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Read the AW Book Forum presentation – Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation by Alain Epp Weaver here.

Response to Epp Weaver by Andrés Pacheco Lozano*

Así que somos embajadores[as] de Cristo” (2 Cor. 5:20, NVI). Some years ago, I had the opportunity to read and discuss this text on the Ministry of Reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:14-21) with different communities in Colombia. While the communities considered different aspects about how to envision the ministry of reconciliation in their contexts, some of the most significant conversations—in my view—circled around what it meant to be an ambassador (embajadora/embajador) of reconciliation. These communities sought to contextualize the biblical text by looking critically at contemporary representations of who is an ambassador. They reflected on the political tasks of an ambassador today and brought these back to re-read the text. Following this approach, the groups identified, on the one hand, problems with some of the existing images of being an ambassador that could compromise the witness to Christ. On the other hand, the groups recognized the possibilities that this role has and could have amid realities of injustice and violence, as they considered the call to be—or become—ambassadors of reconciliation.

In similar lines, I read Service and the Ministry of Reconciliation: A Missiological History of Mennonite Central Committee by Alain Epp-Weaver. It is not only about the way in which the ministry (of reconciliation) MCC has been framed, changed, contested, but also about what it has implied for the ones who aimed at becoming ambassadors of such a ministry. [1] In this historical review, we recognize different ways in which being ambassadors has been perceived and embodied. While Alain does not often use the term “ambassador”, I suggest that by focusing on this function it is possible to reflect on the historical analysis of 100 years of MCC.

As the communities in Colombia recognized, contemporary images of being an ambassador are ambivalent. On the one hand, the image of being an ambassador can connote some problematic (neo)colonial and violent tones. On the other hand, this image can inspire how to embody the witness to the ministry of reconciliation. I will explore these two possible ways to interpret this role, as I connect them with some of the learnings of MCC’s history as well as some current challenges. 

In terms of some potential colonial tones in current representations of being an ambassador, two images come to mind:

  1. Ambassador as a “neutral” agent. One way in which an ambassador can be seen is as a passive or silent agent, who’s main task is to communicate the interests, positions, and message from a given organization or country. This function seems rather neutral: the message and not the messenger is central. Such self-perception leads people to ignore how their actions actively shape the message that is to be lived out.

When this image is brought to the conversation of MCC’s history—a task that I see Alain undertaking—this apparent neutrality could lead people to ignore how their own theological, ethical, and political convictions affect their role in relating to others in different spaces and contexts. Furthermore, such a “neutral agent” can reinforce a static vision of the ministry of reconciliation; as if service in the name of Christ would mean the same in every context, independently from the people involved, the locations, and times. 

A central issue here is that by assuming “neutrality” one tends to bypass and perpetuate different forms of oppression and power imbalances, as well as presenting a static vision of what service, peace, and reconciliation are from a Mennonite perspective.

  1. As a “representative” of an “other” country or political space; a second possible way to interpret an ambassador is someone who represents a given country, which prescribes certain rules and gives status (and power) to the person. For instance, the communities in Colombia spoke about the diplomatic immunity that ambassadors from different countries have. These rules and status precede and shape the encounter with the others and can be experienced in terms of power imbalances in the relations. Furthermore, when an ambassador comes from a different region or country, this person represents a place which is loaded with meaning and has geopolitical influence—for instance, when one thinks about the USA and Canada in their regional and international roles. Alain reflects critically the growing consciousness about these links in MCC’s history. While in many cases these connections can be bypassed, they have an impact, both in the person’s own role as ambassador as well as in the way in which service is depicted and performed. Ignoring or bypassing the status and privileges attached to that representation can often lead to the continuation of different forms of oppression and (neo)colonialism—even when trying to witness to peace.

In my view, Alain’s reconstruction of MCC´s history engages with these colonial tendencies present both in the role of an ambassador as much as in the way in which the ministry of reconciliation has been and is understood. This becomes possible thanks to Alain’s focus on (1) the personal narratives of MCC workers and MCC’s friends who helped making explicit the implications, limitations, and mistakes, showing how some of these images have played a role in MCC’s history; and (2) how the understanding of MCC’s mission has not only been diverse and changing, but even more so, it has been and is still deeply contested. This self-critical stance, both on the vision of the service workers as well as the understanding of mission, are key to de-colonize and re-interpret what it means to become ambassadors of Christ, seeking to witness to the ministry of reconciliation.

Yet, this awareness and need of continuous reflection and contestation of one’s own positionality is one of the steps of many involved in decolonizing our visions of service and mission. Another step, I would argue, is to recognize how these “shortcomings” or “mistakes” in history and in different contexts have had repercussions in peoples’ lives and communities. This brings to the front the need to focus on the impacts that these “mistakes” have created and the path towards repairing the damage and healing the wounds. I can imagine that the growing focus on this direction—i.e., not just on the lives of people that serve as MCC workers but also in the people and lives of the “receiving” communities—could help to recognize “wounds” as well as to discern and decide on how to heal them. It would be interesting to see an interpretation of the centennial of MCC from the lenses of different people, communities, and regions in which MCC has served, [2] not exclusively to see the wounds and how to heal them, but also to recognize the blessings and experiences of transformation in the different contexts.

