As we are preparing for several mission trips in the coming year, I have doing some writing and thinking about a theology of mission – especially in the context of thinking about Advent and repentance. I found an essay that I wrote several years ago that proposed a theology of mission and evangelism grounded in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and include some of it below along with some new thoughts. It should be noted that though this essay stresses the work of international mission, there is a desperate need in communities all around us that are as foreign to many of us as any distant shore.
Mission is one aspect of the Church’s work of reconciliation in the world. It is an expression of the repair of the present and past looking forward to the future. When it is undertaken appropriately, the Church and the Holy Spirit can find the mistakes of the past to be tools of learning and reconciliation. The efforts of a Church yearning to be reborn in the Spirit are expressed in vigorous mission efforts that blend the voices of past and present, self and other, into a body whose praise for the Holy is service and whose service is offered with joyful hearts.
For missionary churches in the post-colonial era, there is a degree of guilt present in the collective consciences of those sensitive to the evolving awareness of our collective guilt for the abuses of the past. This awareness is, in some part, a healthy regard for the other and a movement toward accepting the legitimacy of a variety of worldviews and histories without seeing them as invalidating one’s own. However, this awareness has also resulted in, what some would argue, is a potentially crippling reluctance to engage with the other in an open and honest way for fear of reenacting historical abuses or reinforcing past prejudices.
The vague uneasiness of the contemporary Christian has, in some ways, been shifted onto the mission enterprise and become an excuse to devalue or redefine mission. Lamin Sanneh argues, “Much of the standard Western scholarship on Christian missions proceeds by looking at the motives of individual missionaries and concludes by faulting the entire missionary enterprise as being part of the machinery of Western cultural imperialism.”
Yet, in the rush to deemphasize mission, or worse, to implicate it as emblematic of the predations of imperialism, the Church may have set aside its most potent and powerful tool in the work of reconciliation. A Church that seeks to make amends for historical wrongs must engage with those it believes it has wronged and who believe they have been wronged by it. An open and humble missionary Church can gain an understanding of host cultures that is unmatched within the sending church.
Moreover, a missionary’s work at the level of the individual believer and the individual host imbues the relationship with an incarnated holiness that is at once a reflection of and reflected in the wider Body of Christ. Missionary endeavors, when undertaken with humility and with an eye toward companionship, presence, and mutuality can become a sign of redeemed living and a symbol of self-offering.
It is in the meeting of the other that stories of abuse may be brought to light, dealt with, or simply heard, depending on the needs. Moreover, in those very human interactions, the missionary and the hosts begin that Incarnational dialogue that repairs the breaches of time. Missionaries are, in many ways, the modern Confession of the Church body. They are an offering from one Church to another in the hope that true Communion might take place and, like any offering, the fruits are manifested in such a way as to blur the line between giver and receiver.
Our missionaries are on the ground, engaging in individual dialogue with those who may have been wronged in the past, hearing those voices and stories through which we come to understand the lasting legacies of past injustices and, moreover, hearing the needs of the contemporary societies.
It is in those discussions that we come to truly be martyrs in the ancient sense of the word, witnesses. This martyrdom, like Confession, erases our pride and self-importance and brings us into an honest, sharing, mutually enriching relationship with others. C.M Rogers wrote in 1958, “A real meeting between a Christian and a non-Christian in Asia or Africa presupposes a willingness to be open on the part of the Christian to all that the non-Christian has to share and has to give.” This engagement with the other begins to fill a “lack” which is sin, begins to create understanding. Mission, like Confession, calls us out of our perpetual enchantment with the self while refocusing our energy on understanding God and the other.
Mission is the point at which we can provide timely and human repentance that is steeped with deeper meaning than a declaration or announcement by a Church body. That meaning is provided, in part, by the embodied reality of the missionary in the context of a lived relationship – and that common relationship becomes a point in which sacred meaning can find root.
Mission provides a means of embodied hope and for the translated contrition of the church yearning for deeper relations with the other in an honest spirit of humility. Just as sin, a lack, makes itself known in our interactions with the other, so too is reconciliation and grace made manifest in and through the other.
The dangerous thing though is for us to go with an eye toward undoing or repairing historical wrongs. Our task is much simpler – we are being called to listen. To be present. Not to the busyness of fixing but to the harder work of opening up to the voices of those unheard. It is tempting to give in to modern forms of discrimination which Ian Douglas identifies as “dysfunctional rescuing, avoiding contact, and denying differences.”
By neglecting fulsome, on-the-ground missionary efforts in favor of grant-giving, the church has indeed, too often, engaged in behaviors of dysfunctional rescuing, avoiding contact, and denying differences. Mission is our Church’s Confession that we still have much to learn from the world around us, that we are willing to be vulnerable to the work of the Spirit, and to admit that our blindness, fear, or even laziness have habituated our institutions to simultaneously old and new forms of racism. Missionaries are one way for the church to rectify and avoid these manifestations of racism.
The missionary enterprise, rooted in the open and confessing spirit, expressly engages the other, recognizes differences, and seeks reciprocal friendship rather than the false hope of “rescue.” Our amendment of life takes place in moments when we act in love, partnership, and openness with others. This joyful amendment of life, in the constant reflection and refraction of the reconciling spirit, reverberates through the web of individual relationships the missionary is blessed to be a part of, including both the wider sending church and the host culture.
The joy of forgiveness can empower churches to fully reengage in mission and to recognize that the missionary endeavor itself, rather than being an impediment to reconciliation, may be our most sure way of realizing it. That reconciliation requires churches and missionaries to be marked by sympathy, self-awareness, and humility.
The joy of our faith in a God of Creation is that this God is the Lord over all the Earth in its manifold splendor and diversity. There has never been a time when any person, village, or people have been forgotten by God. Thus, we enter each village, city, and home as a sister and brother sharing a Father. That divine parentage is the very ground upon which we humbly walk as stories are shared and the blessings of companionship and solidarity are known.
Solidarity is our goal in so many of the Sacraments. Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Confession, Ordination, Last Rites, and Marriage are all Sacraments that bind us in solidarity more deeply in Christ and with one another in those moments of joy and pain when the curtain between Heaven and Earth seems most translucent. Confession and mission both serve to bring our lives into accord with Christ’s will, draw us closer to one another, commit us to transcending the self, call us to recognize our impact on others, and concomitantly proceed from and engender humility.
Confession and mission patch rents in the human conscience by recalling those places in which we or the human family have failed and can do more to honor God and one another. This creates the space for the Holy Spirit to effect conversions of heart, soul, and mind. Working out of a theology of Reconciliation, mission efforts may provide a way forward that does not simply transcend nor deny the errors of the past, but baptizes them, making them a point of mutual sharing, growth, and understanding for all parties.