On wealth and solidarity

When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place.  I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.

And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.

Lahu children in the mountains of Yunnan province.

But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.

When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful.  Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.

Chinese men in a church in Yunnan province.

I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed.  “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”

This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.

And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.

You see, as Richard Rohr writes, we who hold the wealth, the prestige, and the power, have been in the driver’s seat for far too long.  “And in this world, there is still a whole mass of other people who have other insights.  The white man first raises questions of power and control.  The questions we pose to the Gospel are always questions that come out of this bias.” (Rohr Simplicity 163)

A young female minister in the church in Yunnan.

Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich?  What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove?  What keeps us from being poor and open?  The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)

It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves.  The real thing we have to let go of is our self.  We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.

—Rohr Simplicity p. 168

It’s a process–we can’t look the three demons in the eye: the need to be successful, the need to be righteous or religious, and the need to have power and get everything under control (174), until we recognize that material wealth has its limits and has taken its toll on our ability to know God and others.  And it is that toll, that ego, those demons, that hamper our ministry and our ability to know and understand others.

There are no easy answers here.

The author with a foster child.

But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality.  As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith.  Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.

Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for.  Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover.  Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others.  And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous.  Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey.  I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions.  It’s all private.  But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another.  The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you.  We can’t do it alone.

–Rohr Simplicity p. 162

And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone?  That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?  

I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.  

Me and a Wa woman in Yunnan, 2011.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.

And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.

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6 thoughts on “On wealth and solidarity

  1. I haven’t been very faithful about commenting on your last posts but I have been reading! I know a lot of where you’re at — leaving behind your ‘home’ of the last two years — and I think your writing has been pretty raw and I’ve enjoyed seeing into your heart!
    I bet I can guess who it was who made the comment about missionaries and sacrifice. 😉 If I’m wrong however, I know it’s a question on the forefront of many Chinese minds because it’s often at the forefront of mine too. I had this actual conversation with some dear Korean friends who criticised our apartment and living style back when Sam and Zoe owned the place because it was much to luxurious and we could never connect with the people we wanted to be ‘friends’ with. They asked us if we wanted to live like foreigners (meaning the ex-pat kind I guess) or if we wanted to be accepted by the Chinese. I took it very personally to begin with and I still have no answers other than, I know personally, I had to have a home that I was comfortable in and a place where I felt safe to be myself. To a certain extent, I had to stop worrying about what other’s (foreigners/missionaries/Chinese alike) thought of me because the pressure was too great for me to bare. The only opinion that mattered was God’s. The truth is, I will always look rich to the Chinese because compared to many of them, I am. But in my own country, we live at the government’s charity, well below the poverty level. I only shop at second hand clothing stores and when someone offers to cook us a meal, we gladly accept. I’m 30 years old, pregnant and living with my husband and son in my parent’s guest room for crying out loud!
    It doesn’t matter what country/culture you’re from, starting over never looks ‘right’ to the natives of the country you move too. You always appear to be living off of someone (family, government, organisations) which is why (I believe) we find solace in our little groups of ‘ex-pat’ friends because they are truly the only ones who understand how hard it is and what sacrifices you’ve made.
    I’m not criticising your friend for asking that question by any means because sometimes, I think foreigners in China (missionaries included) aren’t always the most discerning or culturally appropriate in the way they ‘flaunt’ their lifestyles. We never liked to use the term ‘missionaries’ ourselves — mostly because it has so many bad connotations associated with it but also because we felt that meant even the Chinese put us into a very limited box. When Jason would explain it’s quite common in our countries for adults to go back to university and become students again that seemed (to us anyway!) make our lifestyle more acceptable. Of course, once we make it back next time, I don’t know what exactly we’ll be doing and how that will look but I do know, I can’t give up being me completely. Obviously, I’m no martyr!

    1. Hi Rachel, I totally get where you’re coming from, and I appreciate your thoughts. I know how important it is to have something comforting in a foreign place, and I think when you say that you just had to let go of trying to live up to anyone’s standards and simply search for God’s, I think you’re onto something. I think the point you’re making is that it always depend from which angle we’re looking at something, and with my friend’s comments, I found them convicting not for others, but for me, and they inspired this reflexive thinking about what it means to accept and acknowledge our own richness (kind of like white privilege on the issue of race) before we can ever into a ministry of reconciliation and growth with others. By the way, you don’t know this person, so no worries there! I always found you and Jason to be living a life very much in sync with others here, for whatever that’s worth, but I appreciate discussing this with you, because you’ve lived it and you know the challenges. Thanks again for your comments.

  2. I do see intentional Christian living communities springing up all over the US…and even some led by PRESBYTERIANS! You might be looking into those…The Simple Way…see back issues of Presbyterians Today….there was a spread on one last year. I also know wonderful people who have done it and find it challenging to have a private personal family life. (btw that is why the Italian kids and their kids moved out of Mama and Papa’s house and all that smothering extended family living in Boston!!) The sustainable living communities are very appealing to me…water harvesting, hospitality, stimulating speakers and guests, chickens in the yard, kitchen gardens, vegetarian cooking, shared chores etc. simple life… I just spoke on the village concept (parable of the friend in need) at camp to the kids – that the village looked out for its poorest…that the village offered hospitality…AND the village had its own set of traditions and structures and rules that kept it intact. The village is not perfect…the intentional community not perfect…the commune not perfect (participants are human and still rely on the strongest to carry, the richest in the community to pay more whiile some will gadabout! and get lazy in their earning) …You are coming back to America, and the large majority of “good” Christians are not living in these kinds of Christian communities. But they carry God’s love (which is perfect) wherever they are placed …and like you said it is key just to KNOW that we are “rich” and how that colors our approach to the world.- you learned this early due to your parents – even if I do not always live it – it was a gift to be exposed to other cultures …to walk in urban Milwaukee, Juarez, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and China – it is part now of the colors of who you are. ..I also fielded the idea that “my” Christian village is found broadly in continued relationships with Christians (WI, MA, AZ) , family – our daughters and spouses (who are just about the best Christians we know and help keep us honest!), and mission friends around the world. They pray for me, and I for them – it is sincere. .I also know that the bottom line is that we indeed may be called to give it all away – to follow Jesus. But when I give it away…remember you are going to have to take me in! I like your thoughts! xxoo

    1. Thanks, Mom. I also agree that no community is perfect, and I think for me, because a contemplative prayer life is truly where I find God and am inspired to act, I also have to admit that serving God looks different for everyone. I did learn nearly everything I know and believe about service from the experiences you helped mold in inner city Milwaukee, Juarez, and encouraging me to go to the border to Youthworks and even to China. That speaks to the importance of intention in the everyday, so sometimes perhaps giving it all away means giving up other dreams or desires to mold your kids to know Jesus. For me, the most important thing is that I’m never satisfied, comfortable, or complacent, that I always be growing and that be the foundation of my relationship with others and with God. And that requires humility and recognition of my role in things that I’m not so proud of, etc., and like I say, I’m not there yet, but then, isn’t that kind of the point? Anyway, appreciate your thoughts on this and much love to you and our family out on the East Coast during this challenging time. Love, E.

  3. I love this post. I’m a huge Richard Rohr fan. What a phenomenal way to approach this. I’m sure I could find this out by reading around on your blog more, but how long are you going to be in China? What are you in grad school for? We’ve recently begun the process of adopting from China, though most of our ties are in other parts of Asia or South America, so I’ve been reading and researching as much as possible. I’m very excited to find your blog and learn more about what you’re doing. I love new online friends!

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