The controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson reminds me of something within Christianity, and something from my past where I embellished the truth.
An interesting phenomena within Christian culture is the telling of one’s testimony. A testimony is the story of how one became a Christian. I think the first time I told mine was when I was in junior high. I was at church camp and wasn’t really told how to do it. I watched others do it and I picked up on a few things.
- Highlight the sins you committed and the wrongs you experienced
- Embellish the sins you committed and the wrongs you experienced
- If embellishing means lying, you justify it
- Devote most of the time to your sinning ways
- Pretend to get choked up at some point
- End the time by saying you’re a Christian now and don’t do those things
Was I harshly judging these people? Doubtful. I knew these individuals.
So, I told my testimony in the same manner. Most of us that did this really did embellish our stories. We thought we had to. We thought we had to devote most of the time to our sins and had to fabricate details about it because that was the only way to have a “good testimony”. Plus, we thought you weren’t going to impact anyone if you had a clean past.
Looking back, I realize that many of us who shared our testimonies in such a manner also did so for selfish reasons. It wasn’t intentional, but it was reality. It was for attention, it was for respect, it was for popularity, it was a way to get an in with someone you liked (people like the bad boys/girls). It wasn’t about trying to make a difference in someone’s life or sharing about God.
Of course, you had to top yourself the next time you gave your testimony. And, you had to top the individual whose testimony was getting all sorts of attention, empathy and sympathetic glances from everyone else in the crowd.
I cringe when I think about some of the things I said. Sometimes, I wish I had one of those Men In Black neuralyzers so I could wipe people’s memories of the times they heard me share.*
*I’m banking on it being almost twenty years since I did this to help people forget those testimonies. That, or the embellishment grows over time with my story.
What snapped me out of it? I was nineteen and helping staff a short term outreach to Mexico.* We were serving in impoverished areas. I was giving my testimony and really going to town because I thought I had to if I was going to make an impact. I’m guessing I referenced:
- scoring with girls (I was a virgin at the time.)
- drinking (I didn’t have a beer till I was 21, and I may have had a sip of alcohol once until then.)
- drugs (Never done any.)
- running with gangs (I had played basketball with some who were in gangs…allegedly.)
- suicide (I listened to a lot of songs that referenced suicide.)
- family dysfunction (I managed to be honest about this.)
I would allude to things, like drugs, to give people the impression that I had done things I hadn’t. I’d lead them down a path, let their minds fill in the blanks, have them thinking I did stuff I didn’t do, but I would tell myself I wasn’t lying.
*By the way, the fact that the nineteen year old version of me was staffing an outreach to Mexico is funny in and of itself.
Did what I say make a difference to anyone listening? I’m guessing it didn’t in the way I thought.
I believe it was the morning after I shared my testimony when one of the participants on the trip came up to me. We had connected a bit since he was from Nebraska as well. He wanted to talk about my testimony and how he liked it. He then became a bit downcast when saying he didn’t have as good a testimony as mine. It was as if he felt a bit of shame for coming from a two parent home, that provided love and care, and always shared with him about God.
I responded instantly, and I have no idea where the words came from. “You have the best testimony!” I then told him how people like me with so-called “good testimonies” would trade their realities in a heartbeat for his upbringing. I told him how his testimony could be used to encourage people that good things can happen for people in life. He smiled. I could tell he was beginning to embrace his story.
His mother, who was also on the trip, heard all this. As he left, she came over to me with tears in her eyes. While she talked to me, she was getting choked up. Her son had struggled with seeing the value of his upbringing, because of Christianity’s emphasis on highlighting the sinner’s testimony over the faithful servant’s testimony. He felt like he had nothing to offer, and she was grateful I helped him to see that he did have a story to tell.
What I said impacted him, but it also impacted me. I listened to the advice I had just given, and realized I needed to hear it as well. I also began to realize the mistakes of how I was going about sharing my testimony. I immediately began to change how I went about it.
The change was good for me since I got involved in missions and non-profit work. I did fund-raising for a number of years, and there was always pressure to stretch the limits of truth to get funds and support. Since you were doing non-profit work, people inherently trusted you a bit more. You didn’t worry about fact checkers.
People want to see results with their giving, so you had to produce…something. This isn’t feasible with some international work, but the Western mentality is that results should happen quickly. For the worker, it’s being stuck between a rock and a hard place. You need funds and to a certain extent you might have to say and do things to keep those funds coming in. However, to be true to the work you are doing, you can’t always say and do those things.
Another issue was missionaries wanting to go to countries where it would be easier to raise money. They were “sexier” destinations. For some it wasn’t about a calling, but a bottom line. The trips to countries in Africa, India, and China were sought after because they were easier sells. Mexico? Central America? Belaurs? Not as much.
I saw the struggle firsthand with missionary coworkers. It’s tough because they don’t have much of anything to begin with, and they are doing what they can to bring funds in to do good around the world.
In most cases, non-profit workers start off with the best of intentions, but to stay in the game is a struggle. To deal with a Western mentality that is fickle, and wants instantaneous results, is difficult. Lines are crossed, and half-truths are told to keep the support flowing. Were threats of persecution exasperated? Were numbers rounded up and fudged to show impact on an outreach? You bet, because it brought in funds.
You are also battling so many other things that vie for their attention. For example, in 2009 you had the uprising in Iran dominating the news until Michael Jackson’s death. In 2010 you had the BP oil spill dominating the news, until the World Cup. This year you had the revolutions in the Middle East going on until Charlie Sheen self-destructed. People feel the pressure to keep their audience interested and attracted. They employ short-term plans, which I think will ultimately undercut them.
This leads me to the Greg Mortenson controversy. I don’t condone what Greg did, but I can understand why he thought he had to perpetuate lies and half-truths about his life and work. There is the pressure in the non-profit sector to show a return on someone’s donation. There is the pressure to detail good things that are in the process of happening, but haven’t happened yet. There is the pressure to ratchet up the tension with your work as to draw more focus and support.
There is all that on the business side, but then there is also the element where it is about you. Remember, when I first started telling my testimony, it was all about me. It was about getting attention and keeping it. I was trying to figure out how to leverage the situation to my advantage. This seems to be part of Greg’s downfall as well, his stories were about him and not the change that was going on. He talked of being kidnapped by the Taliban, when that didn’t happen. He talked of drastic change in areas where there was drastic change. He made up conversations he had with individuals. Why? Apparently, to leverage it for his own gain.
The sad thing is, if he had stuck to the truth there wouldn’t be the controversy now. Perhaps he isn’t as famous, or doesn’t have the amount of resources he has now. However, he’d have his integrity. He’d still be making a difference in the lives of children, especially girls, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’d still be an emissary of peace around the world.
There’s something there for all of us to remember. We need to push back against the pressure to compromise truth for any apparent gains. Lying to present truth is not honorable. Was there good that happened with Greg Mortenson’s efforts? Yes. Will there be going forward? Remains to be seen, but the prognosis isn’t good. The only way it happens is he starts telling the truth in getting his truth out.