January 14, 2013
It has become quite a popular quote in some church circles to remind that church is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. Your life from Monday to Saturday is where the real church happens, so we say. But what if that is wrong. What if it is all about Sunday morning 9 o’clock? What if everything that I’ve been reflecting on over the past 5 years on this blog (emerging churches, missional conversation, public theology, liberation theology, theology and racism) should not be a call towards the Monday-to-Saturday-real-life, but rather a radical call towards Sunday morning 9 o’clock.
On the ticket of it-is-not-about-Sunday, some of my friends has quit the church-on-Sunday’s system. They left that behind, since if the logic that it’s not-about-Sunday, but about my life from Monday to Saturday is correct, then why not take it to its logical conclusion and just end Sunday morning 9 o’clock (or whatever your equivalent of the central gathering of a community of faith is, whether Sunday evening 6 o’clock, or Wednesday evening 11 o’clock). but for most people however vaguely committed to the Jesus-story there remain a Sunday morning 9 o’clock, or equivalent event (perhaps not weekly, perhaps not in a church building), which give some kind of explicit form to their faith commitments, even though they, to some extend rightly, identify their whole of life as the place of faith.
The dark side of underplaying Sunday morning 9 o’clock is that we can use Monday to Saturday as a tool to divert the gaze away from the problematic nature of Sunday morning 9 o’clock’s gathering of a community of faith, and so underplay the very important symbolic moment which Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain, a moment which publicly reveal that which is real, and in this revelation is actually calling the church’s (and is this perhaps more than merely the church’s) bluff… or at least should be.
The form this might take is the following: “Even though we are a white middle-class community gathering on a Sunday morning, that is not our real identity. Our real identity is to be found Monday to Saturday, where members of this community of faith are through their work building relationships across racial lines, and in our outreaches building relationships with the poor“. Sunday morning 9 o’clock is therefore not our real identity, and the exclusivity revealed in this gathering should not be seen as central to the identity of those who are gathered. The church is therefore not simply a middle-class white Afrikaans community, since Sunday morning 9 o’clock is not a true revelation of who we are.
But what if Sunday morning 9 o’clock does indeed reveal our true identity. Does our choice for who should help us in heating pews on Sunday morning not reveal our relational commitments in it’s truest form? Perhaps not on an individual level, in the sense that I only choose my friends and romantic partners from those who attend church with me (although this remain common in some church circles), but rather more generally, in the sense that those who I join on a Sunday morning reveal the broader class, racial, ethnic or cultural group into which I commit myself relationally. I also do not wish to argue for simple causality (as in that the church is the reason why I have bound myself to this network of people), but rather that we need to notice that this particular commitment to a community of faith does indeed reveal our “true identity”.
Is this not perhaps in part why transforming religious communities is proving to be so extremely difficult? Not only in South Africa! Follow the North American discourse on race, look at how church from similar traditions remain separate when immigrants to Europe prefer their own communities rather than joining the existing church. On an even superficial reading of the Christian tradition we know this to be problematic, which is why we have a very long history of attempting to theologically justify this phenomenon. A mission policy which dictated that it is “more effective”, “better” or “biblical” for “each group” to have an “own church” was one brutal way in which we did this (an approach which has resulted in extreme shame as we had to acknowledge that this was built on racial ideologies masked as theological convictions), but why should a reinterpretation of Monday to Saturday necessarily be exempt from similar biases?
Don’t get me wrong, the theology which made Sunday morning 9 o’clock into the absolute symbol of religiosity need to be challenged! Insisting that Monday to Saturday (or perhaps just Monday to Sunday) should indeed be the place where faith finds its primary expression – in how we conduct business, where we choose to buy our homes, the schools we choose for our children, the way in which we do our shopping, the political convictions we have – is indeed an important shift (although not a new revelation, but rather something which we have a centuries long history of attempting to do). And using a small religious life as a way of diverting the gaze from how we continue our ruthless exploitation of others beyond our religious life might be on of the most important insights the church need to face in our day. But what about the opposite?
