I was writing 30,000 Teachers and creating the companion website while I mommied two beautiful children who were both under two, and worked to complete my PhD. I was very busy. As I was crafting the website, between diaper changes, trips to the park, and conversations with my dissertation chair, I envisioned an important section of the online support that I would call “Questions and Criticisms.” In it, I would frame the toughest, most probing critiques that have been leveled at Christian ESOL teachers by critical theorists and liberation theologians, and I would give some solid, intellectually impressive responses. I opened my section with an editorial, which went as follows:
There is a great deal of scholarly and lay division over the effects and causes of the ascendency of English. English has become a global language (or, more correctly, a global family of language varieties). Whenever a single thing becomes dominant worldwide, it necessarily marginalizes other things of its kind. English has marginalized many other languages, and since language is closely bound to politics and identity, the impact of the supremacy of English has rippled to affect nations, governments, cultures, societies, institutions, individuals, and families.
The forces that have caused English to become so politically unassailable are many, and include “soft” powers such as the production and export of globally popular media, technology, values, and entertainment, and more hostile powers, including the historical actions of colonizing nations. The ascendency of English is in symbiotic relationship with these globalizing forces and has benefitted certain groups inequitably.
Critical observers both inside and outside the Church have questioned the legitimacy of a “globalization” that is primarily Westernization and an increasingly aggressive hegemony that seems to offer opportunity but only under its own terms. Critical theorists outside the Church argue that Christianity is a social construct that has served to oppress, marginalize, and manipulate people for centuries. Liberation theologians inside the Church argue that a Christianity that seeks to save souls without being primarily concerned with compassion, social justice, peace-making and the eradication of forces and systems of oppression is not “Christian.”
ESL teachers stand in the midst of these voices of concern, plying their trade in a tumultuous and changing world. On the one hand, they seek to impart to English language learners the linguistic power to move as a competent players in the global scene, and on the other they involuntarily further the effects of western hegemony (which Julian Edge defines as “a relationship based not on explicit coercion, but on established power and the consent of the majority to go along with the arrangements that flow from that power because of the rewards that the majority receives”). These voices of concern require conscientious, Christian ESL teachers to examine their most deeply held beliefs and the consequences of their actions.
Then I aimed my first deadly critiques at myself; they went like this:
As I was reading your book, I was bothered by the way you failed to truly scrutinize your own privilege or recognize imperialism (the minor references you make to contextualization and compassion hardly count). People who participate in international “adventures” exoticize suffering, reframe their own agency by appearing to be compassionate, and then make a profit selling their story. How can you call this “Christian?” How can you call yourself a teacher when really you are motivated by a desire to convert people to your religion? Doesn’t your religion prohibit such hypocrisy?
I cracked my knuckles, leaned into my computer, and began formulating what I hoped were honest, reflective responses. I began thus:
Critical theories (the secular versions) and liberation theologies (the Christianized versions) have permeated the social sciences. If they are not the dominant ideology within a discipline they are at least a respected minority, and growing in influence.
As I wrote, dozens of little memories began raising their hands in my head, like third-graders in a classroom, begging for my attention. I remembered my first encounter with Critical Theory in a Rhetoric class at Northern Arizona University and a professor who told me English was elitist and a source of oppression. I remembered writing an analysis of The Archeology of Knowledge in a Literary Theory class and wondering if structuralism really was a relic of the past. I remembered the sweat on my palms when I summarized Différance for a professor who told me multinational corporations were more unjust than Marxist regimes. I remembered my bewilderment when I encountered the same hierarchy of beliefs in classes at Christian universities (many of which call themselves “faith-based” rather than “Christian” to disassociate themselves from the oppressive forces of established religion). I remembered a Christian professor in a class on Diversity and Social Justice stating that most of the oppression and exploitation since the 16th century was the work of the Church.
I kept writing.
The central claim of critical theories is that truth propositions are sociolinguistic constructs designed by oppressors to create and impose particular versions of reality upon oppressed populations, where “oppressed population” is operationalized as any group upon whom inequitable social structures are imposed. Interactive activity either lends itself to emancipation or to oppression. If you are not breaking down oppressive social structures, you are probably strengthening them. If you are teaching English to students in China, Nepal, or Saudi Arabia, without condemning Western hegemony, you are reinforcing the discursive situation of English as an imperialistic and inequitable force. If you are on the offense, obliviously erecting structures of oppression and participating blindly in hegemony, you are privileged, and probably white; if you are on the defense, struggling to hold your head up against social structures that are stacked against you, you are not privileged, and probably not white.
Most critical theorists adopt a Marxist political perspective and believe that human wholeness can be realized by overcoming or destroying the political and economic social structures that alienate people from themselves and from one another. Liberation theologians likewise define sin largely in terms of inhumanity and exploitation, and depict salvation as liberation. Jesus the Savior was the first great liberator, and His ethic of caring and remaining “at the table” in polarizing social conversations enabled Him to love those on the wrong side of the structures of oppression of His day (like the woman caught in adultery) and to fight against oppressors (like the teachers of the law, who “weighed men down with burdens hard to bear” [Luke 11:46]). Jesus was consistently, relentlessly interested in the welfare of the poor, the displaced, and the oppressed. Liberation theologies argue that Christian thought and work that seeks to save souls without working for social justice, peace, and an end to systems of oppression, is not like Christ.
