Monday, March 8, 2021

Jae Hyoung Choi: COVID-19 & Mission: Imagine Jubilee

Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries. This post first appeared in Korean on United Methodist News Service on Jan. 6, 2021:

It is unlikely that the coronavirus pandemic will end easily. One out of thirteen people in the United States was or is infected with the virus. Some people share a gloomy estimate that in the worst-case scenario, 60% of the world population will be infected.

This time calls for sober reflections on what it means to participate in mission. Our situation reminds us of the time when the Roman Empire was in crisis due to the massive invasions from the northern people (c. 400-500). The difference is that we are receiving the attack from an invisible virus. While witnessing the empire at the brink of falling apart, which was something inconceivable, the Romans wondered whether their Roman gods were punishing them for replacing them with the One Christian God.

Augustine of Hippo, who felt the gravity of this question, reacted through his historical theological work, The City of God. Based on Hellenistic dualism, Augustine concluded that although the earthly city was temporal, the heavenly city was eternal. Unfortunately, his answer, without his intention, became a theoretical basis for the hegemony of kings and popes for the following millennium, known to us as the dark ages.
Some characteristics of the church’s mission during Augustine’s time were: (1) the further institutionalization of the church, (2) the church’s gain of sociopolitical influence through imperial backing, and (3) energetically practicing charity out of monastic spirituality. Although the church was given freedom and authority that was unimaginable when it had been under persecution, the paradigm of practicing charity continued.

What if Augustine had envisioned that the crisis could be an opportunity? What if he called the church that was given authority to a mission of proclaiming jubilee ("deror" in Hebrew, which means "liberty," involving cancelling debts, releasing the enslaved, and restoring patrimony, as Jesus preached in his inauguration sermon in Luke 4:18-19), not only helping the poor but also eradicating the cause of poverty, and not only pursuing personal monastic ideals but also transmitting the ascetic zeal toward collective social reform? Rather than a dark age, the church may have been a beacon for a more just society in the world.  
Today, Christian mission is carried out institutionally through a myriad of ecumenical global networks and partnerships, and the church still has socioeconomic, political, and cultural potential and influence. The question is, where are we using God’s given power and resources, particularly during this crisis? The coronavirus has exposed the bare face of the world system that is tainted with structural injustices and exploitations.

If the church is waiting to resume its mission business as usual, while not discerning the signs of time, we could be conspirators in another dark age. It is time to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, jubilee.

The pandemic has been a time for the church to examine its mission. All Christians want the post-pandemic church mission to be a renewed pilgrimage towards Jesus’s mission of giving the world life and giving it to the full. I wish to reflect on three things about mission during these times.

First, mission is looking back to our past.
For so long, Christian mission has been entangled with the modern ideology of progress and growth. The church, after a long period of vigorous mission engagement, is now feeling fatigued while wrestling with rapid social changes and facing an uncertain future. Mission includes action and reflection. The pandemic has been a time to slow down and reflect for the church. It would be good to utilize this temporary period as a Sabbath to look back at our mission thus far. To stop never means to quit mission. It is time for self-reflection before standing up and walking with a new mind and a renewed commitment. Looking back is a vital component of mission.   

Second, mission is looking into ourselves.
Mission is God’s mission. Christian tradition teaches that mission overflows from the inner agape relationship among the triune God, from the creation of life, to sustaining and saving life, to completing life. We often tend to make God’s mission our own enterprise. With the limited freedom during this pandemic, we are led to investigate our mission motives and put ourselves at the right place in God’s mission. The reason why the church is so beautiful and special is because God has called it to be active participants in God’s life-giving mission in history.   

Third, mission is looking forward to our future with jubilee imagination.
This dangerous virus has magnified an intersectionality of the pandemic with the other social problems, like poverty, racism, and climate injustices. The pandemic has shifted people’s question beyond mere superficial phenomena to something fundamentally structural. Do we have the answer? The biblical jubilee provides a new mission imagination.

Leviticus chapter 25 specifies the four elements of jubilee as (1) canceling debts, (2) freeing slaves, (3) returning land to original owner, and (4) laying the land fallow. To sum up, jubilee aimed to secure clothing, food, and shelter for all people and sustain life to the full, generation after generation.

By resetting their society with the jubilee cycle every 50 year and thus periodically eradicating the causes of socioeconomic polarization and inequality, the ancient Israel manifested their mission of radiating God’s holiness to other nations. Jubilee was the central theme of the Hebrew prophets in their criticism of the social structures and their efforts to energize the people for a better society. In his inauguration sermon, Jesus made his mission clear by proclaiming jubilee (Luke 4:18-19). And later Jesus’s jubilee was fused into the early Christian mission community, the koinonia.

From the jubilee perspective, salvation is to solve the most universal and urgent problem of each age through God’s people with God’s hearts and ways. John Wesley was one of God’s great people of jubilee, who, in pursuit of personal holiness, annunciated the good news to the people, and who, with the vision of social holiness, denounced structural problems, for instance, the enclosure that drove countless English peasants off of the land and thus to pauperism. On this deathbed, the late Father Reuben Archer Torrey III, an Anglican missionary in Korea who is my missionary role model, left this final word of his, “Go up to the roof and preach jubilee.”   

Many people are hopeful because the end of the pandemic is gradually visible with vaccines. But a mere return to the past will be both impossible and irresponsible while facing an uncertain future. I pray that this pandemic is a seminal moment of a new Christian mission by looking back our past, looking into ourselves, and looking forward to our future with Jesus and jubilee.

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