Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Pablo Oviedo: The Challenge of a Mission that Troubles

Today's post is by Rev. Lic. Pablo G. Oviedo. Rev. Oviedo is a pastor of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina and Professor of Theology at Universidad del Centro Educativo Latinoamericano (UCEL). It originally appeared (in Spanish) on the website of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina (IEMA) as part of a series organized by the Centro Metodista de Estudios Wesleyanos (CMEW). It appears here in translation with the author's permission and with the assistance of CMEW.

In this series of essays on the challenges facing Latin American Methodism, a key dimension is the theological vision of mission. We are led to review it even more when one of the most dangerous concepts that has managed to implant neoliberalism in our societies is that of “common sense,” that is, the uncritical acceptance of what is given or of what is “politically correct” since it is accepted as truth by many or by the majority.

Common sense in mission?

As has been said, “common sense is the most common of the senses” and leads us to accept the established or the obvious without accepting other alternatives or encouraging us to question. There are many social researchers who call us to question common sense, even when today many of the digital and communication media take care of increasing it.

In this direction, the apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans chapter 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Mission is a divine action, not of the church. Mission is Missio Dei. The church participates in the same work of God in the world, work that seeks to save and liberate humanity and creation from all oppressions. The task of the church, as sent, is to see, hear, call, guide, point, help, incarnate, and show solidarity as part of the testimony of God's work. Mission points towards the horizon of the kingdom of God. Mission demands leaving the church building. It is letting ourselves be challenged by what is happening beyond our congregations and involving the church with those who today suffer the effects of the globalization of the financial system of Mammon and its injustices: racial, gender, socio-economic, etc.

We start from the reality of this Latin American continent, which nominally mostly considers itself “Christian,” but which is the most unequal region in the world.

Let's look at just a few dimensions on which Wesley enlightens us. He does not give us recipes but only tools to reflect together. What is the mission that God entrusts to us today? How do we testify to Jesus today? These are questions that we must answer personally and as a community.

Wesley and mission

As a general framework, we must say that for John Wesley the mission of the church was the reason for the existence of the church, both in its institutional life and in its movement dynamics.

In this framework, his statement “The world is my parish” is understood, one that expressed the purpose of the work that God was doing in his time, not to form a new sect, but to reform the nation, in particular the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.

A first example where Wesley did not accommodate the common sense of his time, was in open-air preaching. This event forever changed the movement that was beginning. Some believe that the key day of Methodism was April 2, 1739, in Bristol and not just May 24, 1738, in Aldersgate Street. According to Wesley, that day he decided to be “more vile,” to preach in the open air and to incarnate himself in the struggles of his people.

He reports in his diary: “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The Scripture on which I spoke was this… ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’”

Using the text of Luke 4 was inspired, since this event not only started the movement from the four walls of the temples, but also interwove it and embodied it in the struggles of the workers in general and of the miners, who would be protagonists of the Methodist movement. In this sense, Methodism became the religion of the incipient industrial societies and adopted a critical attitude towards the instrumental reason of industrial society. Methodist Christians were among others, founders of trade unions and political parties, social activists and fighters against slavery. If Wesley had relied on “common sense,” he would never have gone to Bristol to preach in the open air.

If Latin American Methodism, which was at the forefront in the fight for secular laws and individual liberties at the end of the 19th century, a pioneer in the ecumenical movement in the mid-20th century, and in the fight against dictatorships and for the defense of human rights in the 70s and 80s, would have followed common sense, it would not have generated these experiences and testimonies of mission. How do our preaching, liturgies, and spirituality express the struggles, the needs of our peoples, and the liberating will of our God?

A second example in which Wesley did not follow the criteria of his time was in relation to economics. Although Wesley was loyal to the King, he strongly criticized the foundations that supported the empire. In relation to this, he wrote his article “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions” of 1773. This article arises from the terrible socio-economic reality that England was experiencing towards the end of the 18th century: large rises in prices of essential foods, shortages of basic products, increasing poverty, and social degradation, contrasted with the accumulation of wealth by the new rich, the aristocracy, and the British nobility.

In the same address, Wesley poses the questions that arise from that reality: “Why are thousands of people starving, perishing for want, in every part of the nation? … But why have they no work?... But why is food so dear?” He answers that the State must play a primary role in the economy, because it is the one that must regulate and control to prevent prices from skyrocketing and monopolies from winning, while the popular masses do not participate in that distribution of wealth.

