An Unintentional Message January 14, 2008

An Unintentional Message

Chad at No Gods Allowed was checking out the website for Mars Hill Church when he saw this picture on the home page (you may have to click the church’s website a few times to see the image):


Chad started thinking about the picture — maybe overthinking it — but came to this conclusion:

Maybe I’m reading too much into this picture, but does anyone find it a little condescending? I’m sure they mean well, but come on. Did they have to keep the label of “loved.” on the larger, well-fed white girl? Of course she’s loved. She probably lives in suburbia USA, and is out helping the poor for a few weeks before returning to mainstream America without a care in the world. No need to flaunt it in the face of those less fortunate.

I’m sure this “loved.” shirt probably refers to their god’s love, but that makes it even more absurd. Apparently those starving kids in Africa aren’t loved. That is, until they’re helped by the condescending white man.

He adds that it’s possible the boys in the picture were the ones who gave her the shirt, but regardless, it’s just a case of unfortunate juxtaposition.

(To their credit, the church is doing some fantastic work in Sub-Saharan Africa.)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • AJ

    Does being loved necessarily suggest others are not loved? This sounds more than a little paranoid.

  • Considering all the amazing things that Mars Hill does globally and in West Michigan, this is not just “reading too much into it”, it’s over-the-top hyper-critical. The folks at MH are certainly aware of the gross inequities between this girl’s lifestyle and those of the other kids in the picture – it comes up on nearly a weekly basis there – which is why they do so much to relieve these inequities in the first place.

    Assuming that the choice of shirt was deliberate, and not just what the girl happened to be wearing when they took the picture, I’m pretty sure that the implication is supposed to be that all of these children are “loved”, hence the smiles and the playing by all of them.

  • Max

    Just to make this a little more paranoid-sounding… It looks to me like the word was photoshopped onto the girl’s t-shirt.

    Call my crazy but she’s leaning to her right, yet the text is parallel with the baseline of the photo…

  • It looks like she got no letters on her shirt – more like it is photoshopped on it. 😛

  • Mriana

    Yes, I think it is reading a bit too much into it. I can think of other things that could be read into it too, but even so, that would be reading too much into the picture too. I think we should look at the picture for what it is- children playing in the water together and not assume too much.

  • methinks No Gods Allowed should lighten up. After all there are worse things that these people could be doing like preaching Christianity to people who just want an education… oh wait.

  • Y’know, you’re probably right. That post was a bit troll-ish now that I take a second look. I guess that’s one thing these blogs are good for. People aren’t afraid to tell you when you’re being a dick 🙂

    It started more as “hey, this pic is funny in an ironic sorta way” but ended up coming out as, “hey, I’m an asshole and Mars Hill is evil.” I may have taken my criticism a bit too far, as the amount of good done by these guys is undeniable. While I disagree with the spread of their doctrines, I certainly appreciate their outreach towards humanity.

    I concede. I guess I was reading too much into that picture. Let the children have their fun.

  • Puddles. Yay.

    Wait, there was a message?

  • In my book proslytizing cancels out good works. Strings attached, anyone? Spreading mythologies that create hate and violence in a continent that is already in dire straits? I think the photo is terribly condescending.

  • How do you know they’re proselytizing?

  • Karen

    I think the sadly unintentional message here is the physical height and weight of the American kid versus the size of the African kids. I wonder if they are close to her age? They definitely look several years younger just by virtue of being so much smaller than she is.

    If they are her age, or close to it, the photo quite shockingly illustrates how lack of nutrition and health care stunts the growth of kids who don’t get proper medical care and food.

  • Jodie

    Reading too much into this photo would go something like this: Read the caption at the top and research World Vision: An underhanded organization that utilizes neo-colonization’s worst tendencies to do “development work.” While I lived in small village Mali World Vision offered the elders a new school, a new hospital, and money for a doctor….Just a matter of giving up some of their un-christian cultural practices in exchange. They are one of the most reprehensible organizations operating in the development business. I wish more people read THAT into this photo.

  • About World Vision

    I don’t see anything there about imposing cultural or religious conditions on communities that receive their help. I have some friends that work for World Vision, and I’ll ask them about that directly.

  • Her shirt definitely looks like the word “Loved” was Photoshopped (yes, I used it as a verb!) in there. I should know, I’m a graphic designer and they didn’t even try to “blend” the word into the t-shirt. It looks like it was stamped on there, perfectly parallel with the photo, but not with her.

