Jesse Zink, a young man who grew up in our Episcopal parish, preached an amazing sermon today about his upcoming stint as a missionary in South Africa. Jesse will be working at the Itipini medical clinic in a shantytown outside Mthatha, which was the capital of the largest apartheid-era black “homeland” and is still one of the poorest parts of the country with one of the highest rates of HIV and tuberculosis. You can follow his progress (and make donations) at his blog Mthatha Mission.
In his sermon, he reflected on the mixed history of Christian missions and how the word “missionary” can be reclaimed for a less colonialist, more service-oriented way of living out the gospel in a foreign culture:
I read the Bible as a whole, a complete piece of divinely-inspired literature that – while contradictory and confusing in many places – tells a couple consistent messages throughout. The message I hear most frequently is evident in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus says, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions” and warns those who “store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” We can summarize this message by paraphrasing what is often associated with a president: “Ask not what you can do for yourself; ask what you can do for God and God’s people.” God has created us, knows each one of us, and has blessed each of us with a unique set of gifts, not to enrich ourselves and store up treasures on earth but to enrich God’s fallen world and make it more like God’s perfect creation. That is no small task and not one that we accomplish in a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime. It is a task we shall never see the conclusion of. But it is a task to which we must devote our lives all the same.
Since we each have different gifts, we fulfill this godly duty in different ways, in a way that fully expresses the diversity of the Body of Christ metaphor Paul uses in his epistles. But we are united by one theme: service. I define service as the act of putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of oneself. We have our own desires and wishes, of course, and we shouldn’t deny them, but our orientation needs to be primarily outwards, towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, and not inwards, enriching only ourselves.
It is this attitude that has drawn me first to Nome, Alaska where for the past two years I have worked as a news reporter at a public-service radio station there, broadcasting to Alaska Natives in Western Alaska, who live in what are frequently termed “third-world conditions.” And it is an attitude that made me search for something like YASC. But when I found out that I would be a missionary of the church if I joined YASC, I paused. Why not stay in Nome or anywhere on this continent and continue to be a contributing member of society? Why not join some other secular service program, like the Peace Corps, which I seriously considered after college before opting for grad school? Why not run as far away from the dreaded m-word as possible? What theology of mission could I arrive at that would allow me to reconcile my belief in service with my hesitation at, say, the Great Commission?
…When Christian fervour for overseas mission work began to reach a critical mass in the early 19th century, the focus was on the “missions of the church,” that is, the hospitals, schools, and churches around the world that various parts of the church in the rich world supported. “Mission” is rooted in the Latin word that means “sent” so it made sense to focus on these discrete outposts of people who had been sent from their homes. While this is likely where the negative view of missionaries began, we should also recognize there were as many kinds of missionaries as there are kinds of Christians and many were kind and loving types who prayfully served their new communities.
Over time, however, this focus changed and people began speaking about the “Church’s mission.” The question became, What is the church doing all over the world and how can we all participate in that one mission? The Episcopal Church, for once in its life, was ahead of the game and in 1830 declared that every member of the church was a member of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, which remains our official title today and which means all of you are missionaries as well. Everyone participates in mission.
But focusing on the “Church’s mission” forgot an important element: God. So the focus in the last few decades has been on “God’s mission” and the question that is central to this is, What is the mission of God that the church and its members can participate in? The church is not the same all over the world, which is what the “Church’s mission” idea seemed to imply, but God’s mission is.
God’s mission is, and always has been, one of reconciliation, that is, bringing people to each other and bringing people to God. At Creation, God created Adam and Eve to be in relationship with each other and in relationship with their Creator. They, of course, fell away from that relationship, setting the model we continue to follow today. The reading for Hosea this morning is a reminder of the numerous times Israel fell away from God but also the equally numerous times God called those same sinful people into closer relationship with God, in the spirit of what Hosea calls God’s “warm and tender” compassion.
But God decided the work of reconciliation needed a human face and so took human form as Jesus Christ, who reached out to everyone but particularly the down-trodden, the outcast, and the forgotten and sought to bring them into loving relationship with their world and God. In the remainder of the New Testament, God’s message spreads beyond Israel as people are sent into the world to seek to reconcile our fallen world to God’s creation.
