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Theologies and Practices of Inclusion, edited by Nina Kurlberg and Madleina Daehnhardt

22 July 2022

Duncan Dormor looks at questions that an aid agency wrestles with

THIS is an ambitious book. It wrestles with fundamentally difficult questions of inclusion within a global context from the organisational perspective of Tearfund, the Christian relief, development, and advocacy agency. The collection of 13 chapters, written largely by staff members, predominantly development practitioners, is loosely divided into four sections: “Inclusion and Faith-based Organizations”, “Inclusion as a Journey”, “Inclusion as Requiring Change”, and “Inclusion as Belonging”.

Ranging widely, both thematically and geographically, the book provides perspectives on racial justice, peace-building, gender, disability, and health, illustrated by accounts of programmes and activities around the world, with particularly detailed accounts of work on inclusion and ageing in the Rwandan Church, women living with disability and HIV in Nigeria, and self-help groups in Ethiopia, as well as an exploration of ethnicity in the Abya Yala.

As such, this collection of essays is testimony to the impressive strength and range of Tearfund’s engagement with the majority world, besides laying bare something of the internal institutional narrative of Tearfund as an organisation.

The book focuses on the experiences of “FBOs [faith-based organisations] within the sector”, and this makes it challenging to navigate for those not acquainted with the development world. This is a sector framed by Western secular humanitarianism and marked by deep tensions between faith-based approaches, humanitarian principles, and the human-rights discourse. These tensions permeate Tearfund’s work and, inevitably, this book.

In light of this, many readers may yearn for stronger guidance from the editors. Early on, Nina Kurlberg rightly acknowledges that “there is no straightforward answer to the question of what precisely inclusion looks like within an organizational context and how it can be actualized.” But this doesn’t preclude an introductory mapping of the many challenges involved in deploying the concept cross-culturally.

Equally, it would have been helpful to provide a more explicit up-front acknowledgment of the power dynamics in operation between an internationalism historically grounded in Western assumptions and the variety of local contexts within the majority world, who “benefit” from development work.

The book conveys a good sense of the practices of inclusion, but it is much less clear how the editors understood theology to operate within the life and practice of a FBO such as Tearfund. And, with the exception of the excellent last chapter on the Abya Yala, there is little sustained reflection on the importance of contextual theologies, local epistemologies, or a decolonising perspective. This is despite an obvious awareness within various contributions — most notably Liz Muir and her observation that: “White Saviourism is deeply rooted in the foundation of the INGO sector.”

For the theologically inclined, the most telling omission from a book that focuses primarily on a Christian organisation wrestling with ideas of inclusion is any real discussion of the Church and ecclesiology. Some may point to Tearfund’s Evangelical roots here (in contrast, most obviously, to CAFOD), but I suspect that it also reflects the fundamental reality that development and humanitarianism are firmly anchored in a secular framework suffused with Western attitudes, practices, and prejudices — not unlike the “civilising mission” of imperial expansion which so profoundly shaped missionary Christianity and with which mission agencies continue to wrestle.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of the Anglican mission agency United Society Partners in the Gospel.


Theologies and Practices of Inclusion
Nina Kurlberg and Madleina Daehnhardt, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £28

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