  • Seriously?? Come on. It never fails to amaze me how people can and will be critical of just about everything…even the well-intentioned stuff.

    “I swear that’s a cross behind Mr. Huckabee!!”

  • I’m one of Mike’s friends that has worked for World Vision. Like any organization, they have their share of flaws, especially when viewed from the inside. My experience was that those flaws had more to do with personnel choices and marketing philosophy than with development methodology.

    Jodie, I’m sorry that it looked to you like World Vision staff were proselytizing. It’s possible that they were. There is a certain amount of decentralization in the organizational structure of World Vision. However, if that was occurring, it was absolutely in defiance of the stated policy of the Board of Directors. I personally sat through several all-staff meetings in which we were trained in this no-proselytization policy. Examples I can give in which this was played out involved disaster relief in Pakistan and my own trip to Africa on a World Vision sponsored Vision Trip.

    My colleague and friend Amber went to Pakistan a year ago after the huge earthquake there in order to bring the story back to get funding for the relief that was being done there. The thing that struck me most about her story when she returned was a private comment she made to me that she was so glad it was World Vision protocol to respect local religious customs when engaged in disaster relief so as not shade the love they were trying to communicate. World Vision staff were the only disaster relief workers (both religious and secular) to wear head-scarves in a predominantly Muslim country. You can see pictures and read the story here. Overall, in countries where another religion is predominant, staff are often non-Christians because the goals of community development are more important than evangelism.

    On my own trip to villages in Zambia and the DR Congo, I met women who continued to fulfill their traditional roles as birth-attendants in women’s homes for pay. Although World Vision taught locals how to lobby the government for a clinic (notice that the community was not simply “given” the clinic; they were taught skills so that they could get it for themselves), they did not insist that locals change their culture by making women give birth in the new clinic. Instead, they asked the traditional birth attendants what they wanted and gave them better training in maternal and infant health as a response. In the course of that training, all participants (teachers and students) instituted new policy of recommending that all pregnant mothers visit the clinic once to get tested for AIDS so that positive mothers could be identified discreetly (we’re not even allowed to publish their pictures in the US) and encouraged to give birth at the clinic so that drugs could be administered to prevent mother-to-child transmission. I saw absolutely no evidence that Christianity was part of this development transaction and I’m a fairly cynical gal. You can read about the rest of my trip on my blog. Just search for “Africa” or follow the tag link on the left column.

    All of my emails when I worked for World Vision had this statement in the signature:

    “World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.

    Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, we serve alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people. World Vision serves all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender.”

    Please believe when I tell you that all of that syntax and vocabulary was labored over. It communicates that we are motivated by Jesus but says nothing about evangelism, even thought the donor base for World Vision (almost a billion dollars annually) and the staff is almost entirely right-wing evangelical. (I’ve never seen more pro-Israel bumper stickers in my life than I did in the parking lot at headquarters.) Those folks usually believe that getting other people to say the “sinner’s prayer” is more important than saving those same people from getting run over by a bus. Those folks are also often notoriously touchy about not giving money to organizations that do not agree exactly with their theology. So, one would expect World Vision to cater to their money. But earlier versions of this mission statement specifically named proselytization as prohibited. And this new version states that our work is a “demonstration.” If people ask why we would go out of our way to “work alongside” them, then questions can be answered but isn’t that the very best scenario in any relationship? How did you get so thin? Why are you laughing? What’s that book about? In asking and answering questions, we become more human to one another. This is very different than the old-school evangelism that was described in previous comments.

    “Walking With the Poor” by Bryant Myers or anything by Jayakumar Christian (both World Vision field staff) lay out community development models that are considered fundamental to people in the process of solving under-resourced communities’ problems all over the world. Their methodology is a refinement of “appreciative inquiry” (google it; you’ll like it) and is both respectful and loving.

    Like I said, there is room that Jodie’s experience is valid. However, I think there is also room for the fact that she might not have been seeing the whole picture. People do convert to Christianity without having been duped or tricked just like people convert to Communism because it makes sense to them logically. We now ask what the country was so scared of during the Cold War. If Communism was so bad, why would we have to protect people from falling like dominoes into it? I think the same is true of all major religions. God reveals herself in different forms to different people. Just because some of them believe that one of those forms involve salvation through Christ doesn’t make necessarily make them gullible.

  • Also, the wrinkle in her shirt below her left shoulder is clearly parallel with the lettering. 🙂

  • Jen

    Yes, I think “loved” was photoshopped on. THe question: Why?

