Thursday, February 09, 2006

What is Fair?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the question, “What is fair?” Not a lot of things make sense in this world, and in my role as a 21st century missionary, I see too many episodes that make mincemeat of my idea of justice.

Let me say it once and for all: The world is not fair. I don’t like it. But I still don’t know what to do about it.

Frankly, West Africa is light years away from the USA that I come from. Cameroon is a different planet compared to the corridors of North Dallas, of most of suburban America.

Every day I wake up and try to make sense of this huge divide. I want to be a good missionary, a solid pastor, a responsible Mission Director. But the standards are not the same in Cameroon as they are in Plano, Texas. The things which are highly prized in American Protestantism are simply not valued here. It’s not important, for example, for me to keep a tight time schedule, or attend city council meetings, or draw up vision statements for congregations.

The pastors who work for the Mission view me through a completely different lens; they see me from the perspective of those who have always been on the receiving end of missionary work. And that lens has its own shortsightedness. When Cameroonians look at me, they see the colors white and green, and they smell the hint of domination. What else would they see and smell?

They love America, yes. They love people who come from America, because we bring cash into a poor country. They love our ideas, our vision, our sense of optimism, our wealth. But this conception of “America” gets in the way of everything we do, say, and attempt.

I’m always wondering if our pastors and members are serious about following Christ, or if they’re more interested in being part of a big, wealthy American church. Is it about discipleship, or the dollar?

It just doesn’t seem “fair” to me.

Of course, it’s also not “fair” that I make such ridiculous money as a missionary, compared to the pastors whom I am responsible for. I thought I was taking a pay cut to work as a missionary; but I make a good deal times more than most people who call themselves “United Methodist.” I can rationalize it all I want -- I have advanced theological degrees, I have “earned” my due, etc. But the naked truth is that I have had all the opportunities in life that they don’t have. Besides, a piece of paper is hardly indicative of a person’s worth.

And it’s not “fair” that the Cameroonian government is so corrupt, and has virtually sapped the country of its life-force.

It's not "fair" that so many educated Cameroonians are unemployed.

It’s not “fair” that policemen are so poorly paid that they have to supplement their meager salaries by stopping expatriates on the side of the road at night and holding their car documents hostage.

It’s not “fair” that school-age children sometimes have to pay their teachers with sexual favors to make good grades.

It’s not “fair” that educational standards are so low, that the only people with money in the country work for the government, that inflation is sky-rocketing.

It’s certainly not “fair” that two weeks ago, a national newspaper attempted to slander prominent citizens in the country by printing a list of 150 “known” homosexuals. Since there are still sodomy laws on the books here and since homosexuality is one of the biggest taboos on the continent, this kind of slander is not only despicable, it’s also dangerous.

It’s not “fair” that my pastors barely make it on their salary, can hardly afford to send their own kids to school, are hard-pressed when someone in the family falls ill or must go to the hospital.

And it doesn’t seem “fair” to me to say, “No,” to their constant requests, their desperate pleas, their cries for help, even though the Mission budget doesn’t include lines for such assistance.

Especially when I have the luxury of returning home to a nice apartment in a nice part of Yaounde in my own private car, and sleep in air-conditioned comfort.

Maybe my sense of “fairness” is different than most, but I have this idea that everyone deserves the same chances and opportunities, that every soul holds equal –- and infinite -- value, that every spirit is another Martin Luther or Mother Teresa waiting to get out, that every single person has potential that simply needs to be unlocked or tapped into. It’s so obvious that this world doesn’t allow that to happen. It seems that only God can make this sort of thing happen, and that it happens all too rarely.

I’ve always been one of those “peace-and-justice” Methodists. But lately, I’ve been wondering if I even have a clue what it means to “do justice” in this world. Does my work here in Cameroon actually contribute to changing the unjust practices of the world, or do I simply play into the domination of US interests globally?

One of my favorite quotes comes from the eloquent William Sloane Coffin who said, “It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters,’ and quite another to work out the irrigation system.”

That’s the way I feel today. I can’t figure out what the irrigation system is supposed to look like, how it fits together, or whether I even have all the pieces in the box.