In the world of words and phrases, we sometimes get so accustomed to hearing certain things, we don’t even listen anymore. And in not listening, we forget to question.
This was my reaction to the talking points circulated by President-Elect Obama’s inaugural team on Huffington Post articulating the reasons why Obama differs on some issues and agrees on others with Pastor Rick Warren.
The President-elect disagrees with Pastor Warren on issues that affect
the LGBT community. They disagree on other issues as well.
That much is clear. However, the talking points go on to say that:
Pastor Rick Warren has a long history of activism on behalf of the
disadvantaged and the downtrodden. He’s devoted his life to performing
good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in
addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis. In fact, the President-elect
recently addressed Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on Global
Health to salute Warren’s leadership in the struggle against HIV/AIDS
and pledge his support to the effort in the years ahead.
Without impugning motives, and without taking away from Warren or anyone else the fact that expanding access to treatment for AIDS-related illnesses is an important effort, simply repeating over and over that Rick Warren has a long history working on behalf of the "disadvantaged and downtrodden," irks me in two ways. First, it paints people who are living in poverty solely as victims, as flat characters in a story told by others, not as multi-dimensional people who might, if given the opportunity, create more effective and sustainable responses to their own problems than we could from here. This sentiment is expressed in the satirical writing by Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina speaking in Granta magazine about how he sees the West portraying Africa:
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your
book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47,
prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an
African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and
dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin
people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people
who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.
Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too
busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.
The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and
many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep
your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
His point is not to say that people living throughout Africa are not facing crises, but that these crises should not and can not be the only lenses through which we see and define people, because in his words:
I don’t know how many times those pervasive pictures of starving children have discouraged productive investment in Africa, and in doing so, limited solutions to some of these problems.
The second reason this point about Warren irks me is that I simply don’t think we have a shared vision of what "development" is or whether human rights–including women’s rights, the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, or the rights of other marginalized groups–are part of how Rick Warren and his colleagues carry out their work. If in working on poverty, we are simply promoting the evangelical christian ideal as defined by Warren and others, then I am concerned to hear that Barack Obama "agrees." For me, development and poverty are as much linked to the issues of rights and agency, which include (but are not limited to) women’s ability to make choices about marriage, sex, and reproduction, their rights to own land, their rights to divorce and leave an abusive marriage. I do know that in those policy arenas in which Warren has been active internationally, such as in global AIDS policy, he and others who agree with his world view have sought to limit choices in prevention funding, limit access to contraception and limit definitions of "relationships" that mirror his advocacy on domestic LGBT issues. Are these two spheres separable? Did we expect his worldview on international development to be dramatically different than that of his domestic agenda?
And if we get to debates on foreign aid reform, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and other forthcoming international debates and suddenly find out that the Obama Administration’s definitions of "helping the poor and the downtrodden" are in accord with Rick Warren’s approaches, I am deeply concerned. In fact, I am concerned that the unexamined declaration of being in accord on these issues legitimizes Warren’s views on development in ways that should worry all of us.
Let’s examine this language. I am all in favor of communication, clarity and collaboration where goals are clearly discussed and values clearly examined. I am in favor of honest dialogue with Warren and others. I applaud Barack Obama’s ability to reach out and work with others, to have friendships and collaborations that supercede ideology. But at the end of the day there are core values at stake, and I am dismayed to learn that Obama espouses unexamined accord with Warren in these areas, if that is the case. And if it is not, let’s get it clear.
Indeed, as Wainaina states on a recent episode of Speaking of Faith:
It’s not the idea that aid is bad or tand that people that are doing aid are bad. There are social entrepeneurs, economic entrepeneurs [doing good things]. But we need a lot more transparency and a lot more clarity [in what people are doing].
We all want to end poverty, we all want to encourage sustainable livelihoods, many of us want to address climate change and other threats to security well beyond traditional notions of what makes us "secure." But the vision of the world created in this process is in my mind vastly different than what I understood to be espoused by Warren. Let’s examine what we mean when we say we agree on issues of poverty, development and human rights. And let’s not let language make us lazy.