It is a testament to the challenge of this reconciling task that our mission is the same now as it was then: to do that work of reconciliation with the power of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of Revelation and the Resurrection, that what is old can be made new again and that what is dead can be re-born. I’ll save my exegesis of the Great Commission for another time but it is this theology and this history that has made me comfortable with the idea that I am now a missionary. The point of performing this service mission in a religious context as opposed to a secular one is that it is rooted in and affirming of the faith that is the fundamental driving force behind the desire to serve….
Jesse’s sermon filled me with hope as an example of the Episcopal Church via media at its best: Public service not as a substitute for faith in Jesus, but as the natural and beautiful expression of that faith. Confession of Christ as Lord as the foundation for all we do, but not as a substitute for actually feeding his sheep. My prayers are with him.
Christianity and missionaries did a lot of damage in South Africa most of it psychological political and pyschic. Like other institutions from the west it was done with the best of intentions and based on the best opinions held about black people. Our ancestors resisted christianity but because of a superior culture in terms of the written word and weapons the white people prevailed over us. It took whites the best part of 300 years from 1652 to 1836 to penetrate the interior of South Africa. Black South Africans were resilient and resourceful and hence in 1994 got a political dispensation which regarded everyone as equal. The first converts to the mission station were social misfits and criminals and illegitimate children because blacks resisted christian theology on common sense.The theology of adying God,hypocrisy and of people intent on stealing other people’s lands and resources was too plain to be seen for what it was. There is not a single christian precept on which white political power could be counted upon to uphold. The history of South Africa is one of treachery greed selfishness and hate and in fact missionaries with hindsight are perceived as spies who spied out the land, the people and betrayed the people to their political powers. hence in 1890 people like John Cecil Rhodes would talk eloquently of opening Africa to Civilisation Christianity and Commerce. It became a christian duty to demolish African culture in the name of the three C’s. We are also bad people but we dont hide our badness behind God.In order to prepare the native mind for a role a subservient role, in the white economy the first task of christianity was to cut off our cultural moorings, native customs, dress code, our cosmology and our way of life became heathen and prohibited. native language was codified and grammars written down but in the service of self-denial. It is no mistake that blacks who reached the US as slaves had to be deprived their language on pain of death. Now today when a youngman comes to Africa to be a missionary it is a very emotive event to those of us who remember these tragic series of events. We ask ourselves why should we believe the cosmology of a people that throw cluster bombs around the world without remorse? Why should we believe the religion of people who for 219 years kept slaves and defended that right from the pulpit and even now fail to apologise for such atrocities? Why should we believe the religion of those who plagiarised the religion of a peaceful jewish rabbi and who even now are building a huge arsenal against us so that they can bomb us into the stone age if we resist them and their ways? The situation is as it was in the 1700’s missionaries cannot communicate their religion outside their broader political milieu and military power from where they come from. granted people in South Africa still respond like our ancestors but is it worth it to colonise the mind of others and why should your truth be better than mine?
Missionary work and imperialism have a torturous, intertwined history, as you point out, Ralph. My apology on behalf of the church is a feeble thing compared to what we have to answer for. Like Christianity generally, missions have a complex track record. On the other side of the equation we see Christian-inspired charities like Habitat for Humanity, which does amazing work in both developed and developing nations, and the witness (to the point of martyrdom) of Catholic clergy in Latin America who stood with the poorest ethnic minorities and peasants during violent civil wars.
Not everyone who calls themselves “Christian” is actually following Christ’s precepts. Christian nations, like virtually all civilizations in human history, accepted slavery during some part of their history, but it was also Christian reformers in Britain and the US who led the charge to abolish it. My point being, basically, that George Bush’s cluster bombs are not the only representative of what Christians believe!
From what I know of the Episcopal Church and Jesse Zink, they are very sensitive to the dangers of imperialism and concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Their goals are Christ-motivated service and learning from the community they serve, not simply imposing their views on others. Perhaps it’s too easy for me to say “keep an open mind” since I am a privileged white American, but I hope you will, nonetheless, be open to signs of good in what seem to you to be unlikely places. The Spirit blows where it will.
I have wished to write resembling like this on my website and you gave me nice thought. Thank You!