Mammon's Theft of Shalom

“It didn’t work.”

Bob Ekblad’s words caught me by surprise. I calmly asked him to explain, but internally I was anything but calm.

Inner voices were screaming out “What do you mean it did not work!? Your community development work with Gracie was very successful!” In fact, I often have told of their story as an example of a positive model. They lived in a rural Honduran town; they partnered with a Honduran couple; they lived incarnationally in a simple adobe house like those they served; they first modeled better agricultural practices and after people saw the results they desired to learn from the Ekblads.

They started with and focused on working at more economical farming methods that prevented soil erosion, produced greater yields, and were environmentally friendly. But they did more: they sought to be holistic.

“Julio has been successful.” He is nowhere near wealthy, but his family is comfortable. Yet Bob said, “He wants more; he wants to come to the United States to make more money.”

They worked in various areas: nutrition, education, health care, job creation and they started Bible studies with those involved. They were patient; they invested in relationships, they trained Hondurans to teach others. The changes were visible -- in people’s lives and on the hillsides as many adopted their farming methods. After five years they left and the program continued. They supported it from afar and visited regularly.

Yet now, almost 35 years after they had first gone to Honduras, sitting on the other side of their dining room table Bob said, “It didn’t work.”

He explained that the people they had worked with are not at peace. More soul work was needed. I pressed him a bit — naming individuals. “How about David?” Bob replied, “Yes, he is the exception.”

But when I asked about Julio (not his real name), Bob sadly shook his head. Julio was one of the first to apply their methods, probably because he was amongst the poorest in the town. The sight of Ekblad’s garden teeming with vegetables and Bob’s infectious passion had led Julio to believe he might actually be able to grow vegetables on the little square of land their rented shack sat on.

During a weekend away from my teaching job in Tegucigalpa I had gone with Bob, on horses, to Julio’s home. We helped Julio make a huge compost pile that would provide rich soil to transform his hard packed dirt into a garden.

Bob reported to me that what I had hoped for that day had happened. Over the years, with the Ekblads help and training, and a lot of hard work, Julio rented bigger pieces of land to farm and eventually bought his own. In Bob’s words, “Julio has been successful.” He is nowhere near wealthy, but his family is comfortable. Yet Bob said, “He wants more; he wants to come to the United States to make more money.” Bob concluded, “We should have started in a different place, with soul work rather than agriculture.” 

As I ponder these few minutes of conversation a number of things stand out to me.

  1. The value of a long term perspective. Thirty years ago he would not have said “It did not work.” You see things after thirty years that you do not see after five years — let alone after a few months or a few weeks. What can you do to foster a long term perspective?

  2. Be truly holistic. Some react to an overly individualistic-spiritualized-futuristic version of the gospel by totally rejecting it and dedicating themselves to pressing injustices and physical needs. More commonly, people instead embrace a holistic gospel that includes the physical and economic, but the spiritual as well. My sense, however, is that many in this latter category give lip service to a holistic gospel, but in reality give little attention the spiritual component — what Bob called soul work. I was in that category for a few years in Honduras. The physical needs were so great, the injustices so extreme — they consumed me. I affirmed a holistic gospel, but did not really practice it. Gradually, as I came to see that distorted concepts of God and bounded group religiosity caused great suffering in people’s lives, I became as enthusiastic about leading Bible studies on Jesus as I was about addressing physical poverty. Although I am not as convinced as Bob that the starting point must be soul work, his reflections affirm to me that it must be central. How holistic is your approach? What areas call for more attention?

  3. Mammon and consumerism enslave, and we must address them directly — whether working with the poor or rich. Mammon blocked Julio from fully experiencing shalom. How might you seek to introduce the Julio’s in your life to liberation from Mammon through Jesus?

Posted on July 11, 2016 .