Posted by: Titus Presler | January 19, 2010

“Ends of the earth” and mission in Haiti and beyond

“The ends of the earth” is a phrase often heard in the same breath as the word “mission.”  The expression originated in the ancient near east and persisted even through ancient Greek science’s intuition that the earth was round.  Jesus uses the concept in sending his disciples out on mission to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8).

“Ends of the earth” still resonates on round Earth, for journeys have starting points and end points, whether they proceed in straight lines or squiggly, whether the earth is flat or round.  The end of a journey can feel like an ending point of the earth as we’ve typically known it.  “Uttermost parts of the earth” is how the King James Version rendered the phrase.

Haiti as an “end of the earth”

Haiti often has felt like a different world for USAmericans and thus an “end of the earth,” even though it’s just 700 miles off the USA’s coast.  So difference turns out to be a criterion of an “end of the earth.” The world as we know it normally in our own situation and location is certainly not an “end of the earth,” though it may be for someone coming from somewhere else.  A different place that has different people speaking a different language in a different culture can feel like an “end of the earth.”

Now Haiti seems definitely an “end of the earth” in ways beyond sheer difference.

One TV news report last night reported a Haitian government estimate of 200,000 dead, another that Haiti may become “a nation of amputees” if damaged limbs continue to be excised at the current rate.  The unending scenes of rubble and woundedness, weeping and homeless camps, all communicate that Haiti has become more an “end of the earth” than many other places that are geographically more distant.

So an “end of the earth” is situational as well as geographical, linguistic and cultural. Suffering constitutes an “end of the earth.”   People in anguish become a world of their own, as the stranded of New Orleans experienced after Hurricane Katrina.  Those venturing in from the outside enter a different world.  They have gone to an “end of the earth.”  The suffering of Haiti is longstanding, and those reaching into it have always felt they were thereby at an end of the earth, but this catastrophe intensifies that sense exponentially.

Haiti as “the end of the world”

For both the people of Haiti and for those venturing into the country, that situational “end of the earth” also feels like “the end of the world.”  The earthquake and its aftermath feel comparable to the catastrophic end of the world and its peoples that we associate with biblical apocalyptic and the many popular visions of “the end of the world” that have recurred over the centuries.

News stories have dramatized this sense of the end of the world: During a dreadful quarrel among young men on a street in Port-au-Prince, one man threw down a sizable piece of debris onto a boy, whose head began bleeding copiously. CNN’s Anderson Cooper picked the boy up and handed him over to others, who ran off to care for him.  It looked like hell.  A woman was brought out from rubble by a team from Los Angeles after being trapped for six days.  “Thank you, Jesus!” were her first words, followed by a song on the theme, “Do not be afraid of death!”  Asked whether she was surprised to survive, she replied, “Why not?!” but I think that during those six trapped days she must have thought her life might end and that maybe the world was ending.  And then there was the piteous sight of a mother who was sure her 10-year-old daughter was still alive under a particular collapse.  When a rescue team finally gave up after hours of trying to verify whether the girl was alive somewhere down in the rubble, that mother doubtless felt a vital part of her world had ended.

Mission to “the ends of the earth”

Significantly, when Jesus sends his disciples to witness to “the end of the earth” before his ascension, the word Luke uses for “end” is the Greek eschaton, the same word used in so many other places in the New Testament for “The End,” in the sense of the last and final paroxysm of the earth and its people as God brings history to consummation in the further coming of Christ.  Does Luke intend a double meaning here?  It’s possible.  Matthew’s so-called Great Commission does have a temporal terminus: “. . . and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (sunteleias tou aionos), that is, the end, when God will close time itself down in some new dimension of the existence of the universe.

So the missional and the eschatological meet.  Faithful mission goes to places where things are falling apart in ways that seem to anticipate the end of all things.  Faithful mission does not lose hope, for it participates in the working of the God who will restore and renew all things in the consummation of the cosmos.

