Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Jacob Dharmaraj: Advocacy as a Christian Witness in Diasporic Mission

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It extends remarks Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj made in a previous post from October.

In one of Norman Rockwell’s drawings, an overwhelmed mother holds her little boy face down in her lap. At her feet lies a hammer, along with evidence of a destructive spree: a broken mirror, a shattered vase, and an eviscerated clock under her chair. Not being sure of how to discipline her child, the mother grips a hairbrush in one hand, and a book on child psychology in the other: To spank or not to spank? She doesn’t know the answer.

Many in the church in global north are confused and lost over the missional issues of immigrant concerns and global diaspora, particularly about millions who are forced to flee from their native lands because of political instability, religious, racial, ethnic persecutions. What is our missional response to them? At times the multiplicity of responses given by experts threatens to devolve into cacophony.

Embodying the Gospel
Most of us are well aware that the church cannot carry on a monologue detached from the marginalized world with mere relief offerings but must stand in solidarity with them to address this huge human crisis. Pope John Paul aptly said, “Solidarity means taking responsibility for those in trouble.” Being in solidarity with the weak and vulnerable is more than extending compassionate and charitable services. Human charity is a hard emotion to sustain; over the long run, it cloys.

True solidarity breaks down the illusion of disconnectedness and works for kinship, which is a cherished conviction. In the final analysis, being in solidarity with the broken and bruised, and gaining their trust and confidence will offer better opportunities to share the love of Jesus Christ.

We need to be aware that there is a major difference between global diasporic mission and mission with the immigrants who have moved into our neighborhoods. Diasporic mission is primarily a global phenomenon set in motion by voluntary or involuntary conditions. Research professor Enoch Wan avows it as glo-cal in nature. It is border-less, pluralistic, transnational, multi-directional rather than homogenous. It is comprised primarily of people who were involuntarily or coerced to move.

In diasporic mission, the focus is on holistic mission and contextualization that integrate evangelism and social concern. We cannot just proclaim the Gospel among refugees without also addressing their physical needs and becoming their advocate. The workers work best when they learn the languages, understand cultural nuances and are mindful of the practices of the faiths of others who are rootless refugees, while keeping one’s core faith identity. Mere proclamation with an intention to start church during human vulnerability will spawn only “exploitative-Christians.” Mission is contextual as well as comprehensive, and should never employ humanitarian aid for religious proselytization.

Diaspora missiology does not replace “traditional missiology,” which is primarily evangelistic; rather, it supplements traditional methods with those that are geared to the new demographic realities of the 21st century. It is not a case of “either/or” in a mutually exclusive way as some tend to assume. In diasporic mission, participants are invited to stretch their imagination and look beyond the narrow perspectives of the present and to set themselves in the context of world realities on the one hand, and on the other hand, the analytics of root causes, power relations, and knowledges provided by the victims.

Mission with the “sinned-against” people
Historically, mission movements in the global north have rarely engaged questions of immigration and global diaspora as missional issues. If we hack through the opaque theological thicket and saunter through mission archives, we still find ourselves in the same old corridors of starting place. At times, we are narrowly guided by favorite scripture passages and past practices in order to discover missional comfort and seek ecclesial refuge. During the Christendom period everything seemed to be fixed and stable, but now the topography of the mission site is changed.

The demise of colonization, end of Christendom and waning of denominational ecumenism on the one hand, and the emergence of globalization and instant communication on the other have transformed missional participation from the predictable to the adaptive, from the mono-directional and anticipated to multi-directional and flexible ways of engagement.

In diasporic mission, witness to the Gospel comes mainly through advocacy work on behalf of the “sinned-against” and giving witness to the structures of power that create this sub-human condition. The agency of the diasporic communities is a key. In other words, we need to take the marginalized and repressed voices from the periphery and help amplify and facilitate these voices to be heard. This would mark a significant change in the way we do mission in a traditional sense. We cannot merely dispense throat lozenges that makes people feel better when the patients themselves know what they need is a serious medical treatment.

When I say our witness should be characterized by love and advocacy, I am not downplaying the reality of sin nor the need for transformation. However, it may be that hurting, disillusioned people need to find kindness through our caring action. During biblical times, when our Hebrew ancestors migrated from impoverished agrarian region to the advanced, urbanized Egypt, they had the invaluable advantage of having Joseph, who happened to be a blood relative, in the country’s top public office. Joseph’s advocacy and timely interference made this vulnerable diasporic community’s transition relatively easier. When problems arose for that community a few centuries later, it was Moses who stepped into the role of advocate.

Biblical history also documents people from all walks of life who witnessed against the structures of power on behalf of the poor, oppressed and voiceless. We can cite only a few towering figures such as Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, Paul, and Apollos who did the ministry of advocacy on a larger scale and cross-cultural context. There are a number of so-called “minor” role players. Suffice it to say that a vital key to the health and viability of diasporic communities lay in the availability and the power of advocacy to represent their needs.

What is clear is that advocacy is a key ingredient in diaspora issues both past and present, and is increasingly being recognized in governmental structures as an important dynamic in the process of diaspora engagement. Wherever diasporas have appeared, their ability to cope and thrive has been in large part due to the willingness of those who carry influence and inspiration to serve as advocates and campaigners for vulnerable and scattered peoples. Wangari Muta Maathai, a Nobel Laureate, aptly said, “Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t  done a thing. You are just talking.”

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