What if we use our public lives which is lived in a more diverse environment, or even our acts of charity across class divisions (to approach the Rollins parable used in the above link from another angle), to keep the critique out of our most intimate spaces. For us as religious leaders the most intimate space might be the church itself, and we might use the above kind of argument to divert attention from the very obvious symbols of exclusivity which our churches remain, while for members of faith communities the gathering on a Sunday morning is symbolic of our most intimate relations, and we therefore need to divert the critique away from this, even using some nice Christian notions like participating in development work or living out our faith from Monday to Saturday as tools in immunizing the local community of faith against critique.
The message of Jesus and Paul seem to be much more radical, and Sunday morning 9 o’clock might be the more important political event, even in our day. As I read both the gospels and Paul it seems like their social experiment, grounded in a particular vision of who God is, was to change the most intimate relations, which was also often found around religious gatherings. Jew and gentile, tax collector and zealot. These were not bound into a spiritual unity, but rather walked the same roads following the same rabbi, or gathered in the same community – or at least that was the ideal.
Most white South Africans have black colleagues, and we tend to at least “muddle through” these relations, and often have good relations. But the unwritten rules remain that I can leave these relations behind Friday afternoon. These relations can remain official. And we can volunteer at a local soup kitchen, but no one expect us to continue sharing a meal elsewhere with those who come to get a bowl of soup. But we perhaps know that the local congregation has a different set of rules. The local congregation to some extend assume that we will share a table at some point, perhaps give others access to our home (through various small groups or Bible studies for example) and that we should cry together when others experience pain.
What if we just started right here, at what seems to be the most difficult. What if CEOs and cleaners, black and white, Zulu and Shangaan, Afrikaans and English, were to sit next to each other on a Sunday morning. To listen to the announcement of the deaths of each others family members. To visit each others homes. Have our kids attend Sunday School together. Drink coffee together while we wait for the Sunday School to end. You know, just typical church stuff, but explicitly crossing the very divides which our particular context keep in place. Obviously we could find new ways of keeping the divisions in place even within one congregations, and a naive focus on the membership list should never be mistaken to relationships which transform our identities, but the very difficulty of doing exactly this might be a reminder that it might be the place where we should start.
Perhaps it is not about Sunday morning 9 o’clock. But as long as Sunday morning 9 o’clock remain a symbol of class, racial and ethnic divisions in a society, we might want to consider that the truth is that it is about Sunday morning 9 o’clock for most of us. This is indeed the place which illustrate who I am in all its obscenity. I am part of this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation. I am not the guy who is nice to my workers or who contribute to a soup kitchen. As a Christian I might actually be doing this exactly in order to divert the critique against this white middle-class Afrikaans congregation of which I am part.
August 20, 2012
For many of us the weekend was spent struggling with the question: how do we worship after Lonmin? I remembered preaching the Sunday after Eugene Terre’blanche was murdered, that Sunday was a difficult sermon, but at least many of us felt like we had some consensus on what had to be said. My sermon focused on reconciliation, and in the sermon I could point to many people from diverse backgrounds who all called for the same thing: reconciliation.
This Sunday was more complex. Do we pray for the police, striking workers, government leaders? Should we pray for an end to violence or for a more just economy? I insisted on Saturday that the ethical challenge facing us is to insist that this event be interpreted in the broader context of a South Africa culture of violence (and other aspects which we might discover allowed this to happen). In the liturgy I believed it was not the time to identity either the police or the striking workers as the root of the problem. Tom Smith suggested that the only thing appropriate for this Sunday’s liturgy was lament. To my mind this was correct, and following some guidelines on using the Psalms in liturgical lament, our small church service in the inner-city cried out to God that things are not going well, and we focused on the fact that at times the church pray “Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us”.
I reflect on this in order to say that the presidential call for a week of mourning has some overlap with an appropriate Christian response to Marikana. The overlap should be recognized, but the limitations for the church following government into this week’s mourning should also be noted. I don’t want to downplay the public rituals of mourning that will be visible throughout the country this week. I think those are important, and I support president Zuma’s call. But as Christians I believe there should be more to our week (week? and then?) of mourning.
