In a southern Mexico indigenous village, before the sun had yet risen, James, a member of my missionary team, woke to the sound of his Mixe friend calling him to go to the harvest fields. They joined several others, and one of them told James to carry the two live chickens while each of the others had their own burden. They trudged out of the village and made their way through the winding paths till they arrived at the edge of a field James had passed many other times as he helped these subsistence farmers in his first year in the indigenous village. This time, however, they stopped beside some large rocks that he had never really paid attention to. By now the eastern sky was lightening, and James could make out most objects.
The oldest among them, Horacio, began to walk around slowly, speaking to himself, the complex melodic language blending with early morning sounds. Another used the wood he had been carrying to start a small fire in the angle between two of the largest rocks, and James’s host, Francisco, motioned him over towards the old leader. The group gathered around Horacio, who had now come to a standstill and had begun some kind of recitation, staring off towards the sunrise.
As this morning had unfolded, James began to suspect that the differences from past work days meant he was in the middle of an ancient ritual in the rhythm of the life cycles of his pre-Columbian friends. He had arrived shortly after the first planting, and now for almost half the year had been helping in the cultivation and care of the fields of entwined corn, beans, and squash. He knew harvest was about to begin. He knew the Mixes had never really converted to Catholicism and were mostly animist, still living under the control of many spirits. And he knew he didn’t need to fear.
He knew all this because over a three year apprenticeship in cross cultural missions, he had been trained to build relationships and look for what God was already doing among people different from himself. He was twenty-one when he left the security of conservative North Carolina and his evangelical church to explore being a bearer of Good News to those who had no idea of a good God. Among a different indigenous group, James had learned to be a learner, acquiring the language through local teachers and immersing himself in their culture, eating what they ate, sleeping where they slept, and being subject to the same sicknesses and trials. Now he and his new wife were beginning a new endeavor in San Juan Juquila de los Mixes.
As his mentor, I, a Mennonite missionary from Canada, had spent a lot of time helping James process two of the central ideas of Anabaptism: be at peace with all people and interpret Scripture through Jesus’ life and teaching (a focused canon). He applied these concepts in a very practical setting, understanding that Jesus is at the heart of all Scripture, and that phrases like “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God” and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount provide the foundation of Jesus’ teaching.
In his three years of exposure to different cultures, James spent much of his time unlearning some of the characteristics of his upbringing. The mostly unconscious sense of superiority that accompanies many Americans (and other “First World” nations) and the overt feeling of rightness of the evangelical movement were part of who he had been, and now he was being forced to lay that aside and humble himself.
Guiding this part of his apprenticeship were the words of Paul about Jesus: “though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:6–7, NLT). This is at the heart of God sending his son, and ignoring this has cost the evangelical missions movement dearly. In the early days of Western missions, many First World missionaries overlooked all the first thirty years of God’s ministry in the flesh and jumped straight to the three years of preaching and healing (without always embracing the homelessness and hunger and hurt). They may have thought they knew what was better for the people they were called to, both in terms of lifestyle and religion. They tended to teach rather than learn.
Over the last thirty years some of the worst parts of this mentality have gone by the wayside, and cultural sensitivity is surely growing among most evangelical missionaries. It is in the arena of religion, though, that they remain the most adamant that they are right, and all others wrong. The marriage of a “flat canon” with a modernistic sense of truth means that the whole Scripture must be equally applied and that the missionary’s interpretation of what it says is the only one. That has left very little room for other cultures to respond to Christ’s good news in ways that reflect their uniqueness. What should have been a rich contribution to the universal church has been stolen from both them and their brethren.
So in the face of different religious practices, most missionaries take strong stances of opposition, neither participating themselves nor allowing any converts to do so. Even during initial phases of acculturation, they are reluctant to be around anything that looks like paganism. They are afraid to contaminate themselves and can only see these practices as evil. They would be unfaithful to Jesus himself, they feel, if they were to be near “all that stuff.” This almost always sets up antagonism between Christians and practitioners of other religions.
To be fair to these missionaries, Jesus’ incarnation among the Jews was of a very special nature, and it is not easy to extrapolate his experience onto any other attempt to adapt to another culture. The Jews’ two thousand years of salvation history was exactly what allowed God to come among humans. If it were not for his command for us to “go into all the world” and “make disciples of all the nations (ethnic groups)” coupled with “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (Mark 16:15, Matt 28: 19, John 20:21, NLT) there would be no basis for attempting to apply Jesus’ example in any other context.
Jesus was born in the fullness of time, Scripture tells us (Galatians 4:4), when everything was just right. And so God lived among normal people for thirty years and nobody knew it. This incredible reality goes without mention in most missions courses. He obviously lived sinlessly (Hebrews 4:15) and yet it was not remarkable. When he began what the modern church thinks of as his ministry, at the age of thirty, people that knew him were confused, since he had grown up among them (Matthew 13:54-57).
