Not forgetting our first language as faith-based agencies
Economic development. Disaster relief. Human rights. Peacebuilding. Political advocacy. If we think of each of these fields of knowledge as a unique “language” of thought and practice, then we see that to serve our world well, Christians must become multilingual. Yet for Christians and faith-based agencies across the world, these are “second” languages. Our first language—our shared language—is the language of faith. And we are in deep trouble if we don’t get that priority right.
The idea of faith in God being distinct from and higher than other allegiances is older than Christianity. Indeed, all three monotheistic religions born from Abraham and Sarah (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) are premised on exclusive faithfulness to God before any other power or entity. Jesus elaborated on this when praying for his followers, that while remaining in the world “they are not of the world” (John 17:14-16). For the apostle Paul, his ability to address the people in Athens (Acts 17:16-33) required him to have deep knowledge of Greek culture and philosophy. But while being fluent in that knowledge (second language), Paul based his engagement in his faith (first language).
The danger of forgetting our first language is like what can happen with two vectors in physics. Like two arrows starting close together and moving in the same direction, the two vectors seem one and the same. But if they have even a slightly different angle, the distance between them gradually grows. The approaches and values of sociology-based conflict transformation and peacebuilding, for example, may seem the same as faith-based peacemaking. But if we jump from the faith vector to sociology as our first language, those approaches can gradually take us far from faith.
During orientation for people entering service with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the organization I serve with, orientees are asked to consider our mission statement: “MCC, a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches, shares God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” While MCC certainly is a non-governmental organization (NGO), that identity and its field of knowledge are secondary to being a “ministry.” Following this logic, our mission is not grounded in what MCC does (“working for peace and justice”) but in our biblical understanding of who God is (“God’s love and compassion”). In orientation, each orientee is asked, “If we do not follow this what is the long-term effect?” Repeatedly, the answer is that we can be seeking peace and justice and still lose our way.
One reason it’s easy to lose our way is that staying true to our first language is not easy and can be controversial. For example, wherever MCC advocates for peace and justice, we do so from an understanding of each human being both a perpetrator and a victim. This leads us to think beyond punishment to restore victims and perpetrators. But why? Seeking to serve “in the name of Christ,” MCC takes seriously Jesus’ mandate in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). This means that MCC’s first language with respect to countries the U.S. has regarded as enemies—from the Vietnam War, to Cuba, to Iran, to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—leads us to seek direct contact with those countries, to serve vulnerable people inside them and to advocate for peaceful diplomacy.
This reveals that being grounded in our first language can bring value and witness beyond the world of faith. The largest alliance of international NGOs in the U.S. is called InterAction. While most of its members are not religious, MCC is a member because we highly value the knowledge and collaboration InterAction brings. Yet MCC brings something to InterAction as well. Indeed, InterAction’s leader has said that while MCC is not a large organization, it is respected as a reminder to member agencies to keep values central to their work, even if it is costly.
For Christian agencies, keeping faith as our first language also helps to keep us close to the most vulnerable people in the world. A Pew Research Center study in 34 countries showed that the more education people have, the less they think that belief in God is necessary to have good values. And countries with higher GDP per capita have less connection between faith and morality. As MCC serves with the most vulnerable in the world, we work with people of all faiths. And often it is our MCC partners of other faiths who tell MCC, “Don’t be shy about your Christian faith.”
To work effectively in today’s world, it is essential to become steeped in fields of human rights, development, environmental care, advocacy and other disciplines related to making the world a better place. Furthermore, because of our failings as Christian individuals and organizations, there are times when the language and values of institutions organized around second languages are more aligned with God’s purposes than we are.
Yet this critical need to become multilingual calls us to be acculturated but not assimilated into second languages. Faith is the core of who Christians are. If the uniqueness of our first language is not carefully nourished, it is eventually lost.
Ann Graber Hershberger began serving as executive director of MCC U.S. in 2020. Previously Ann served as board chair of MCC U.S. for 10 years. For more than 30 years she taught at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., including as director of EMU’s cross-cultural program and in the doctor of nursing practice program. She has served as an MCC worker in El Salvador and Nicaragua.