Typically mourning involves an expression of deep sorrow for the death of another, often accompanied with public symbols such as the wearing of black clothes, and in this case flags hanging half mast. According to some reports, Zuma added, and again I want to agree entirely with the importance of this, that part of our mourning should include reflecting “on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic”. But I do want to add two things for the church.
First, when entering a time of lament, the church cannot only give expression to deep sorrow. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from the plea that God will change our society. Our sorrow cannot be disconnected from a process of committing to justice. I don’t yet know what justice will imply at Marikana. I don’t yet know what exactly justice will mean in the relationship between rich and poor in the coming months and years. But I know that as a Christian I cannot enter into a time of lament following Marikana without simultaneously being formed towards a commitment to participating in the reign of God at Marikana and beyond.
From this I want to add a second aspect which I believe is crucial at the moment. In some way we are all connected to Marikana. Marikana was not merely a once-off event, but it was a mirror of our society. Our time of lament should call us into a time of self-reflection, not merely feeling sorrow for those who suffer, but also asking how we are embedded in what happened. I say this not as a way of pre-empting our analysis, but rather as a call that social analysis involve self-reflection. I don’t doubt that we will have to talk about police reform (again!) in the coming months. We will rethink our labour union systems and in particular how they are related to big businesses and political parties. We will have to (again!) fix our eyes on the growing economic inequality. We will ask questions from multi-national companies and wonder how exactly their future in South Africa should look. The list goes on.
But if we are serious about saying that “never, never again”, and about going beyond finding a guilty party so that we can go on with our lives, happy that someone will pay the price, then it will require that we also see how we participate in keeping aspects of society which lead to further violence in place. This is not merely the work of social analysis, it is an act of spiritual discernment. This week, I believe the text which should lead us might be “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). From such a spirituality we might be able to engage in a process of public social analysis and critique, something which is too important to merely leave in the hands of official committees, but which is too sensitive to allow the continuing throwing around of wild theories which merely implicate our favourite guilty party. We cannot speak of lament if we continue to act as if this tragedy might merely give us the final evidence for what we have been saying all along.
So we mourn this week. But our mourning involve more than sorrow, it involved the prayers “let your kingdom come, let your will be done” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Only in this way can be prepare ourselves to insist on and contribute to an uncovering of the injustice of Marikana and a more peaceful future.
April 8, 2012
The gospels give us two groups of narratives which provide us with a glimpse onto the resurrection. There are those narratives when people find the empty grave, and those where the resurrected Christ meet them. See for example Luke 24: First a group of women come to the grave, finding it to be empty, with messengers from God announcing that they shouldn’t look for the living among the dead, after which Peter run to the grave, confirming that it is indeed empty. Then two people are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are met by a stranger, a stranger whom they discover to be the resurrected Christ, just as this Christ disappear from their sight.
Modern debates about the resurrection, to my mind, don’t seem to focus on any of these narratives, but rather construct, from all sides of the popular debates, a new narrative not told by the writers of the gospel: the narrative of what happened inside the grave.
Take any construction of two sides to a popular debate on the resurrection, call them “conservative vs. progressive” or “fundamentalist vs. liberal” (both constructs of tensions in the church which I believe oversimplify the reality of real communities of faith) and you generally find a debate raging on: “could a body come back to life?” The question of what happened inside the grave. From various theological and scientific presuppositions we speculate on the missing narrative, the narrative inside the grave. Did the blood miraculously start to flow again? Was the body stolen? Was there a ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’ which rose out of a dead Jesus? Did this Jesus simply take the blankets of from his body and face and walk out?
These are not modern questions, but have been the subject of speculation for many centuries, and particularly in the first centuries of the church. But the gospel writers refuse to answer the many questions. The gospel writers, as authors of their books, have the power to reveal information hidden to the characters. They sometimes reveal information on what Jesus was thinking, or what he prayed when no one else was with him, so they are willing to present the reader with information which no one could actually know (in the technical sense which we modern people like to connect to the word ‘know’). But when it come to the grave, they don’t dare walk onto that ground.
