Hippolyto Tshimanga from Mennonite Church Canada began his session at Mennonite World Conference with an anecdote about a friend who has an “allergy to missions.” I have to admit I found myself getting a little irritated just listening. Indeed, I was having an allergic reaction. Having recently returned home from Mennonite World Conference, I saw a link to an article on the Anabaptist Witness blog by J. Nelson Kraybill in my social media news feed. The link had the following quote from his article: “it is hard for North Americans to hear or value the global church if we believe that the whole mission enterprise was a mistake.” By that time I had broken out in a rash. Please excuse me, but I can’t help but scratch it.
Tshimanga went on to say that “there is no such thing as a church without mission; mission is the DNA of the church.” In many ways this statement should find broad if not complete acceptance. The question, though, is whether we should accept what has motivated missions for most of its history, and if we cannot, we must ask if we have the theological understanding and collective will to identify this strand as harmful and reconfigure our DNA. While the term “mission” can get used to refer to any number of Christian practices, I would argue that the dominant referent for the term in the larger Anabaptist context is what J. Nelson Kraybill cites as “conversionary Protestants”; that is, those who “actively attempt to persuade others of their beliefs,” emphasize “lay vernacular Bible reading,” and believe that “grace/faith/choice saves people, not group membership or sacraments.” 1
From Tshimanga’s statement and this definition of missions I take the church’s DNA to include the belief that those outside of its belief system are by definition insufficient and inferior. Regardless of how layered this logic of missions is with “cultural sensitivity,” appeals to the motivation of love, and quantitative studies showing the “improvements” made by missionaries, I simply cannot accept that logic. That logic is by definition supremacist.
I fully admit that I do not have a handle on global perspectives on missions in the Mennonite church. I do not have years of diverse experiences speaking with churches and individuals about their experience of mission. I am not a social scientist and cannot commend or critique quantitative analyses of the “impact” of missions. My point is quite simple. If the motivation for mission comes from a conviction that a group, prior to contact, is deemed insufficient (why else would we try and convert a group we have never met) then this is a supremacist logic and anything deemed “good” that might come out of it comes in spite of or in opposition to this logic. That is, the good comes in opposition to the “heart” of missions.
And so, yes, to answer Kraybill’s question quoted above, I condemn the enterprise of missions. I can hear some of the reactions. But this is too broad a generalization, this does not take into account the complexity and messiness of history and humanity, this discounts the good that has come from missions. No this is not a broad statement, it is precise. It attempts to focus with precision on a fundamental logic that needs to get disentangled from other theologies and expressions so that it can be removed; so that the work of the church and the gospel can continue.
This statement or approach is not unprecedented. I make this claim in the same way that I need to say that I grew up in a racist, sexist, and homophobic context, despite there being many good people and many good things that happened in my childhood in spite of this. Or how else can we take the many claims of the prophets where either Babylon, Rome or Israel are condemned roundly. Don’t you think there were good people in all those places? Don’t you think evidence could be brought forward as to the benefit these nations brought to people? There is a time and place to condemn the guiding logic of particular social expressions, and conversionary missions as it is informed by a supremacist logic is one of them.
I understand that advocates of conversionary missions will point to a particular biblical calling, but this is a partial or selective reading of the Bible (as all theologies necessarily are). The “Great Commission” will simply not bear the weight of making conversion the heart of the church’s message. We can celebrate what is good in the church while condemning supremacist logic in all its forms (the church in North America still has a lot of work to do in this area). I mean, it’s not like I am saying we shouldn’t love each other but that is a very different “enterprise” than modern missions. I am not saying that the Gospel doesn’t make certain calls and claims on the church but these need to be engaged apart from a posture of supremacy.
This is also not an appeal for a “tolerant liberal” church, as that term gets kicked around. The church is called to make bold claims and intervene courageously in situations but this must emerge from a mutually understood response to suffering and the powers of death and bondage. As Christians we remain as vulnerable to these powers as any others and I am convinced that the message of the Gospel only becomes clear when we meet others on level ground: willing to give and receive blessing, willing to be persuaded and changed in as much as we might hope for others to be changed.
The Gospel calls us but first we may need to lie still long enough, and get second, third, and fourth opinions on our current condition from the resurging indigenous populations and marginalized communities that have found their bearings after the impact of our missions. And after the procedure has been completed, our supremacist strand identified for treatment, and we have committed to an ongoing schedule of check-ups with these professionals, maybe after all this I hopefully won’t have a reaction to the word missions.
