things that need to be rejected, but things neither good nor bad. He has deprived himself of things that could be of service to him, and at the same time, by his want of outward things, has set fire the fuel of evil within him. We must therefore renounce those possessions that are harmful, not those that are capable of being serviceable to us if we know how to use them rightly.

I wonder if the great emphasis by the church on the transfer of material wealth from the global north to the global south by means of governmental coercion runs the risk of setting “fire to the fuel of evil,” and is based more on a model of liberation theology than sound biblical principles. It is a practical and theological truth that material needs must be met. But meeting these needs must be oriented toward the inner realities, what Clement calls the “passions,” as powers of the soul that stands in need of conversion.

I’ll conclude by quoting Richard Baxter, who I think sums up what I’m trying to say quite well:

Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies in order to the greater good of Souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings; not as if it were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men: God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily senses to the Soul. This way God himself conveyeth many of his blessings, and this way he inflicteth his Corrections: Ministers that are able, and willing to be liberal, find by great experience, that kindness and bounty to men’s bodies openeth their Ear to Counsel, and maketh them willing to hear instruction.

The goal is instruction in the faith, not merely the relief of material want.