Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unless Christian Mission Dies *but keep reading...

"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." —John 12:24

Last week people all over the world, and especially in the United States, commemorated Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream Speech." Children in public schools reflected on their own dreams of the future.  Many teachers challenged students to consider how racism affects people's lives today.  Others gathered to hear President Obama speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a paradoxical symbol of U.S. racial progress as well as the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force in the world.  This troubling juxtaposition reminded me of King's integrated dream that, in addition to racial harmony, insisted on an end to U.S. violence and material poverty.  In a 1967 sermon to Riverside Church in Harlem he preached:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, "So what about Vietnam?" They ask if our nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
As an U.S. Christian missiologist, King's words haunt me, because too much of what passes for Christian mission today involves Christians participating in international travel to serve the world's desperate, rejected, and angry while neglecting to speak clearly to some of the greatest causes of economic desperation, racial rejection, and military violence in the world today—our literal next door neighbors, multi-national corporations and government.  Unless this neglect ceases, the concept of Christian mission will implicitly endorse destructive values of U.S. American empire.

Last Spring I posted a blog in which I called for a moratorium, or a stoppage, on Christian mission.  I suggested that the roots of U.S. American Christian mission were rotten.  My point was, and is, that the concept of U.S. American Christian mission conceived by European Christians and practiced by middle class white U.S. American Christians today is fundamentally flawed.  From this inherited Western perspective, U.S. American Christian mission is widely understood to constitute  international ministry to foreign people.  While recently some missiologists and mission agencies have sought to adjust strategies to emphasize that their missionaries often gain more than they give, U.S. American Christians have largely inherited a set of mission strategies that thrive on optimistic views of globalization and the assumption that United States Christianity is worth exporting globally.

Historically, imperialist missionaries to, and from, North America also believed that their version of Christianity was worth exporting.  Beginning with Columbus, the entire practice of Christian mission, and the agencies that supported it, came from empires: Spanish, French, and British. The strategies of these agencies advocated for the salvation of souls at the expense of human bodies and their bio-regions. Under the authority of these imperial regimes Christians enslaved, commodified, and culturally colonized the Americas.  It was a miracle that any of the enslaved, coerced, or captured communities converted to Christianity.  For the next five centuries, missionaries colluded with governments and agencies to triumphantly win souls and civilize foreign nations under the unofficial mandate of the white man's burden

The effects of globalization have transformed, what George Tinker called, Missionary Conquest from a cooperative endeavor between Christianity and commerce, sometimes missionaries and military, into an exercise in technological, economic, religious and cultural exportation.  Christianity and commerce allowed for the exploitation of Africans, Indians, and North America's soil.  Missions and military led to the physical and cultural genocide of diverse North American Indian populations.  Vine Deloria, Jr commented, "If the same energy would have been focused on correcting the ways of white Americans, teaching them to practice rather than preach Christianity, the fate of the Indians might have been far different."   Though some mission agencies—even less local churches—see their international ministries as providing discipleship opportunities rather than soul saving and economic development, one questions, "Why do middle class U.S. American Christians insist on spending so many resources on international ministry when many of the problems—economic inequality, racial oppression, and social instability—they encounter around the world have roots in the very globally exported values that emanate from their own U.S. neighborhoods?"

Most missiologists and students of world Christianity like to acknowledge that the center-of-gravity of the Christian world has shifted to the southern hemisphere.  According to Gordon-Conwell's center for the Study of Global Christianity, the United States ranks first in the number of missionaries "sent out."  The fact that Palestine sends more missionaries per one million than any other nation and Latin Americans and Africans send missionaries to the U.S. has not changed one foundational assumption that many U.S. Christians make regarding mission:  U.S. Christians believe they must 'go' to international places to heed God's missionary mandate. 

By valuing international ministry over local ministry, U.S. Christians have devalued local regions, place, space, and land.  It’s no coincidence that U.S. Christians have trouble valuing the land when Christian missionaries participated in removing the very first nations peoples who believed that  North American land was sacred.  Thus, if we are to be faithful in missionary practice, then we must begin to see that every Christian is sent from God’s commonwealth rather than the United States of America.  This understanding makes all of us missionaries and the very local spaces in which we find ourselves missionary spaces.

The concept of mission, as inherited from European Christianity must be put to death.  Tweaking and adjusting strategies to acknowledge post-modern critiques simply will not do.  U.S. American churches must recognize that mission is more than international ministry that seeks to be incarnational and sensitive to contextual issues.  Mission is the very essence of church community in its local part of the world.  In this way, mission is always local.  To engage in local ministry, then, means to clearly represent the gospel to our suburban, rural, and urban neighbors.  To be truly incarnate, this gospel must be embodied in local contexts, in time and space, in soul and soil. 

This means that the very neighborhoods from which U.S. churches send international ministers need incarnational ministers who will invite corporate executives, professional politicians, and other American dreamers into discipleship in the Beloved Community.  These mostly white middle class neighborhoods are bastions of anxiety and fear.  Such high anxiety levels have led them to worship safety and security.  In turn, these suburbanites have authorized an increase in the military-industrial complex and fueled a prison-industrial complex that is rarely challenged.  Instead, the U.S. budgeted over $682 billion for military expenses in 2012 to sponsor two wars and various other endeavors.  Domestically, the U.S. budgets $6.8 billion to the Bureau of Prisons to deal with the largest prison population in the world, a disproportionate number of whom are racial minorities.

