Community and Societal Development

How can cross-cultural development workers help communities and societies thrive by following godly principles?

The Role of Religion in International Development

Missionary-anthropologist Paul G. Hiebert (1932–2007) wrote broadly in many fields building up a "trialogue" between theology, anthropology, and missions in an effort to "contextualize the message" within cultural systems.

Missionary-anthropologist Paul G. Hiebert (1932–2007) wrote broadly in many fields building up a "trialogue" between theology, anthropology, and missions in an effort to "contextualize the message" within cultural systems.

WCIU Journal: Community and Societal Development Topic

October 12, 2018

by Paul Hiebert

EDITOR’S NOTE: A 1995 article co-authored by Paul Hiebert gives an eerie sense of having been written for the political situation America faces in 2018. After reading it I asked myself, “Are evangelicals trading their faith for a secularized nationalism?” I’ve just provided a few excerpts, but you can read the full article here.

Holistic Development: Quasi-Religious Approaches

If religion, anthropologically defined, is at the core of any lasting development, then what is the religion that drives programs of modern secular development? The answer is nationalism. Ernst Troeltsch observed that Nationalism offers people a creed every bit as potent as religion, with love and devotion of one’s people and country a competitor in the altruistic sense with faith in God and the hereafter [Ernst Troeltsch, Religion in History (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 179].

The state does not speak for the cosmos, but for a community of people; it is inherently ethnocentric. … It is a secular religion that promises to satisfy human nature and succeed in its work, … National self-interest wins out over sacrifice for humanity. [In America in 2018 read: “National self-interest wins out over sacrifice for immigrants and people different from oneself.”]

We suggest that the underlying vision and motivation for true development lies in a Christian view of reality, because it provides the foundational views necessary for lasting transformation.

Goals for Development

People fight for bread to survive, but there is more to life than bread—it is the full recognition of their dignity as persons and as children of God that they want. Our goal in development as Christians is to strive towards God’s perfect intentions when he created humans. This begins with their full humanity as beings created in the image of God. It finds its full expression in the reconciliation between humans and God, and among one another, that leads to communities of righteousness, peace, love, and harmony with creation, and to the reign of God over all creation.

Causes of Poverty and Injustice

The failure of secular development programs is partly due to an inadequate concept of evil and the locus of its power. Some views tend to root current problems in the individual (modern evangelicalism, capitalism). Sin is then reduced to personal alienation that separates people from God. To deal with it, we seek transformed individuals. But this overlooks the corporate nature of human rebellion against the reign of God that finds its expression in the societies and cultures humans build.

Other views assume that evil lies in social systems, and look for revolutions that break the control of the powerful and wealthy over governments and markets, or for education to uproot ideologies that blind people to the fact that they can change their world. But these views overlook the fact that individuals, too, are sinners, and can subvert corporate systems to their own ends. The transformation of individuals, societies, or cultures without transforming the other systems will have no lasting results

Means of Development

In the past agencies have reduced development to matters of technology, economics, social organization, or politics, but none of these has led to comprehensive and lasting transformation. Change in all of the human systems is needed.

INDIVIDUAL TRANSFORMATION: On the individual level, we look for transformed people-people who seek righteousness, peace, and justice; people who love their enemies and seek their well-being. This vision must include the material well-being of everyone, their psychological and sociological health, and their spiritual salvation. Transformed individuals are important to indigenize community development. Development will take root and grow naturally only when individuals arise in the community who emulate the compassion, servant leadership, and self-sacrifice modeled in Christ.

SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION: Ultimately social transformation must include the transformation of global systems. Peter Berger notes: If there is one proposition that today dominates in the Third World, at least among its politicians and intellectuals, it is that there is little hope for Third World countries to emerge from poverty unless they free themselves from their present state of dependency on the rich countries [Peter Berger, Pyramids of Sacrifice (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 217].

RELIGIOUS TRANSFORMATION: A religious transformation is needed to bring about self-sustaining and self-reproducing development. For several reasons, this transformation must not only be religious but Christian. The Christian vision affirms the dignity and equality of all humans, and has special concern for the poor, oppressed, and powerless. It seeks to invert the power structures inherent in fallen societies. Without this “upside-down” view of humanity, religion itself becomes simply an ideology that justifies oppression and poverty, and rewards the powerful and rich. Second, Christian thought provides the motivation for reaching out to help the poor, oppressed, and lost. It calls for a profound understanding of their plight, their suffering, and their aspirations. It challenges us to deny ourselves and our own personal gains, and to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others with no calculation of personal benefit

Third, Christianity provides us with the moral standards by which we must work. We cannot oppress some in order to benefit others, employ evil means to achieve good ends, or use violence to bring about peace. We must embody in our programs the values we proclaim. Finally, Christian faith provides people with the hope of a better life now, and assurance of the final triumph of justice, equity, and peace.

Finally, to be truly holistic, development must take into account the work of God, who is already at work in this fallen world bringing about his Kingdom of reconciliation, righteousness, peace, and justice. This is manifest wherever his people and his churches live in obedience to his rule. God is already at work on the side of the poor, the oppressed, and the lost. This knowledge provides us with our ultimate hope and anticipation that development is not a rear guard action ultimately doomed to defeat. It is a sign of the coming of God’s Kingdom when the hungry will be fed and the oppressed freed, when righteousness will reign, and evil will be banished.

Read the full article here.