Icons of Hell
Unveiling Injustice on Short-Term Mission
Photo by Maumee Valley Habitat for Humanity
This is part 2 in a series on rethinking justice and injustice in short-term mission experiences. Read Part 1.
We were instructed to maintain silence during the bus ride back from the state-run Jamaican infirmary. Our mission team had just spent a few hours with patients of varying degrees of mental and physical capacities.
Some participants visited with patients one-on-one, spending time talking with them, holding their hands, and reading psalms. One young man brought a guitar and sang familiar songs. Others were a little more anxious and gathered in small groups with clusters of patients. Some played games and listened to stories—whether they were understood at all through the thick Patwa was beside the point. Some said nothing at all, providing patients with a simple gift of their presence and companionship.
Our journey back to the mission base begged for quiet introspection.
The reflection of one young woman who’d spent much of her summer at the infirmary revealed that for her, this experience was a glimpse of heaven. Here were young American students with their whole lives in front of them who took respite from their self-absorbed plans to share space with elderly Jamaicans, who had little reason to believe that their lives were going to get any better. To her, the visits were like icons of heaven where God brought the nations together, wiping tears from every eye, and bringing an end to death, mourning, crying and pain.
But the young woman revealed that her experience at the infirmary wasn’t all angels and anthems either. There was a shadow side. She said, “It’s kind of like heaven and hell mashed up into one place.”
While the visit to the infirmary became an icon of heaven, it was also the antithesis. Families who were either unwilling or unable to support them any longer had abandoned numerous patients. Many of the patients had severe mental health issues, which caused them to act out erratically. Some had severe physical disfigurations. Some coped with issues of incontinence. Over the course of the summer, the young woman had witnessed negligence of patients at best, and all manners of verbal and physical abuse by particular infirmary staff at worst. All were placed in a crowded, under-funded, state-run facility with few options by which the infirmary might be held accountable to more acceptable standards. For this young American, the infirmary was also an icon of hell, the negation of life as it was supposed to be.
The iconic value of short-term trips
I’ve previously written that perhaps the real value of mission trips is not in fulfilling the Great Commission or by eliminating poverty—they typically don’t do either of them well—but in giving young people an experience of being deeply connected to brothers and sisters from whom they’d been estranged across racial, cultural, religious, and geographic boundaries. I argue that this isn’t a distraction from mission, but rather embodies the work of God to bring a fragmented humanity back into participation in the life of the Trinity. In this way, a cross-cultural trip can be like an icon—an experience through which we see and worship God in a new way.
I think another reason why we take young people on mission trips to some of the most forgotten, poverty-stricken places around the world isn’t just to have young people catch a glimpse of heaven, but also to bear witness to hell on earth. We go to unearth the tragedies that humans inflict upon one another that are functionally invisible to many American young people who live lives of relative privilege. We go to grieve these devastations, and in doing so, we hope to find spiritual energy to prevent these hells from happening again, or from happening elsewhere.
Moses’ short-term mission experience
These kinds of journeys or experiences aren’t without scriptural precedent. In Exodus 2, Moses himself set out on a trip across town to visit the Hebrew labor camps. For most of his life, he’d known nothing but opulence and luxury—palaces, gardens, temples, flagrant displays of unprecedented wealth and architectural wonders engineered with staggering ingenuity. All of these pleasures kept Moses and the rest of the Egyptian bourgeoisie from seeing another reality.
On the other side of the tracks were the Hebrew labor camps, the construction sites—all of the gritty places where Hebrews labored in dehumanizing conditions to make all of the wealth of Egypt possible. Then Exodus 2:11 describes, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor.” This journey had many of the makings of a modern mission trip—a young man coming of age, a crossing of socioeconomic, cultural, and geographical borders, a negotiation of his identity as a Hebrew, and a curiosity to encounter something new and real.
There, Moses saw a Hebrew slave, a man who by all outward appearances could have been his brother or his cousin, being beaten by an Egyptian overseer. The Egyptian, while unlike Moses in his appearance, might have appeared as if he had been one of Moses’s classmates or friends—someone like him in his culture and his mannerisms. The brutality of the Egyptian’s actions was more than Moses could stand. He looked around to see if anyone was watching. Then he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand.
Bearing witness to this inhumanity was a moment of crisis that transformed the trajectory of not only Moses’ life, but also that of the nation of Israel. It was a conversion. It was a moment where, for the first time, Moses clearly made the connection between the exploitation of the Hebrews and the privileged life he enjoyed with Pharaoh. Egypt’s wealth was made possible only through the oppression of the Hebrews. James Baldwin, one of the most influential African American writers of the Civil Rights era, believed that Whites were blinded from the injustice inflicted upon his people behind their own illusions of respectability. Baldwin exhorted his Black brothers and sisters saying, “We, with love, shall force our [White] brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” For the first time, Moses was seeing Egypt for what it was and he was forced to cease fleeing from reality. He witnessed the living hell that raged against his people.
