Objectifying people is wrong. Most everyone knows and agrees with that. There has been an amazing movement in our society toward becoming more aware of how we objectify women and limit their freedom of expression. We’re also beginning to understand how social media objectifies people and turns them into consumer products. We sure have a long way to go to view all people as subjective beings, but I think we’re headed in a great direction.
However, there is a certain objectification that happens within American Christianity that I believe we are completely unaware of. These thoughts of mine are still in development, but like most of what I write about, I’d like to inspire discussion so we can see if any of these ideas have validity. My hypothesis is that we in American Christianity can tend to objectify the poor, the starving, and, in general, the poorest of the poor in the third world. And we do this in a few different ways:
How we view spiritual needs versus physical needs
We are extremely comfortable in America. We complain about our jobs, airline food, and reality television because we literally have nothing else to complain about. Our phone batteries die too soon. Our McDoubles weren’t brought out to us quick enough. There’s a speck in my water! So with all of our physical needs provided for, we still have to have a reason for religion.
In the ancient world, the reason for religion was clear. People would sacrifice to the gods because they believed that if they didn’t please the gods, they wouldn’t have a harvest of crops, and they would die. So keeping the gods happy was important. The ancient Israelites were in constant threat of extinction, so they made sacrifices to God because they wanted God to help take out their enemies, and not to dinner.
In Jesus’ time, the reason for the Jewish religion was so that God would bring about justice to the world and God would finally establish his kingdom and glorify his people who have gone through thousands of years of adversity. Religion was always about God providing for his people. But Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God was one that said that God’s justice is for all people in this world.
Today in America, where we have little need for God to supernaturally provide for our physical needs in this life, we believe God’s provision is about our individual spiritual needs, and that means forgiveness of sin. But that thinking doesn’t really apply to the poor whose physical needs are more pressing than their spiritual needs. But we still stress the importance of forgiveness of sins for those people when that isn’t what they’re looking for. We create a dichotomy between spiritual needs and physical needs when God’s provision addresses both at the same time.
The American narratives that we perpetuate
Consider some of our Christian buzz phrases: “God will never give you more than you can handle;” “God has a plan to prosper you and he has a purpose for your life;” “Bless the Lord, and he will bless you.” That last one’s a little less common and accepted, and the first one is on it’s way out. But while many people are wondering where their next meal is coming from, we Americans are telling our kids to follow God’s plan for their lives. (The Christian way of saying “follow your dreams.”) These ideas of prosperity and good plans don’t seem to apply to the poor third world. At least, not in this life where they’re not always sure if they’ll even live to see tomorrow.
How fortunate we are to even be able to think about longterm goals! How fortunate we are to have time to pray, read the Scriptures, and build a relationship with God so that he can apparently reveal those longterm plans to us. How can we say we have to listen to God to find out who we’re going to marry, which college to go to, which job to apply for if for many other people, they have to live like they might lose everything at any moment? If God isn’t telling them every specific detail about how he wants them to live their lives, how can we say that it’s because their not connected to God enough?
If we convert a poor person to Christianity, are we going to tell them the same things we tell more prosperous people? They have to get plugged in with a faith community now, and they have to become a member and serve in the church, and they have to tithe to the church. Of course we’re not going to tell them that. But for us American Christians, getting involved with a church and tithing to it are vital. If it’s vital for Christians to do those things, why isn’t it vital for everyone? The things we believe and narratives we perpetuate cannot be so black and white.
Our view of the afterlife
The traditional view of the afterlife is one that suggests that we go somewhere after we die. We either go to heaven or hell after we die. This thinking isn’t unique to Christianity. Many people who aren’t even necessarily religious think there might be some kind of afterlife. For American Christians, the afterlife has become a priority. We ask evangelistic questions like, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d go?” So with much of the focus on the afterlife, our purpose becomes making sure everyone ends up going to the right place after they die.
However, that doesn’t make much sense in light of how we talk about the poverty-stricken in the third world. Many of us cannot physically present the gospel to the third world because distance is a factor. So we donate to charities that give them fresh water and food and clothes because that’s what Jesus told us to do and that’s how we become more like Christ. Could that be a form of exploitation, though? Doing good things makes us look more like Jesus, but if we only do good things just to make us look more like Jesus, that’s very individualistic and egocentric. Our view of the afterlife is so prominent, but the third world isn’t necessarily aware of their need for a savior from their sins. In American Christianity, doing good things for the third world isn’t about ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s about our individual Christlikeness. And so the third world people become objects that we use to make ourselves more Christlike.
The Kingdom of God is not just about an afterlife. It’s not just about God forgiving individuals of their sins. It’s about God removing the sins of the entire world and bringing about justice so there are no more tears and no more pain. We cannot view the world through the lens of American culture and comfort. We cannot impress spiritual needs on people as if they are separate from physical needs. We must remember that God is the good provider for all and that he can use his Church (if we’re willing), not to call them out of the world, but to bless the world for the sake of the world. And then one day, we can see God’s Kingdom come in this world and we’ll see justice for a Church of all tribes and tongues.