David Driedger is Associate Minister at First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1) J. Nelson Kraybil, “The Global Church Challenges North Americans to Move beyond Negative Associations with Mission” https://www.anabaptistwitness.org/2015/08/the-global-church-challenges-north-americans-to-move-beyond-negative-associations-with-mission/. Kraybill himself is citing an article by Robert D. Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012): 244–74.
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Hi David! Very interesting and provocative thoughts. Its something I have thought about a lot in the past few years as I moved from pastoring in Mennonite Church Canada to the Mennonite Brethren denomination. The two conferences have differing views on mission and ecclesiology. I call myself an “evangelical” in the sense of having good news, but I don’t see that good news as a list of tenets that I hold that you must now believe in. My interpretation of the gospels would lead me to see Jesus’ mission more along the lines of good news for the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, the oppressed go free, etc… So having baptisms and conversions and increasing the number of people in my church is not the way I measure whether we are successful in mission. Yes, there were some bold statements at World Conference. Religious words can pack a variety of punches, depending on who unpacks them. I appreciate the unpacking you are doing here.
I must confess I find Driedger’s rant puzzling in view of the fact that he is Associate Pastor in a Christian church. I find that Jesus himself proclaimed a gospel of good news for those whose previous life and faith structures were deficient. By Driedger’s logic, Jesus was a “supremacist” and thereby to be derided.
“The Gospel calls us but first we may need to lie still long enough, and get second, third, and fourth opinions on our current condition from the resurging indigenous populations and marginalized communities that have found their bearings after the impact of our missions.”
Yes, we may need to lie still. This gives me much peace, thank you for this.
Thank you for putting your thoughts to words on this topic. I find your whole post helpful, as the mandate of missions that I grew up with (in an EMMC church) and continue to hear, now makes me itch quite a bit. I’ve had a hard time putting to words what I feel, and reading this helped shed some light for me. It is the supremacist position that you write of which is what makes me cringe when I hear “missions”. I appreciate hearing a voice that calls out that supremacist logic, but also says the church does not have to be “liberally tolerant.” I hadn’t found out how to marry the two thoughts and this gives me something to chew on and start with. Thank you.
The “supremacist logic” of which the writer speaks has certainly been part of the Western missionary enterprise. It could not be otherwise, given the societies that formed and supported Western missionaries.
But that does not explain the enormous sacrifices many of the missionaries made. That can only be explained by a conviction that the Way of Jesus offers the world hope of salvation, a hope that we do not have without his Way.
That is another kind of logic entirely, one that suffers (rather than rules) in hope. Today it fuels the efforts of those who come to preach to us, here in the belly of the empire (even though their efforts are also tainted by assumptions and motives that are not pure).
Kraybill, Tshimanga and Driedger all do well to challenge our motives and assumptions as we engage in mission. True, we are complicated beings. Yet God’s love is in our hearts and that love inspires us to keep giving of ourselves in faithful and compassionate service to others, whether in Calgary or Istanbul. That’s the miracle of the Gospel, and that’s mission. Let’s not get distracted from that godly goal. Remember that our biggest problems arise from human pride and selfishness. So let’s keep humbling ourselves, keep learning and keep loving others (despite our allergies, biases, and brokenness).
Thanks for the feedback. A couple of things I want to emphasize.
1. There is a difference between larger social structures (or logics) and individual motivations. Both are important. To a take a cue from the apostle Paul, I am not struggling against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities. So there can be noble intentions and even ‘good work’ within a context that, in time, we can recognize as unhelpful at best or abusive at worst. So in the Canadian context as we are working through the impact of the Indian Residential School system there are some who want to highlight the ‘good’ things that came out of it. While I understand that may be important for particular individuals to make sense of their experience it can hardly be said to justify the guiding logic of trying to assimilate indigenous people into Western/Christian culture by denigrating their heritage. (I can say the same of my own experience of at first resisting and being defensive of feminist critiques because I felt they did not respect my personal experience. I needed to get over that an appreciate the larger point many of the critiques were trying to make)
So basically I want to, as clearly as possible, identify a motivating element of Christian missions, namely the assumption that a group of people are insufficient prior to contact and that our ‘mission’ is not complete until people are converted to Christianity. The goal is not conversion but the ongoing work of the Gospel (which Jesus identifies as the work of healing and justice). So long as what I call a ‘supremacist logic) guides or informs the larger project of missions then our individual intentions will inevitably get co-opted by that influence.
