I am going to try to make my thoughts coherent here and I apologize if they are scattered and make no sense. Also, I apologize for being so verbose- I don’t have enough clarity to be concise yet.
Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I am interested in international development. It was my major in university and something that I have been interested for as long as I can remember. Quite recently, I was reminded of how much the idea of the ”majority or third world” makes my blood pump. I’ve realized that after I finish my master’s degree I will have more opportunities to “use” my education- and I feel drawn or called (for lack of a better word) to go overseas.
This year I have been learning a lot about creativity, unlearning and alternatives to capitalism. This is where things get confusing. Dan Oudshoorn wrote an incredible series on Christianity and capitalism and proposed, in my opinion, the beginnings of a practical and inspiring alternative to capitalism. If you are interested, read the series- but I took his thesis (at least in part) to be that, as Christians (and our identity as such) should lead us to develop a communal type of politics and economics that is founded on radical sharing and dependence. Again, I am botching his brilliant ideas, so go read it.
I have begun to feel strongly that the world (and to be melodramatic, my soul) needs an alternative to capitalism. The whole race to accumulate more – more stuff, power, wealth – all of it…it’s making us sick. We’ve settled for this life that is based on accumulating and achieving our own personal and individual identities. Yet, this is what is seen and understood to be “developed.”
I began thinking about development recently and was talking with a close friend about it and he made a great point- he said something along the lines of , Why would one go overseas to “help” if all that they were doing was teaching, instilling and perpetuating the structures of capitalism? Ughh… it’s a great question because most interaction that the “first world” has with the “majority world” is about teaching “them” how to do things the way “we” do in order for them to modernize and give those on the margins more freedoms.
How then, do we increase the freedoms of the most marginalized outside the oppressive walls of capitalism? Especially, because I am not convinced that we are any more free than someone living on the margins. Our oppressors may be different, but we are all oppressed. We may have more political and economic freedoms in the so called “developed world’ – but we’ve sold our souls to get here- and in some ways, remain captive to “the man” the same way that someone in severe poverty would be held captive by “lack of freedoms” to overcome poverty.
I start to feel a little bit crazy here- because in Canada and the west, it seems like there is this desire to create small communities that are so radically generous and dependent that their very existence starts to challenge the capitalist structures and institutions. It could be argued, that many of the impoverished regions of the world already have a much deeper and real sense of community and group identities- as opposed to the extreme individualization we see here at home. But this takes me back to the idea of “us” helping “them”- who the hell are we anyway?
So – where does this leave us? Or I guess me rather…because I have been wondering if working and living overseas is just something that I have just wanted to do out of selfishness, or interest…but, what if I went there and was no help at all? All I have is the resources and the education that, in many ways, are products of this capitalist system that I am trying so hard see outside of.
I am unlearning*. I am trying to use and re-engage the imagination that I have even though it has been stifled and almost crushed by ideas of productivity, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability. I need to question why I value these things. I need to question why I feel as though the world could not run without these values.
Late last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I stumbled upon this incredible passage in a book I am reading called Compassion**. It’s a lengthy quotation, but I think it’s worth reading:
“Jesus’ whole life and mission involve accepting powerlessness and revealing in this powerlessness the limitless of God’s love. Here we see what compassion means. It is not a bending down toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going to directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation. It is the compassion of one who keeps going to the most forgotten corners of the world, and who cannot rest as long as there are still human beings with tears in their eyes. It is the compassion of a God who does not merely act as a servant, but expresses the divinity of God through servanthood.”
The authors go on to say, “As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes that we may accomplish, our service cannot last long.” – And I think this has been my problem in my thinking, as I wonder, what could I really accomplish somewhere else, when I can’t even figure out how to live and love well here? Part of that questioning has led and I hope will continue to lead me to understand my own powerlessness, to step down from the fake pedestal that I have created for myself by thinking that I have something to offer because of my resources and formal (western) education- and on the contrary, my uselessness as I feel like I am a product of the environment and systems that I so want out of. In my own powerlessness, God’s power and love can be seen- and I am free to be compassionate. I am free to give up the illusion of my competitiveness and to enter into new life. Part of my unlearning process has involved and will continue to involve coming to not only believe, but practice and live out the idea that who I am is not a collection of the esteem that I can gather from competition with others. Who I am and what I can do is not going to be found by making my “mark” in the world, and proving my worth by carving out a unique and distinct identity. Rather, I am unlearning to understand that who I am is directly the effect of the love I have received freely from Christ. This is for me, the start of unbinding the chains of capitalism, because at the heart of capitalism is the value of competition. Capitalism is so much more than a defined mode of production and in order to see outside of it we need to trade our competitive selves for the new life that God offers us, so that we can become compassionate…and powerless so that we can show the limitless of God’s love.
*thanks Erica for teaching me about the beautiful and necessary process of unlearning
** Compassion, by Nenri Nouwen, Donald P. MacNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison – read it!