Since I can remember, I have been taught to be nice, and being nice usually involves two things: a verb and a sacrifice. “Share your toys,” “Give away your old clothes,” “Play with that kid that you don’t like.” This act, usually encouraged by parents or teachers, was something I didn’t always want to do, but I was promised that it was for the greater good, and as side bonuses, people would think highly of me and I’d feel good about myself.
These suggestions for being nice turned into, “Volunteer for this,” “Donate your money to this cause,” and “Go on this mission trip,” which I did, with little critical thought. In my mind, niceness was a tenet of Christianity, something that somehow made Christians unique from everyone else in the world (though Adventists in particular have a few more characteristics that give them an advantage in the competition of peculiarity). Fellow church members would glow with pride, recounting stories of people asking them, “Are you a Christian? You just seem so…nice.”
It was then a huge shock for me to learn that nice people existed outside of Christianity, and that some Christians who I’d thought of as paragons of “nice-ness,” were not actually that nice. An even bigger epiphany was that Christians didn’t get the gospel of niceness from Jesus, but maybe that’s a discussion for another day.
That said, it’s no surprise that people also support niceness with their wallets. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on various forms of outreach, which have success rates that seem to be measurable only in baptisms: evangelistic seminars, mission trips, food distribution, church get-togethers, etc.
I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with these efforts, and perhaps, as I’d been taught, the baptism of one soul is enough to justify the enormity of evangelism budgets. But, take into account how many of those baptisms stick around, the seemingly growing number of people no longer filling pews, or the church’s aversion to direct involvement in global issues that affect billions of lives – maybe, then, there’s a problem.
While in university, I organized mission trips for other people. Students that went on these trips paid thousands of dollars to travel to exotic locations, spend a week doing labor that they’d had no previous experience doing, impose their cultural ignorance and biases on others, take potential jobs away from locals, and go on a few fun outings. This humanitarian work often acted as a conversion cartel, but failed to sustainably address people’s basic needs. Most, including me, felt good because we did something nice for someone who, we thought, needed our pity and help to survive.
I also helped to organize fundraising events, where we used our capitalistic culture of excess to raise money for projects of questionable integrity and sustainability. We felt good about how much money we had raised, but we didn’t think about how that money would be used.
Now, I work for a nonprofit organization in the field of development, where addressing these issues is absolutely crucial to our work. Discerning supporters shouldn’t care about whether a project sounds “nice,” but whether there’s research and experience to show why it’s necessary for the communities it serves.
Going on mission trips and donating money is good, and can affect us personally, but in doing so, we should take care not to objectify people and cultures, sensationalize poverty, or perpetuate the idea of the “white savior.” Instead of focusing on our conceptions of “niceness,” we as a community dedicated to making a difference in the world must address issues of violence, nationalism, environmental destruction, racism, classism, and sexism, just to name a few.
Christianity shouldn’t be characterized by “niceness”, not rocking the boat, or fulfilling some philanthropic quota. Adventism shouldn’t be characterized by what we eat, what we don’t eat, or what day we go to church. Rather, to be critically engaged in the global community, championing justice and equality for all people, with both our words and wallets – that would be nice.
Jaylene Chung graduated from Pacific Union College with a BS in Biology. She attended La Sierra University and recieved a Masters in Theological Studies and a Masters in Business Administration focusing on nonprofit work. She currently resides in Hayward, California and works for Canvasback Missions. She blogs at http://canvasbackmissions.wordpress.com/
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6145