In killing the Egyptian, Moses turned his back on all of the privileges of the Egyptian way of life. He came to see how privilege and poverty are bound up with one another. Moses chose instead to side with the suffering Hebrews, which ultimately marked the beginning of a long journey of God calling him to return to Egypt to liberate his people.
Facing the injustice of the cross
Perhaps we get an even better example in scripture of an encounter with institutionalized violence that might guide us towards a new way to reimagine short-term mission at the end of the book of Luke. First-century Jews knew all too well the injustices that weighed upon them at the oppressive hands of Rome. Yet at Jesus’ crucifixion, the violence of the empire was unveiled in brutal spectacle. Luke 23:47-49 says, “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
The Pax Romana was exposed as anything but peaceful and just. It murdered an innocent man. The same actions that brought privilege to some brought hell on earth to the masses. Seeing Jesus on the cross forced even the centurion to cease fleeing from reality. While everyone who gathered at the cross lamented, some shook their heads and went on their way. But for those who knew Jesus, the violence they witnessed unraveled their entire world. They were rendered immobile, unable to do anything but stand at a distance and watch.
We shouldn’t confuse standing at a distance and watching with inaction. The Spirit was doing something inside each of them. The brutality they’d witnessed was slowly percolating down into their souls and leaching into their bones. Richard Rohr teaches, “If you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it to those around you and even to the next generation.” Standing at a distance and watching was a way of transforming the pain rather than allowing it to erupt as it did with Moses, who responded to violence with more violence.
Instead, God used these dark, holy hours to prepare this group of followers for what it meant to live in God’s kingdom. Over the next days and months and years, the lessons that they learned at the foot of the cross would give them the spiritual energy and the imagination they needed to embody the Kingdom of God in the face of unspeakable persecution. Unlike Rome and Egypt, privilege in the body of Christ wouldn’t demand the impoverishment and oppression of those outside of it.
Short-term mission as pilgrimage toward the cross
In this way, short-term mission can be reconceived as a kind of pilgrimage to the cross. We make our way down thousands of Via Dolorosas to the slums of Lima and the shores of Lesbos, to Ferguson and the favelas of Rio—to any number of the Golgothas of our world. We go because Christ is being recrucified every day in people who bear his image, and we ourselves must bear witness. Maybe our actions on these journeys become like those of Simon from Cyrene—we carry our brothers’ and sisters’ crosses, if only for a moment. If only for a few, stumbling steps, we sense the crushing weight of mass incarceration and mass migration and share in their suffering on their way to Calvary.
Or maybe our roles are to be more inconspicuous, to find ourselves among the anonymous people who follow Simon and simply mourn and wail at a distance outside a brothel in Bangkok or rehab center in Rosebud. Or maybe we allow ourselves to be moved by the nobility of a local Joseph of Arimathea or a Mary Magdalene who care for bodies broken by injustice, ISIS, and opioids with such grace in the midst of such suffering.
Even in a world where young people are more connected and have more access to global information than ever before, they can be isolated in their own curated worlds. We need to create spaces and pathways, especially for young people of privilege, to encounter the brutal realities of injustice that too many people face. While the empires of Egypt and Rome have risen and fallen, their imagination for the world and the institutional injustice that fuels it is alive and well. Bearing witness to this suffering offers young people an opportunity to see the world as it really is and to make a choice to work for the interests of marginalized people rather than their own.
In light of the ways short-term trips can be icons of hell, here are a few things to consider as you plan your next mission trip or service project:
- Avoid poverty porn. While it can be transformative to encounter injustice in our world, it’s another thing to be a voyeur, to gawk and consume another’s pain. There’s a big difference between revealing your wounds to a group of strangers who gasp, take pictures, and move on, and showing them to med students who will learn and help others because of your pain. As the wise Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation once disparagingly said about a friend’s boyfriend, “He vacations in other people’s lives, takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, he’s selfish.” Don’t be selfish.
- Learn about institutional injustice. There’s an old saying, “If you see a fish go belly-up in a lake, you try to find out what was wrong with the fish. You see a thousand fish go belly up in a lake and you better take a look at the lake.” There are good reasons why poverty, drug abuse, prostitution, hunger, and incarceration are so prevalent in some communities. Most often it’s not because there are so many individuals who lack character or because of a deficient culture. They are the predictable results of systemic injustice. Don’t shame people. Investigate what’s wrong with the water.
- See people as more than their pain. Avoid the single story of people who are living in poverty and the countries in which they live. While they may be victims, they’re often not completely helpless, and their resilience and resourcefulness can be astounding.
- Do a (really old-school) altar call. When the 19th century revivialist Charles Finney called people to follow Christ, he enlisted them to abolish slavery. Present young people with an opportunity to give their lives to Christ, and in doing so, to make a decision to work for the interests of marginalized people rather than their own.