“Why do you think that reconciliation is such a central concept in missiology today?” That was one of the questions posed to me in preparation for a consulting day last November with the staff of Presbyterian World Mission, the global mission office of the Presbyterian Church USA, in Louisville, Kentucky.
It’s an intriguing and important question.
As posed by Director Hunter Farrell, who previously served with his family as a missionary in Congo and Peru, the question focused on missiology rather than on mission itself. Missiology is the scholarly field devoted to the theology, history and practice of Christian mission. As such, it should guide mission. Scholarly reflection on mission – reflection that is informed by by biblical studies, theology, history, cultural anthropology and the like – should guide the practice of mission.
So the question was, in effect: Why is it that people who think and theorize about mission today are promoting reconciliation as central in mission?
An equally interesting question is: Why is reconciliation more central, or more explicitly central, today in missiological thought than it was in the past?
When the average person hears the word “mission” in a Christian context, he or she is likely to think first about specific activities such as evangelism that aims at conversion, pastoral work that builds up churches, or the basket of initiatives that come under the umbrella of poverty alleviation and sustainable development: education, healthcare, drinkable water, agriculture, sanitation, microenterprises and the like.
Imagine then asking the average Christian, “What is the point of all those activities? When they are all pursued under the theme of ‘mission,’ what is the overall aim that they share?” The response may be something like: “Well, all those activities promote Christ, some explicitly, as in evangelism or taking care of churches, and others by example, as in education and healthcare. They all show forth the love of God in Christ in some way. They all reach out to help people, which is what God wants us to do.” And then if we ask, “And what is the goal of that?” the responses, becoming vaguer, may be something like, “A better world,” or “Salvation,” or “Unity with God.”
Meanwhile a reflex has likely already kicked in for the average person as familiar stock criticisms of Christian mission come to mind: dismissal of religions other than Christianity, disparagement of non-Western cultures, collusion between missionaries and imperial powers, and the substitution of Western agendas for indigenous priorities. The person is then likely to think of correctives such as inter-religious dialogue, collaboration, and mutuality as expressed in mission companionship.
If we then ask our imaginary interlocutor, “What is the goal of the various improvements in Christian mission that you’re suggesting?” he or she may reply with something like, “Well, these make for better relations in human community. They express respect and a willingness to work alongside other people rather than over them.” When we tiresomely follow up by asking yet again, “And what is the goal of that?” the person may reply, now with a hint of impatience, “Of course, people getting along in mutual respect is better than otherwise. Isn’t that enough as an end in itself?”
These typical responses to questions about the goal of mission activities and the goal of improving how mission is carried out indicate how unfocused missional thought often is. The answers tend to cite penultimates, not ultimates. They focus on intermediate goals rather than final goals. And when the question of final goals that might unify all activities is pressed, thinking lapses either into repetition, like “mutual respect,” or into theologisms like “salvation” and “redemption,” which themselves require further definition.
The question we need to be asking in mission is always, “What is God up to in the world?” God is up to many things, of course, but might there not be one overall aim in what God is up to?
Here theologians may begin to argue. A strong case can be made for the concept that Jesus used to sum up his preaching and ministry: “the kingdom of God,” that is, the inbreaking reign of God in the human family and in the cosmos, that reign of God that is like a banquet table that seats people from north and south, east and west. An equally strong case can be made for John the Baptizer’s declaration in the Gospel of John: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” a statement that highlights the atoning work of Jesus’ sacrificial suffering and death on a cross.
Intensely aware of both the preaching of Jesus and the import of the cross, the apostle Paul sums up what God was up to in Christ – who in turn was the culmination of whatever God was up to – in this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to God, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (1 Corinthians 5.18).
Reconciliation – that is the overall aim, the all-inclusive goal, the ultimate direction, the omega point of what God is up to in the human community and the cosmos. Reconciliation is at the heart of traditional theological concepts like salvation and redemption.
Reconciliation is about relationship. Reconciliation heals relationship. Reconciliation ushers in receptivity where there has been rejection, community where there has been alienation, unity where there has been separation, love (and not just tolerant co-existence) where there has been hatred.
Relationships that need healing are those between people and God and those between people, whether in the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, the town, the city, the province, the nation, or the world. Relationships that need healing are those between economic groups, ethnic groups, genders and gender-identity groups, and nations. Healing in our relationship with God is intertwined with healing in our relationships with others, whether those be personal or social.
What has prevented reconciliation from coming to such focus in mission thinking? Several factors come to mind.
One factor is a preoccupation with religious identities and affiliations that sometimes has made evangelism a tool for acquiring new Christians rather than an invitation to a reconciled relationship with God, i.e., membership rather than reconciliation. Another is an ecclesiocentric focus on expanding the reach of Christian churches, i.e., churches rather than reconciliation. Yet another is what we might call the “development” captivity of mission that began with educational and medical work in the 19th century and that accelerated after World War II as churches and NGOs emulated the foreign-aid programs of European and North American governments. Here humanitarian objectives crowded out reconciliation as the overall vision that includes and focuses humanitarian activities.
So what has brought reconciliation to a newly recognized central and organizing place in missiology?
One factor is a fresh cultural focus on relationship as central to human meaning, in contrast with earlier emphases on cognitive and organizing capacities. Whereas Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am,” and modernists practiced, “I build and construct, therefore I am,” people since the mid-20th century have been growing toward understanding that “We relate, therefore I am,” and the African understanding of Ubuntu, “We are, therefore I am.”
Another factor has been the resurgence of group hatreds around the world, especially since the end of the Cold War, which kept many of them dormant while societies were made to serve the purposes of the superpowers. Genocides have emphasized that there are human social alienations so far beyond the reach of “development projects” that they can only be addressed through reconciliation. “Reconciliation commissions” in such places as South Africa, Rwanda and Canada have driven this point home as many in those societies have indeed found healing through the dynamics of repentance, confession, forgiveness and, finally, reconciliation.
The surge in religiously-motivated violence, especially between Muslims and Christians has likewise highlighted the importance of reconciliation. These two great missionary religions cannot each realistically hope to convert the other, neither can they afford to be in constant conflict, so reconciliation must rise to the surface as a central mandate.
Another factor is disillusionment with “development” itself as people slowly come to realize that “development projects” often smuggle in pretty much the same assumptions of cultural superiority that the “development experts” claim to scorn in their 19th-century “civilizing” predecessors. One downside of the democratization of mission from central structures, which had learned from several centuries of mission work, to congregations with no experience is persistence of the notion that all societies should follow the pathway hacked by the West at great cost to humans, the animal world and the future of the planet. But among the appropriately skeptical there is fresh recognition that reconciliation, not surface amelioration, must be the central vision in all mission activity and in all purported improvements in the styles and modalities of mission.
Reconciliation must be central in Christian mission because reconciliation is central in what God is up to in the cosmos, and whatever mission we undertake is simply a matter of joining the mission that God is already undertaking in the cosmos.
If this is true, every mission initiative should be conceived, planned and implemented in light of the question, “How does this mission initiative participate in God’s reconciling work in the world?”
That’s sounds like a tall order. It’s actually a minimum order.