Thursday, January 25, 2024

David W. Scott: On International Mission and Cosmopolitanism

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

International mission, by its nature as international, involves crossing national boundaries and, by its nature as mission, involves Christian practices of love and caring. Thus, international mission necessarily involves caring for and about others who are from a different nationality than oneself.

Put another way, international mission involves an extension of what Geert Hofstede and others have called the "moral circle" - the group of people who are within one's sphere of moral concern - those whom one sees as having the same moral rights as oneself - to life, health, happiness, love, etc. International mission is not the only way such an expansion happens - migration or contact with immigrants is another significant means - but it is an important way for Christians around the world to come into contact with people from other countries.

Granted, this extension may be imperfect and not lasting. Someone may participate in international mission and show concern for others without believing that those others are entitled to be treated by the same standard as oneself. Or, a Christian who takes a short-term mission trip may feel concern about the life conditions of those they encounter while on the trip, but three years later may largely have forgotten this new concern for people in other lands.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, international mission may be completely transformative of how one sees one's moral world. The annals of mission, especially of long-term mission, are replete with stories of Christians in mission who come to have a deep and abiding concern for the people of another country, wanting good for the people of that other country just as much as they want good for the people of their own country.

Beyond even that, there are stories of Christians in mission who come to see themselves as attached not just to another country and their own home country but attached to all countries, to see themselves as "citizens of the world." An academic term that describes this sense of connection to and concern for people all around the world is "cosmopolitan," which literally means "citizen of the world." It is clear that at least some Christians through their engagement in international mission take on a cosmopolitan outlook on life.

There is at least a little academic literature on missionary cosmopolitanism in the past two centuries of Western-led and then global Christian international mission. (See, this book for instance.) But the notion that Christians' sense of citizenship extends beyond a particular nation to encompass all goes all the way back to the roots of Christianity (as in, for instance, the Epistle to Diognetus).

Much of the academic discussion of cosmopolitanism, though, is not linked to religion but rather to secular forms of what might be called globalization - international trade, migration, international professional and cultural networks, etc. Moreover, secular cosmopolitanism is positively correlated with urban areas, wealth, and education and can carry a critique of rural provincialism.

These characteristics of secular cosmopolitanism and the existence of missionary cosmopolitanism raise for me a variety of questions, including the following:

First, to what extent is an openness to people from other countries a prerequisite for becoming involved in international mission, and to what extent is increased concern for people from other countries a result of participating in international mission? Both could be true. In a way akin to prevenient grace, perhaps a nascent openness to concern for others from other countries allows for the actual extension of moral concern to those others after participating in international mission. Yet I am left with the question of whether international mission only transforms the moral circles of those with larger than average moral circles to begin with or whether international mission has the power to potentially transform the moral outlook of anyone.

Second, if it is true that The United Methodist Church is a disproportionately rural church but secular cosmopolitanism is associated with urban living, where one is more likely to encounter people, goods, and ideas from other countries and cultures, then where does that leave the outlook for cultivating cosmopolitanism among United Methodists? Are United Methodists, because of their rural distribution, less likely to adopt cosmopolitan outlooks on the church than people in other, more urban, denominations, or does Methodists' penchant for mission increase their cosmopolitanism?

This question feels particularly important to me as the UMC looks forward to a more world-wide future. The ability to successfully live into that future seems to depend, if not on widespread cosmopolitanism, at least a sustained sense by enough people in enough parts of the church that they have a moral and religious connection to fellow denomination members throughout the world. A successful worldwide church cannot be the work of a few church bureaucrats or denominational insiders but must be rooted in the impulses of people in local congregations.

Third, where does the rising tide of nationalism over the past decade leave international mission and missionary cosmopolitanism? Nationalism emphasizes one's identity in connection to their home nation (however defined). It is thus in tension with cosmopolitanism, which views the world in a supranational way (that is, beyond one nation). Is international mission destined to decline or to become more of a niche endeavor if its association with cosmopolitanism goes against the nationalist trends of the day?

While I do believe that Christianity requires that we enlarge our moral circles, I don't think it necessitates that all Christians adopt a cosmopolitan view of the world. It is possible to live as a good Christian without much of a sense of the world community. Indeed, the vast majority of Christians across time and space have oriented their lives primarily toward local concerns. This localism often does not even rise to the level of nationalism, let alone cosmopolitanism.

Still, as someone who cares about the church as an international body, who cares about mission, including international mission, these questions about international mission and international Christian community on the one side and the idea of cosmopolitanism on the other leave me somewhat unsettled. Even if it will not be a primary concern for all Christians, how does the church keep alive the sense of the transcendent kingdom of God, which is beyond all nations or other allegiances, in the world, but not of it?

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