Posted by: Titus Presler | August 26, 2010

A caution about the term “development” in mission thought

The second All Africa Bishops Conference is likely to be termed a “development” conference by many because it is designed to focus on such issue as poverty, health care, corruption and environmental degradation.  Similarly a number of what are often called “development agencies” have been asked to participate in companionship with the African bishops.

Since I’m commenting periodically on the reported proceedings of the conference, I note my reluctance to use the term “development” in such contexts.  In the Introduction to the forthcoming Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, I explain my thinking:

The terms “developed” and “developing” [for parts of the world] are avoided because they normatize the cultural and economic trajectories of Europe and North America, as though they were the inevitable course of all societies. For the same reason I avoid unadorned use of the term “development” in referring to educational, medical and socio-economic initiatives in mission. Sometimes I mention “infrastructure development” but more often specify the types of initiative involved.

As used by Westerners and by some elites in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the term “development” often smuggles in assumptions that a right-ordered society is one organized along the lines of the industrial and post-industrial economies of Europe and North America.  Given the dehumanizing and environmentally catastrophic effects of a good deal of that so-called “development,” we need to be a good deal more careful in our use of terms.

Human flourishing is a more helpful concept. Human flourishing needs to be promoted in concert with a society’s own infrastructure of relationships and visions that set for what it is to flourish.  Just as the reign of God cannot be equated with any particular political system or party, so also it cannot be equated with any particular economic system or with any community ideal imported by a “development agency.”

Justice, compassion and reconciliation are key in God’s reign.  How those are expressed must issue from listening companionship with one another as God works incarnationally through the the thought worlds of the peoples God created in those worlds.

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