But underlying the quest for liberation is an equating of the Biblical idea of salvation with the Marxist idea of self-liberation. Jesus lived, worked, taught, and healed to help the poor. Unfortunately, He was equally zealous to help the rich. He aided the oppressed. He aided the oppressors as well. He recognized the spiritual needs of the poor, and was just as proactive about the spiritual needs of the rich (consider the wealthy young man in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18, or the tax collectors like Zacchaeus whom he called friends). And if ever there was an oppressed people barely holding their stubborn heads above the force of aggressive occupation, it was the Jews. But Jesus never denounced Rome. He could have leveraged His power to emancipate His people, but He left them as they were. That is probably why the crowd who hailed Him as Messiah on Sunday cried out for His death on Thursday or Friday. The Savior didn’t fit their expectations of a Liberator.
That is the primary problem with liberation theologies and the ethic of care—they don’t take into account what the Bible actually says. They embrace some parts of it but neglect others. Augustine is credited with saying “If you believe what you like in the Bible and you don’t believe what you don’t like, it is not the Bible you believe, but yourself.” It is the parts I don’t like in the Bible that I most need to dwell on. It is the parts that don’t sit well with me that have the most power to change me. The parts of the Bible that suit my tastes have little effect on the shape of my soul. C.S. Lewis recognized this when he set up his argument in “The Weight of Glory” (which is one of my favorite pieces ever written). He argues that those things that seem most repellent and puzzling in Scripture are the ones I should pursue most tenaciously, because in what I don’t like will I find what I most need.
More impertinent memories clamored inside me. I remembered teaching English to Iranian and Afghan refugees. For a little while there was a brave Russian Soviet in my class. Anja was 55. She despised democracy because, as she said, it made her think too much. Democracy leaves people too many choices. It doesn’t support the comfortable, prefabricated order that middle-class socialists are born into. It is only suited to the intelligentsia, who want to think, and the entrepreneurs, who want to work. To everyone else, it is a burden of freedom.
Then there were the Iranians. They did not call themselves Iranian; they preferred to be called Persian, associating themselves with the ancient name of their land. I asked Roshanak, why this was. She said she loves her land, but does not like her government. She said it is strangling her people.
One of the Persians had been a regent’s professor of classical art and a high-ranking official in the government in Iran. When he began telling his students that Jesus was the only way to God, the government placed a fatwa on him. He was stabbed three times on the front pattio of his palatial home. He escaped to Turkey and came to America, where he drives a delivery truck and still tells people about Jesus. His wife, Laleh, sometimes had me over for tea.
Laleh has a unique perspective on privilege. She used to live in two enormous homes, drive Italian cars, and wear French designer clothes. Now she wears tennis shoes so she can walk to both her jobs. When I asked her if she missed her old life, she laughed. “No, Fate,” she said, “I do not. I have Jesus now, I have healt.”
Maybe all those college professors have been conditioned to see privilege through human eyes. Maybe Laleh’s old eyes are keener. My professors see money, education, opportunity, and adaptability as marks of privilege. My Iranian students see Jesus, contentment, and love as the greatest privileges.
Once I got to stand on a mountain where Jesus preached. It was April, and wild flowers flowed in mad displays of color and deep, cool green right to the edge of the Sea of Galilee. I could almost hear His voice, echoing timelessly across the fields. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…” The people who heard Jesus’ sermon were not privileged by modern measures of social mobility. They were a minority ground to dust under the heels of colonial occupation. Jesus healed them. But He did not release them.
I wonder if what I call social justice coincides with God’s desire to free people—to make them truly free from the love of money, free from the oppression of self, free to choose godliness with contentment. Scripture does talk about the evil of oppressing the poor, but it says that righteousness, not emancipation, is the answer. Freedom is something that can only happen in the heart. Freeing people through a Marxist reversal of constraints, from the burden of working and thinking for themselves, only oppresses and endangers them further.
Several Christian professors I know find the phrase “teaching English as missions” irritatingly offensive. To be instrumentally motivated by a desire to see people convert to my religion, rather than by a desire to see them excel in English for whatever their personal purpose, is deeply hypocritical. The only pure motives for teaching English include developing language skills that will cultivate relationships among peoples and governments, that will improve stewardship of the earth, assist in conflict resolution and negotiation, and empower disenfranchised peoples to rebel and resist further oppression (or as Edge calls it “imperial brutalization”). Acceptable motivations are all emancipatory.
I choose to adopt the perspective of my students rather than that of my professors. Emancipation into Marxism is only a shifting from one ungenerous master to another. Being set free into the Kingdom of God results in a freedom of the soul that defies any effort to re-enslave it.
So I teach English as mission because I believe it is my responsibility as a teacher to communicate the most important, eternal truths my students could ever hear. Those truths have the power to set free and ignite abundant life. Those truths are emancipatory. I teach English as mission because I genuinely want to engage my students’ emergent purposes and empower them to be competent players in a globalizing world.
I believe some game-changing truths. I believe in a Jesus who is historical, physical, eternal, and spiritual, and who offers His self-revelation in the living, uncomfortable pages of the Bible. I believe in an invisible Church that has been imperfectly reaching out loving hands for thousands of years, while at the same time struggling to create a culture for her children that is wholesome and grounded in righteousness (a righteousness that heals and protects and has remained graceful and true although it has been called prudish and domineering for centuries). Those beliefs are the substance of who I am; I do not hold them as strongly as they hold me. I cannot pretend to roll them around my palm while I prod and examine them, as though they were smaller and less powerful than I. To do that would be to cede my identity, to step outside myself. Once I had done that, I may not be able to step back in.
I closed my computer, pushed it aside, and made a cup of coffee. Then I stepped outside to look at the sky.
Edge, J. (2003). Imperial troopers and servants of the Lord: The future of TESOL in the 21st century. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 701-709.