Believers, everywhere

Malachi Constant is the protagonist in the Sirens of Titan. Malachi is the name of the son of a self-identified  Believer I met this week; presumably the boy’s namesake is meant as Malachi, the Hebrew prophet of the last book of the Old Testament, and not Malachi Constant, the richest American in the 22nd century.

“Feeding on HIS faithfulness,” was the valediction I received, and one of the most overt I’ve had to date. One thing I have discovered while here – and in the research leading to my Watson project – is that many (if not most) organizations that offer assistance to orphans outside the 1st World are Western some-form-of-Christian. Mostly they are nondenominational, and highly evangelical. I am confronted with Jesus at every turn, and it becomes difficult for me to explain that, no, God did not bring me here, and no, God did bring us together. Of course I usually save this monologue for the echo chamber of my skull, but I realized that at some point, I must address this (internal?) conflict.

What I am interested in, and where I find myself drawn, causes me to cross Believers more frequently than I would hope. In Kazakhstan, I have met but one organization that is not faith-based or evangelical: SPOON foundation, founded by a Reed graduate after adopting a child from the country. Everything else has been Christian-based. Perhaps you are thinking why I should care so much that Believers are the ones here helping those in need, and oh, my imaginary interlocutor, do I have an answer for you. Believers, you see, are not here to merely help the children – they want to and do help them, in many different ways, and in some cases even do it quite absent of judgment. But they are also here to tell a Biblically famished people about our Savior, Jesus Christ. They are here to save souls. You must not get me wrong – these are good people, some of the most beautiful and kind and selfless people I have ever met in my life. They forgo the comforts and convenience and stability of a life in the United States to live with their immediate families (even young children) in a country far from their friends,  with comparatively little infrastructure, consistent threats to well-being, and often hostile social reception. They do things many people wouldn’t – they go to orphanages, they listen to teachers and to children, they take in orphan graduates as their own, they help the kids adjust to life outside the institution – with no exaggeration, they devote their waking lives to making the lives of helpless strangers better, assuming no reward but a converted heart.

I have done a poor job of convincing you of my worry. Plainly, I worry because I think motives matter. I think that what they do is beautiful, and I would never stop or object to them doing (most) of it. They give children hope. They convince parentless, abandoned, depressed children that they have a Father who is always watching them and giving them a path to light, if only they would acknowledge and accept his Will. Where is the harm in this? Perhaps, politically and socially, there is no harm here. In fact, Jo’s reading of Spinoza would tell us that something like this is exactly what the masses ought to do: they can’t all live the philosopher’s enlightened life of reason, so the rational life must be translated for them into maxims (‘love thy neighbor’), and these maxims must be instilled through force or through faith. Read the Bible, fear God and love God, obey His commands to live a life of justice and loving-kindness, and you shall live eternally in His Kingdom. This is how we maintain a peaceful and blessed society.

Evangelistic religion, at least, seems to demand a dogmatic and hierarchical authoritarian form. This means, eventually, the Bible is not the one actually giving direction – if it ever was, in whatever interpretation. This is where motives become problematic. If I help those in need because the Bible has told me to do so, and not because I most fundamentally care about those in need – not their eternal souls or salvation, but them as they exist now – then my actions seem susceptible to manipulation: when the Bible’s trusted interpreter changes his mind, could eternal salvation begin to outweigh life on Earth? Selflessness in religion’s name is never truly selfless; there is the aim of salvation or glory or holy obedience. One might argue that actions are always susceptible to manipulation, but when so as drastically as actions from faith? Extremists of almost every religion have killed for their principles.

I will accept that this is a failed argument against religion; it is not meant to be one. I think religion can do many good things (I’ve seen them with my own eyes, perhaps felt them in my own heart), and it surely brings peace to many people. But caring about humans qua humans – not humans qua eternal souls – seems the most truly blessed way to move forward. Why feel compelled to live far away from family and friends and comfort for the sake of spreading the Gospel, rather than solely to ease suffering? Why comfort ourselves with illusions of Heaven when we are already a part of the Universe’s eternity?

The fact still stands that most of the people I have met who work for the abused and abandoned children here are serving a dual purpose, to help the suffering and to bring Christ to new hearts. Perhaps I would have more faith (intended) in people loving people without transcendental dictates if I saw some evidence of it happening. I do, in a minority. But even the Kazakh natives I’ve met who work for no monetary reward to help the children are Believers. Most who have opened their homes and given me dinner and information and connections and help have been Believers.

Malachi the prophet, or at least this last book of the Old Testament, is all about the Israelites who fail to give proper worship to their God, returning from exile only to commit their sins again. They give unacceptable sacrifices and generally break their faith by living like borderline heathens – you know, divorcing and all that. Malachi, the ‘messenger of Yahweh’ brings them oracles and warns them of the ‘great and terrible day of the Lord.’ Our other Malachi, Malachi Constant, has no Lord to fear or thank or obey or beg, no afterlife to live for. He has his accidental life, his illusion-free reality. His life is a tragedy so that the lives of others will be free of superstition.

“The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

“Take Care of the People, and God Almighty Will Take Care of Himself”


4 thoughts on “Believers, everywhere

  1. ooomalley

    As much as I hate to recommend something from Oprah’s book club (I’m a snob, yes), have you read The Poisonwood Bible? It’s about an evangelical family in the Congo.

    Also I still have some issues with philosophy, but we can do that later.

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