So we are left with two narratives: The grave is empty. The resurrected Christ has appeared to Peter, the woman at the grave, the travelers to Emmaus.
Are we allowed to dare walk into the grave, attempting to guess what happened? I would say yes. I say yes simply because I don’t think anything is out of bounds. Simply because I think that the God which we find in the Bible is fine with our questions, our attempts at sense-making, our attempts at giving a coherent or rational (sometimes both, sometimes these two seem to exclude each other) argument for our beliefs, or the tradition within which we live.
But I do think we miss the point if our debates and conversations about the resurrection end up as a technical conversation about what happened within the grave. The grave is empty. That’s it. That’s enough. That’s what the gospel present us with. The resurrected Christ, the one with whom we have been resurrection (following the (post)-Pauline writings in Collosians), has appeared to his followers, and this changed their lives.
I want to dare say that if we move our conversations out of the grave and into life, away from what happened in the grave and into what should happen to those to whom the resurrection Christ appeared in their lives, we might find a conversation which both bind us together and lead the church into becoming salt and light. This, to my mind, is a conversation we are in dire need of. What is the implication of the resurrection for the economy, the ecology, for a world in which death, not life, is the reality which face a very large proportion of this planets inhabitants. If our belief in the resurrection don’t translate into a belief that the death facing us can be overcome (and leaving people to die because we believe that they will go to heaven is not believing that death has been overcome, but rather a firm belief that death has won, that opposing death is impossible), then I struggle to call it faith in the resurrected Christ.
This is the sixth year that I’m blogging on the resurrection on resurrection Sunday. Earlier posts can be found here.
October 22, 2011
If there is a unifying thesis that runs through the bric-a-brac of reflections on violence that follow, it is that a similar paradox holds true for violence. At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance. This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence. First, there is a “symbolic” violence embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call “our house of being.” As we shall see later, this violence is not only at work in the obvious-and extensively studied-cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning. Second, there is what I call “systemic” violence, or the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.
Third, there is the matter of violence. Support for violence is intrinsic to Marxism. Without condoning the violence of the status quo and Christians’ blessing of it (which is actually the bigger problem), one has to express concern about the support for revolutionary violence (which is actually the lesser problem, since it is really a response to the violence of the system) in some branches of liberation theology.
Transforming Mission, p441
They reflect on different aspects. But a common thread is an important reminder: the violence of the status quo is the bigger problem. I’m convinced we’ll achieve more if our public discourse tackle the issue of economic exclusion and inequality, inhumane living conditions and deep racism, elements of what I would consider to constitute the violence of the status quo today, almost inevitable by-products of the smooth functioning of our economic system. Violence, also in it’s “subjective” forms, is a serious problem facing South Africa. Yet the vigor with which we are tackling this issue might just be deflecting attention from the violence of the status quo, the violence that keep the the privileged the privileged, and the poor the poor. Creating the impression that the “real problem” is individual acts of violence associated with what is considered criminal, while this should be read symptom of a bigger problem of violence.
August 12, 2011
In many ways what I’m going to write will create a few artificial categories or “shifts”, and I will have to simplify things in order to speak. Simultaneously, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in conversation with church leaders to find out that our thinking about mission has already been simplified. What I’d like to do is take a few arguments for a “shifting missiology”, drawing on a number of very specific conversations that I can think of from the past few months, to produce something of a map of where we are. With “we” I’m thinking about white middle-class churches and theologians, because that is what I know, and that is where I come from. In plotting I’ll be drawing primarily on David Bosch, since his overview is what I know best, and since everyone, basically no matter which shift you are arguing for, like to quote him at some point.