In terms of how the image of an ambassador can offer a framework to re-interpret what it means to witness to the ministry of reconciliation, there are at least three key aspects one could think of—inspired in Alain’s historical reconstruction. [3]

  1. A change of location does not only affect one’s own positionality and embodiment, but even more the way in which the role of being and ambassador and the ministry are seen, perceived and enacted. Seeing how the mission and understanding of service in the name of Christ has been diverse and contested, shows precisely how these have been embedded in contexts and relationships in which oppressive structures and practices become apparent, but also where attempts to overcome them—signaling healing, transformation and reconciliation—are anticipated and materialized.
  2. Having in mind these constructions and negotiations in different spaces where individual and collective identities are formed—paraphrasing Alain—the image of an ambassador that is and needs to be transformed themselves emerges. In other words, the embodied action does not only mean to be physically present but also to be open to be transformed by the very space in which one is present; participation and engagement in the ministry of reconciliation becomes possible in those locations, as the challenges and the vision of service are constantly (re-)shaped and actualized. While missionaries and service workers could have seen themselves in following some of the characteristics of a more colonial image of an ambassador, Alain captures well the lessons learned not only in terms of creating community and walking with other service workers but also how transformative it is to be part of the life in the community where one is seeking to serve. 
  3. Having this in mind, one can envision a turn in the understanding of the role of an ambassador: from the people who from one country go to serve to another, to see the others—i.e., the ones hosting, receiving and creating spaces for people from other countries and regions—also as ambassadors themselves, who witness to a God who walks with people in the liminal spaces, in the margins. Considering this widening of the image of an ambassador has at least two implications. One, it becomes an invitation to re-frame the understanding of being an ambassador as someone who is sent to a different context, to a person witnessing to God’s reconciling work in each context. A task that emerges here is to recognize how in one’s own context—based on all the learnings from other spaces and realities—there are dynamics of injustice that need to be addressed, in which transformation is needed, inviting us to look more closely to the existing voices and witness in those spaces. Two, it is an invitation to reframe what it means to walk with others. Alain does a very detailed reconstruction of how the understanding in MCC has changed from rather paternalistic logics to walking in solidarity with others and being present have become more prominent with time. The forms of relation and engagement between MCC service workers and the communities to which they come and/or serve need to be constantly re-visited following this logic: that it might also be the other, the hosting other, who is embodying the ambassador of Christ’s reconciling work, challenging one’s positionality and inviting one to be transformed and to participate in that ministry.

These are a few of the lessons and questions that are identifiable when reflecting about what it means to be an ambassador of Christ, based on MCC’s historical reconstruction. The organic, contextual, and temporary nature of the understanding of MCC’s mission, of what it means to serve and walk with others in the name of Christ, and in the self-understanding of the service workers, are all crucial in seeking to decolonize and rebuild our identities, theologies, and peace witness. The remaining open questions for me, on a more institutional level, are: (1) how these different learnings and challenges are and can be translated into the theology(ies), policies, and institutional life of MCC; and (2) how to bring these different lessons and challenges back to our discussions and discernment on our vision(s) of the church, our Mennonite identities, and our peace theologies. If the vision of the mission of MCC has been contested, one could argue that our vision of what it means to be a (peace-) church is not only diverse but—even—contested. 

I look forward to those conversations and discussions, seeking to learn more and keep reflecting on what it means for us Mennonites to serve and being invited to become ambassadors of Christ´s reconciliation.

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*Andrés Pacheco Lozano is the Assistant to the Chair of Peace-Theology and Ethics, and serves as a Research Associate in the Amsterdam Center for Religion and Peace and Justice Studies (ACRPJ).

[1] Alain (2020) comments in this regard, “I examined MCC’s one hundred-year history of service as an ongoing and never-settled process of discerning what it means to serve as ambassadors of Christ entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation” (p. 8).

[2] In this sense, it would be a great exercise to see how MCC’s ministry and peace witness has not only been understood, but also how it has been appropriated, continued/discontinued, and how these understandings and appropriations have changed in the different times and locations. It would be interesting to see not only how the “sending” communities and the service workers can look at their history self-critically, but also how the receiving communities have changed, have created their own (self-)critical positions, and how they have re-constructed what the ministry of reconciliation is—in which the role of MCC’s witness has been significant.

[3] Alain argues, in his framing of imagines landscapes, as follows: “…my invocation of imagined landscapes seeks to highlight two points: first, that encounters with places are historically mediated and ever-changing and thus are sites of potential contestation; and second, that it is through these historically constructed and negotiated encounters with places that individual and social identities are formed.” (Epp-Weaver, 2020, p. 17).

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