Not long ago I wrote a piece on reconciliation and mission and today ran across some items that are making me return to the topic a bit. A friend and gentleman started a conversation on Facebook with the following:
“It doesn’t seem to me that white Christians get to determine when it is appropriate to begin using the word ‘missionary’ again. We can’t pretend that the wounds inflicted by white Christian missionaries around the globe have healed, we can’t pretend that we don’t continue to benefit from the systems of domination that many of those missionaries helped to build, and we shouldn’t act as though the statute of limitations on taking offense to this word has run out.”
I have deep respect for this gentleman’s body of work so I want to be clear that this is a difference of opinion not necessarily a matter of black and white or right and wrong.
This was offered on the same day that a friend, Tim Schenck, published a piece lamenting our unwillingness to embrace a clear witness to Jesus Christ. His piece was a reaction to architectural changes made to a cathedral that were intended to be intentionally “spiritual not religious.”
Tim’s critique was a powerful though gentle one that had, at its heart, a concern for our willingness to be clear about our identity as a people evangelizing and witnessing to the Resurrection power of Christ.
Both the architectural changes and the post on mission have, at their heart, a deep concern for those victimized by the manipulations and machinations of organized religion. Yet, I would say, that the response to the very real hurts that have been part of our history is not to shrink from our fundamental obligations to witness to Christ’s love but to live more deeply and fully into our obligations as missionaries and evangelists.
We are not called to shrink from places of abuse but to engage them more fully, more deeply, with greater honesty, and with a commitment to reconciliation.
We are watching, all about us, a reframing of what it means to be Catholic by Pope Francis. He understands that the “brand” of the Church has been deeply damaged and is doing all in his power to undo that damage and reimagine what a fully lived Catholic life looks like. He is doing it in the simplest way possible – by living with grace and humility.
There is no doubt that historical wrongs have been committed in the name of Christ and even by missionaries. Yet our challenge is not to rename but to reclaim the vocation and the essence of mission.
Men commit violence every day – yet we cannot avoid the term man. We look to reframe notions of masculinity and work to change patriarchal systems. It is not the term that is the problem – it is the nature and essence of the term that must be constantly judged in the light of the fullness of the Gospel promise and Incarnational reality.
Missionaries are called to the boundaries between people and nations – to places of insecurity and marginalization to be a living embodiment of Christ’s own mission of reconciliation and proclamation. Titus Presler, a missiologist now serving as Dean of Edwardes College in Pakistan writes, “The notion that it is only in the 21st century or only in the, say, last 60 years that mission-minded people in the churches have realized the common humanity of all human persons is not only false, but it is profoundly unjust – a calumny perhaps – to generations of missionaries…who ministered out of a deep recognition of the common humanity of all persons.”
The missionary endeavor is to bring awareness of “those people there” to “people here” and to make the universal presence of Christ known in the encounter of difference. If missionaries were not deeply and powerfully aware of the fundamental humanity and dignity of all people, they simply would not do the work they do. They know that all persons deserve to see and know the dignity and promise of Christ’s life-changing Good News.
Identifying with Christ means that we must, necessarily, operate out of a sense of vulnerability and perpetual humility. We, as missionaries, do not simply do good for others – we embody the self-offering and self-giving that Christ calls us to by example.
Lamin Sanneh, a professor of mission, talks often of the Western guilt complex about mission. In the Christian Century, Yale professor Lamin Sanneh wrote, “It seems that for my Western Christian friends, if missionaries did not justify by their field labors the guilt the West carries about the mischief of the white race in the rest of the world, then other missionaries would have to be invented to justify that guilt.” The vague uneasiness of the contemporary Christian has, in some ways, been shifted onto the mission enterprise and become an excuse to devalue or redefine mission. Sanneh argued, “Much of the standard Western scholarship on Christian missions proceeds by looking at the motives of individual missionaries and concludes by faulting the entire missionary enterprise as being part of the machinery of Western cultural imperialism.”
A Church that seeks to make amends for historical wrongs must engage with those it believes it has wronged and who believe they have been wronged by it. And not only must it engage – it must engage from a place of honest witness to its hope and with deep awareness of its past failings.
Calling oneself a missionary is not a term to be carried with pride – it is a mark of self-offering. It is the willingness to hold oneself accountable for the proclamation of the fullness of the Gospel in the totality of one’s life and to be responsible not only for one’s own motives but to know the loaded history which one carries into the mission field – be that field across the globe or across the street.
The missionary role is one of knowing Christ and making Christ known and our collective guilt complex is hindering sharing the Good News in ways that will promote the dignity of every human person and help us all to see Christ in one another.
If we understand Christ to be the ultimate gift, then we must bring Christ to the world – and that is the work of a missionary people. We are called not only to proclamation but to live lives that are grounded in right action and right thought with hearts fixed in the self-offering of the cross.
Our right action and right thinking are the ways in which we sanctify ourselves to make our gift of our service more acceptable to God. This sanctification requires that we, like any offering, are separated from that which would dilute the offering; we are to separate ourselves from “this world.”
This separation from the world has an intensely eschatological element to it. N.T. Wright states, “Here is the inference, for Paul, between what scholars call ‘eschatology’ and ‘ethics’: because you are in fact a member of the age to come, if you are in Christ, new modes and standards of behavior are not only possible but commanded.” This is at the heart of a missionary life – a life given to the lived witness to the Indwelling of Christ.
Indeed, the end of time is now already in operation and any believer’s actions must be framed with this in mind. Leander Keck asserts, “This non conformity to ‘this age’ is not an end in itself nor simply a manifestation of ‘alienation’ rooted elsewhere, but the requisite prelude to the real end, doing God’s will, which is not self-evident so long as ‘this age’ has not yet run its course.”
Yet, mission is inherently a calling to immerse ourselves in this age and bring to work for the fullness of the next. By engaging in this radical act of engagement and self-offering that we call mission, we are divorcing ourselves not from the world, but from the bindings of the world. It is the transcendence of the flesh through the sharing of the Spirit. This corporate act of secession forces us to, as Karl Barth said, “not fashion ourselves according to the present form of this world, but according to its transformation.”
Missionary abuses of the past are issues not with mission but with the collaboration of mission, sometimes, with the powers and systems that thrived in the subjugation of others. We were, sometimes, working in the present form of the world, not according to its transformation.
Yet, missionaries were often the only voices standing up for the dignity of those who were oppressed. Like the whole Church, missionaries are a mixed lot with complex motives. Sometimes they did enormous good and sometimes they sinned grievously – we all have and will. Yet it is time for us to seek to live lives that allow those historical yet present wounds to be a source not of division but of reconciliation.
The answer is not to run from abuse or to think we too are not culpable if we avoid the term. We are deeply culpable in abuse – we are a people who shout “Crucify Him!” together too often. Yet we are also a people forgiven, restored, and renewed – a people with Good News to share. Making an idol of our guilt – a fixation of our energy – is not a healthy way forward. Our vision must be fixed on the transformation of the world that the Spirit us about.
This is the calling of missionary life – and it is a call we can all hear and welcome as believers. Our challenge is not to soften or cloud our identity as missionaries but to grow into a mature understanding of just what being a missionary is so that others can see in us the promise and potential of that calling.