Missions and Money: Revised and Expanded
Bonk, Jonathan J., Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006. 272 pp. $27.
There are, indeed, interpersonal and even spiritual dynamics at play when persons of vastly different amounts of financial and technological resources relate to one another, especially in cross-cultural relationships and Christian missions. Jon Bonk thinks little good can come of it. He has offered an impassioned appeal for a radical (one to one) “incarnational” approach to missionary identification with receptor cultures that entails giving up all privileges. His thesis is that, “The effectiveness of the Gospel is hindered by insensitive affluence that makes social relationships not only difficult but embarrassing; for as long as there is an economic gap between missionaries and their convers, fraternal fellowship is difficult to maintain” (xviii). Bonk was moved to argue his case by his experience as a Canadian missionary in Ethiopia and before that, as a Western student in a boarding school with local Ethiopian manual laborers. Bonk’s tenure as director of the ecumenical Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, USA afforded him opportunities to interact with church leaders from around the world. He is the immediate past president of the International Association of Mission Studies.
Bonk’s apparent Anabaptist perspective on culture and money flows from an influential stream in the history of Western pietistic evangelicalism. Whether one agrees with his use of particular Scripture texts or his larger thesis, the book’s collection of biblical texts on money and wealth presses the relatively affluent Christian reader to reevaluate his or her own relationship to material resources and to those who have much less than they do. That is a good result. In fact, Bonk wisely admonishes Western would-be missionaries that what the Bible says to and about the rich very well may relate to them when they find themselves in their place of ministry. Therefore, they ought to prepare themselves ahead of time by thinking these things through.
The issue of “perception” (how non-Christians perceive Christians, especially relatively wealthy missionaries from another culture) is a dominant concern for Bonk (8, 51, 61, 74). Missions and Money provides a good reminder that perception matters immensely and ought to be a constant consideration of those working cross-culturally. Bonk’s main concern in this regard is that the relative affluence of a missionary gives the impression that economic improvement is a part of the gospel promise and a necessary consequence of Christian conversion. He warns against wrongly promoting a “good news of plenty.” He claims that a relatively wealthy person cannot, with integrity, represent a Lord who for our sake made himself poor (52).
Bonk’s explanation of what he calls the “strategic validation” argument made by some missionaries for their relative affluence is evenhanded (47-50). It is too easy at times to justify one’s relative affluence by calling to mind the opportunities and resources it provides for our beloved and/or assumed “mission strategy.” Bonk rightly notes that “the Christian faith is above all a relational faith” (xxv). The “relational costs” or liabilities that missionary affluence entails are hard to escape and antithetical to following Christ, says Bonk (55). These counter-relational consequences of affluence include insulation from the suffering of other persons, physical isolation from others, the illusion of superiority over others (or what some missiologists have called a “god complex”), mistrust by others for suspected self-serving motives, and envy (55-67).
Thinking about Bonk’s many provocative assertions in Missions and Money heightened my appreciation for the important distinction he notes between wealth per se and the issue of being a relatively wealthy witness for Christ in a context of material poverty. A missionary should not try to justify his or her own relative affluence in a much poorer context merely with arguments for wealth per se. Bonk’s distinction between different cultural approaches to money and “gross economic inequality” as two separate issues is also true and helpful to consider. However, I’m not convinced by his assertion that the latter is always a “deeper, underlying problem” (77, n.19) more potentially destructive to Christian missions.
In a globalized world there are fewer and fewer non-western people in material poverty who are unaware of the degree of renunciation a Western missionary has undergone for the sake of the name of Christ. Some local friends in Cameroon recognized the significantly scaled down aspect of my family’s still relatively affluent lifestyle. They said that our “sacrifice” commended the content of my teaching in the seminary. In addition, many Christian historians and other scholars have traced the roots of western civilization, in part, to a worldview with biblical categories. The beneficial long-term socio-cultural shaping influence of the Bible’s true world and life view upon western civilization has proven for many educated persons to be an apologetic for Christianity. The appropriate place of money and technology in missions, like so many other issues, should be considered in a context by context and case by case manner. Whether one’s ethnicity, national identify, personality, or relative affluence will deter or enhance cross-cultural relationships depends upon the place, occasion, and other persons involved.
The book seems schizophrenic. While many statements betray an a priori bias against wealth per se and a spiritual idealization of Christ-like material poverty (52, 139, 178), Bonk softens the blow near the end of the book by rightly noting three things: possession of wealth is not necessarily sinful, the gospel is for the rich as well as the poor, and there are sins to which the poor are particularly susceptible (156). He finally does concede the biblical category of the “righteous rich” by including a chapter on that topic by Christopher J.H. Wright near the end of the book. Bonk’s use of hedging adverbs, though, like “frequently” and “usually” (and the frustratingly illogical “almost inevitably”) seem added to his denouncements of wealth for the sake of sounding more balanced (117; cf. 56). These efforts at balance, though, when combined with Bonk’s reoccurring association of ungodly worldliness with the advantages wealth can bring (133), of relative power with “domination” (83), and, conversely, of poverty with the meaning of “losing one’s life” to be a follower of Christ (42) gives the impression of internal contradiction in the book rather than that of being an holistic consideration and complex integration of all the relevant data by the book’s primary author in a satisfying manner.
The book concludes with two chapters contributed by Methodist historian and theologian Justo Gonzalez, “New Testament Koinonia and Wealth” and “Wealth in the Subapostolic Church,” the latter chapter summarizing what a few prominent Christian documents and theologians from the first two centuries of the church said about wealth and Christian faith. Missions and Money would be a good conversation starter or academic resource for students and missionary candidates who are equipped to critically assess its claims. The perspectives of Bonk, Wright, and Gonzalez might be creatively put into dialogue with those of other scholars like Craig Blomberg and Wayne Grudem, as well as with the emerging bodies of literature on economic development, contextualization, and the mission endeavors of the majority world church.