Posted by: Titus Presler | February 10, 2010

“Hearts in the right place”? – a perennial question for mission

“Hearts in the right place.”  The expression has been used numerous times in connection with the 10 USAmerican missionaries who tried to take 33 children into the Dominican Republic after Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake and who are now charged with child abduction.  Beyond that particular situation, “hearts in the right place” comes up frequently in discussions of the history and direction of Christian mission, especially in the modern period.  So it merits a closer look.

It is striking how common the expression is in evaluations of human motivation in situations recognized to be in some way difficult.  The difficulty may be personal, as in a complicated romantic or familial situation.  In terminating a fledgling romance, for instance, someone may want to “let him down easily,” but others may feel the admirer has been an intrusive nuisance who needs to be told just to go away.  Yet, they say, “Her heart’s in the right place.”  Someone might reach out to help a family member, but outside observers may feel the assistance is just prolonging dependency.  Yet they acknowledge, “His heart’s in the right place.”

The difficulty may be one of social and political policy.  “Urban renewal” in the 1960s cleared USAmerican cities of decaying neighborhoods thought to be “slums,” but several years ago Chicago demolished numerous enormous high-rise apartment buildings that were deemed to be more pernicious than the slums they had replaced.  Importation of various plants and animals to solve problems in ecosystems has often created other more serious problems.  Unintended consequences often prompt the observation, “But their hearts were in the right place.”

Expression distinguishes motives from results

So the expression, “hearts in the right place,” is used almost invariably in the context of a caveat: Something’s not right, an action or policy is misguided, but the heart of the individual or the group was “in the right place.”  Use of the expression implies some disjunction between motivation and effect, between what was intended and what resulted.

“Hearts in the right place” is used for the motivational side of the picture.  What is that “right place”?  Good will is the most basic assumption underlying the expression, and compassion is often implied.  Out of the compassion arises a desire to help, but it’s the form or direction of help that has caused the problem.  Help has been the intention, but hurt has been the result.

So “hearts in the right place” becomes a way of articulating an extenuating circumstance in what is assessed otherwise as a problematic situation.  Something is happening that shouldn’t be happening.  Someone’s responsible for the bad situation, but “his heart’s in the right place.”  In other words, he intended good, but the result has been harm or, at least, complication, confusion, consternation.

Use of the expression implies that the damage that resulted was not foreseen.  Whether the damage could have been foreseen is not always clear and may sometimes be disputed.  Clearly the actor didn’t foresee the damage, and some may say it couldn’t have been foreseen.  Others with more experience of the type of situation being discussed may say it could have and should have been foreseen, but sometimes such critics are accused of Monday-morning quarterbacking with the benefit of hindsight.

“Hearts in the right place” in Christian mission

“Hearts in the right place” comes up in assessments of Christian mission, as does the more general concept of untended damage despite good intentions.

Instances abound.

The western medicine dispensed through hundreds of thousands of mission clinics and hospitals in Africa, Asia and Latin America saved millions of lives and turned the tide on various virulent diseases, but the facilities’ popularity resulted in indigenous modes of healing being mocked, marginalized and sometimes forgotten.

The education offered in countless mission schools opened windows on the wider world, made literacy accessible to all, and built conduits into professional careers in law, medicine, business and education.  But the beneficiaries frequently have discounted their cultures or origin, with the result that indigenous modes of learning, social interaction and historical preservation have been mocked, marginalized and sometimes forgotten.

The agricultural methods introduced by missionaries gave local farmers access to world markets and enhanced their incomes.  Yet it also exposed them to the collapse of world commodity prices, and dependence on cash crops that depleted the soils.

“But their hearts were in the right place,” is an appropriate refrain in such instances.  Missionaries and their supporting agencies saw disease, illiteracy and poverty that prompted their compassion, and they wanted to help.  Much of their help was truly helpful: people were healed and educated, and their poverty was alleviated.  There were also some damaging results, but those were hard to foresee.

Then there are the more controversial instances where people wonder whether hearts were truly in the right place at all.

“Clothing the Hottentots” is an expression that encompasses a whole range of activities by which missionaries sometimes propagated their own way of life as superior to indigenous ways of life in clothing, diet, manners and the like.  When missionaries were culturally imperial or colonial, most would agree that their hearts were not in the right place.