  • stogoe

    How do you know they’re proselytizing?

    Umm… because they’re Christian?

    This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Silly Questions.

  • Vincent

    The word looks really bad but I can’t help but wonder if the whole girl was photoshopped in.

  • Maria

    I think this is reading way too much into something silly. sheesh, be glad someone’s trying to help somehow at least. who cares what her shirt says? seriously……

  • How do you know they’re proselytizing?

    Umm… because they’re Christian?

    This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Silly Questions.

    So apparently you aren’t too familiar with the differences between different types of Christians, huh?

  • I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t think everyone else should be a Christian. Some are just less obnoxious about pushing it down your throat than others.

  • Well, now you’ve met Mike and me. How many exceptions will it take to disprove your theory?

    I can point you in the direction of a few others but I can assure you, there are several of us out here who believe in a person’s ability to rationally choose for oneself what kind of faith he/she practices AND that those choices (even when not Christian) have a chance of being the right choice for that person. Personally, my belief in God’s decision to allow us free choice (as opposed to predestination) in addition to my belief that Christ’s sacrifice saved all people without them having to do a thing to earn it (including believe) REQUIRES that possibility.

    I’d love to talk about it more with you, writerdd and stogoe, if you’re interested. I hate getting stereotyped.

  • grazatt

    Rebecca please tell us more! Are you saying that people converting to Christianity is not a good thing?

  • Rebecca please tell us more! Are you saying that people converting to Christianity is not a good thing?

    I don’t think she does have to tell you more as that was so obviously not even implied in her comment.

    On the picture, if we’re reading things into it then could it be a comment on how we look at those children? It contrasts the western, white and familiar child with kids we might be used to seeing on, ahem, World Vision posters and whose lives and needs we might distance ourselves from and calls on us to see instead a group of kids having fun that are equally deserving of our concern?

  • grazatt

    Maybe I did not phrase that well
    2nd attempt Rebecca, is conversion to Christianity not always a good thing/

  • Thanks, Dawn, for helping bring the perceived tone to something that was more conducive to actual conversation. I admit I jumped to defensive rather than assuming miscommunication and giving grazatt the benefit of the doubt. I don’t like behaving like that so I appreciate your intercession.

    Thanks, grazatt, for rephrasing the question. I’m pleased to be given the chance to elaborate.

    The Christian church and individual people incorrectly speaking on behalf of Jesus have hurt a lot of people, sometimes in ways that might never be healed in this world. In these scenarios, Christianity will never bring someone closer to spiritual fulfillment, which I believe is an essential step to achieving life in all its fullness.

    Also, a majority of people on this planet live in cultures that are completely interdependent with a religion that shows a different face of God than Christianity. I think that for many of those people, Christianity would not resonate in their souls and so would be a poor substitute for the access to the Divine that they currently experience.

    I think that when I interact with atheists, my lack of a desire to convert is usually a combination of those two. The first is obvious. The second is applicable because often the culture that they come from is entwined with spiritual fulfillment that comes from some other source than the trappings of religion (family, nature, the beauty of science, etc). Again, Christianity might be a poor substitute for that sense of fulfillment that already exists.

    Biblically, I’m called to love God, love my neighbor and to make disciples of other people. The first two are purely independent acts but the third requires interaction with other people and I recognize it’s a little tricky. Here’s the verse (via Biblegateway):

    Jesus, undeterred, went right ahead and gave his charge: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”

    Matthew 28:19 (The Message)

    I’ll admit I don’t have all the answers for why I choose my intuition over scriptural authority on this one. I’m not a theologian or a philosopher. It just seems to me like this is one of those verses that can’t and shouldn’t be taken literally. How do you baptize everyone you meet? People would start getting pissed if I carried a super-soaker with me everywhere. But I do know how to train people in a way of life: lead by example, stumbling through my own decisions with good intentions and asking forgiveness when I mess up; ask questions in groups of people without knowing the answer beforehand; love others; love God. I do this in the threefold name, but I can’t insist that others use the same name that I do for God. It would be like asking other people to call my mother “Mom,” instead of Cheryl or Mrs. Murphy.

  • grazatt

    Now that was a good answer Rebecca I can see that you are a worthy companion of MikeC

  • Now that was a good answer Rebecca I can see that you are a worthy companion of MikeC

    I’m taking that as a compliment. 🙂

    I agree Rebecca, that was a good answer. Thanks for popping in here friend.

