Today's post is written by Dr. Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology. Dr. Jones contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC's new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes. You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the "Together towards Life" tag at the bottom.
There is much to admire about this statement on mission and evangelism put out by the World Council of Churches. Some of these admirable points are its emphasis on the importance of life in all its fullness; its ecological concerns; its holding together the necessity of evangelism and of working for justice, peace and freedom; its concern for the poor and the marginalized; its condemnation of idolatrous treatment in some quarters of current global capitalism (as an ideology and not, I assume, as an economic arrangement); its call to conduct mission and evangelism in humility and with respect for others. Responding to the persisting importance of Pentecostalism and charismatic forms of Christianity around the world, it lays heavy stress on explicating (from a WCC point of view) the work of the Holy Spirit in mission and evangelism.
I am going to respond to the treatment in Together Towards Life (TTL) of the topic of missions from and to the margins, which has become an interest of mine. In this regard, I find TTL a rather frustrating work, because it wants to make the case for the importance of mission from the margins, while itself seemingly unaware of its location in the center of western Christian world. Allow me to illustrate.
Early on (¶ 6) the document says that “mission has been understood as a movement taking place from the centre to the periphery, and from the privileged to the marginalized.” This in itself is a highly debatable claim. In the book of Acts, for example, while geographically the gospel goes from the Jewish center (Jerusalem) to the margins (Rome), in terms of the privileged in society the movement is exactly the opposite: the apostles in Jerusalem are socially insignificant while those who hear and positively respond to the gospel at the geographic margins (the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, the priest of Zeus at Lystra, Lydia) are socially more privileged. Geographic and social marginality do not always coincide. And Christian history is full of marginal people – from slaves like Patrick in Ireland in the 5th century to 20th century catechists, teachers, Bible women, and ordinary lay Christians in the non-western world – who have been the keys to Christian mission. So when TTL continues, “Now people at the margins are claiming their key role as agents of mission and affirming mission as transformation,” this actually is not a contemporary phenomenon. In fact Christian mission has ordinarily been conducted by marginal persons. It seems to me that the authors of TTL are unaware of how much their perspective of mission is molded by their location in the centers of Christian thought and practice.
My suspicions are not allayed in ¶ 37: “Mission from the margins calls for an understanding of the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, and local contextual realities.” Actually, it is precisely those of us who are located in the centers of educational, political and economic power that try to understand the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, etc. Those carrying on missions at the margins typically do not have access to the resources of the centers to engage in such analysis. Thus Samuel Escobar writes, “These days in Spain, mission is taking place in new and creative forms. I know several Latin American evangelical women migrants who earn their living caring daily for old people in Madrid or Valencia and who share with them spontaneously about the Good News of God’s love in Christ” (International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38:4 (Oct. 2014): 193). Such is the mission taking place at the margins, by hundreds of millions of poor and underprivileged Christians all over the world, some of whose theologies would profoundly trouble me, I am sure. Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that “the complexities of power dynamics, global systems and structures, and local contextual realities” need to be understood. I make my living trying to understand them. But I do so from a place of privilege at the center: not as a Latin American maid in Spain or a Filipina maid in Bahrain. I do not want to presume to speak for the missionaries at the margins, which parts of TTL seem to do (¶ 38, for example). Moreover, I also strongly believe that conversation, communication, and all sorts of exchanges between Christians at various locations of power need to take place all the time in order for the health of the mission of the church universal. Ironically, we can isolate mission at the margins by romanticizing it and claiming we are for it without really engaging it.
Finally, the perspective and voice of the center erupts once again in ¶ 101: “We are servants of the Triune God, who has given us the mission of proclaiming the good news to all humanity and creation, especially the oppressed and the suffering people who are longing for fullness of life.” It is hard to see how this affirmation squares with the warning against mission “directed at people on the margins of societies” (¶ 41).
I hope my criticisms of one part of TTL do not leave the impression that I believe that the statement is not worth reading, thinking about or engaging in theory and practice. Obviously, I have engaged the document myself! It is precisely because TTL is such an important document, with so much that is salutary in it, that I believe it should be carefully studied by students and practitioners of mission.