The segregation of U.S. schools and churches also demonstrates that the U.S. has not resolved long legacies of racial oppression.  In 2012 the public school system in the U.S. was as racially divided as it was under Jim Crow segregation 50 years ago.  Preachers continue to quote King's statement that "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."  Christian ministries troubled by this division are often distinguished from "missions" as urban ministries, which explains in part why I stress that traditional mission is "international ministry."  Urban ministry is mission too.  So long as international ministry alone is defined as "mission," then Christian churches will struggle to see mission as a vital part of their local ministry and churches will too infrequently address issues like racial justice and seek authentic cross-racial connections with fellow citizens. 

Those who champion globalization as connecting the world, too faintly note the quality of these new connections.  U.S. budgets and race statistics daily demonstrate the inequalities present in global connections. The world is not flat. It is indeed a spiky hierarchical world in which a small percentage of the world's population have access to a majority of the world's resources.  The oligarchical nature of U.S. society mirrors the material disparity that we witness around the world in which 20% of U.S. households own 85% of the wealth compared to 20% of the world's population owning 80% of the world's wealth.  As former industrially viable U.S. cities like Detroit declare bankruptcy I wonder how U.S. apostles of globalization can persist in their confidence about the idea that God backs globalization, no matter how nuanced their argument.  That some formerly disconnected communities can now engage in micro-entrepreneurship and are gaining access to digital banking does not mean that globalization is neutral in the world economy.  Power remains the name of the game.  With all of the aforementioned problems endemic to U.S. Christianity, it is appropriate to ask, "What about U.S. Christianity is worth exporting on a global scale?"

U.S. Christians who economically benefit from globalization, are either blind or apathetic to the problems with globalization in its various forms.  Traditional mission advocates who present globalization as benign or neutral can do so because their projects are enhanced by the prospect of globalization.  In the Christian world, international mission agencies are most readily equipped to engage a globalized marketplace, because they are the part of the Christian world with the most experience with multinational ventures.  But the border crossing made available to the world's privileged population has rich temptations that  allow the powerful to avoid just regulations and peacebuilding values.  Robert Reich explained the implications of globalization in his important text The Work of Nations:

“As borders become ever more meaningless in economic terms, those citizens best positioned to thrive in the world market are tempted to slip the bonds of national allegiance, and by so doing disengage themselves from their less favored fellows.”

Reich, Robert B. The Work of NationsPerhaps Reich's quote can help us understand why middle class U.S. American Christians insist on spending so many resources on international ministry when many of the problems they encounter around the world have roots in values that emanate from their own neighborhoods.  If he is right, then there is little incentive for missionaries who can thrive on this global scale to continue to struggle against provincial peers who question their motives and call them to account for their historical transgressions with more than a wordy apology.  It is a reality that raising funds for a short-term mission trip to Haiti is much easier and more effective than raising funds to teach suburban cosmopolitan consumers that their lifestyle is disproportionately a key cause of global climate change.  Resources are much easier to solicit for the international than the domestic scene.  It makes sense why in the heart of global capitalism, where exporting goods and values grows GDP, those who thrive on the world market favor the distant stranger over the long-term neighbor. 

This favoritism for strangers over neighbors, the preference for international over local, must die.  Unless U.S. Christian mission dies, it will remain a purveyor of white upper middle class values.  Such values are its roots.  Replanting this brand of mission in new soil is not the answer.  The notion of mission that I have described must die, so the church can be reborn in the West.  U.S. Christians must begin to see that loving their neighbors, the people nearest them, is a challenge that will have global blessings.  It's not that urban and rural poverty, or international disaster should be ignored, rather U.S. Christians must re-engage our U.S. suburbs, U.S. multinational corporations, and U.S. state and federal governments.  For one crucial way to bring good news to urban, rural, and international contexts is for missionaries to invite upper middle class U.S. Americans to repent of their militarism, materialism, and racism and participate in the Beloved Community.  As addicted consumers void of the spirit of simplicity, idolaters of security ridden with anxiety, and disciples of discrimination who know not their neighbor, they need to be transformed by the gospel, especially since they will likely export their values across the textured topography that is our global reality.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, David. In some ways I see my family's move "back" to rural Iowa flowing out of a sense of the American project and Christianity's place in it being out of whack in the ways that you describe. In "seeking the peace of the farm town," we've intentionally moved back into what I think can fairly be described as a "crumbling backwater of the empire" (the rural equivalent of your urban/metropolitan example of Detroit).

    One thing that strikes me about your call to attend to locality arises out of my reading of the Coles/Hauerwas book blogging project I've got going on w/ the Brothers Jonathan, in chapter 3 where Coles talks about Ella Baker and the early SNCC. Here's a great quote:

    "Rather than interpreting SNCC's struggle as an overly 'rooted' project of dwelling... we would do better to locate the vitality of SNCC at the contrapuntal intersection between 'roots' (dwelling or traveling locally) and 'routes' (traveling among different communities and across vaster terrain)." (pp. 69-70)

    This "roots and routes" metaphor has opened up new horizons of thinking for me as it relates to radical ecclesia/discipleship, radical democracy, and community peacebuilding. And it seems that the metaphor could be useful for what you're describing here as well. So there's still virtue in travel/routing and being exposed to different people, territory, cultures, etc. - but it should be inextricably linked with dwelling/rooting and seeking the peace of the places in which we find ourselves, our own neighborhoods and nearby...