Thursday, April 10, 2014

Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, Professor of Global Christianities and Mission Studies at Perkins School of Theology.  Dr. Cardoza-Orlandi is commenting on the sixth section of the document, "Mission: An Expanding Agenda."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Owning My Own Missiological Location of Interpretation…
No scholar critically engages the work of others or a church document from a neutral viewpoint. I am a Puerto Rican, born and raised in my birthplace, but having spent half my life in the United States. I belong to the last colony of the U.S. in the Caribbean, benefitting from the many opportunities and privileges the U.S. Empire has provided me.

Secondly, culturally, I claim to be a Latin American and caribeño (Caribbean), yet I am identified simply as “Hispanic/Latino” in the U.S. My vocational and religious identity, hence, intersects between geo-political and cultural-religious contexts. I am a hybrid.

In terms of my ecclesial status and religious identity, I am an ordained minister. I actively participate in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christian communities, yet I have religious roots in Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition, Methodism, Pentecostalism, and Spiritist traditions. I am an evangélico carismático. My vocation as a theological educator in world Christianity and mission studies emerged and continues to be nurtured by the Christian communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the immigrant communities in the US and Canada. My Christian vocation is embedded to these Christian communities in the global south.

Thirdly, I am a theological educator who experiences the colonial legacy and politics of the US empire, global capitalism and the predominantly US missionary enterprise. Many ask me why I teach Christian mission. My answer is succinct: the gospel is hope, and I critically and humbly engage in God’s activity of hope for all creation.

A Brief Comment on Grace Upon Grace
Allow me to emphasize two themes of Grace Upon Grace. First, the document focuses Christian mission on the acting grace of God. The three levels of grace that Wesleyan and Methodist traditions treasure—the grace that goes before us, the grace that saves us through Jesus Christ, and the grace that continuously restores our lives in God[1]—give a framework to understand and participate in God’s mission in creation and to be part of the body of Christ. This grace-filled missionary activity keeps the Christian community under scrutiny in its co-participation in God’s missionary activity. Consequently, Christian communities engaged in Christian mission are both participants and receptors of God’s sustaining, saving, and restoring grace. Under this theological rubric, Christian communities—the churches—have no privilege, yet much responsibility!

I am grateful for the following statement: “[This statement] also seeks to be relevant to present and coming generations of the church. Identity and relevance are not easily reconciled, but an adequate mission statement should endeavor to join these two dimensions.”[2] The task of joining these two dimensions seems to present a challenge to the writers of Grace Upon Grace. Yet, the document is not clear about why such a task is challenging. Perhaps the challenge is found in our understanding of identity. Consider the following possibility: Christian identity is as fluid as the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. If Christian identity is understood as a continuous re-discovery of the gospel, relevance is integrated with identity. Christian identity is an eschatological unfolding and embodiment of who God wants us to be in a particular place and time. Hence, identity and relevance are woven into the tapestry of Christian mission, rather than separated threads in need of connection.

Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda
I find this section too flat. The expanding agenda of Christian mission is much more complex and nuanced. The growth and vitality of the Christian religion in Africa, Asia, Latin America & the Caribbean (these last two excluded from the document)[3] offer challenging and promising dynamics of Christian mission that are “out of the radar” for many Christian communities affiliated or connected to mainline historical Protestant denominations and traditions. For example, the main protagonist of grass-roots Christian missionary activity is a poor traditional woman of color. In Cuba, for example, during the very difficult period after the fall of the USSR, a group a poor Cuban women and female seminary spouses created the “Weavers of Hope” group at the Seminario Teológico de Matanzas. Through their weaving, this group of women evangelized each other, generated funds for their own financial support, created a fund to help seminary families with basic needs, and established scholarships and spiritual support programs for women who embraced God’s calling to ministry in these difficult times.

This is one example of what I call Christian mission-from-the-poor-to-the poor. Many of my students who come from affluent Christian communities in the United States discover at least three important missiological lessons from their experiences with “Weavers of Hope.” First, they discover the sacramental mystery of human solidarity; second, their missional and economic assumptions about distribution of wealth and “giving” to the poor are not only challenged, but also re-examined in light of the solidarity among the poor; and third, what they see in the global south[4] is unexpected, yet redeeming for their our vocation as Christian leaders.

In conclusion, an expanding agenda of mission requires a new way of “seeing.” Paragraph 37 states that “God makes the invisible become visible…” What I would like to highlight is a new way of seeing and acting. Is it possible for us to “see” the solidarity of the poor as a gift of God for our own transformation and “act” in our own Christian communities with such solidarity?

[1] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction, second paragraph.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Paragraph 27.
[4] Paragraph 34 and other parts of this document put too much emphasis on the “need” in the global south with little or none co-protagonism of these communities in God’s missionary activity.

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