This is the long-awaited conclusion to something I started over six years ago. I know the internet has been on hold until this post. Now we can finally all move on.
So, in previous posts, I have argued that translation and evolution are core components of the Christian tradition that make it a potentially positive force in the world for development and social transformation. The question still remains, “What’s Jesus got to do with it?” (Can you hear Tina Turner singing that? Because I can.) Why not join the Unitarians, Baha’i, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists or Hindus? Many of them have similar beliefs and visions for the world. Many of them are also very fond of that Jesus guy.
First, a reminder of what I said in the first post about the Missio Dei, God is at work in the world beyond the boundaries of the church and/or Christianity. I’m not attempting to create an apology for Christianity as the one true religion. My intention is not to win a battle in which Jesus bests all other deities in some sort of religious death match of ideas and arguments. In a pluralistic and globalized world, in which we live and work alongside people from various backgrounds, traditions, cultures, and religions, it is worthwhile to know what we, as followers of Jesus, have to offer to the world, especially in cross-cultural work, even as we assume a humble posture of openness to those who are different from us.
I would like to suggest three particular ideas and benefits that Jesus and the Christian tradition bring to cross-cultural development work in particular: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the solidarity of Liberation.
This is broader than Jesus, but he is part of a concept that is a unique contribution of the Christian tradition. Much theological ink has been spilled on the concept of the Trinity, but my intention is not to try and summarize that history. The basic idea is that the essence of God is the life of a community, three distinct persons or substances that are also somehow one, not separate. It’s a way of trying to grasp a mystery in the Christian experience of the divine through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the events at Pentecost and through the early church. Theologians have tried to describe this mystery using words like perichoresis, which in Greek means “mutual interpenetration.” Richard Rohr among others suggests that it is like a dance in which the three parts of the Trinity bob and weave together.
One of the implications of this idea is that all of creation is an outworking, an emanation, or an outflow of this dance that is happening within the Godhead to the rest of the cosmos. Just as in fractals, the structure of interdependence, love, and mutuality found within the concept of a triune God is also found writ both large and small in the cosmos. Therefore, as bearers of the Imago Dei, we should also reflect this structure and symmetry of divine love, mutuality, and interdependence.
God, The Colonizer
Imagine for a moment the implications for cross-cultural work if your primary image of God is of an authoritarian, top-down, domineering, and demanding commander. This image of God can and has led to destructive approaches by Western Christians working cross-culturally. There is no dance of interdependence. The missionary or the development worker is simply the vessel for divine authority and necessarily views those they work with as inferior and in need of the divine knowledge and understanding that they possess because the divine authority has passed it down to them through the hierarchy. They can feel love and compassion for those they serve, but at its root, it is paternalistic and patronizing, not empowering or liberating.
Secular organizations and systems, as well as other religions, can operate similarly when their primary and operational image of the divine is authoritarian and hierarchical. Think of the ways that international organizations such as the IMF and WHO impose their particular vision and belief about the way the world should be on developing countries. The structure of IMF loans and the strings attached are designed to lead countries to develop their economies in a particular way and to tie them to the global economic structures. This is not making a particular judgment on those loans and structures (that may be for another post), but it is to point out the nature of the relationship. It is not one of mutual interdependence, but one of power and domination.
God, The Dancer
In contrast, the metaphor of a trinitarian God leads us to see those from other cultures, religions, ideologies, and backgrounds as an extension of ourselves. They are part of the mutual dance of interdependence that is the history of our planet. We are connected to them, to All My Relations.
The meaning of the phrase “God is love” is greater than we have imagined in light of trinitarian theology. The love of God is so great and so foundational that at the core of God’s being is a dance of love and mutual interdependence. If this is the God we follow and as we will see the God who extends that love beyond Godself to the world, then we must be imitators of that God even as we are formed and created by that same movement of love.
For cross-cultural work, this means that followers of Jesus are pilgrims that MUST move beyond ourselves and extend the dance of love that we have received to others no matter their culture, religion, language, etc. It means that one of the fundamentals of our faith and of the world that God created is mutuality and interdependence. Therefore we cannot cross borders and barriers of all kinds with the haughty pride and ethnocentrism of the colonial mindset of an authoritarian God.
Instead, we must learn the steps of the dance in that place and time. Sometimes parts of the dance are familiar, but we will always learn new steps as we move out from ourselves into the world with that mutual and sacrificial love for others and the world.
In the next post, I’ll unpack the second contribution of the Christian tradition, incarnation.