God had spent two thousand years preparing a culture where he could live incognito. He called out a nation, gave them moral law in the midst of chaos, and focused their eyes on the one true God. After many returns to idolatry, the Babylonian captivity cleared them of overt worship of other gods. They, the Jews, in the period before the arrival of Jesus, lived for four hundred years concentrating on the Law and avoiding paganism. While achieving a high level of obedience to the Law, some tended towards legalism. Nevertheless, they created a community in which God could show up, live in absolute submission to Old Testament Law, and fit in perfectly, unnoticed.
So, in the fullness of time, Jesus lived among the Jews, and nothing he was required to do in that culture, even as an infant when he had no autonomy, could be construed as sinful. He fulfilled the Law, never participated in anything wrong, and arrived at thirty years of age appearing to be normal, like anyone else.
Yet throughout those years, at least the last ten, he must have been keenly aware of how some leaders practiced their religion in ways that were unhealthy. He could already see how these leaders prevented others from coming into the Kingdom of God, putting heavy burdens on them that they wouldn’t bear themselves. He knew firsthand the pain of the sinners who didn’t measure up and so lived with crushing guilt. He grasped that there were people around him with warped perceptions of their Father God that prevented them from loving others.
But he did not do anything about it. He waited, he learned, he grew, he made friends.
This example gives gospel bearers going to new cultures today incredible freedom from worrying about “being right.” Jesus fulfilled every requirement of the Law in order to establish the law of love. He opened a way for all his disciples to go into all the world with all the issues they would find there.
Hebrews draws us towards this when it repeats what first shows up in Jeremiah: “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already.” (Heb 8: 10, 11) Peter struggles with this new reality in the famous passage about his preparation for an encounter with Cornelius and friends, Roman God fearers, about to become the first group outside of Judaism to respond to the Gospel.
Jesus lived among fallen people who were being led towards perfection by the Law, and he fulfilled the Law as an ordinary member of his community. He was truly one of us, “pitching his tent with us,” redeeming us through his perfect identification with us. He then called them (and now us) into the fuller sense of what God had been preparing for all along, the ability to discern relationally what really matters most “right now,” because the Law of Love is written on our hearts.
Paul starts his Philippians passage about the Incarnation by requiring that all believers have the same attitude (or mind) that Jesus had. They can go out as Jesus did, keeping a low profile, adapting to new cultures, and letting pressure build where the Good News of Jesus Christ finally breathes life into places that were dark and lifeless till then. Encounters with others very different than themselves can be guided by a spirit of peacefulness. Disciples can take the time to learn what really is going on under the surface, without ignorantly condemning what they most likely don’t yet understand.
So, when prompted by Horacio, James held out the two chickens, and tried to keep his shoes clean once their heads were neatly sliced off, and the warm blood gushed forth onto the rocks. He held the two bodies till all tremors ceased, and then handed them over to another man who would cook them for their mid-day meal. Horacio muttered some more, twirled his body another time, and they were done. Later James related this story to me, and the part that most bothered him was how lifeless the whole ritual had been to these men. They had participated because their belief in malignant spiritual forces required something at this junction; it was the only thing they knew to do at harvest, but James’s overall impression was that they were only going through the motions.
He had felt unsettled as he participated in this harvest ritual of animal sacrifice, wishing it were possible to avoid the whole thing. Was this “eating at the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:19–21)? Although he knew he might later come up against practices that he could not, in good conscience, participate in, this situation did not seem to warrant walking away. He had come out of friendship and watched these men perform a religious rite, one that recognized that spiritual forces were entwined with their lives. He was learning to trust God to help him judge each situation as it came up and decided this wasn’t the time to take a stance. He wanted his friends to know the peace and comfort that he experienced in trusting the one true and good God, so he would bide his time. He was living out the passage that Paul gave the Corinthians about something very much like this: “So, what about eating meat that has been offered to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God” (1 Corinthians 8:4).
His Anabaptist apprenticeship had given him the attitude and knowledge to live among an animistic pagan culture without giving offence, building rapport and understanding. Now, a year later, there have been opportunities to talk with village men about religious ideas. He has been stopped in the streets and drawn into conversations about God, the men asking him his opinion. They recognize him as a bearer of different ideas, and are starting to become open to hear about that. The Kingdom of God is coming to the Mixes.
Robert Thiessen, of southern Ontario, Canada, lives with his wife, Anne, and two children (Ruth and Philip) among Mixtec indigenous people in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, Mexico. He serves with MBMission, Abbotsford, BC, Canada (North American Brethren Church), and is also associated with Moravians in North Carolina, and the Unity of the Brethren in Texas.