Solar Powered Bibles for Haiti: Why Some Christians Feel Compelled to Exploit Disaster

By Valerie Tarico

Response to HaitiImage by Toni_Chacheres via Flickr

While Doctors without Borders was struggling to get anesthetics for amputations into Haiti, an Albuquerque group queued up aid of their own sort: 600 solar powered talking Bibles. Eve now, food, water, and medicine are having trouble reaching Haitians because of damaged transportation facilities and supply lines, but the missionary group says some of their Bibles are on the way.

I first read about the solar powered Bibles after a friend forwarded an article from an Australian news source--the point being that half way around the world people found the story controversial enough to be newsworthy. Why? Because it is morally troubling, even for most Christians. According to the gospel writer, Jesus says "I was hungry and you gave me bread," not "I was hungry and you gave me Bibles." How can anyone see pictures of crushed buildings, blood covered children, and people begging for food, and think of it as an opportunity to win converts?

Like many others, I read about the solar Bible effort with a sense of revulsion. But as a former Evangelical believer, I also read about it with some sympathy for the people packing the boxes. There is no doubt in my mind that they think what they are doing is kind and good. I would bet my psychology license that their behavior is driven by genuine concern for the people of Haiti. I simply believe also that the Evangelical mindset has tremendous power to co-opt and redirect a believer’s moral priorities and sense of compassion.

One of the most pernicious attributes of ideology, whether secular or religious is its power to disconnect true believers from moral emotions like empathy, shame, and guilt. In fact, what often happens is that the ideology repurposes both these emotions and the rest of a believer’s moral machinery in the service of the ideology itself. Let me explain.

Under ordinary circumstances and with normal brain development, certain moral instincts are built into us. Universally, for example, we have an aversion to the thought of babies being burned for the pleasure of adults. We have some general notion that stealing is wrong. We value honesty.

If you have to choose between food and Bibles, only one saves people from eternal torture. Research in brain science is showing that moral reasoning and behavior is driven by a set of inborn emotions--empathy, shame, guilt, disgust, righteous indignation, moral pride—and that these in turn drive moral reasoning and behavior. These emotions, along with specialized circuitry for analyzing morally relevant situations (and some pre-set defaults) are shared by our whole species. Why? Because they allow us to live in community with each other.

We humans are social creatures. To use the technical term, we are "social information specialists." Our primary resource is information, and we mostly get it from each other. Without the ability to cooperate and share knowledge we’d all still be in the Stone Age—or the tree tops. The only way we thrive in the long run is if we support the well-being of our community and, as we are starting to recognize, the broader web of life. That is what morality lets us do. It helps us to treat the wellbeing of others as if it were our own – because in a peculiar way it is.

For this reason, empathy or compassion is at the very center of most religious and secular wisdom traditions – usually in some form of the Golden Rule. Often the best means we have of guessing what another sentient being wants or needs is by projecting ourselves into their situation: How would I feel? What would I want? What would make me happy?

This is where a viral ideology like Evangelicalism can hook in and take advantage of our moral make-up. First, it can diminish empathy by downplaying the importance of here and now suffering. Second it can make something other than a person’s apparent needs (like food or anesthetics) seem critically important. Third, it can re-direct our mother-bear instincts away from protecting vulnerable individuals and toward protecting the ideology itself. Believers may come to feel more protective of their religion than they are of actual human beings.

1. Diminishing suffering: Evangelical Christianity downplays the horrors of suffering in several ways and sometimes even glorifies it.

a. Bible-believing Christians are taught that this world is just a prelude to the next – the one that really matters. Suffering is part of God’s plan, because it surrounds us, so it must be. Mother Theresa, for example, is said to have told a man in pain that Jesus was kissing him.

b. Because God is described as fair, there is a heightened tendency for believers to fall into the "just world hypothesis" to think that people deserve what they get. This can lead to a pattern of blaming victims for their own misfortune: pregnant teens shouldn’t have been having sex, rape victims should dress differently, poor people should work harder.

c. In the Bible, when God intervenes he often does miracles that affect a few people rather than responding to the suffering of the many. A few blind receive their sight, one lame man stands up and walks. This teaches people to focus on the "miraculous" exception rather than the pattern. Believers can praise God for saving a handful of orphans, neglecting the tens of thousands He just created.

d. In the central story of traditional Christianity, Jesus was born to be a human sacrifice; his ministry was just a prelude to Golgotha. Suffering, rather than something to be fought against, is seen as redemptive. The human race is saved by torture.

2. Redirecting focus: Economists say that religions create "goods" which then have "scarcities" that people desire and compete for—God’s favor, for example, or sacred space, or a certain status during the afterlife, and Evangelicalism offers several great examples of this.

a. Evangelicals prize salvation--a "personal relationship with Jesus," and the promise of heaven—so it is natural that when they are being altruistic, this is what they want for others. For someone who is salvation focused, the best thing he or she can do is to save someone’s soul. If feeding people wins converts, fine. But if you have to choose between food and Bibles, only one saves people from eternal torture.

b. In particularly evangelistic denominations, even children are taught that God wants them to be "fishers of men." Think Jesus Camp. A Buddhist might get a feeling of virtue or self esteem from pursuing compassion, mindfulness and simplicity; for some Christians, this same satisfaction comes from a convincing others to become believers.

c. Rather than being defined by service, generosity, or other consensually valued character qualities and activities, virtue can get re-defined as a life of Bible study, church attendance and prayer and/or sexual abstinence. These behaviors may become more highly valued than the qualities that normally make someone a "decent human being" a "good colleague" or a "great neighbor."

