Thursday, November 17, 2016

Wesleyan theology and power in mission relationships

As this week's recommended reading indicates, how we think about power matters for how we think about (and practice) mission. I would like to further contend that how we think about the process of redemption has implications for how we think about power. Moreover, a proper Wesleyan understanding of the process of redemption should facilitate a proper understanding of power in mission relationships.

I want to get into this connection between Wesleyan theology and power in mission by contrasting Wesleyan and Reformed theological anthropologies (theological views of human nature) and soteriologies (theologies of salvation). Such theological arguments among Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Wesleyans constitute a significant arena of classical, European theology, but one which is not frequently connection to missiology.

I do not mean to imply by this post that missionaries from the Reformed tradition are predestined to misunderstand power in mission relationships. Obviously, there are many fine missionaries and mission theologians from Reformed perspectives that understand the complexities of power in mission far better than most Methodists.

I only mean to suggest that Methodists should be aided in thinking properly about the role of power in mission by reflecting well on their Wesleyan theological heritage. For Methodists to misunderstand power is not only a failure of proper missiology; it's a failure of proper Wesleyan theological anthropology and soteriology.

In the standard Reformed position, human beings experience "total depravity" - that is, all of the good in human nature has become effaced and human beings are nothing but sinful and evil. True Christians are saved from this condition by "unconditional election" - God's choice without any form of participation by those being saved. Indeed, humans are completely unable to be part of the process of salvation in any way since whatever was good in them has been completely destroyed by sin.

In contrast, John Wesley understand that sin had corrupted human nature but that humans still retained something of the "imago Dei," the image of God, in them. Humans' spiritual and moral capacities are turned away from God, but humans still had such capacities. Salvation comes, then, when God restores these capacities by imparting grace. God's prevenient grace revives these capacities to the point where humans are enabled to respond to God's grace. While it's important not to make humans responsible for their own salvation, humans nonetheless have more than a merely passive role to play in their salvation according to the Wesleyan model.

With this understanding in mind, we can turn to missiology. Just as God sends God's self (Jesus) into the fallen world to redeem it, so God sends the church forward in that same world to participate in God's act of redemption. Thus, Christians can be excused for modeling their understandings of how the church should be in mission on how they understand God to save humanity. It is easy, if not entirely correct, for Christians to see themselves as playing a role analogous to God and the world as playing a role analogous to the Christian.

A poor understanding of mission power relations sees Westerns/white people/the rich/the middle class/etc. as the active agents in mission and non-Westerns/non-white people/the poor/etc. are merely passive recipients of the mission activity of privileged Christians. The privileged do; the spiritually and materially underprivileged receive.

Yet if the mission relationship mirrors in any way the relationship between God and Christians, then this is a wrong understanding of mission according to Wesleyan theology. Humans are not just passive objects in their salvation. They have capabilities, and God's goal is to restore and revive those capabilities. Thus, Wesleyan missionaries should at a minimum seek to discover and develop the capabilities of those they serve in mission.

Ideally, Wesleyan missionaries should go beyond this minimum to seek partnership and mutuality with those with whom they are in mission, recognizing that they are not God but rather partners with others in obedience to God. Such an understanding would fully reflect the imago Dei in all and God's prevenient grace at work everywhere.

Nevertheless, a more fundamental case can be made that any form of missiology that does not recognize the agency of recipients of mission cannot claim to be truly Wesleyan.

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