Saturday, March 4, 2017

boxing up expectations: reflections on OCC and the church

It was a fairly typical Thursday in our house. My husband went to the Mansa Pastor’s Fellowship, the meeting ran late, he got home and scarfed a “used to be warm” meal and gave me the run down of news from our region’s pastors.

So the boxes came up again, he started. I paused from my counter de-greasing to hear this one. Just a few days prior at the Fellowship’s Valentine’s Day event - capping off an otherwise delightful evening of food, love and laughter - the issue of “paying for our boxes” came up in the announcements. Through the thick murmur of voices, we gathered the sound bites of boxes, pay, free, why and no. Missionaries are really good at rolling with confusion so we held onto our questions. (And it was late – the newlywed game went long because we could not stop cracking up.)

Thankfully, at the next weekly meeting of the Fellowship, the topic came up again, and this time, being a more appropriate venue and atmosphere for discussion, the voices of all were heard, one at a time, and a thorough conversation went on and on.

Livid, Jeremy told me. They are livid. These pastors are the most gentle shepherds, so I had to know more. In bullet-point format, Jeremy explained that the Operation Christmas Child boxes had reached the warehouse in Ndola and that the Mansa churches needed to come up with eight kwacha per box for 5,000 boxes to receive their shipment. That’s $4,000USD, Jeremy said, telling me what I had already calculated. He continued to share that comments from the pastors ranged from, “We don’t have this kind of money,” to, “Aren’t these boxes supposed to be free?” to, “Next year, let’s just refuse the boxes all together!”

We haven't always been at these gatherings during OCC distribution time, and so we were back-peddling a little to make sense of these statements. Wait, wait, wait…  is this how it always is? What’s the money going for? Who is responsible for it? Despite the remaining questions, two things were crystal clear: the pastors were forking over cash for OCC boxes, and they were NOT happy about it.

Truth telling and transparency are core values for me, and the details out of that Thursday’s conversation just felt like something that needed to be shared.

This went up on my facebook wall and I honest to goodness didn’t expect much interaction with it. After all, it was a fairly bland statement – I didn’t flavor it with any personal opinions or emotional judgment. I posted because I myself was wrestling with unmet expectations, and I figured a few others out there might be as well. My goal was to describe the gap and let it speak for itself.

Days later, that conversation was still going, and I started composing this post as a way of saying all that I couldn’t say in a comments section. (Speaking of which, I made that particular post public so that anyone can read the full comments … in case you wanted to catch up…)

Having taken time to both dialogue and reflect (thank you, by the way, to everyone who shared thoughts and opinions with me,) I have observed that many, if not most people who engage with Operation Christmas Child do so with three main expectations. I will describe those below along with my observations regarding how those expectations seem to be playing out in Zambia.  

a quick side note...

(Before saying anything further, I need to make the disclaimer that the following opinions are 100% my own and not necessarily representative of anyone I work with or for. Furthermore, my opinions are drawn from my experiences in Zambia alone and may not be reflective of every country in which OCC operates.)

OK back to business…

Expectation one: The $7 shipping cost gets the box TO THE CHILD

This is certainly the most flagrant of unmet expectations. In my initial quest to understand why the churches of Mansa were paying to receive their boxes, I learned from OCC USA directly that the $7 only ships the container(s) of boxes as far as the central warehouse in the country – in our case, Ndola. It is OCC policy that the National Leadership Team (volunteers, and all Zambian) be responsible for distribution and raising funds to cover in-country transportation costs. Historically in Zambia, this has meant levying a transportation fee/payment amongst the churches in each district. This fee is not optional – this is not a free will offering – and it is announced to the churches that those who do not pay will not receive.

OCC policy clearly states that boxes are not to be sold. However, the Leadership Team’s directive to “raise funds” and their decision to do so by levying a “standard transportation fee” has effectively translated to a system of selling and buying the boxes – the National Team sells and the churches buy and that money takes care of the in-country transportation cost as per OCC’s plan. Some churches have chosen to absorb the cost on behalf of their congregants; others have merely fronted the costs and will then re-sell the boxes to the families themselves.