1. From saving souls to saving bodies
Remember the time when if you’d ask a Sunday School class what the church is supposed to do, and they’d answer you that the church should “tell people about God”… well, those times are this times for the white suburban church. Somewhere in our DNA we still struggle with the idea that the primary (and at times exclusive) task of the church is to save the souls of heathens. When we do a soup kitchen, our primary objective is to “soften them up for the gospel”. In Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he point to writings from the very early colonialist period, where one of the pro-slavery arguments was that slavery gave black people a chance to become Christians, and thus their souls will be saved for eternity. The idea that “at least their souls will go to heaven”, either in it’s hard form, where that is all that matters, or in it’s softer form, where that is the primary concern, and any attention to the real life issues of people is reduced to second place at best continue to be very much prevalent in white churches today.
This is the shift many church leaders find themselves in: how do we move people from a focus on saving souls to saving bodies. It is the shift from handing out a bread in order to get an open door to “share the gospel” (already reducing the gospel to a spiritual message), to handing out a bread because that is what we believe the gospel to be. In the writings of Bosch you can look at his reactions to the 1974 Lausanne covenant to see his reactions to the idea that what was called evangelism is somehow the “primary” objective of mission. For Bosch there could be no exclusive or even primary focus on “saving souls”. This shift is important. But it’s not the only important shift happening.
2. From charity to development
“Don’t give a person a fish, teach them to fish” we like to say in our middle-class white congregations. If we keep on handing out food, we’ll be handing out food till kingdom come, we should rather develop skills in order for people to be able to find their own food. It is a shift which start to recognize that there are people in society who simply isn’t “sharing in the goods” as we are, and building on the belief that we should be saving bodies, and then continuing to say that we should not only save bodies, but save societies, we will argue for starting elaborate development projects. Education. Job creation. These are the answers for our society, this is what mission is about, and this is what the church should be about.
In a sense this is always a rediscovery. This colonial Western churches always has a strong emphasis on “developing” the “underdeveloped” nations. At some point this task of development was handed over to the state, with mission hospitals and mission schools being funded, or totally taken over, by the modern nation-states developing in Africa. But, at the moment we do see a re-emergence of a shift “from charity to development”. To find the arguments for development in Bosch you will have to turn to the chapter on “Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment”. Reference to the move from charity to what in Transforming Mission is called the “comprehensive approach” can be found in chapter 10.
3. From development to liberation
In all the talk about Bosch in my own church, what still remain a theme seldom discussed is Bosch’s critique on the development model. For some (although this is not common at all) in the white middle-class suburban church, Bosch’s thoughts under the heading “The Challenge to Progress Thinking” (p 356-358 of Transforming Mission) formulate the shift they suggest. Bosch doesn’t waste words, and if these 2 pages are taken seriously, for those in the white suburban church who doesn’t already find themselves in the midst of this shift, it might feel like participation in mission is impossible. Because this shift seek to destabilize the power relations, become suspicious of “solutions” provided by the rich which continue to keep the rich the rich.
When those of us in the white church start talking about this shift, then it imply a serious self-critique. It is a move away from the idea that we can somehow bring salvation (by saving souls, handing out bread, or teaching skills), and are in need of salvation because of our own indebtedness to the systems of power which has formed us into being white. For those who are rich and white, and moving from development to liberation, the move might best be illustrated by Bosch’s own move from thinking about the “church for others” (Witness to the World), to the “church with others” (Transforming Mission).
Two reasons caused me to point to these movements. The first is as a reminder that simply because we find a shift in the mission theology of a congregation or church leader, doesn’t imply that we have “arrived”. Sometimes the discovery of a gospel which is not merely spiritual, or of a gospel which not only talk about charity towards the poor, but about a comprehensive approach of upliftment, give rise to the idea that we have finally found “the answer” to what the gospel is about. These shifts are important, but the conversion of white Christianity will require a long and tedious process, and we’d do well to remember that our shifts are, for the moment at least, en-route. It is part of a long process of exorcising a gospel which for centuries taught us that we are the main beneficiaries of the gospel, and the answer God gave to the world.
