James, one of the first leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, includes a radical claim in his New Testament letter: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”1 The apostle Paul agreed with James: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [emphasis added].”2 These early church leaders were simply recalling the words of their Messiah who said that when his followers fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner they were actually serving him. Jesus and the New Testament authors did not invent these views concerning the necessity of making love known through action. It was an essential feature of Old Testament law; one which the prophets had to continually bring to Israel’s attention. Love and justice, peace and well-being, faithfulness to God and faithfulness to neighbor – these have always been inseparable in the story of God. The prophet Micah says it well: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”3
At its best, international development is one way the people of God participate in God’s mission to establish shalom on earth. Shalom is the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. International development seeks to contribute to God’s shalom through activities which increase the standard of living and overall well-being for those living in situations of poverty in hope that all people experience a life which reflects their inestimable value as God’s image bearers.
However, international development has too often been the work of churches from Western, “developed” countries who work with churches and communities in the “developing” world in order to make them look and feel more like Western church and communities. As David Wright notes, the mission agencies of Western churches which perform this work “have uncritically borrowed a politically oriented aid rationale that was born in the immediate post-War years with the Marshall Plan and fine-tuned during the long ideological struggle of the cold war.”4 When mission agencies employ such a politically, economically driven rationale for development work among their international neighbors, they create relationships lacking any real mutuality which “cannot be authentic or constructive” and usually end in “uneasy dependence or frustrated estrangement.”5 Bryant Myers identifies the cause of mission agencies’ uncritical adoption of these development theories as the Enlightenment-born divide between the spiritual and material world which asserts that “religion, faith, and values belong in the spiritual world” and “science, reason, and facts are part of the real world.”6 Mission agencies born in the West tend to separate the work of international development in the “real world” from the work of the church in the “spiritual realm.” This dichotomy facilitates the removal or cheapening of distinctly Christian values, methods, and goals from the manuals of mission agencies so all that remains are the values, methods, and goals of Western economics, politics, and culture. God’s shalom gets replaced by an “international” version of American or European society.
For international development to contribute towards God’s shalom, it must leave behind its dualistic, paternalistic ways. Myers calls development practitioners to break free from the grip of a modernist worldview and begin operating from a “holistic understanding of an integrated spiritual-physical world” in order to practice truly Christian development within a global context.7 In addition, Wright suggests four changes to be made to the “aid relationship” between Western mission agencies and those with whom they work: “we must restore mutuality to the aid relationship, develop and apply contextual standards to the definition of need/aid, moderate the effects of the bureaucratization of aid, and create full webs of meaning in which to situate aid relationships.”8 With these fundamental adjustments, the work of international development can become a vital, life-giving expression of God’s mission to establish shalom in all creation.
1 Jam. 2:17.
2 Gal. 5:6.
3 Mic. 6:8.
4 David W. Wright, “The Pitfalls of the International Aid Rationale: Comparisons Between Missionary Aid and the International Aid Network,” Missiology 22, no. 2 (1994): 187.
5 Wright, 192.
6 Bryant L. Myers, “What Makes Development Christian? Recovering from the Impact of Modernity,” Missiology 26, no. 2 (April 1, 1998): 145.
7 Myers, 149.
8 Wright, 201.