Christian churches and many other sectors of the global community are mobilizing for Haiti: Sending teams, sending experts, sending money, sending material.  Reaching out beyond themselves to reach the trapped and  the dying, the wounded and the dead, the hungry and homeless, the grieving and angry, the bitter, the anguished, the hopeful.

That is the fundamental and faithful mission impulse: To be sent and to reach.  It is the heart of the Christian movement.

Sent where?  To an “end of the earth,” which means: Beyond ourselves into difference.  Beyond ourselves into suffering.  Beyond ourselves into lives and places that feel like the world is coming to an end.

Postscript 1.20.10: “I thought it was the end of the world,” said one of two twin surgeons treating injured children and adults in Port-au-Prince, as interviewed by medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta on CNN.





  1. Very helpful to have the history on those superlatives (ends of the earth/end of the world) that the Haitian disaster brings to mind and/or suggests.

    At a human level we all recognize the nature and numinosity of an eschaton even while we hesitate to name it. Deep down within us, the kingdom of God points out whatever measurements inform such hard-to-comprehend truths. The eschaton is interesting in the sense that its theological reality is something we comprehend even when it has not in fact happened – but we grow to understand it through experiencing smaller eschatons (like Haiti) that contain parts or elements of the larger whole.

    Who has not felt like it was the “end of the world” at various crisis points in their life (the ending of a relationship, a work failure, or even the results of a highly contested election, as in the recent Massachusetts senate race? The expression, “Ah well, it’s not the end of the world,” just points to how often we humans feel IT IS, but we learn to move on anyway. And by moving on we help build new worlds inside ourselves.

    The Haitian disaster is an important event in so many ways. It is a theological event too because the Haitians’ great faith is bringing the meaning of this disaster to the foot of the cross. We Christians thus stand much to learn from them about what the contemporary meaning of the cross is in these superlative times, and what the cross means as a compass point of the eventual eschaton.

    Thank you for picking up on this theme, which so many secular commentators have been unable, with limited theological background, to address in a deep and satisfying way.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Charlotte!

      Your note about how we often assure ourselves and others that something “is not the end of the world” highlights just how frequently we refer to “the end of the world” in even casual conversation. Finding ourselves in the midst of life, the ending of our life and the ending of reality as we know it is, to a startling extent, never far from our minds!

      Your observation that Haitians are bringing the catastrophe to the foot of the cross is a profound tribute to their faith. It puts me in mind of how people are thinking theologically all the time. One news story the other day noted how a particular street preacher in Port-au-Prince was haranguing anyone who would listen about how the earthquake was God’s punishment for the sins of Haitians and their leaders over the years. Nearby a man was sitting with his wife’s wounded head in his lap. He rolled his eyes at the words of the preacher, obviously discounting them. And he went on to say something like, “What I want is for Jesus to send a doctor to fix the hole in my wife’s head.” In that small vignette a person in great anguish had no use for one particular shallow and punitive theological interpretation of the situation, but was expressing sincerely his faith in another direction, a deep supplication for God’s intervention on his wife’s behalf.

      As you say, the Haitian earthquake is a theological event. One common trope in contemporary pastoral and social justice theology is that you can’t preach to a person with an empty stomach – or, by extension, to a person in shock from the effects of an earthquake. The implication is that the gospel and its proclamation will mean little or nothing to people until their basic necessities are addressed. It’s actually a shallow cliché. People in the midst of hunger, poverty, oppression and disaster are themselves wrestling with the gospel and are themselves articulating profound articulations of God’s presence and movement in the midst of their situation. This is obvious to anyone who has worked with the poor and oppressed. It’s also clear in the history of liberation theology and in the records of base ecclesial communities (see Ernesto Cardinal’s “The Gospel in Solentiname.”)

      Imagining that the gospel is irrelevant to suffering people until their situation is “solved” turns out to be condescension. It also expressed a fairly typical USAmerican problem-solving approach to human suffering. Theologizing with suffering people is actually an expression of solidarity, for they are themselves theologizing every step of the way.

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