In dialoguing with many box senders in America, it is clear to me that no one actually wants to be a burden to the recipients. A lot of discouragement was generated by the thought of the rural poor having to scrape together funds to buy presents, and I was asked if there was a better way. Well...

I spoke directly with OCC USA regarding the policy and potential solutions. We didn’t have a particularly thorough brainstorming session, as that wasn’t the point of the call, but it did stand out to me that all “solutions” mentioned still kept the burden of transportation cost on the rural communities. Again, this is OCC policy. It was explained to me that OCC strategically does NOT charge the sender $7+K8 in order to ship all the way to the children because they WANT the churches to pay something. As an organization, they do not want to create an unhealthy dependency

This comment about dependency leads me to my second unmet expectation:

Expectation two: The gifts are HELPFUL both in evangelistic outreach and material aid

I’ve already written a full post outlining my thoughts regarding OCC and the coupling evangelism with Christmas gifts. I’d encourage you to read that post as well as I don’t intend on going into it here, but the spoiler is that I thoroughly disagree with this methodology for moral, cultural, and theological reasons.

As for the second element – helpful material aid – when the kind OCC staffer in North Carolina told me that they insisted that the churches pay so as to “avoid dependency,” I heard in that word choice the patent use of “development worker speech.” I started to wonder, just how many people really consider the shipping of these boxes to be an effective form of relief and/or development aid? It seems like Christmas presents don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, so… are our friends packing their boxes full of socks and washcloths and toothbrushes and Band-Aids because they believe they are supplying items that the child actually, desperately needs?

It may be quite right that a child would not have gotten a new toothbrush without that box, and that makes us all feel so useful on this planet, but if material aid is the expectation, this is not good stewardship of resources. For the cost of that new (American) toothbrush, a child in Mansa could buy 10 toothbrushes in the market. This pattern holds true for many of these “necessity” items.

A cost analyses on the boxes as a whole is even more striking. Expenditure certainly varies, but if we guestimate that the average box – contents plus shipping – is worth roughly $30, then have we done a good job of counting the “alternative cost?” Have we considered what could be done with that money instead?

in rural Zambia, $30 can pay for…

60,000 liters of potable drinking water

100 kg of maize meal – feeding a family of 5 for 4 MONTHS

school fees and uniforms for 6 elementary kids for a year

2 breeding goats

6 insecticide treated mosquito nets

15 gallons of soy beans

wages for 3 weeks of farm work
The families are not consulted, of course, (further evidence of poor development practice) – meaning, no one has ever asked them directly, “would you rather have a box of assorted American goods, or would you rather send all of your kids to school this year?” Yikes. Do we even want to know the answer? Would it bust our expectations left and right? And if it did, are we courageous enough to do something else?

community based needs assessment is not an optional step

One thing I did learn from the comment thread on the original post is that there are plenty of families who do NOT share in this expectation. They fully recognize that this is maybe not the best evangelism tool, and it is without question NOT the best aid, but they do it anyway because of the benefit to their kids. I thought about that one long and hard, and to this group I say – despite all my other feelings – GOOD ON YOU, parents, GOOD ON YOU. You have taken intentional action to make your privileged children more generous, aware and missions minded, and this is so very worthwhile. I have heard your question, “is there a better option?” and I desperately want there to be. The impetus is on the local church and its sent-out-missionaries to strategize and facilitate this caliber of experience. We have not done all that we can do, and for that, I am sorry. Nevertheless, you deserve all the props for being both third world savvy and good disciplers of your kids.

As a final observation, I’ll share a third expectation:

Expectation three: A reputable organization like Samaritans Purse can be trusted to  provide oversight

The first responses to hit the wall after my post went live were filled with disbelief. What? How is that possible? There must be an explanation! Not Samaritans Purse!?!?!? Even after I shared “the rest of the story” (that OCC knows that the recipients pay and actually expects them to pay), a handful continued to defend OCC by offering a variety of positive examples from around the world. The sharers of these stories are likely believing that these gold-star results in one location are representative of results everywhere.

