Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Conscience Laundering and the Mission-Trip-Industrial Complex

How unclassy of me to forget to remove Evelyn's diapers before folks arrived.
Yesterday I gave my readers a thinking exercise; some of you have already submitted your responses, but I’m going to give others another day or so to chime in before I share my thoughts.

Today, I want to talk about the buzz that was all over my newsfeed this morning: Peter Buffett’s New York Time’s Op-Ed “The Charitable-Industrial Complex (along with response pieces like this one by Diane Ravitch) If you haven’t at least read the Buffett piece, please pause for a moment and do so.

Back from reading?  Ok, so what Buffett is arguing is nothing that hasn’t been said before; it’s getting media attention because he is saying it. At the heart of his piece is the issue of ‘conscience laundering.”
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
This phenomenon of conscience laundering is just one of my frustrations with the Mission-Trip-Industrial Complex. Mission trips create the illusion of extreme do-gooding (despite often being harmful) while allowing team members to return home to their old routines washed of their guilty consciences for at least another year.  Think I’m just some lone voice in the wilderness saying there's a problem with how we do mission trips?  Think again. 

Please hear me out, though.  I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with taking trips to see how others in this world live.  I don’t even think there is anything wrong with taking such a trip with folks from your church. Such trips can be exciting and eye-opening. I do object, however, when trips are lifted-up as being more than they really are (educational adventures) and when they damage the mental health and economy of those on the receiving end. Every time I hear someone say, “I feel like I received more than I gave on my trip!” I have to bite my tongue to keep from responding, “Yes, you did. Now what are you going to do about it?” 

So here’s my advice for those considering signing up for a mission trip:

Stop and really reflect on your motivations.  If you want to go because you’ve got an itch to learn firsthand about the world and meet people with very different life experiences, then by all means go, buy lots of souvenirs, spend loads of money at locally owned small businesses, and send me photos of your fantastic adventures. If, however, your agenda is to rescue/teach/evangelize/serve others, please stay home. Consider, instead, becoming a long-term volunteer at a do-gooding organization that works in your own town. If you find this advice baffling, keep following my blog and I'll try to unpack it one step at a time.

My very first short-term mission trip: Zaire 1995.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for taking this on, Taylor.

    We need this challenge, and this conversation.