When the Elephant Dances, the Mouse May Die
Dr. Miriam Adeney, an anthropologist, missiologist, author, and associate professor of World Christian Studies at Seattle Pacific University, recounted the following story that an African Christian friend told her.
“Let me tell you a story about Americans,” an African Christian friend told her.
“Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, ‘Mouse, let’s have a party!’ Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, ‘Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!’
But Mouse did not answer.
‘Mouse, where are you?’ Elephant called. He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. Sometimes, that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller commented. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”
A sadder story: Elephant doesn’t even notice the harm he causes Mouse
As sad as Dr. Adeney’s story is, a new storyline is emerging among African leaders that is even sadder. Elephant doesn’t realize the harm he is causing Mouse. Mouse pretends to enjoy the dance and sometimes he really thinks he enjoys it. With a good conscience, good intentions, and desire to help, Elephant is convinced that his exuberant dance is just what God is using to save his brothers and sisters in the Mouse world from destruction. If two independent adults are hurting each other in a consensual relationship and liking it, fully convinced they are helping each other, what do you do? That’s the frustration of some leaders who see this new storyline as troubling and perplexing.
In this storyline, the Elephant doesn’t exclaim, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!” Because of that, Elephant doesn’t notice that “Mouse did not answer”. Elephant also doesn’t ask, “Mouse, where are you?” Neither does he look around for his friend and so doesn’t shrink back in horror. He doesn’t see Mouse laying at his feet and He doesn’t realize that he has smashed Mouse with his big feet and exuberant dance.
What Elephant does is that he runs back home to Elephant country to tell other Elephants what a great party he had in Mouse country and how exuberantly he danced there. In fact he tells them that Mouse enjoyed the dance so much that Mouse cannot wait for the next party!
It’s not that Elephant doesn’t care about the opinion of Mouse or those in Mouse country. It’s rather that he is oblivious to it. Or perhaps that he cares more about showing off his accomplishments to other Elephants at home who haven’t danced in Mouse country before.
Worse than not noticing is that if any Mouse or even a prudent Elephant tried to tell those of the family of exuberant dancing Elephants to watch their dancing in case they might hurt Mouse, they would not listen. In fact, they might call them jealous or uninformed or something worse. A little prone to being unteachable, exuberant dancing Elephants tend to continue the cycle of Mouse smashing over and over again.
Both Elephant and Mouse are broken
Worst of all, if Mouse is not dead, he keeps inviting Elephant back again and again to come for yet another dance. If he’s dead other Mouse would invite Elephant back. You look at Mouse with tears in your eyes and ask, “Has no one ever told you that you are worth more than this?” Mouse is stuck in this deadly cycle because Mouse is hungry. The only way he knows to have a party thrown where he can eat and drink is by inviting Elephant. Yes, he knows that he might get smashed and die in Elephant’s exuberant dance. But he says to himself, “there is much famine and hunger in this land. If nothing changes, I would die from the hunger anyway. At least when Elephant comes, there is feasting and drinking before the dance. If I die during the dance, at least I will die on a full stomach, not an empty one. Perhaps, I may survive and only lose a limb.” They speak like Jacob, “If I am bereaved, I am bereaved” (Gen. 43:14) or like Esther, “if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). And so this cycle continues, almost like an addiction that the Mouse is stuck in.
The presence of extreme corruption is causing a suffocating poverty in many of these countries. In these countries, there are very few things that one can do to improve their lives without being asked to pay exorbitant bribes. It makes living in these nations like living in a desert of opportunity where there is a great famine and hunger among the people for opportunity to improve themselves. As such, they find inviting Elephant an option that is bearable.
A Mouse Opens Up and Talks His Heart
A concerned friend had a discussion with a Mouse that frequently invited Elephants to come and dance with him. In fact, saying that this Mouse frequently invited Elephants to dance with him doesn’t even come close to painting the whole picture. He didn’t simply invite Elephants he knew to come and dance with him; he was an Elephant seeker! He went to great lengths to make friends with new Elephants just so that he could invite them to come dance with him.
Concerned friend: “I get it that you invite these Elephants to come and dance with you even at great risk because you see them as the only source of food for the hunger you have and see around you. Have you considered having the Elephants send resources instead of coming themselves? Besides if they do that, they will save the expensive airfares that they have to incur and the risks involved in international travel. They may instead send those resources to you. That way, you get the help you need without risking getting killed in the process.”