The second reason for pointing to this is as a reminder to myself that I won’t be making this shift on my own. Shifting my own mission theology, which remain in a process of shifting, will require an extensive process of listening, primarily listening to those voices from what was created as the “Third World”. While every movement illustrated is important, and we should be applauding congregations which make whichever is the next shift that they need to take, in the long run we as the white church will have to face the fact that we won’t be saving ourselves. Others will help us in converting from the privilege and power which we were born into. The last shift is not the final shift, but it is a necessary shift if we are to find any hope of moving beyond a liberation approach (which had it’s own problems).
August 3, 2011
Yes, that is a play onto McLaren’s well-known book which gave rise to fingers being pointed towards heresy, but this post has little to no reflection on McLaren’s book.
A few years ago conversations on “orthodoxy and orthopraxis” was quite common. The parts of the conversation which I enjoyed basically boiled down to the idea that orthopraxis (“right living”) was more important than orthodoxy (“right doctrine”). Obviously critiques came in stating that orthodoxy shouldn’t be read in such a narrow fashion, not to mention the various critiques from those who believed that the correct doctrine (narrowly defined as the thoughts we have concerning God) was indeed the most important part of being Christian. I generally found myself comfortable with voices arguing that in reading the gospels our lives as followers of Jesus seem to be more important than getting the facts and details right (thus the orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy argument as it was popularly formulated).
In the meantime the conversations has evolved, suddenly everyone went missional, the emerging label died a silent death to a certain extend, we have American’s teaching Africans about postcolonial theology and what have you more. But I experience a certain amount of tension growing with this newly discovered orthopraxis. More and more it would seem like we get a form of Christian boastfulness where some are “more missional” than others. “I feed more poor people than you” seem to be the new scale along which God’s favour for certain groups are to be measured. The idea that “we have found the real radical Jesus while you are still struggling with the old institutional Jesus” end up not very far from the many debated which we’ve seen over the past two centuries where various groups have declared themselves to be the true bearers of the correct faith, only now, the correct faith is equated with the correct way of fixing the world.
Annemie Bosch once shared a story of what David Bosch used to say during Apartheid. She gave permission that I can share it, although she hasn’t read these words, so mistakes in this paragraph are my own, but nonetheless, it goes something like this:
During Apartheid David Bosch would often say that in the struggle against apartheid, and in the work of transforming the mainline church and it’s relation to apartheid, we need to voices of Carel Boshoff, Johan Heyns, David Bosch as well as Beyers Naudé. Those who aren’t able to listen to the one, might listen to the other, and although they are voicing seemingly contradictory opinions, each in his unique way is contributing towards the end of apartheid and a just society.
This is no generous orthodoxy (in the strict popular interpretation of the word), but might rather be described as a generous orthopraxy. Tony Jones wrote a brilliant piece a number of years ago where attempted to describe a broad understanding of a changing orthodoxy where all role-players (I believe in a blogpost on the paper he used the words “from Benny Hinn to the Pope”, although I can’t find it) co-determine the definition of orthodoxy, and we remain open to the possibility that our consensus might change.
Within the complex reality of our world today it might be important to remain skeptical of the person with the “perfect plan for poverty”. Within the broad discussion of those who believe in justice for all we might want to recognize the role played by everyone from American short-term mission teams to Africa right through to Marxist analysts. Working with a fluid orthodoxy assume a robust debate, but it is a debate where we remain generous on who we consider to be a “legitimate voice” within the ongoing discussion. In our quest for justice, for ethics, I’d suggest we remain generous on who we consider to be partners on our quest for “right living”. This will require a robust debate, a clashing of ideas, but it assume that those I differ with are a necessary voice, and more important, a necessary body, in our quest for justice.
Annemie Bosch kindly rewrote the story to better reflect what was actually said, and agreed that I could add it here:
During Apartheid, David Bosch maintained that in order for us to attain justice for all in South Africa, we needed, in the Afrikaans-speaking section of our nation, the voices of Beyers Naudé, David Bosch, Johan Heyns, Carel Boshoff and Andries Treurnicht. Each of them was, in his own way, campaigning for a just society and for true equality and equity. Those who, because of their background and upbringing, could not hear what Beyers said, would perhaps be able to hear what David said – and so on, all along the line, up to the stance which A.P.Treurnicht took. So each one of these people, and others like them, were contributing towards a change in South Africa so that we could have justice and peace for all…. Which, even up to this day, we have not achieved. So once again we need the voices of many people at different levels of “the Stuggle for Justice” in the New South Africa. Let’s not write off those who differ from us in some or other way. Lets rather use our energy to do what our hand finds to do, and do it well. Let’s take hands and stand together against that which is wrong in our society – and especially in THE CHURCH – which is so much bigger than our little part of it!