  • Rebecca, thanks for that. It was a thoughtful response that I’m going to think on for awhile. I have similar feelings but haven’t been able to express them as clearly.

  • I’ll be honest, I don’t trust Christians who say they are not interested in evangelism and witnessing. I know about so-called “friendship” evangelism and being nice to people and pretending to accept them as they are, so that when they have a crisis you’re there to pick up the pieces and convert them when they’re down. I know how Christians pretend to be nice to you but they are really condescending behind your back, praying for you because it’s so sad and pitiful that you’re lost and you need salvation — basically all the things Hemant wrote about in his book.

    Mike & Rebeca, I just don’t buy it that you think everyone is OK and you’re not trying to save them. I’d like to believe it but I am not sure what it would take to convince me after 46 years of seeing the opposite everywhere I turn. Even my mother, with whom I have an excellent relationship, is that kind of phoney. I know for a fact she and her friends pray for me and she thinks I need to come back to the Lord and she’ll never give up until the day she dies, even though she will no longer say it to my face because I finally told her if she couldn’t leave me alone about religion, then she was not welcome in my home.

    I can’t help suspecting that you are here on this blog trying to show us how nice you are so we’ll see the light and come over from the dark side. Rebecca, you even admitted it when you said you are called to make disciples of other people.

    I know the lingo. I was an insider for 2/3rds of my life.

  • I’ve seen and been a part of exactly what you describe too, Donna. And I have rejected that approach. I agree that “friendship evangelism” is “phoney” and dishonest. I know I can’t do or say anything to convince that I’m being honest about this, all I can do is remind you that not all Christians are part of that evangelical sub-culture that even uses terms like “friendship evangelism”. Some, like me, once were and have since rejected it. And others, like Rebecca, never were fully part of it in the first place. I guess what I’m suggesting is that maybe your experience with Christians has been limited by the type of Christians you have been around, and that perhaps that is coloring your judgment of us. There nothing more I can say beyond “we’re not all like that.”

    As for the whole “making disciples” thing, I thought Rebecca was clear that “making disciples” is different (in her mind, and in mine) than “converting people to Christianity”. I agree with her. I do want to “make disciples of Jesus” if by that one means “helping people live the way of love, compassion, generosity, reconciliation, and justice that Jesus taught and demonstrated”, but I don’t think that has to necessarily mean converting people to “Christianity” (as Rebecca said, oftentimes that can actually be counter-productive). I.e. it’s not about “evangelism”, it’s simply about using my life to be a force for good in the world and living it to the full, and then helping others to do the same.

  • Mike, I’m not sure there’s anything you can say to convince me because I have seen and heard so many Christians have one face to outsiders and another face to insiders that I find it difficult to take anything that Christians say publicly at face value.

    However, if what you really care about is “using my life to be a force for good in the world and living it to the full, and then helping others to do the same” — which I think is a noble and worthy effort — then why tie it to religion at all? And please don’t say “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord” or anything like that.

    You certainly don’t need Jesus to meet those goals. In fact, with all the negative baggage, I think Jesus and Christianity are hindrances to meeting your goals. There are much better role models and mentors you could emulate. Jesus’s legacy seems to be mostly war and prejudice and strife.


  • However, if what you really care about is “using my life to be a force for good in the world and living it to the full, and then helping others to do the same” — which I think is a noble and worthy effort — then why tie it to religion at all? And please don’t say “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord” or anything like that.

    I wasn’t going to say that. 🙂 What I was going to say is that this is exactly what my religion is about in the first place. Why tie it into religion? Because that’s what my religion is – that’s what I think God is about, that’s what I think Jesus is all about, that’s what I think the underlying nature of the whole universe is about. I don’t have to convince everyone else of those metaphysical realities to help them live in this way too, but that doesn’t change my own belief that these realities are what underlie all of it. It’s what inspires me and motivates me to live the way I do and to encourage others to do the same. This isn’t just some theoretical thing that I could drop if it is inconvenient to my cause. This is a deep, existential – I would even say “spiritual” – reality in my life.

    You certainly don’t need Jesus to meet those goals. In fact, with all the negative baggage, I think Jesus and Christianity are hindrances to meeting your goals. There are much better role models and mentors you could emulate. Jesus’s legacy seems to be mostly war and prejudice and strife.