2. I definitely think we are called to preach the Gospel. I think we are called by our brothers and sisters around the world to support each other. There is good work for the church is able to engage in. However, we can no longer assume that we have a monopoly on what is ‘good news’. The Bible is clear that good news can come from surprising and unlikely places and people. In as much as many people can acknowledge such a statement, I find that our formal and guiding documents and leadership bodies do not name this as clearly as, I think, they should.
I have been uncomfortable for as long as I can remember with the idea of missions. When I was young, missionaries seemed to me to be more interested in conversion than understanding. I felt the whole enterprise was anti-intellectual, and without a basis in knowledge, it was shallow. As I grew older I began to get to know some missionaries, in the field and out, and realized my judgement was too harsh. These folks were not all shallow. My horizons, and I think my own understanding, grew as I started to travel around the world and meet people of different religious backgrounds, Christian missionaries included (a few of whom treated me during times of severe illness). I engaged in Christian voluntary service in the United States and Paraguay. I also received a degree in Anthropology, and as many would suspect, anthropologists and missionaries have a decidedly uncomfortable relationship, veering into mutual disdain. After much thought on the topic, I feel my young self was right. David uses the correct term, “supremacist”, in describing the underlying logic of missions. As such, “missions” has historically been an institutional activity that depends on ignorance of insider cultural experience, no matter how kind individual missionaries can be. I admire and support Christian activity and witness in the world, but will continue to be wary of conversion ideologies.
Hi, David. Thanks for your heartfelt reflections. Let me add my own. Unlike you, I found myself heartened by the boldness of Hippo Tshimanga’s address to us all at the MWC Assembly. I think it is entirely possible, indeed essential, to affirm that mission is in the DNA of the church, if the church is to be the church. That is what it means to call it the “body of the Messiah,” not? Every Jew understood that a “messiah” is God’s agent with a mission. Moreover, the church is the community that confesses this Jesus as “Lord,” surely as supremacist a term as we have in the English language. He exercised this lordship as servanthood and ultimate self-giving for the salvation of the world. Furthermore, Jesus proclaimed the “kingdom,” “reign,” or “dominion,” of God. That such a “reign” is subversive of conventional notions of domination and supremacy makes it no less “supremacist,” in the sense that it brought and brings something not already there, and without which there is indeed something missing. Hence the missionary drive of his early followers (apostles: messengers, missionaries) to get that good news out to the edges of the then-known world. Everyone of us is the beneficiary of that transgressive act we call evangelism.
All that should only sharpen remorse and repentance regarding the church’s betrayal of that mission in countless ways. If that is what you are concerned about, I’m with you. But that still makes the gospel “supremacist” over practices that brutalize rather than save. If you are concerned that we are not sufficiently appreciative of what we encounter of God that is present in our world, I share that concern as well. The Scriptures are full of the wisdom of God hiding in unsuspected places and persons. That is good news!
The question is whether not knowing Christ, not being in relationship of reconciliation with the creator, not knowing or following the way of Jesus, constitutes an “insufficiency.” That is not to say that those who do not confess Christ are inferior. But their not knowing and following Christ is inferior to knowing and following him. I would think that much is clear for a Christian. Just as it is clear that not caring about justice, respect, equality, and peace is an insufficiency. Why is it that we don’t break into a rash at such “supremacism”? Is it that we are no longer sure the gospel is good and essential news for our world? One that calls each of us, including or perhaps most especially the church, to conversion? If conversion gives us an itch, let’s call it transformation, new creation, growing into Christ, or whatever.
I think the mission of the church is about being the body of the one who made peace not with no-name healing and hope, or a generic just peace, but by the specific act of creating in himself a new human, destroying the hostility between us and our enemies and between us and God through the cross. That mystery is supreme over any and all of our efforts to articulate and live it; and it stands in perpetual judgment on our profound betrayals of it.
Thanks for your thoughtful response Tom. I do think you are stretching the use of the term ‘supremacist’ here. Of course we have a scale of values, ways of discerning and evaluating different expressions. This will always be some blend of particularity (for Christians the life of Jesus) and universalism (more abstract notions of God or other theological expressions). So we will run into conflict and alignment when we are in contact with other groups. So, as I said in my piece and in my comments, the Gospel does call us to particular expressions that will stand for or against other groups or expressions. That is not ‘supremacist’.