July 25, 2011
In the introduction of Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, he recounts the story of two neighbourhood missionaries visiting his God-loving-Jesus-following black mother on an evangelistic mission. In classic hit-them-hard evangelism they entered the yard on a mission, with various possible interpretations of this word fitting for the sentence, and, believing that they were on God’s mission, were entirely focused. So focused were they, that they never stopped to find out whether this women had any connection to the church, not to mention that she was the heart and soul of a local Baptist congregation. At one point his mother interrupted them to share the good news that she indeed was a God-loving-Jesus-following kind of person, but this only temporarily had them loose sight of their mission, before they continued with their pre-recited speech…
It has become customary to create caricatures of these kind of scenes, an exercise which I have participated in in the past. For the moment however, I want to move past this scene. By sharing some version of this scene, and then rejecting it, we might be falsely cleansing our names from being carriers of the white middle-class messiah into a world where messiah of the poor has long been awaiting us. I believe that the danger of middle class Christians carrying a rich messiah into a world, without noticing their own need for salvation has not ended.
Many would call this the “age of mission”. We quote writers who talks about the “missio Dei”, and we even find ourselves in this weird almost middle-ages kind of place where churches are starting to use this Latin phrase in church communication. This is the age in which we are rediscovering the so-called long-lost ideal pre-Constantinian church on a God’s mission. Now, don’t get me wrong, this might be one of the most important developments in the history of the church, although far better descriptions should be given than the previous sentence, but there is a very real danger when the white middle-class church re-position ourselves as the center of this rediscovery.
Note: when I use mission in the next paragraph or two I thinking primarily of mission as development, as Bosch described it. Although Bosch himself rejected this idea, my observation is that this remain dominant in much of what is being called mission within the white middle-class South African church. The coming paragraphs is only relevant as far as this approach remain dominant. The question of whether this is indeed dominant rests on a lived theology, rather than what gets written. The test is not whether you can quote the emerging paradigm of mission, but whether what you are doing has broken with the notion of mission as development.
The problem arise when the very thing which we claim to be the element assisting the white middle-class church in breaking with white middle-class Christianity with colonial Christianity, is that which is keeping it in place. Mission become a kind of fetish keeping the privileged white position in place. In stead of radically challenging the systems which keep the poor poor, the church attempt to contribute by working within this very system and making it “better”. Our mission does not serve to end the oppression of poverty, but rather serve as a vehicle to allow white middle-class Christians not to face the fact that our own privilege is inherently tied in with the oppressed position of others.
In short: I do mission in order to continue my existence in an unjust world. I do mission so that I do not need to face the fact that who I am is tied in with the oppression of others.
Now I come to the “danger” part. The moment we go on “the missio Dei” (see this classic picture from a number of years ago), our mission gets elevated above critique. Similar to the neighbourhood evangelists, we cannot hear when we are told that our very mission is keeping injustice in place, rather than working towards the dismantling of unjust systems. Mission might make us immune to the fact that the most important task of the white middle-class church is listening to how we are embedded within a system of injustice, is our own conversion.
Note: I do not for a moment deny that their is something even worse that mission as development: namely the very injustice which I claim this form of mission might be hiding. Neither do I deny that even worse forms of mission (mission as exclusively the salvation of souls, or mission as charity) exist, and function in the same way as described above, with even less contribution to the very real lives of people. I do however worry about a rising notion of mission which promise a salvation for the world which frowns upon radical transformation of systems which are responsible for injustice, and which are embedded within a theological framework which seems elevated above critique.