    I disagree. I do need Jesus, because again, this is not just some abstract belief, some “religion” thing for me. It’s not simply a matter of choosing a “mentor” or “role model”. Jesus is far more to me than that. His Spirit is a living reality in my life. I have experienced the presence and power of God in my life, and that is what has changed me and motivates me. As Peter Rollins has said, religion is simply what I’m left with in the aftermath of an encounter with the Divine.

    In fact, I think everyone needs Jesus in their lives – I just don’t think everyone needs to explicitly acknowledge this fact or even believe in God at all for Jesus’ Spirit to be present and at work within them. I think Jesus shows up in people’s lives in many different guises, not all of which have much to do with what we typically call “religion”. This is why I’ve often said that I’ve met many atheists who are better followers of Jesus than some Christians I know. I’m not just saying that. I honestly believe those people are following Jesus even if they themselves wouldn’t call it that. They might not even take that as a compliment, but I do mean it as such.

  • Thanks for explaining, Mike. I think that’s what humanity is about. I think Jesus is either a rotted corpse or a fiction, and I don’t mean that to be rude or crass. I think you’re stuck in a mindset where you can’t admit that if some atheists are better than Christians that shows that goodness has absolutely nothing to do with God or Jesus. But I appreciate your taking the time to discuss this. Gotta work tonight, so TAFN.


  • I think that’s what humanity is about.

    Yes, that too. 🙂

    I think you’re stuck in a mindset where you can’t admit that if some atheists are better than Christians that shows that goodness has absolutely nothing to do with God or Jesus.

    Why would that follow? If God exists, then I would expect to find her influence everywhere, not just among Christians. In the very first chapter of the Bible we’re told that humanity – all of us – was created in God’s image, so if that’s true then I would expect that anyone and everyone is capable of reflecting that image. Atheists acting better than Christians doesn’t prove anything except that atheists share that common humanity.

    BTW, did you mean TTFN? 😉

    Hope work goes well!

  • monkeymind

    Mike and Donna, your conversation is starting to remind me of a Sufi parable

  • Monkeymind, what a fantastic story. I especially like the fact that he couldn’t give them wine from those grapes.

    Dawn and grazatt, thank you for your feedback. My intent in sharing my stories and my viewpoint is to create the same relaxation of spiritual shoulders in others that I felt myself when I found a group that accepted, loved and encouraged me BECAUSE of my “heresies.” Your response tells me I’ve succeeded even a little bit.

    Donna, I appreciate your willingness to share some of the pain that causes your reaction to Mike and me. All I can say is that the sense of rejection I’ve felt from other Christians my whole life because of those same “heresies” created some very deep wounds in my own soul that have yet to fully heal. I, too, have had people tell me that they were praying for me in that very particular condescending way that they do. I was never quite up to their standards for being a “real” Christian when I asked difficult questions and put forth unorthodox ideas as things that felt like they were truth. Consequently, I was always on the edge of the group begging for acceptance. My theology has been formed by those horrible feelings of rejection. Why couldn’t they just have loved me?

    Yup. Still hurts.

    I never want someone to feel the way that I have felt and continue to feel. That desire opened the door to discovering my theories about the different faces of God and the implications of atonement (i.e. everyone goes to heaven but not everyone is happy once they get there because they’re mad that they’re not the only ones who got in: that’s hell).

    Why religion? Personally, I can’t deny the divinity of Christ. I have experienced moments of unquestionable awareness that God exists and that she loves me. The culture in which I was raised explained that feeling of love with the story of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. That explanation made sense and I’ve never been able to shake it, even though I’ve spent more than half my life shaking the other things they told me at the same time. The persistence of my certainty is almost proof in itself that it’s the best way I’ll interact with God. Whether Christ is a rotten corpse or fiction (and I’ll admit both are valid possibilities) it’s the story and it’s influence that is important. Like Tim O’Brien says in The Things They Carried, “Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

    I think trying to convince you that I’m genuine disrespects your acknowledgment that this might be a wound that doesn’t heal in this life. All I can do is tell you my story. Thank you for listening. If you’re interested, I can also introduce you to my brother who lives out his spiritual life according to Hindu traditions and let him vouch whether or not I’m truly happy that he has found God in whatever voice spoke his language. 🙂

    Thanks again for this opportunity to share.

  • Daniel

    Just a quick note. As an attendee of Mars Hill I can verify that these shirts were widely distributed among the congragation, so I see no reason that they would go to the trouble to photoshop that in, let alone employ a photoshoping propaganda department.

  • Thanks for weighing in on that Daniel. I was actually wondering if that might have been the case.

error: Content is protected !!