The third and final article in a Himalayan-themed series looks at what we can learn from the people of the region.
In East Asian mythology Shangri-la is a mystical paradise, a magical valley hidden somewhere in the fastness of the Himalayas. Travellers lucky enough to find this perfect place never want to leave, for it surpasses all others in peace, tranquillity and beauty. A fanciful story perhaps, but there just might be a grain of truth in there somewhere. For in remote parts of the Himalayas – as well as in other quieter corners of the planet – we find communities who, as a result of their limited contact with the frenetic modern world, have managed to retain important principles that are cornerstones of any idyllic existence: simplicity, community and ecology.
In the previous blogs in the series, the snow leopard will lie down with the lamb and the edges of His ways, the emphasis was on the beautiful wildlife and landscapes of the Himalayas. In this blog, without indulging in romanticism, the focus is on what some of its peoples can teach, or remind, the Christian church about how to live well and how to do mission well.
I recently returned from my third visit to Nepal where I was conducting fieldwork on human-snow leopard interactions. This time I was in the famous Annapurna region, home to an abundance of ethnic groups, ecosystems and towering peaks. In a remote corner of this area – near the border with Tibet – is the restricted NarPhu valley, closed to all but a few tourists and the communities who have called these mountains home for generations (read a more detailed account of the valley here). As well as the beautiful scenery, the beautiful people I encountered there made a strong impression on me. Three things about their way of life stood out and are worth applying to our own.
Simplicity. There was a lack of material clutter in the villages of NarPhu. Of course poverty is not glamorous and, in truth, there were probably some who needed more material goods to provide a better quality of life. But all of the stuff in the homes we visited was needed and used and then reused. Added to that was an abundance of time – for work and for leisure. Too much stuff and too little time are both at the root of the malaise of modern life. A simpler life with less stuff and more time can be part of the solution.
Community. There was also a strong emphasis on co-operation in the villages of NarPhu. I had the privilege of being there as the locals prepared and planted their fields, working together in families and neighbourhood teams. The surplus time people had was also invested in relationships with others. Excessive individualism and competition also contribute to the pressures of life today. Cultivating community within and outside of the church can be a cure for the culture of self.
Ecology. Amongst the people of NarPhu was an important connection to the natural world. Not only did they realise their physical dependence on it, but their attitude towards the environment was one of respect rather than arrogance. From cradle to grave they also spent much of their time in it with others, rather than alone indoors with stuff. A lack of contact with nature isn’t good for us and disconnects us from the home which feeds, clothes and shelters us. Spending more time in the great outdoors is both balm for the soul and a reminder that it provides for the body, just as God created it to.
As mentioned previously, there is no room for romanticism here. Life in NarPhu can be tough, even dangerous at times. Public services function intermittently or are entirely absent. The slow advance of satellite televisions and, now, of smartphones are changing how people perceive themselves and their culture. There have been violent disputes with outsiders about harvesting an extremely valuable medicinal fungus and a price-fixing scam involving yaks. Human nature in NarPhu is like human nature everywhere. And the culture of the valley is like other cultures everywhere: there is good and there is bad. But still the qualities of simplicity, community and ecology endure.
It turns out that these same three qualities should also be integral to how the Christian church conducts mission. Especially with unreached and under-reached peoples (like those of NarPhu), and whether the missional model is saving souls, tent-making, business-as-mission, or the full holistic package with sustainable development and redemptive ecology thrown in, instilling simplicity, community and ecology can make mission more effective.
Simplicity. God is not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. So especially with people from outside of this particular people group, purposefully or inadvertently expecting their buy-in to WASPish notions of free-market infallibility or similar cultural baggage along with a commitment to Christ is wrong. In contrast, many mission agencies today give new believers the tools to develop culturally-appropriate forms of church in their own fashion and time.
Community. The days of the great white missionary sailing the seven seas to convert the natives to Christendom are gone. Outside of the church, the days of the great white management consultant breezing in to conjure up perfectly-functioning development projects without even asking host communities are on the way out too. In their place, the focus is increasingly on resourcing locals to reach locals (with evangelism) and resourcing communities to help communities (with sustainable development).
Ecology. The unreached and under-reached people groups of the world are disproportionately dependent on their local environments for resources. Often without formal land tenure, they are also disproportionately at risk from these lands being misappropriated from them by hook or by crook. At the least, mission agencies should ensure they don’t have any financial investments via their pensions in companies active in this process. It would also make little sense, to take a hypothetical example, for bibles for a particular people to be printed using paper made from their clear-felled forest home. Christian mission, and the Christian story, cannot be divorced from the world around it.
Shangri-la may be a mythical place by some accounts, but from a Christian perspective a version of it will exist when Christ returns to complete the redemptive mission of God. If this Christian Shangri-la – the new heaven and the new earth – is going to be truly perfect, then simplicity and community will surely be its hallmarks, as well as restored relationships with the rest of creation (Romans 8). In addition to being ends in themselves, these three principles can also be means to it, enhancing the mission of the church in seeking this Shanrgi-la ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.Gloria in excelsis Deo.