First World Problems

In her book, The Other Face of God, Mary Jo Leddy (who, by all appearances, is Canadian) offers this analysis of America:

We are the center of the world.

Because she attributes our centrality largely to our imperialistic tendencies, Greg viewed this section of the book as needlessly political.  For her purposes, however, I understood what she was saying.  I don’t think that she was so much trying to provide a political critique as she was trying to describe a spiritual phenomenon.  She does not question the fact that we are the “center of the world,” or accuse us of merely thinking it–she maintains that, for all intents and purposes, it is very true.  Then, she explores the effect that being in the center of the world has on our spirituality.  She does this in a bullet list, describing various characteristics of the “center-worlder” mindset:

  • To live in the center of the world is to see the self  as the source of much that is good and evil in the world.
  • To live in the center of the world is to assume that we can and should change the world.
  • To live in the center of the world is to be constantly disappointed when things don’t get better.
  • To live in the center of the world is to assume that our problems are the most important in the world.
  • To live in the center of the world is to assume that we must have our act together before we can help others.
  • To live in the center of the world is to assume that we have the capacity and resources to solve our problems.
  • To live in the church in North America is to assume that our critique of the church is most important, that our problems are the most significant problems in the universal church.
  • To live in the center of the world is to assume that we are responsible for what happens in other parts of the world.

Now, here’s how I know that what she says has a lot of truth to it:

I read that list and think, “And that’s…bad???”  (Sidenote:  What movie is that quote from?  It’s driving me crazy!  It might be a Pixar one.  I’m picturing Mike Wazowski.)

I mean, I get the part about thinking our problems, whether in our nation or in our church, are the most important part of the world, and I’m like, “Touche.”  However, part of feeling that Americans bear this huge burden of global responsibility is that everyone keeps telling us that we have this huge burden of global responsibility!  Perhaps this is not the most accurate view, but the sentiment I glean from foreign commentators on the news and the internet is that, whenever there is a crisis, everyone’s like, “Where is America???  Why don’t they DO something about this?”  

(Until we intervene, of course, and then it’s like, “America needs to keep its big nose out of other people’s business!!”)

I know, I know…Boo-hoo.  Poor us.

The fact is, though, whether my sentiment is accurate or not (and I’m holding out the possibility that it is not), I readily admit that I as an American DO feel a responsibility to the world.  Furthermore, I acknowledge that that feeling of responsibility shapes my spirituality.  It especially shapes my understanding of the Great Commission and of the concept of “Love Thy Neighbor.”  After all, in such a global world in which we have so much power, how can we deny that anyone is our neighbor?

I see all too well how this view is naive and that it has the potential to be damaging…but my “center of the world” self also questions the degree to which we should repudiate this outlook.  Are we to deny responsibility for everyone else?  That kind of seems willfully selfish.

What do you guys think?  I’m feeling very culturally limited on this one.


Leddy, Mary Jo.  The Other Face of God.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2011.

5 responses to this post.

  1. My response to this one is influenced by a couple of different things …first, having lived outside of the US I have seen this accusation made of Americans as a culture before. It was not in a flattering way, but in a “you guys think you are center of the universe” …and that means you suck, kinna way. One particular fella sited our use of the term “World Series” when, clearly the “world” has nothing to do with it.

    I have also heard that negative attitude often related to times when we or other missionaries would offer help to people. They would, in fact, be offended that we would think that we needed to come and “help” them at all. “Americans think they have the fix for everything.”

    I think that that just like when we has individuals have the same thing we do have a greater responsibility to engage in those around who are in need. I think though that we can allow it to affect our pride, in that we feel like WE are the answers to everyone’s problems and that WE are the ones who should fix them.

    Resources like ours dont necessarily fix the problems we has a nation want to heal in other nations. Nor, as people can our resources really “fix” those hurting around us. We have to be careful not to allow our abundance to cause us to be prideful and to misuse this elite spot in the world.

    Its not always well received.

    The other thing that influences my thinking is a personality test I took when I was an older teenager. It was one that was of the spiritual influence, and it was focused on spiritual gifts. At the time it said I was a “servant” and this particular test outlined both the strengths and weaknesses taht came with such a gift.

    One weakness that stood out was when it stated often “a servant often forces help on those who do not need or want it. When a servant does that, they are no longer serving.”

    We do (for now) have an abundance of resources, and we can do much good in the world with them. But if people dont want help, we arent helping them …we are being annoying, and often undermining our Kingdom work.

    I have seen it happen a lot being a long-term missionary in Europe. We would have short-termers come over for weeks a time and they all came in with a “We’re HERE!” mentality. Often it was this idea that now that the Americans are here NOW we can get some work done! I see the disappointment for them and for others when the culture they are serving dont’ respond to them the way they think should, as some kind of savior who of course can help them!

    It honestly hindered a lot of work. I see it with people too. When people sense we see them as a project (we being the more resourced of the equation) their pride is charged, and we have a harder time influencing them. We have to be careful to make sure that our resources are both needed, wanted and that we present them in a way that is not prideful but humble …not a superman mentality but a sharing one.

    Now the whole idea that the NA church’s issues are those of the universal church, I dont buy into that one. Regardless of our awesomeness, a culture SO influences the issues in churches of individual nations that I can’t imagine our American issues could translate across the globe. I am guessing that the 1000’s of churches spread across Cuba and China, meeting in homes to hide from their government struggle with how to use their contribution each week ..ya know?

    Anyways ..this is very rambly 🙂


    • Posted by Tim on June 18, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Courtney, I loved your ramblyness, especially this insight: “But if people dont want help, we aren’t helping them … we are being annoying, and often undermining our Kingdom work.” Too true, too often!



    • Courtney, I completely agree, and I think that, in general, was the point she was making. To her, all of those bullet points were bad things. And she would agree with you that the NA church’s problems are NOT the universal church’s problems. The fact that we think so, she would say, is delusional.

      I guess my problem is discerning the line between using my resources responsibly and riding off into the sunset to save the day, a la my center-worlder mentality. I guess it’s the line between responsibility and arrogance? I think I’m being responsible with my resources by using them to aid “global problems,” but others call it arrogance. And maybe it is? That’s my conundrum.


  2. Posted by Tim on June 18, 2012 at 10:58 am

    This bullet point is one I’ve had to resist over and over: “To live in the center of the world is to assume that we can and should change the world.”

    Real change comes through God, and who’s to say he won’t using the rest of the world to change us? You’ve done a great job getting me to think about these things all over again, Kim. Thanks.


    P.S. Aimee Byrd posted a guest piece I did about singing praises off key. Hope you get a chance to take a look:


    • Most definitely, Tim. I know that I have been changed simply by opening my ears to other stories, both from distant lands and from my nearby-neighbors, who are so very different from me.


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