plotting mission

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).

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Recently a group of black theological students of the URCSA studying at UP visited the Hector Peterson memorial in Soweto together with some fellow theological students from the DRC and some visiting students from the USA. Some time after the visit, the students said (in a discussion) that the Hector Peterson memorial “is not a place to visit with white people” since “it only makes you angry”. What had made them angry was that the white students said at the memorial: “We were not even born when this happened”, without any acknowledgement of their connectedness with their parents and grandparents who had been  born at the time and without owning up to the fact that they had benefited from their “whiteness”, even though they were never in the position to support or perpetrate apartheid. The unwillingness or inability to acknowledge white privilege flowing from the apartheid system is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in South Africa, and it will have to be addressed in a reconciling mission praxis.

From a paper entitled “RECONCILING ENCOUNTERS IN LUKE-ACTS” delivered by Prof Klippies Kritzenger at a conference in Stellenbosch, May 2009.

More than once I talked about the Afrikaner tribe in a series of posts on Afrikaner identity written after Amahoro 2009. I’ve been thinking about a number of Afrikaans songs for years now, and the song which probably best formulate the thoughts of many young white South Africans is that of  “Nie langer” (“not any more”) by Klopjag, that shouts out that we won’t be saying sorry any more. It’s been bothering me ever since I first heard it.

The reason can partly be found in the paragraph above: it’s not acknowledging the fact that we benefited from being white, since we are connected to our parents and grandparents. But my discomfort has been growing ever deeper, and it’s more than simply the fact that we benefited from the past. What bothers me is the fact that we actually disconnect ourselves from our own history with this song, with these words. The URCSA students maybe have a much more natural understanding of belonging to a group, to a culture, to a tribe.

My thoughts on this found special meaning in an experience at Amahoro, really a conversion experience, where my Afrikaner identity suddenly found meaning for Africa, where I believe I became an African theologian in my own eyes. Not by forgetting the past. Not by disconnecting from it in the way that the story above tells. But exactly by connecting, by remembering, by saying sorry (not out of emotions of guilt, because I honestly can’t say I experience these emotions, but in a process of reconciliation), by admitting that my tribe was wrong.

My call to Christian Afrikaners is to join your tribe. Not in opposition to the South Africa of which you are part. Not on Loftus at a Curry Cup final. But by embracing your connectedness to the past. By visiting the Hector Peterson memorial and not distancing yourself from what it says, but by connecting, working through the pain and the hurt (and my non-Afrikaner and non-white readers must hear this, embracing the connectness is a really hurtful process!), so that we can find the reconciliation on the other side. Also, to find, as a white man, liberation within Africa:

After telling our story, the story of our people, proud at times, standing guilty at times, one of my new Kenyan friends said these words: “You need to come to Kenya and come tell your story! Our people need to hear that someone can admit that they were wrong.” Those must have been some of the most liberating words I’ve ever heard!

Quoted from How one Afrikaner became an African theologian

(and on a side-note, I was part of the group that visited the Hector Peterson museum from the story above)