Elephant seeking Mouse: The Mouse laughed at his concerned friend and said, “You don’t know what you are talking about. I wish things were that simple, but they are not. I wish Elephant brothers and sisters could do that, but from my personal experience, I don’t think there is any chance of succeeding with that approach. Elephant brothers and sisters are some of the nicest people in the world, but they also have weaknesses just like we do. Many Elephants brothers and sisters I know are thrill lovers. They love the experience and adventure. They have fun coming here and would never give any significant amount money if they weren’t part of the fun, thrill, and adventure of coming. Besides, when they come, they raise money from other Elephants brothers and sisters at churches and in Elephant communities. Those at home wouldn’t give the money either if they didn’t know that an Elephant was coming. That’s the only reason I invite our brothers and sisters from overseas. Experience has taught me that they wouldn’t give help any other way. And you know what is really bad about it? I have to lie to them and tell them that we need them coming! That really sucks. If an elephant were to ask me if we have need for them or not, I would say we need them to come even though I know we don’t need them to physically come. Why? Because I know that telling an Elephant sister that she is not needed automatically means she is not going to send any significant support and we can’t afford to live without their support. It’s better for them to come and hurt us and give us the support.”
“Also, I believe that many Elephant brothers and sisters don’t trust us as equals. They often act like God when they work with us–I guess they struggle with God complexes while we struggle with inferiority complexes. They think they have the best ideas and can do things better and faster and they need to come and lead things themselves for them to be involved. Many times, when they say they want to involve us in the leadership process, I personally often feel its simply that they want our names on the board list or on some papers. But when push comes to shove, our input rarely determines the course of the work. They have the money and they pay for the things they like to get done. Remember the saying, ‘He who pays the piper calls the tunes?’ It’s a frustrating world. Elephants are really good people but they are just as broken as we are. Many of our people have inferiority complexes and see Elephants as Gods. They are also just as broken and have no problem accepting the Godhood and acting it out.”
God is bringing healing to both Elephant and Mouse
This version of events is sadder than the original and many experts think is truer. But thanks be to God that he is transforming many exuberant dancing, feet stomping, Elephants into more prudent, slow, conscientious dancers who dance slowly with Mouse as a man with a woman he loves. Praise be to God who is also teaching many Mouses that they don’t have to view their own Elephant brothers and sisters as superior to them, that God, not the Elephant is the true owner and source of all blessings.
I’m an American citizen and love my Christian brothers and sisters in the West tremendously. With that love, I urge us to heed to the teaching of this story. I think the friend who told Dr. Adeney did it out of love. This new storyline is also being brought to life out of love. We Elephants certainly have good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. I can testify that we have great zeal for the Lord and great zeal to help our poor brothers and sisters overseas. However, we don’t often have the knowledge and wisdom that should go with that zeal. The Bible says:
“It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices.” Prov. 19:2 NET
Here are two things to consider when we serve abroad.
1) We could be causing more harm to the people we want to help than we realize. I’ve caused a fair amount of harm to the poor myself in my attempt to help them and have seen this unfortunate thing repeated so many times. Like I often say, passion has extremely self-centered tendencies. Passion is like a horse that can drive you either to success or to destruction with equal ease. Wisdom is the bridle that we must put on it to make sure that the horse of passion and zeal only carries us to success, not to destruction.
2) To avoid harm, it will cost us much more than it would be to do something quickly and take pictures to show our churches, friends, and family how much good our efforts have brought about. We must be ready to follow best practices in poverty alleviation.
3) A sure sign that we would likely cause harm to the poor is that we cavalierly go out “in faith” to go and change the world. We are likely to cause harm if we don’t continue to work out the details with fear and trembling, knowing fully well that we are not exonerated from guilt from harming the poor simply because we claim to have been ignorant or had good intentions. Even if we were experts with significant training in poverty alleviation who had been working in developing countries for decades, we must approach each community with patience, preparation because each case is different.
Listen to what the apostle Paul says of himself:
“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4 NIV). The same passage is rendered in the NLT as “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide.”
If you take a close look at the Bible, you will discover that God took a tremendous amount of time to train and prepare each person that he called. Just because we have a clear conscience or good intentions doesn’t mean that we are right.
Now, this shouldn’t make us paranoid about helping the poor. Instead, it should make us diligent in understanding the best practices in orphan care. In addition to that, it should cause us to collaborate with others and learn from others who also are called to serve the poor. Above all, we need to surrender our wills to God and sincerely pray for wisdom.
Question: What are some of the ways you have seen that we can hurt the poor in our attempt to serve them? What are some of the things we can do to avoid hurting our poor brothers and sisters in our attempt to help? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and help someone else learn from you!