Friday, February 16, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission from the Margins: A Reflection

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

“Mission Dialogue Forum” is an initiative of the Global Ministries’ Mission Theology Desk to engage theologically and missiologically with the Global Ministries staff, which is an intercultural community now housed in Atlanta. The forum commenced in the November 2017, with the first session facilitated on “Theology and Mission from the Margins.” Mission Dialogue Forums will have a series of dialogue sessions thereafter. It is hoped to share insights and missional themes that come out of these forums with a wider public for debate, dialogue and engagement.

“Theology and Mission from the Margins” is one of the most critical yet attractive and dynamic themes in recent mission discourses globally and locally. Can any good come out of Nazareth (a Margin of the Roman Empire)?

Dialogue of Global Margins
At a global level one can immediately think of situations such as how theologies and missions from Nigeria to Tonga, Congo to India and Sri Lanka and Haiti to First Nation Peoples sharing their missional voices, thoughts and practices, hopes, struggles, readings of Bible and their interpretations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the larger missional communities in the world? Once margins of the empires, these places are now coming out!

Put it in another way, for an example, how can a Dalit Missiology that emphasizes the casteless society, equanimity, democratic discernment, egalitarian power sharing and justice and has been thoroughly influenced by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, himself being a Dalit, empower the global mission of the Christianity? How should a possible theology that comes out of tea picker women in a tea estate plantation from Sri Lanka facilitate theologizing processes of global missiologies? How can Ubuntu theology (I am because You are) influence and transform our understanding of Koinonia today? These questions challengingly invite all of us to a genuine cross-cultural cross-geopolitical intentional hearing, dialogue and engagement.

Center - Margin Dynamics
For centuries Christian theology and mission were decided and disseminated, managed and sent by the various centers of power and administration: colonial centers, ecclesial centers, academic centers, monastic centers and economic centers, etc. Historically voices of the margins were either crushed or not adhered to. Now the margins have emerged with an extraordinary resilience, and the Sprit is moving to share the GIFTS and DREAMS of the MARGINS in decision making and praxis of Christian mission. I believe that the 21st century is the century of the margins! However, the questions remain – How to be vulnerable? How to be in listening and hearing ministry seriously? How to integrate voices from the margins into missional praxis? Are we as disciple of Christ ready to be evangelized from the margins?

There have been some fine conversations on paradigmatic shifts of “mission to” to “mission with,” but two basic issues remain unsolved in these conversations: One is that more serious cross-cultural dialogues were undermined, and the other is power dynamics – not just political power alone, but also economic power. These topics need more collaborative research and conversations in mission.

Margins – the Agents of Mission
The World Council of Churches publication Together Towards Life has a significant portion dedicated to mission from the margins. According to TTL, mission from the margins involves a radical reversal of missional perspective—from the imagination that mission and ministry are done by the rich and powerful for those who are poor and powerless to the recognition that it is among the poor, powerless, victims and outcastes, broken hearted where God is really acting and where Christians are called to ‘join in’ God’s redemptive work in the Cosmos. God chooses the vulnerable and the alienated, those at the margins, to fulfil God’s mission of establishing justice and peace and reconciliation. People at the margins are thus the ‘primary agents’ of God’s mission of affirming life in its fullness. Those who are on the margins are Christians in the poorer contexts in the world, in those places to which the “center of gravity” of Christianity has now shifted. (By 2050 four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa according to a recent Pew Research finding).

Local Church
Of course, every local Christian community (local church) has also its own margins of mission, both within the church itself (intra-church) and in the society in which the local church is largely contexed; every local church is graced with the disturbing challenge to incarnate with the margins and build community through dialogue. If we want to walk on the water, we must get out of the boat! The church should be guided by the Holy Spirit in this “mission from the margins” adventure!

Laity as Ecclesial Margins!
It was fascinating for me to read how the Methodist movement in the USA initially was a fully-fledged mission led by the laity as a lay mission movement! According to Ruth Daugherty through her work The Missionary Spirit: The History of Mission of the Methodist Protestant Church, 1830-1939 (2004), mission began in the colonies by lay persons, and it was through their support and their endeavors that mission continues as a focus. “Methodism was lay evangelism in successful action” (page 7). How could the Methodist movement in the USA engage in a serious reflective practice on reappraisal of core ministries and mission of the laity? How can the church listen to the spirit of the margins within the church, especially to the marginalized laity, and leverage their gifts more holistically in the mission of the church? Methodism was a movement from the margins started in England. Wesley was chosen by God to be the key instrument in that. It was like the Jesus movement that emerged from the margins of the Galilean sea shores. It was a mission driven community of the margins that changed the world! The Holy Spirit has empowered the margins for the world!

As the Methodist mission in the USA is embarking on her bicentennial celebration 2019 let us ask the fowling spirit-searching questions:
  • Are we ready to apply and practice “Mission from the Margins” by listening to the Holy Spirit?
  • Are we prepared to engage genuinely with the global margins in world Christianities?
  • Are we ready to be transformed by mission from the margins in pastoral engagement with the world?

The global church is not just a structure but a beloved community of the disciples of Christ that practices costly hospitality in mission; so any mission conversation on theologies from the margins will be incomplete without changing and transforming the margins themselves, not by dragging margins to the centers, but by mutual transformation of both centers and margins into a beloved and just Ubuntu community – The Body of Christ, which will always be a blessed community by being poor in spirit!

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