Vulnerability and Authority

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place."

Mark 6:1-13

July 3, 2015, Words By: Scott Dewey, Image By: "Newborn" by Jlhopgood (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Having given away or sold most of our stuff, my wife Melanie and I were headed to Asia as community development workers with an organization called Gooddeeds. The name pretty much summed up what we wanted to do. As a young couple we wanted to engage our lives and our faith with the poorest, someplace. Woefully clueless but eager, we cast about for, well, clues. Tips, training, insights – anything to steer us in the right direction.

Decades later I’m immensely glad somebody put us onto Tom and Elizabeth Brewster. Deeply troubled by their observations and experience of Western missionaries’ typical approaches to new cultures, the Brewsters were helping ministry workers of their era imagine a new and better posture of engagement with local people. Their prescriptions were controversial and groundbreaking for their time, though others were calling for even more extreme remedies (“a moratorium on missions,” some Christian leaders advocated). Our world has shifted and some of the Brewsters’s ideas sound quirky and dated, but their core insights might be even more instructive today.

The Brewsters outlined four simple, basic conditions under which outsiders should engage a vulnerable community. In fact, in their own organizational circles, they would not enlist foreign staff or volunteers who were not eager to commit to each of these:

1. Be willing to live with a local family.
2. Limit personal belongings to 20 kilos (44 pounds).
3. Use only local public transportation.
4. Carry out language learning in the context of relationships that the learner is responsible to develop and maintain (rather than enroll in language school).

Oh, and one other thing. These four conditions start from day one, minute one, right off the plane. No guesthouse the first night. No seasoned expat showing you the ropes. No language school or phrasebooks. No posse of teammates with identical T-shirts – just two people at the most, or possibly a couple with kids. Plunk in the middle of family life, usually in a poor community, ideally with not a word you can understand.

Melanie and I were crazy and naive enough to try this. Before the sun rose our second day in an Asian city, we regretted ever having heard of the Brewsters. We were in a riptide of disorientation, utterly helpless. I recall almost whimpering. I couldn’t grasp what had happened or how, and fought for air.

By the second and third day it was… worse. I can’t even say when it was better. Weeks? Months? Surely we had been poorly advised.

What I know now is that we were being born, again. Having watched births, I don’t know how anyone survives it.

Elizabeth Brewster watched a lot of births. A student of infant bonding and attachment, as well as newborn “imprinting” in the animal world, she understood that from the first moments of life, humans bond and belong to those who meet their needs – typically our mothers. If basic needs are provided by hospital staff instead, babies may be imprinted with a surrogate. If by some misfortune needs are not met, babies may fail to bond at all, with crippling and socially toxic consequences.

In other words, infants are profoundly vulnerable. It is a necessary condition of any belonging, and eventually any robust life that will bless the world.

According to Jesus vulnerability is, most counter-intuitively, an absolutely necessary condition of authentic authority.

Of course the Brewsters’s four conditions aren’t absolute, thank goodness. I’ll be in Nairobi shortly, staying in a guesthouse the first night after my Kenyan friends pick me up. But I see now the humble, learning posture these four simple rigors were designed to cultivate. They gave birth to a new form of life that was just not gonna happen by gentle means.

The Brewsters’s crazy ideas weren’t new. Jesus divvied up his raggedy band so they’d be even more raggedy. “No bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” What a strategy! The absolute and necessary conditions of an authority that would astonish all who encountered it. An authority profoundly nourished by the very people and communities among whom the disciples would speak and be the good news of God.

Any other kind of authority has proven tragically to be bad news all over. Youch, don’t ask me how I know. We messed up plenty in that Asian city, and got messed up. But whatever good news I’ve ever been part of – by amazing grace – came with the strangely powerful authority of open, empty hands.

Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

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Scott Dewey