As I said at the outset, my perspective is 100% Zambia specific. All I know is that the disappointment over the cost of the boxes HERE is unmistakable. Every other commenter with experience in Zambia said the same thing.

What for all the yeah but… yeah but… yeah buts…stemming from those alternative examples from other countries, still, as far as I’m concerned, ^^^ this means something.

An addendum to the above expectation would be that we expect uniform results across the board. However, a basic rule of a GLOBAL aid organization, is that one-size-fits-all (and works for all,) is not a thing. The cultural climate, relationship to the west, perceptions of power/respect/authority – these all matter hugely.

OCC handles its oversight requirement largely by working with National Leadership Teams, seconding to them great authority in each state of the process. Here, the Team in Ndola – for cultural and other reasons – was not shuttling report of the discontentment across the ocean. The American representative told me that he works closely with the Ndola team and would follow up with them… I was only mildly comforted considering that this voice was 7 time zones away. “Work closely with” can mean so many things… I mean, Jeremy and I would say that we “work closely with” our local pastors; and by this we mean, we know them. Henry Mumba is a jovial leader who almost fell in our pond going down our zip line… Pastor Bwalya fasts and prays quarterly at our farm and never lords his title of Chairman of the Fellowship over anyone… Bishop Chimanga prays for provision while refusing to takes a penny from his extremely poor congregation whose roof we re-constructed this year… Reverend Mwansa is a phenomenal worship leader who is always helping others despite having nine kids of his own. These partnerships are relationally rich – and effective for that reason.

I’ve always been an advocate of supporting the little man because THIS is where accountability WORKS. No one has ever had to call us from another continent to tell us that one of our programs is not working. When something flops, we know it in about twelve seconds because the casualties of that flop usually come knocking on our door. In the same vein, if someone has a question or concern and would like an audience with the top-of-the-top of our organization, I’m pretty sure I can arrange that – dinner is at 6 and please don’t mind if my children throw peas. They lose their minds when we have visitors.

Scope and size of impact grow as an organization gets larger and larger, but quality control is almost always inversely impacted, and that is an understandable tradeoff.

Actually, so much of what we’ve observed with OCC is “understandable” and this is why I “stated the gap” without overt judgment. On some level, I get it. My point in sharing what I have is that the massive donor base of North America is not well versed at vetting, monitoring and evaluating the projects that our funding goes to. We trust the big names – sometimes too much.

At the end of the day, each donor is responsible for his or her investment, and no one else’s. Merely assuming that the stewards of your money are living up to expectation benefits no one. Asking questions and following up need not be hostile or cynical; BUT, with great (financial) power comes great responsibility.

Also, I concede that a lapse in expectation need not be a deal breaker. This too is a personal choice. For me, the unmet expectations outlined above are not palatable, and I will probably never participate with OCC for this reason, nor would I recommend others to participate either. But this is just one opinion, and my perspective is both biased and inherently imperfect. I appreciate the others who have shared their perspectives with me and expanded my understanding. You make me a better missionary, and I thank you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

accidental colonialist

We prepare for months to move into communities where we will be the only Americans. We are taught the importance of shedding our privilege and pretense, and are given the skills to accomplish the same. Sustainability is our middle name. Cultural sensitivity, our constant concern. Respect, empowerment, preservation – we have PHD’s in all these subjects. This is what we’ve come for. We are straight professionals at judging anyone who comes off as “too American.”

But what fun would the ex-pat life be without cultural exchange? Where’s the harm – and isn’t there even a lot of benefit? – in goofing off around a fire, sharing recipes and funny accents and style. The 90’s top-pop-hits deserve to be shared (!) and aren’t multi-racial dance parties the best way to bond with your new friends anyway?

And bond we do, and life is groovy and we’re feeling more confident with each passing day. All the training and theory and conviction grows roots and sprouts wings and mixes all the development metaphors, as it turns into a kind of third-culture tie-die project in real life.

