In recent days, we’ve all heard the story of the Americans from Idaho who went to Haiti to help the children, but ended up with a group of children that included kids who weren’t orphans, and failed to go through any of the required hoops to legally bring the children out of the Country.  This group of Baptist missionaries, I am sure, were well meaning and saw themselves even as Agents of the Lord doing his work to help make a better life for these children.  However, there’s an arrogance to this view, including one that involves a sense of paternalism, in that these well-meaning folks somehow had the one and only right answer to the situation at hand.

Lots of people need help from time to time.  Lots of people are in tough situations, but temporary fixes are at best bandaids to larger problems at hand.  That’s not to say that bandaids can’t save lives, but they don’t replace, say, stitches, or hygiene, or education for long term solutions to the same problem.  We wouldn’t think for a moment that the same folks would go to any inner city in the US and start rounding up poor children, because they can be “saved” but somehow, in this disaster zone, all sense of appropriateness is removed, and instead, in the eagerness to make a difference, people are substituting their judgment for those of people in the community.

The problem with evangelism is that it makes you think you have the only solution, the only right answer, and everyone else’s opinion is simply wrong.  For example, when Brit Hume suggested that Tiger Woods could recover from the scandal by converting to Christianity, this seems like telling someone they get a “Get out of jail free” card if they simply join up on your team.

Is it, or should it be this simple?  I think some people read the “Go and Sin No More” clause to have a subtext that says “Go and sin no less, either.”  Assuming we have manifest destiny over everyone because we think we have the right answer totally ignores the whole concept of personal choice and freedom this Country was founded on.  I may not agree with your views, and you may not agree with mine, but I am willing to fight to the death for your ability to express them, and equally for my own.  What I object to is the intolerance of the possibility of alternatives, other ideas and suggestions.  Life is never one size fits all.

I know it’s difficult when you think someone is wrong or misguided, or even suffering, and you think you have the right answer, to think you need to impose that answer on them, “for their own good.”  I know I’ve often thought I have the perfect solution to a problem, and guess what?  Someone disagrees, and they have a perfectly legitimate alternative that they think will work.  And then it becomes my job, after presenting my view, to back off and let them make their own decisions in their own life.  Whether that’s trying to teach my kids study skills that worked for me, or help a client with their website and marketing, the end point is the same.  I can give advice, but they are the ones that need to make the decisions and take action.

The paternalistic portions of evangelism- the “I know best” portion- can have ugly consequences.  Our form of government might not work as well with other cultures.  Our ideas of help may not be truly helpful.  We have to be willing to be wrong, even when we’re certain we have the right answer.    I know the group in Haiti probably had the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean removing kids from their parents, or from their Country,  is a decision they can make on their own, no matter how much love and kindness and generosity was involved.  We still have to ask permission before forever altering the lives of others, well intentioned or not.  And that also means being willing to back off when asked.