Friday, October 28, 2011

Smart Aid to Somali Refugees

Finally. The humanitarian community is wising up when it comes to providing emergency food aid during famine or disaster. But, as usual, the United States is lagging behind.

I'm gathering information for my second book on innovative ways to change the world and erradicate global poverty. Microfinance is at the forefront with its microloans distributed to groups of poor entrepreneurs. When you add in the new products that microfinance institutions are providing today--agricultural loans, cell phone banking, and crop/funeral/health insurance--the future for your typical poor urban dweller or villager is hopeful. These programs are effective and are reaching more and more people.

But then there's food aid, an intervention that is notorious, believe it or not, for doing more harm than good. One, it's expensive (shipping halfway across the planet to remote areas); two, it takes weeks or months to arrive; three, it presents a security nightmare (stolen or sold on local markets); four, it's culturally inappropriate (why would an African want to eat American grain and why are foreigners distributing it?); and five, it hurts local economies. How can local farmers' produce compete with free or discounted food?

The better solution? Vouchers distributed by local NGOs. Seattle-based World Concern has designed a brilliant system to feed desparate victims of drought and famine in eastern Kenya and southern Somalia. In fact, most nations donating food aid are moving towards giving vouchers.

No surprise when you see the benefits. Food vouchers are faster, cheaper, more dignified for the needy, and don't harm the area's economy. In fact, they grow it. Regional farmers have a new market and local merchants have new business: distributing food to places like Dhobley, Somalia near the Dabaab refugee complex. A Somali NGO, the African Rescue Committee, determines who should get vouchers and distributes them. Needy families simply go shopping for their food in local markets. Shop owners accept vouchers knowing that, when they match up with duplicates, they receive a promissory note and eventual reimbursement to their bank account (electronic transfers from Nairobi of all things!). Unfortunately, US AID has not adopted this superior method of intervention. Why? Our motive isn't entirely pure. Our food aid is surplus crops the government buys to keep prices high for US producers.

Yet, this voucher and local-NGO-partnership idea is the kind of ingenuity poor people desperately need. And donors need to insist on it. We really shouldn't just be giving aid to people living in poverty, we should be giving effective aid--aid that uses innovation and smart alliances to build self-reliance and long-term development.

I welcome your comments. Look for more related posts as I continue my book research.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How Big is Your Spiritual Umbrella?

I'm a member of the Christian Universalist Association (CUA) and just read their latest newsletter. In it, Donne Hayden reported on the board's discussion on how large the CUA umbrella should be. I am really encouraged by some of their conclusions.

Answer: As big as it can be to cover any person who claims to be Christian and a Universalist. In other words, any "conservative" or "liberal" believer who fits the above would be included. This is a wise decision on their part because it is diametrically opposed to what evangelical and fundamentalist churches love to do: Draw boxes around doctrines and dogma and declare who is a true Christian and who is not. Typically, the doctrines include the many that are problematic when examined closely. Namely, biblical inerrancy and its literal authoritative nature, hell, the return of Christ, the end times, the institutional church, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and more. Even more moderate evangelical organizations have this tendency, such as World Vision, who recently won a lawsuit (and an appeal) brought against them by former employees they fired because one didn't subscribe to the deity of Christ and the other, the Trinity.

In my former life as an evangelical, I carried far too small an umbrella and adhered to a far too narrow statement of faith. Hayden cites Jonah as a biblical example of someone who had a small umbrella. But God's rebuke of him reveals God even includes His enemies in his cosmic umbrella, calling Ninevah to repent (not to a particular dogma, but of their violent ways) but even moreso, showing his care and concern for the most misguided people. How much more should we? I welcome your comments.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A New Spiritual Age

I recently read Harvey Cox's latest book, The Future of Faith, and took away a few nuggets of truth that are very encouraging. First, Cox divides the history of Christianity into three periods: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of the Spirit. The Age of Faith was the two centuries after Christ, when followers embraced the Spirit and emulated Jesus in community. "Faith" is more accurately translated "trust," as this period was not about doctrine but trusting a new way of relating to God through Jesus.

The Age of Belief--which includes the dark ages--is from the time of Constantine to the 20th century. During this period the focus was on what one believed--either orthodox dogma and creeds or heresies--rather than trust in Christ. Some of this period is still going on within fundamentalism and literalist evangelicals as they dig in their heels around various traditional views. For example, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll told his flock not to read The Shack because it promoted unbiblical ideas. I'm not sure why he didn't encourage people to read it and decide for themselves. This "Age of Belief" mindset puts more emphasis on what one believes rather than on how one acts in terms of loving others and living like Jesus did. Notice how a conservative blog portrays and endorses Driscoll and how many times "heretical" and "false teaching" are mentioned. "Age of Belief" people will find it difficult to admit that The Shack might have some redeeming value, even if they disagree with some of it.

The Age of the Spirit, Cox argues, has begun and will continue to emerge as new paradigms replace fundamentalist and literalist thinking and as the number of non-Western Christians grow. This Age is also a renewal of the initial Age of Faith (Trust), as focus isn't on the details of what one believes, but how one is led by the Spirit of love (Not that what one believes is irrelevant, but it is secondary to love). I have seen this trend, especially in the last ten years, and trust Cox is correct. The Age of the Spirit is here to stay.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Why the Christian Right Should Support Gay Marriage

(Even Though They Believe It's a Sin)

Conservative churches need to do everything they can to reconcile with the LGBT community. I have written about the paradigm shift that needs to take place for this to happen and how it occurred in my evolution from conservative to progressive believer. Interestingly, until yesterday, I thought the only argument to present to my evangelical friends in favor of a reconciliation, which in my mind should include acceptance of gay marriage, was to show that the traditional Biblical basis for rejecting all homosexual behavior is flat-out wrong. This is still a good strategy, because the case is so strong that those "clobber" passages have been mistranslated and misinterpreted and that the NT law of love prevails in such cases. One can be a practicing homosexual and a Christian.

But wonders never cease. Misty Irons, a young mother, seminary graduate, and conservative Christian, has made a brilliant case that conservatives should support civil same-sex marriage, even though they believe it's a sin. How can this be? Irons says it's simply an issue of civil liberties and supporting such liberties is always to the church's advantage.

Think about it. Even the Christian Right always argues for religious liberty and concedes that people like Buddhists and New Agers should have a right to practice their religion, even though they would call it an idolatrous practice (I would add they do this in countless ways, e.g. not calling for a legal ban on pre-marital sex even though they call it a sin). The reason is simple. To protect their own religious liberty, the church supports the liberties of others they disagree with. This is the American way, after all. So, why not support the liberty of the LGBT community on the gay marriage issue?

You must read Iron's rationale, which is really quite good. She says the church should allow homosexuals the right of same-sex secular marriage to affirm their civil liberties, but still have the right to keep the conservative church's religious marriage homosexual free. She doesn't concede that there are progressive churches that would choose to accept homosexual religious marriage, but then again, her audience here is conservative Christians.

I was pleasantly surprised to see her logic and candor. Of course, as to be expected the conservative church is not taking up her recommendation. In fact, her own church forced her and her husband to leave their denomination as a result of her plea. Not surprising. But also take note she is a speaker at the Gay Christian Network conference next January. Way to go, Misty. And thank you for your insight and showing me I have another tool in my arsenal with which to challenge my evangelical friends on this issue.