We all have to make it over the one-year hump, but once the wind catches your sails, and you can just glide? The life overseas sure gets good.

Speaking for the hubs and I, years and years later, our convictions never did change – our friends’ didn’t either – but the stories around us have diverged from our common campfire start.

I don’t believe one can honestly assess the good he or she has done without equally assessing the bad. This is where I’ve found myself milling about as of late. Perhaps it’s because we just submitted our year-end report (obviously focusing on the good). Or because I recently celebrated my ten year anniversary in this country! Or perhaps it’s because we’ve come face to face with a series of unfortunate examples recently… Whatever the cause, I’m thinking a lot about this ambiguous expat life and trying to evaluate not only my obvious highs but also my lurking lows.

It was several years ago that a friend reached out to me. There wasn’t really a “point” to her message, per se – as in, she wasn’t telling me to “stop doing this” or “start doing that,” but was sharing a meditation of sorts – the concerns of her soul, through which she shared some thoughts and feelings for me to appraise. I forget her wording, but the sentiment has stuck with me. There’s something about your life that feels risky. I just think it’s dangerous when Americans move into an African community and try and “do good.”

My naive and arrogant self was offended. Sister. Friend. I’m not like “those people” – do you not trust me? Can you not see for yourself? Respect, culture, friendship… do no harm – these are tattooed on my heart.

Unfortunately, her admonition came too early in my career. I hadn’t developed the core competency of self-evaluation, and I truly thought that my convictions were enough to hold me to a good standard. But thankfully, all good seeds eventually bear fruit and despite my botched reply, (I’m sorry), I couldn’t un-read those original words and they’ve grown into a larger script – a cautionary tale, as I’ve learned to see how dangerous the overseas existence truly is.

I remember my first afternoon in Fimpulu with embarrassing clarity. My earliest memory in this place is that of casting judgment on an inadequate structure at the clinic, mentioning to my translator, that, “that would need to be changed” and continuing on as if someone had actually invited me to audit anything at all.

In those early days, I spent not enough time asking questions, and far too much time providing answers. A year or two later, I grew disillusioned because things were, in large part, staying quite the same, even though I had expected my presence to be the end of that.

There were myriad times I spoke too fast because I need you to know how smart I am. Broke custom because give me a break people. Disregarded concerns because let me tell you how the developed world does it.

Colonialism comes in all forms – action and attitude – and at various times I have been guilty of both. Lament and repent – there’s been plenty of that – but what has returned me to my friend’s word of caution has been my painful realization that colonialism comes so very easily.

I’ve seen it in my own experience as in so many others. We spend so much time getting in, going deep. Sharing space and stories and the stuff of life. We laugh enough to build bridges and break bread (can you “break nshima?) enough to superglue our relational bonds. But what comes next is where it gets tricky: The growing relationship breeds a certain security and we expats let loose a little, showing our colors (maybe even our knees). We talk more freely and less filtered, capitalizing on our new and exciting “insider status.” It all starts to feel familiar – like home. Expat nirvana, or something equally disorienting.  

Reflecting on ten years and observing how different situations have drawn out of me a more pronounced colonialism, I assert this equation as “fact”:

Culture + relationships + collaboration – extreme vigilance = accidental colonialism

You and I are friends and we both want development here and we work so well together and so CLEARLY all the words coming out of my mouth are brilliant and thank you for agreeing with me totally I’m so excited this is great! Wanna take a selfie to commemorate this moment?

 And the resentment builds and the effectiveness wanes because the American has stopped tip-toeing around and has gone full-tilt star spangled banner but the host culture won’t say anything because, culture, … and the damage is done.

We’ve seen it in ourselves – Jeremy and I both have – and in countless others as well. I cannot even tell you how many groups I’ve chaired where I led us down a culturally irrelevant path… for years… before I figured out it wasn’t working and everyone else responded with, oh thank heavens! We’ve been waiting for you to realize how terrible your idea was! I scrolls thorough the “annals of hubris” in my brain and I revisit all the times that I have imposed timed decision making, facilitated “say you’re sorry” conflict resolution, or lectured egalitarian principles as marriage counseling. In many cases these are great ideas! If only they were instituted in an American context and had any relevance to my neighbors at all.

