I purposely did not begin this discussion with the idea of Christian mission (even though I am involved in it), but instead the concept of development. A theological beginning would have confused the issues I intended to explore. It’s also important that we recognize that development work happens by both religious and secular organizations and matters to the entire human family. The Christian faith, however, has a particular voice in this discussion, as a religion that has had a hand in the worst (and at times best) development practices and continues to claim a global mission. I also believe that some of the fundamental theological tenets of the Christian faith hold the possibility of benefiting the process and work of development for Christians and non-Christians alike.
When I was in seminary I struggled a lot with the purpose of Christian mission. The history of Christian mission is replete with tales of imperial and colonial practices that have been destructive to indigenous people and cultures. Many nations continue to bear the scars of this legacy including my own United States and Bolivia, where I know find myself involved in Christian cross-cultural mission. It certainly seems that wherever the church wandered in its quest to win converts and spread the Gospel it also spread devastation and destruction. The evidence of the negative effects of Christian mission can be so overwhelming that we are tempted to throw up our hands and give up on the idea of cross-cultural mission.
One of the people that helped me through these difficult questions was my missions professor at Truett, Dr. Mike Stroope. Stroope was notorious in my time at Truett for never answering questions directly and often turning them on his students which was eventually referred to as “getting strooped”. His efforts to challenge us to wrestle with big questions and not be content with easy answers led me through many dark alleys and blind passages, but in the end left me with some solid anchors that have helped me navigate what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. In the context of this discussion of development I hope to show that some important theological and missiological ideas bolster a more robust, holistic and healthy view of the Christian’s role in the world.
Missio Dei This Latin phrase meaning “mission of God” began growing in popularity in the 60s and 70s among theologians and missiologists (Reminder: I’m in Bolivia without access to the internet and all the details of Christian history and theology are not stored in my gray matter). It may seem like an innocuous little phrase that all Christians would easily sign on to, but the implications of this idea had far reaching implications. For centuries the church understood itself as the sum total of God’s mission in the world, much the same way that the Israelites were God’s chosen people. They held the truth that the rest of the world needed and therefore had the right to do whatever it took to spread this truth. They were God’s agents in the world to convert souls and make the world look as much like God’s kingdom as possible. Since the church and the kingdom were the same thing, there was no real problem with this way of thinking. As I mentioned in the previous post, this colonial way of thinking and acting had unforeseen consequences and eventually undermined these notions.
Missio Dei means that our understanding of the grand biblical narrative must begin with God’s mission, not the church. Christopher Wright’s excellent book, The Mission of God, really covers this territory well (it is over 500 pages after all). Without getting in to all the details, the church and the kingdom cannot be equated as the same thing. God’s mission was bigger than Israel and is bigger than the church. God’s mission clearly involves the entire world, all nations, all people and even creation (wolf and lamb lying together, rocks crying out, trees singing and all that). This means that God is already present wherever we go. There is nowhere in the world that God is not. Therefore we are not the ones who bring God to others, even if we have a role to play as witnesses. This means that we move cross-culturally with more humility than our ancestors who came to convert the “savages” who were without God. It should be added that in our globalized world where satellite television is omnipresent, there is almost nowhere on the planet that has not heard the name of Jesus and the Gospel in some form or another. The days of missionaries traveling to unreached heathens that have never seen a white person much less heard of Jesus are long gone.
Incarnational Living In one sense I don’t believe that Christians are obligated to live cross-culturally in order to follow Jesus. It is certainly possible to love and follow Jesus within your own culture. There is a need for people within their own culture to struggle with what it means to follow Jesus in the culture which they happen to be experts on by birth. On the other hand we live in a world where remaining isolated from other cultures is less and less possible. I moved to rural Bolivia and now work with four distinct cultures including my own, North American, Low German Mennonite, Bolivian and Guarani. Even in the land of suburbs and gated communities it is more and more impossible to avoid contact with immigrants from all parts of the globe. Immigrants from Mexico, Latin America, India, Africa and Arab countries probably live within a 100-mile radius of everyone in the United States, if not much closer in urban areas.
We follow a God who crosses borders and who, in one of the central acts of our faith, descends to become a part of a foreign people and culture as a helpless child. Jesus learned about what it meant to be human in a very particular culture which included speaking a certain language, following religious practices and being completely shaped by the people, time and place in history to whom he came. I believe it was Andrew Wall (though he may have stolen the phrase) that called Christianity “the ultimate local religion”. If what we have said about the missio Dei is correct, then this means that the Gospel is both a universal and particular message. It took me several semesters of seminary to work through all of the implications and questions that this raises. For our question concerning the role of foreigners in development it means that it is an essential quality of our faith that we cross borders and try to understand what it means to embody the Gospel in particular times and places, in particular languages and with particular people. This brings me to the final and perhaps most important point in this context.
When You Were In Egypt The basis of the law in the Old Testament is the memory of who the Israelites were, where they came from and what God had done for them. This foundational memory was that they were extranjeros, immigrants, foreigners, aliens and strangers. We have called ourselves a “pilgrim people” and “poor wayfaring strangers”. Before the Israelites strayed by deciding to become like the other nations around them and have a king, they did not belong among the nations of the time. They stood out as an oddity and enigma.
Since their exile in Babylon, there was a constant striving to reclaim the glory days, but the truth is that the Jews were thereafter a people without a home or nation. Jesus and his disciples preached an enigmatic relationship with the Roman Empire that still has us scratching our heads. Jesus himself said that even though birds and foxes could find someone’s couch to crash on, he didn’t have somewhere to call home (Authorized Lucas Land Version). Peter, after directly reflecting on their calling as an Exodus people in 1 Peter 2:9-10, says,
Dear friends I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits (1 Peter 2:11-12).
The earliest Christians were persecuted, because their central creed, “Jesus is Lord”, directly challenged the authority of Caesar. Read Diana Butler Bass’ excellent book, A People’s History of Christianity, for many more examples of people, groups and movements that were not at home in the countries of their birth, challenging the status quo with the vision of another world.
With the understanding that we follow a God who crosses borders, and indeed has already crossed into anywhere we could possibly go, a Savior who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness” (Phillipians 2:7) and a Spirit that leads us out of Egypt, our home, and into the wilderness of this great big world, it is part of who we are as the people of God to find ourselves in strange places, with the marginal and oppressed in conflict with the Powers wherever and whoever they are seeking to embody the Gospel in whatever particular culture we find ourselves. As followers of Jesus, this is part of our identity, not to mention the biblical call to the poor and oppressed, and what motivates us to cross borders and live cross-culturally, incarnationally and in service and self-sacrifice to the least of these. The process of crossing borders changes us and as we are transformed it can transform those around us.
(P.S. I thought about breaking this last one up into another series, but that would have just been ridiculous. So, that’s why it’s so long.)