To Hell with Good Intentions
The title of this article comes from a pot-stirring speech delivered in 1968 by Ivan Illich to a group of American volunteers. Thanks to globalization and airplanes, 50 years later, his intended audience has grown to include me and the estimated 1.6 million American volunteers going on short-term mission trips each year. We spend as much as $3 billion on these trips annually and have left many inside and outside the Church wondering if it does as much good as it could.
The conversation Illich started so long ago is still relevant, and instead of ignoring his critique to move forward with our good intentions, I ask that you join me in thinking more critically about how we pursue the Great Commission. This is not a trap. I’m not going to end by asking you to cancel your airfare and shred your passport. Instead, I hope to reframe short-term missions and leave you with more questions than answers. So let’s get to it. Who is this Ivan Illich guy again?
Illich was a Catholic priest, but he was also a bit of an anarchist, so while I think he makes some great points, let me make clear that I do not espouse all of his ideology. In fact, I ultimately disagree with one of Illich’s conclusions, which I’ll dive into in a bit. However, let me give you some more context for Illich’s perspective with the following quote:
“There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others – and thus become more mature people… Perhaps there is also something to the argument that young men should be promiscuous for awhile in order to find out that sexual love is most beautiful in a monogamous relationship. Or that the best way to leave LSD alone is to try it for awhile… I do not agree with this argument. The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.”
“The damage which volunteers do willy-nilly is too high a price for the belated insight that they shouldn’t have been volunteers in the first place.”- Ivan Illich
Did this guy really group mission trips with sexual promiscuity and the use of LSD? What damage is he talking about? These are legitimate questions, and reading his speech is a great place to start. I’ll try to explain his reasoning, but let’s start by recognizing that he isn’t actually condemning good intentions. He is saying that good intentions alone are not enough to result in good. Sure, our good intentions help, but unless we are well-equipped he argues, our actions are not justified.
Sure, our good intentions help, but unless we are well-equipped, he argues, our actions are not justified.
His argument is that of a consequentialist: an action should not be judged right or wrong because of its intentions. Rather, the morality of an action shall be judged based on its consequences.
This is a very simplistic but pragmatic way of looking at the world. Consequentialism gets us to the point of deciding that something is right or wrong, but in the case of murder for example, society chooses to also consider the intent behind an action in order to determine the appropriate punishment. Judgement necessitates knowledge of intentions AND consequences, and as ‘do-gooders’ Illich finds us all too quick to stop short of exploring the consequences.
So how can a well-intentioned mission trip have negative consequences? Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts provide great frameworks and examples in response to this question. Sure, we concede, painting a building might not make a huge difference, and a construction project might take local jobs. But what about medical missions? 350 people were seen and treated over four days because of our pop-up clinic. But what happened after we left? Did Maria, who is illiterate and the mother of 5, remember which medicine was for which kid? Or did her one-year old end up dying a week later because of liver failure induced by the ten-year old’s tylenol prescription? Did we transfer skills to the local health care system, or in an effort to help local evangelists, did we put the local pharmacy out of business with all the free meds we gave out?
C.S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory, said, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.” It’s easy to argue that our opportunity to grow on a mission trip outweighs the potential harms we might do to our neighbor across the ocean, but when we truly bear the weight of their glory, we might begin to reconsider. Who is this trip really for? Me or them?
“The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”- C.S. Lewis
That’s where Illich stops his argument. Its either us or them, and so we should stay at home. I agree with his argument that we can often do much more good at home, (that is another topic all to itself) but I am of the opinion that his argument offers us a false dilemma. Why not have the trip for both us and them?
You see, Illich’s argument hinges on one of two assumptions: 1) the only way to learn is from failure, or 2) we refuse to learn anyway but failure.
If he’s made the first assumption, there is plenty of research along with examples to refute it. The age old expression “you can learn it the easy way or the hard way” points to both being possibilities.
You can learn it the easy way or the hard way.
It also points out the cost of learning by failure. Interestingly, in the case of short-term missions, those we ‘serve’ bear the cost of our failures from which we may or may not learn. This is the reality that leads me to think that Illich bases his argument on the second assumption: we refuse to learn the easy way because it costs us nothing to learn the hard way.
If he’s right in making this assumption, then we, in our self righteousness, are of all people to be most pitied. However, at the risk of being an idealist, I’d wager that once we recognize our ignorance and its cost, we are capable of making the decision to pursue preparation for all its worth. Lupton’s Charity Detox is a great place for us to start our education.
I’d wager that once we recognize our ignorance and its cost, we are capable of making the decision to pursue preparation for all its worth.
I want to pat myself on the back for recognizing the value of preparation, but the weight of what preparation requires quickly humbles me. Swallowing my pride even deeper, I admit that I’ll never know enough, and that’s why C.S. Lewis said that carrying the weight of our neighbor’s glory requires humility. Lilla Watson is credited with having similarly said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Too often, I have entered a community to help and wasted my time because my approach has been entirely misdirected.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”-Lilla Watson
Addicted to my own glorification, I often fall into the trap of working to make myself the hero. However, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Ivan Illich, C.S. Lewis, and Lilla Watson have helped me arrive at a decision to pursue the following: Admitting my ignorance and working to be a better learner, guest, and ambassador. With this framework for short-term missions, I believe we can experience the deepening of our worldviews, self-awareness, and faith. We can genuinely serve those we encounter because we no longer pretend to be saviors but recognize our liberation to be tied up with theirs, and we do it all to the glory of God as agents and representatives of his Kingdom. It’s not a short-term mission commitment. It’s a Great Commission commitment to be lived out daily at home and abroad.
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