Not long ago, we watched a *could have been beautiful* partnership fall to ruins as a team of Zambians got steamrolled by a better-trained, more-knowledgeable American. The diverse team had a common goal to guide them, but cultural sensitivity was in short supply. The American assumed that because systems and structures and knowledge were obviously lacking that all those things would be universally welcomed… in any form. The pace and style of change were forcefully American – so much so that the Zambian staff couldn’t cope up and had to pull the plug. They acknowledged their co-worker’s competence, but could not get past certain habits – book-based evidence over years of experience, dismissing core Zambian values, insistence on direct communication, inflexibility with schedules and times. It’s like the American doesn’t want to learn from black skin, the Zambians cited. Ouch. Accidental colonialism at its finest.

Still more recently, we endured a unique cultural clash in which Jeremy and I were leading group of Zambians who were staffing an event for a team of Americans. The visitors were running a tightly-scheduled, high-stakes, American-by-all-definitions program and wanted us to help the Zambians get on board by keeping time, participating directly, and ensuring a certain level of precision. After working through a host of complaints, the Americans advised that we take greater care to “build our staff’s capacity” – guidance that fell somewhat flat as we sympathized more with our Zambian co-workers, viewing the unmet-expectations not a matter of capacity but of a differing value system. (America-splaning is a real skill. Tag that on LinkedIn.)

The truly unfortunate thing is that neither of these situations was ever properly debriefed. Communicating failure to the well-intentioned foreigner is not the easiest.

Um hi, you are accidentally imposing your cultural presuppositions on the host culture, which means you are accidentally colonizing an otherwise valid mission.

We’ve seen more than one American take offense that the Zambian counterpart never confronted the American with their complaints. Uhhh… Oops again, friends. Even the insistence that “if there’s a problem, it’s your responsibility to come talk to me” is cultural imperialism.

So. Easy.

Thanks to time, lots of grace, maturity and observation, I’ve gotten better at hearing my words before they leave my mouth. But what’s more, learning to evaluate my motivation has been the single most important habit I’ve cultivated in ten years abroad. It is a safeguard of sorts, despite needing to be constantly refined. Conscious effort goes a long way, but the subversive nature of culture is that it just IS – without us really realizing its sway over our whole being.

Not a one of us has ever meant to impose, or control or dominate, but many expats falsely assume that as long as they mean well and laugh and love, that they are somehow safe. But in reality, life overseas has more layers than a chocolate parfait, and like my South African calculus teacher used to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I don’t think that the potential for harm negates the importance of trying. Not at all. When I think back on all that has been accomplished and all the ways that our community has grown, I can conservatively guess that 999 out of 1,000 co-workers and acquaintances would say, it’s been worth it! I am forever indebted, though, to the Americans and Zambians alike who have taught and corrected us, and who walk with us still, ensuring that we do less and less harm with each passing season, for everyone’s sake.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

America's witchcraft

In the last year or so, we started sharing more stories of our struggles with witchcraft in this region. Like how Bashi Future spent all his money and a year of his life building a house and then immediately vacated it because he dreamed that someone had cursed him out of jealousy. Or how Sam experienced an unexplained palsy and the entire community agreed that he was taken over by an evil spirit after sleeping with a pregnant girl. Or that time Bana Mwansa lost her phone and paid the witch doctor $5 to divine who had taken it and the witch doctor accused a young boy who instantly went mad, hurling himself into fires.

pc: nanga
Our awareness of and encounters with witchcraft (both real and perceived) has grown steadily with our integration. To give an idea of the frequency we're now experiencing, the Chief has come to our village three times this year to address those who are flinging curses, living in fear and dealing in darkness. Ya’ll knock it off, he pleaded. His charge was knowingly simplistic. The animistic world is all encompassing and one cannot simply cease believing it any more than one can stop breathing air.

