the danger of rich messiahs going on god’s mission
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.