3. Self-perpetuation: Religions that focus on recruiting and keeping believers – on marketing and on defense of the ideology– often out-compete those that don’t. This is why Muslim countries are arguing in the United Nations that religions as entities have human rights—including the right to be protected against criticism.

a. The most evangelical forms of Christianity gain mind-share by turning the whole congregation into a sales force with divine sanction. Individual members may support missionaries or may pack up their families to go seek converts in foreign countries. Populations that are seen as vulnerable to conversion--poor people, uneducated people, families in crisis, youth in transition—are targeted for intensive missionary efforts.

b. Christians are encouraged to give money to the church. One successful Seattle mega church has two or three offerings in a single Sunday for different causes. Another cites (twists?) scripture to make the case that God wants believers to give first and foremost to their home church.

c. Rhetoric like "The War on Christmas," "The War on Easter," "Activist Atheists," and "Jihad" keep believers under a perennial sense of seige. Stories of martyrs are read to children—while Christianity’s bloody history is largely ignored.

d. Even though Christianity is the largest religion in the world, commentators and pastors lament the decline of the faith and the loss of young people. They raise the specter of Christianity becoming a religion on the margins within a generation.

The heart of Evangelicalism may be thought to lie in two Bible verses, both of which are taken to be perfect words from God, essentially dictated by God to the authors. One is John 3:16, the most memorized verse in the Bible "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." This verse is paired with one called Great Commission: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28:19NIV)

Contrast this with the verse that is the center of faith for many modernist Christians, what is called the Great Commandment. When asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah, the writer of Matthew tells us that Jesus replied "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)

Both evangelicals and modernists call themselves Christians, or followers of Jesus, but the two preceding paragraphs define two different religions. As much as Evangelicals argue to the contrary, they are in conflict. Only one of these religions sends missionaries pretending to be aid workers into Afghanistan, putting other aid workers at risk. The other sees this as immoral. Only one of them sets up recruiting clubs on grade school campuses. The other sees this as immoral. Only one of these religions uses money, time, and cargo space to send Bibles to people in need of anesthetics.

I consider World Vision to be at the better end of the Evangelical spectrum based on a ratio of humanitarian aid to proselytizing. But even World Vision goes out of their way to downplay their mission: bearing witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ. In the wake of the Haiti disaster, ads on the internet showed bandaged children with a banner that said, "Save a Life." A banner that said, "Save a Soul," might have been equally in keeping with their statement of faith.

World Vision shares the Church's commitment to disciple followers of Jesus Christ who bear witness to the Gospel by life, deed, word and sign, with the goal of encouraging people to respond to the Gospel. We do this through the life of service that we lead, the deeds of Christian love we perform, the words that we share about our faith and the signs of prayers answered as we visibly and concretely improve the lives of others.

Would World Vision’s Evangelical donors, volunteers, and staff put their energy into disaster relief and poverty programs if they weren’t on a mission to disciple followers? Who can say? At least they do both.

At the uglier end of the spectrum is a Seattle mega-church that claims almost 20,000 members, Mars Hill, founded by Calvinist celebrity Mark Driscoll. In the wake of the Asian tsunami several years back their website advised members to 1. Pray for people in the disaster zone. 2. Give to Mars Hill church. 3. Give to our church building enterprise in India. Five years later, their opportunism, meaning willingness to co-opt the compassionate impulse and redirect it into church growth is more sophisticated but unabated. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Mars Hill directs members to a site called Churches Helping Churches. "Who will help the Church?" it asks.

Rebuilding local churches helps address the practical and spiritual needs of a country, one person, one neighborhood, and one community at a time. . . . We need to help the church of Jesus Christ as our first priority in areas hit with human catastrophe. I challenge all thoughtful, biblically-minded Christians to find a single instance of the New Testament church filling the plates of the "general population" poor.

You can be assured that in Haiti, none of the money will go to the Catholic churches that have functioned traditionally as community centers among Haiti’s poor and that are pictured in ruins on the website’s banner. No, the money will go to Evangelical missions seeking converts among the Catholics. (Oh, btw, the site features another front page action item: Follow Mark Driscoll on Twitter.)

Is the founder of Mars Hill and of the Churches helping Churches site a crass self-promoter? Perhaps, but I suspect that he genuinely believes he is doing good, even maximizing good, by turning suffering into fundraising for his brand of beliefism. The crass self-promotion may be a quality of his belief system, not his person. Physicist Steven Weinberg once said, "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Weinberg’s statement may simplify overmuch, but it contains a kernel of truth. For genuinely decent people to engage in systematic acts of harm, even for them to take milk from the mouths of babes as it were (like Mars Hill does), something has to override their moral sensibilities. Fear has the power to do this, but so does ideology. For solar powered Bibles or church-building to win out over food and medicine requires a religion that values conversion over compassion. But when we see this phenomenon at its worst, it is because someone in the thrall of a viral ideology has figured out some reverse alchemy that turns the precious gold of empathy into the lead of opportunism.

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