pc: lusaka voice
The bondage of sorcery and witchcraft translates poorly to the Christian west. Despite all the anecdotes, it's still a mystery for the most part. Not only is there conflict between science and reason – (for example, science tells us that one cannot be protected against seizures by tying a snake fang around one's neck) – but there is also strong disapproval regarding the syncretism between faith and culture. Zambia is, after all, a "Christian nation" and the acceptance of the demonic into every day life registers indefensible. HOW, the Westerners ask, how can a family conclude a Christian funeral, complete with a Christ-centered homily and then transition into a ritual coffin chasing? 

pc: lusaka times. mourners hoist the coffin in the air, letting it direct them to the front door of the "murderer" 
To the culturally removed observer, it all just looks... wrong.

We too feel your angst.

From a ministry perspective, we’ve prayed long and hard about the problem of witchcraft in our communities. The bondage is real and the effects sobering. Over the years, we’ve talked ourselves blue in the face – hashing and re-hashing the scientific, scriptural, rational and theological foundations for rejecting witchcraft outright. The result has been consistent: two versions of reality clash again and again and we are the recipients of the sometimes gracious, sometimes patronizing response: We don’t expect you to understand our culture. My white skin belies me as “other” and I lose my foot to stand on.

A handful of times, usually in frustration, we have blurted out the ultimatum: You CANNOT serve both God and Satan! Period! The response is always and forever the same. No madam, no, we are all Christians here. This is something that our black culture deals with. I bristle at the racial divide, but who am I to argue?

pc: kitwe online

Our burdened sharing draws out sympathy and fervent prayer from folks back home. For a long time, I concurred with the indignant response. Yeah, that’s right. This witchcraft stuff is CRAZY! Inexcusable. Can’t understand it. Pray for them. They are so lost.

It’s easy – too easy – to see another’s blind spots. And that sliver in my own eye grows the size of a tree.

I'm thankful that the ex-pat metamorphosis has been working its magic as of late. The ability to view ones birth culture with a fair and critical eye is a rare and beautiful gift. I don’t know whether "culturally neutral" is a thing, and if it is, I’m not there yet. But I find that each passing year, the distance between the west and myself widens a bit more, and I begin to ***see***.

With greater reflection specifically on America's reaction to the witchcraft of Africa, I've seen more and more of the similarities between the cultures. At one point, somewhere in the muddle of the US election, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Christmas season, after listening/reading a stream of greedy, snarky, buy, sell, want, must have everythings, I found my lost marbles long enough to yell at Jeremy: OH MY GOODNESS...
                       Materialism is America’s witchcraft. 

He nodded. And I mused. And we both felt a little ashamed.

I know that sounds extreme - maybe even unfounded - and I might be all alone out here in left field, but that's the ex-pat life anyhow. For me, the evidence stacks high enough. I admit that I am strongly influenced by my Zambian neighbors who look on the same evidence with horror and pray (long and hard and publicly, mind you) for us all.

For example...

When American Christians started expressing disdain for rising health costs because of all of the “freeloaders,” our Zambian friends (every last one of which believes that health care is a human right) judged that attitude HARD.

Charitable giving amongst evangelical Christians does not, on average, breach 3%.  And yet, how many times have one of our neighbors emptied their entire savings account to help a friend in need?

The goal to save money for retirement or investment or business or the next big purchase drives Americans to work to the point of neglect and save to the point of stingy. In contrast, just the other day, my friend Carol dropped all the money she has in this life down the pit latrine… and she laughed about it. (Though for what its worth, Carol would like to advise everyone to not tuck all your cash in the fold of your chitenge - especially when using a pit latrine. You're welcome.)

When someone starts wasting an American's time, the first thought is (say it with me now,) TIME IS MONEY, (of course). Our Zam neighbors admire the inherent ambition there but but reject the motive and prefer a higher principle which is that time is relational and not to be monetized.