In another writing, sermon No. 61, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” Wesley gives a word to the church. It is a preaching that constitutes a brief treatise on history and theology on the dangers that lurk for the Body of Christ. He goes through all the Scriptures, then continues through the history of the church up to the present. He argues that the love of money, power, and honor are the main reasons that lead the church at different times in its history to its ruin.

He states: “As long as the Christians in any place were poor, they were devoted to God. While they had little of the world, they did not love the world; but the more they had of it, the more they loved it. … But still remember, riches have, in all ages, been the bane of genuine Christianity!”

This issue is key in our time, since we live under the power of a globalized world financial system that generates poverty and destroys creation in all the planet. And as Christians and Methodists, we must face that idolatrous reality. It calls us not only to prophetically denounce the “economic priests” and political governments that are complicit in it, but also to review our priorities in mission, so that our mission objectives and programs are not governed by the love of money, success, or power that is the undoing of the church, as Wesley reminds us.

Another example contrary to “common sense” Wesley marks through the phrase, “Religion must not go from the greatest to the least, or the power would appear to be of men.” (See his diary on May 21, 1764; in 1783, he says it again in his diary.)

For Wesley, “from the greatest to the least” would correspond to the wisdom of the world that is foolishness to God, so that the glory is not for men but for God. It is a radical principle, which is drawn from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians 1:28. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”

It is urgent to take into account this vision of decolonization and assertion of the dignity of those who have been excluded or subdued in the mission of the church, “the least.”

This helps us clear up the false dichotomy between evangelism and prophetic social action, or between “compassionate conservatism” and structural assistance programs.

Seeing the works of mercy as means of grace and not works of paternalistic charity changes everything.

The grace that emerges from new ways of relating to God and other people leads us to a new perspective. In such an individualistic context as the one in which we live, the mere fact of seeking an encounter with the other experiences a new creation.

Being able to live the mission not “from top to bottom” but from the “mutuality” that the Spirit creates, in diversity and equality, is in itself transformative.

“Unless we begin to live our lives mutually and without wanting to control each other in our relationships with God and with each other, the new creation will be just another pious illusion, and we are back where we started.” (Joerg Rieger, Grace Under Pressure: Negotiating the Heart of the Methodist Traditions (Buenos Aires, Aurora, 2015 p. 29) [Quotation translated from the Spanish version].

In other words, a priority of the mission of God today means returning to the works of mercy in a renewed way. Especially service together with others in need renews us in our works of piety, in our relationship with God, and prophetically makes injustice visible.

The mission of the Christian faith today in Latin America is to do it from the margins. God's design for the world is not to create another world but to recreate what God has already created in love and wisdom. Jesus began his ministry by stating that to be filled with the Spirit is to set the oppressed free, to restore sight to the blind, and to announce the coming of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:16-18, the same text that Wesley chose in Bristol).

He undertook the fulfillment of his mission by opting for those who are on the margins of society, and not from a paternalistic charity, but with the aim of challenging and transforming everything that denies life, including the cultures and systems that generate and sustain widespread poverty, discrimination and dehumanization, and exploit and destroy people and the land. Mission from the margins is a call to understand the complexities of global power dynamics, systems, and structures and local contextual realities. So, mission from the margins invites Christian churches to rethink and sense mission as a vocation inspired by the Spirit of God, working for a world in which fullness of life is possible for every person.

Assuming this hermeneutic-theological key of mission from the margins pushes us to encounters of grace and mercy with those who also evangelize us, since they are the face of the crucified and risen Jesus who comes to meet us, to transform us. And in that meeting, claim all the faces and excluded or subordinate groups such as indigenous peoples, women in their fight for gender equality and against gender-based violence, creation as a mistreated common home, and so much more.

In these times of dispute over the Latin American Methodist identity, we dream of a Methodism guided by the Spirit of Jesus the Christ, which troubles us in our “common sense” and allows us to build communities of mission, alternatives to the dominant spirit of our time. So be it.

Questions for reflection

  1. What is “common sense” in the mission of God? How do we look for it and interpret it?
  2. What does it mean to start with mission from the margins? Why should we do so? What is the biblical theological key?
  3. How do we connect the affirmation, “Being able to live the mission not ‘from top to bottom’ but from the ‘mutuality’ that the Spirit creates, in diversity and equality, is in itself transformative,” with our ecclesial practices?

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