August 11, 2010

Tom Little and Christian Mission in Afghanistan

Last week, 10 medical aid workers were killed in Afghanistan. The leader of the team, Dr. Tom Little, was the father of my good friend. Tom Little and his wife Libby spent over 33 years living and working in Afghanistan while raising three daughters. I met my friend the week following the attacks of September 11. Having followed in her parent’s footsteps, she had recently returned from aid work in Afghanistan. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, her father was one of the first aid workers back into Afghanistan and she soon followed. Although I never met Tom Little, I knew something of his life from stories my friend would share. What impressed me most was the apparent connection between Tom Little, his wife Libby, and many Afghani people. To see this connection and trust violated through his violent death is tragic not only for the Littles but also for the Afghanis who have worked with and cared for the family. Although the Taliban took responsibility and denounced the team for proselytizing and spying, the fractures in the social fabric of a war-ravaged country unable to restrain violence may also be a significant factor.

As I have read comments to U.S. internet news stories of the killings and the life of Dr. Little, I have become doubly grieved by certain angry and critical sentiments. The suspicion that Christian aid workers simply must be proselytizing ranks high among a number of comments. So also, the criticism that Dr. Little should have been giving free eye care back here in the USA. Knowing the family, I have no doubt that the group did not proselytize. Furthermore, how could one survive as an aid worker for three decades by disregarding this prohibition? Yet, there is also a larger theological issue at stake of what Christian mission must mean. Must mission, by definition, mean proselytizing? Is the only mission of the Christian church to convert souls for Jesus? Certainly within a feminist liberation theology, the demand to counter oppression in all its forms from spiritual to material beckons Christians to work that includes medical aid. Engaging in a Christian mission of medical or humanitarian aid should not be seen as a partial mission limited by the contingencies of the legalities of proselytizing. Rather, from a feminist theological position, attending to human health participates in the caring for creation.

Furthermore, as Emilie Towne’s work on African American health teaches, human health is inextricably interwoven with issues of social justice. That Dr. Little would be criticized for working in Afghanistan rather than in the U.S. indicates a failure to acknowledge or take responsibility for the global inequities deeply connected to structures of U.S. policies and wealth. One interview about Dr. Little’s work described the beginning of his mission as taking disposable eye care products from the U.S. and refurbishing them for use in Afghanistan. Certainly the U.S. healthcare system is deeply flawed and many in the U.S. do want for adequate eye care. However, to narrow the scope of care to national boundaries reinforces a transnational imbalance of power that enables a country such as the U.S. to produce disposable eye care products while a country such as Afghanistan relies on medical aid. Notably, Dr. Little’s eye care organization not only provides clinics, but also supports the education of Afghanis to provide eye care without relying solely on U.S. or European aid workers. Little explained his view on the importance of an autonomous Afghan program in a 2004 article. "That way, if we're ever kicked out of the country again," he said, "the hospitals don't have to shut down and people can still get glasses."

During the last seven years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have been working towards my doctorate in religion, gender, and culture. Watching my friend come and go from the U.S. and back to Afghanistan, the West Bank of Israel and Iraq has often left me feeling distant from the wars and instability of these regions as I sit at the safety of my desk. Yet, reading these articles and comments reminds me of the importance of continuing to teach and develop critical feminist thought on religion that promotes a material care of creation that extends beyond national borders. Hopefully, the promotion of such a view of Christian mission will better grant the full respect and honor to the generous and faithful lives of medical aid workers such as Dr. Tom Little and his team.

Stephanie May
Doctoral Candidate
Harvard Divinity School

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