Corporate greed. Widening class divide. Emphasis on individual responsibility over community care. Shopping, shopping, shopping. More, more, more. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

It's the American way all right. I could paint broad strokes and list examples for days but I think most Americans already know its true, deep down. Freedom and capitalism are basically synonyms and my RIGHT to consume and hoard and buy and own is the good life, says the culture. 

I'm mindful of the fact that this is all so poignant now more so than at other times because we have just exited the Christmas season – the time of year that displays America’s spirit of materialism with all the flourish of a billion twinkle lights.

You know, I used to think that Zambians didn’t celebrate Christmas, and then I realized that it's just that they don’t give each other presents as if that were the purpose of the holiday in the first place.

The Zambian Christians get a whiff of our adulterated Christmas culture and are all like, wait, who the baby-Jesus-cradling hay is Santa?

Witch. Craft.

That the buying of material things has competed for and won the spotlight on the day we celebrate God With Us demonstrates an unredeemed worldview, akin to the evils of animism.



That’s what the villagers say about their coffin chasings.

No, no, this is different, American Christians say.

Feel free to make your case, though I am not your judge. BUT, from an African cultural view point, in the timespan between Thanksgiving to Christmas in America, syncretism is spelled R E T A I L.

BUT, (the justification comes flying at me with a tail of tinsel trailing behind,) we give gifts because Jesus is the greatest gift! It’s symbolic.

I love giving gifts for this reason! But that excuse is as tacky as the above gif. (SO. TACKY.) Tell me, how many American kids wake up at the crack of dawn on December 25th and cry out GIVE ME JESUS!!! Four years now of MK training and mine don't! Our culture has failed our theological convictions something awful.

Many Christian families have just stopped trying. Christmas is a cultural construct emphasizing  socially acceptable, albeit unnecessary and exessive material accumulation, and we read the Christmas story too and go to church on Christmas Eve (but never Christmas morning, because, hello… presents…) and somehow that’s all ok. I know it shows the depths of my cultural deviance, but as I see all the Christian parents on facebook facilitating Santa, my Zam side comes out and I can only think, “What manner of juju is this!?!”

But its different, they say. It’s just a holiday, they say. Jesus is the reason for the season! We keep our gift giving (euphemism for materialism) in check! … Kind of like the money our neighbors give as an offering to a chief to "bless" the land, or the necklace around the baby’s neck to “protect” her… That too is “just tradition.”

The ultimatums I've declared to the animists reverberate in my head though they sound different this time...

You cannot serve both God and Mammon 

The Good Book says it straight, if we have ears to hear.

So… really now, we’re going to pray spiritual freedom over this: 

pc: lusaka times

but not this:

Not all culture and tradition is evil, obviously, and the antidote to cynicism is identifying and amplifying the aspects of culture that disclose their heavenly DNA. Like so many things, this too integrity and introspection; parceling out what is “mere tradition” vs. straight idolatry is not as easy as I wish it could be.

But I check myself often with a word of caution, lest I assume that I am on the straight and narrow. As the old proverb goes, "a fish doesn't know it's wet."

I don’t think I would have ever been able to criticize my own culture minus having immersed myself in another. I see fallen aspects of Zambian culture much more readily than my fellow Zambians do because I don’t swim fully in that water. And perhaps I see America's fallenness more sharply now too because I don't swim fully in that water either.

Few readily accept being told that they are idolaters, and conviction only truly comes from above. But I still maintain: America needs African missionaries. The same West that sees clear as day the evils of witchcraft desperately needs non-American, prophetic voices decrying our worship of material things. We mustn't forget, America does a disproportionate amount of sending not because we need the least amount of cultural renewal, but because we have the financial resources to do the sending whereas many other's don't.

As for me, I haven’t backed off of witchcraft due to my rising convictions that, well, America is evil too… but I have grown in my empathy in the struggle for right perspective, and I’ve doubled down my efforts to weed out my cultural presuppositions and make them as answerable to scripture as I expect animism to be.

Anyone else want to join me?