The intrinsically religious dimension of Christian mission prompts the most passionate discussion.  Convinced pluralists deem evangelization and church-planting as inherently imperial and hegemonic and thus deem missionaries’ hearts to be in a very dark place indeed.  Those like myself who consider sharing the gospel to be the basic stuff of legitimate mission nonetheless have reservations about certain kinds of gospel proclamation.  If the Presbyterians’ Westminster Catechism or the Lutherans’ Augsburg Confession or the Anglicans’ Thirty-nine Articles of Religion were promulgated as a mandatory way of understanding the gospel, we wish the missionaries’ hearts had been in a more catholic and inclusive place.  If all elements of indigenous religion were viewed as totally demonic and pernicious, we wish the missionaries’ hearts had been more open, inquiring and exploratory.

So “hearts in the right place” is a perennial point of discussion in Christian mission.  Evaluations vary, and assessments are inevitably shaped by presuppositions.

Yet one aspect of the “hearts” assessment comes up often among virtually all theological parties, and it goes something like this: “Given what we know now, given the experience of the last several centuries in mission, given that we have been able to assess the results of certain approaches to Christian mission, we should now be in a position to avoid repeating the same mistakes.  Those early missionaries’ hearts were in the right place – or maybe kind of in the right place! – but now we should be operating in different ways.”

The Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission as an instance

Which brings us back to the Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission.  In a previous blog posting that analyzed in detail the Idaho missionaries’ actions I conceded only that “maybe” their hearts were in the right place.  I reiterate that strong reservation.

It now appears that children are dying as a result of the debacle.  Because of the arrest of the ten missionaries, airlift agencies are reluctant to take severely injured children to hospitals in Florida.  Some children are dying who otherwise would have received life-saving treatment.  More than disgrace for Christian missionaries is at stake now.  The lives of children are at stake.

Certainly the Idaho missionaries did not intend that.  They intended just the opposite, for they wanted to help children who were alone and traumatized after the earthquake.  However, one of the learnings of mission experience is that one must always anticipate that there may be unintended consequences, whether good or bad.  Another learning is that one can reduce the likelihood of bad unintended consequences by careful planning, keen assessment of personnel, knowledge of the local situation, networking with local resources, and exercising ordinary wisdom as crises emerge.  None of that appears to have been present in this venture.

Integrity is a relevant category of analysis in this and other similar situations.  Physical structures like bridges and buildings have integrity when their various parts are arranged so as to accomplish together the task of supporting people, cars, trains or whatever.  Personal and institutional integrity is the result of actions and intentions being mutually calibrated in consistent and appropriate ways.  When plans are consistent with hopes, resources and probabilities, a project has integrity.  Otherwise it lacks integrity and is likely to fail.

Given mission history and the situation in Haiti, the Haitian Orphans Rescue Mission should have known better – much better.  The project did not have integrity.  In that sense its missionaries’ hearts were not in the right place.

The point here is to reflect on missionary motivation and impact across the wide range of mission experience and history.  The Haitian Orphans Rescue Mission is simply one negative instance – and a particularly illustrative one.



  1. T-
    In this post you bring up the oft-contentious issue of the place of evangelism and church planting in the wider context of mission. As I’m sure you know, the most recent issue of The Anglican Theological Review focuses on the question of mission. In particular the first essay [by Christopher Duraisingh of the Episcopal Divinity School] spends a good deal of time touching on this question of the place of evangelism and church planting. I’d be curious if you will be reflecting here on that particular essay or any of the ATR.
    I look forward to your comments.
    Thanks also for the stimulating post above.

    • Thanks for being in touch, Jered. Yes, I will be commenting, and I look forward to discussion here. Christopher Duraisingh is a dear friend and colleague from EDS days, and I hope you had a chance to meet him in Austin: He contributed wonderfully to a couple of missionary orientations there, and I can’t remember whether he was at the one that oriented you and Erin. Stephanie Spellers, author of another missional article, is minister for The Crossing, the emerging church ministry at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, and is a former parishioner of mine from St. Peter’s, from where we sponsored her for ordination after she joined from the ELCA; she’s also now an editor for Church Publishing. Missiologically yours, Titus

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