Posted by: Titus Presler | August 17, 2011

“Mission” usage: Several notes, one religious & two secular

On an ongoing basis I note uses of the words “mission” and “missionary” that appear in various modes of discourse within and beyond the church and in both religious and secular contexts.  Following are three instances that have come up for me recently:

• Muslim “missionary”: In response to a July 31 New York Times story, “The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement,” on David Yerushalmi’s campaign to ban the introduction of Shariah law in the United States, one letter writer, Sardar Anees Ahmad, chair of the Muslim Writers Guild of America, offered observations in which he termed as a “missionary” the person who introduced Ahmadiyya Islam to the USA.  Here is his letter:

Contrary to David Yerushalmi’s claims, America has nothing to fear from Shariah.

Islam requires that people must voluntarily abide by Shariah in order for it to be applied.

The example of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA — the oldest and longest established Islamic-American organization — is telling. When its missionary, Muhammad Sadiq, arrived in New York in 1920, he declared that he would not preach polygamy because American law deemed polygamy illegal and that obeying the rule of law was itself a policy of Shariah.

Concocting stories regarding Shariah — now that is something to be feared.

At least for Ahmad, the term “missionary” is one that can be shared by Muslims and Christians, meaning that theoretically the term can be a common basis for Christians and Muslims to talk about the religious outreach that Christians call “mission” and that Muslims typically call dawah in the sense of propagation, the major meaning Ahamad has in mind, for Sadiq was propagating Ahmadiyya Islam in the 1920s.  I’ve long been keen on an inter-religious dialogue about religious outreach but have been aware that some terminological clarification might constitute the first chapter in such dialogue.  Having a shared term from which to start is a help.

• Community garden’s mission: Son Titus and I were walking through the Montgomery Community Gardens in Montgomery, Vermont, and exclaiming over how fruitful and well organized the plots were when we came across one of the gardeners, Parma Jewett, who was harvesting vegetables with her grandson.  Parma explained the dimensions of the plots, how many there are, and how they’re assigned and regulated.  She then went on to note that each gardener is asked to contribute some vegetables to a local food bank for people so economically pressed that they have trouble buying food.  “That’s our mission,” she said.

This use of the word “mission” coincides perfectly with two understandings of mission that are so common in religious and secular contexts that they can be seen as intrinsic to the meaning of mission:

1. Mission entails outreach, that is, reaching out beyond the borders of a given community and its constituents.  In this case, providing the gardeners with space to grow their own food is the purpose but not the mission of the community gardens.  The mission is to provide food for others, who are not among the gardeners.

2. Mission involves “doing good”, that is, offering to fill a need for others that is unrelated to any benefit to oneself.  The gardeners pay a small fee, in exchange for which they are able to till the soil and raise food for themselves and their families.  Again, that fulfills the purpose of the gardens.  The mission is directed to the needs of others.

• MacArthur Foundation’s mission statement: For about a dozen years I’ve been alert to the “mission statements” of organizations, including commercial business, governmental agencies, foundations and churches.  Often, as I point out in Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, groups use the word “mission” when they really mean “purpose”, but what gets included in and excluded from a “mission statement” is usually interesting.  The best “mission statement” I’ve heard from a foundation is that of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  As noted by its former president, Jonathan Fanton, in an address:

The trustees have recently refreshed the Foundation’s mission statement to capture its world-wide reach, complexity and values. Here it is: The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

Listeners of National Public Radio will recognize the words I’ve bold-faced as the piece of the mission statement that is pulled out as the summary of what the MacArthur Foundation is up to.  “Committed to building” is good in itself, but the genius of this statement is how the phrase “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world” encapsulates so very briefly so much of the aspiration of people around the world and links in just the right order three key and interdependent concepts.  Of course, everyone favors world peace, but fewer realize how there can be no peace without justice, so the statement puts justice first.  The word “verdant” is inviting in itself – so much more than, for instance, “sustainable” – but the inclusion of the environmental and ecological category between justice and peace rightly emphasizes that there can be no justice without ecological sustainability and ecological efforts must be guided by the interest of justice.  Only thus can there be peace.

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