A supremacist position, as I understand it, is a posture that assumes that a group, prior to contact, is in a ‘superior’ position to whomever they encounter. It is difficult to deny that this logic very quickly became embedded or expressed in the work of the church. And this of course is not only a question of ‘missions’ but also the internal theology and practice of the church in its history of slavery, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
I am theologically undecided on some of the statements you make regarding the ‘lordship’ and ‘dominion’. You say,
“That such a “reign” is subversive of conventional notions of domination and supremacy makes it no less “supremacist,” in the sense that it brought and brings something not already there, and without which there is indeed something missing.”
Again, I think you are stretching the term ‘supremacist’ beyond any helpful usage. As you say, the point is to undermine the dominant (dominating?) referents to these terms. A marginal group is using its resources to dismantle what is destructive. And I am not sure we can say that ‘it brought something not already there’. I am not sure Jesus was trying to communicate that he was doing was unprecedented. Many times (as you acknowledge) Jesus is simply pointing to where he sees and is surprised by the Kingdom of God. I don’t think we can use these terms as those in the New Testament did. We are simply not in the same position.
There remains an important christological question here, one we may disagree on. I am not so much interested in deciding the answer to this question as pointing to the fact that we cannot ‘possess’ this answer, we cannot possess this person or what this person set out to do (this person’s mission!). I AM interested in consistently pointing to how our theology and guiding documents have continually led (and still lead) us into positions of superiority. And of course pointing to all those forms inside and outside the church that reflect Good News for the world (and being open to hearing such news in forms I once could not recognize).
So yes there is some definition of ‘mission’ I would find acceptable but I don’t know why we wouldn’t be open to exploring a different grammar and vocabulary that would force us to wrestle with these issues more explicitly. Maybe we could talk of something like a particular Anabaptist Witness . . . (ahem).
I’m joining this party rather late, but I’d heard offline about the online conversation and after reading the original post and the comments, I want to offer a rubric/typology that might be of some use in this question about supremacy.
Milton Bennett’s is one that folks in the U.S. have been using to better understand the educational mandates to ensure our student are “interculturally competent.” Part of what this typology does for some is bring into sharp relief how often socialization in strongly ethnically and/or religiously centered communities build and maintain boundaries through observations — “We don’t do _____. Those people do that” — that become morally laden judgments that imply our way of doing things is better/more faithful/truer/closer to God’s heart. What makes this supremacy is when interpersonal relationships, organizational cultures, institutions, and bureaucracies base their policies and practices on these observations-turned-judgments.
As a Mennonite, I have had to reckon with how deeply I internalized this process, viewing myself as part of a faithful, martyred remnant of Christianity. While we were/are in the minority among Christians, we special (a Messianic community, by some accounts) because we, with a (veneer of?) humility borne of our ethnic heritage, believe that our interpretation of the Christian Gospel is more complete than others. No one said this to me out loud — I come from a community of wonderful, caring, honest people. And yet, as a youth and young adult I believed being a Mennonite (Christian) was better than being any other kind of Christian, putting me in the “Defense against Difference” stage of intercultural development.
Coming to terms with this has meant reaching for a wider stance of “acceptance,” “adaptation,” and “integration” of various kinds of religious and ethnic difference. Traditional, (negative) stereotypical caricatures of “Missions” becomes something I, like David Driedger, reject because the reality that those caricatures reflect I equate with the various levels of “ethnocentric” development on the Bennett scale. The breadth of the Apostle Paul’s mission, for example seems robustly “ethnorelative” and “integrative” — we are made new and one in Christ Jesus, he offers. And still there is the open conflict about whether circumcision is required of Gentile men, so maybe the verses of his we often appeal to for unity ring in some ears as a “Minimization of Difference” that fails to meet the demands of real “Integration of Difference”: comparing cultures, religious beliefs, worldviews and rather than responding with a judgment about their inherent worth, we remark on what can be gained from bringing the best of all of these things into the common life we share together in a given society.
The challenge is that we typically don’t describe this kind of “Integration of Difference” as the goal of Christianity. While the Lordship of Christ — a celebration of peoples all over the Earth praising Jesus Christ as Savior — might be this for some, for others, that kind of vision is hegemonic and a “Denial of Difference.”
Whether mission is supremacist depends on the attitude of the individuals carrying out mission. A person who has a relationship with Jesus can relate to a person who does not have a relationship with Jesus with humility, realizing their own inadequacies and realizing that the person who does not know Jesus has something of God in them already. All cultures have something of God in them and all cultures reflect the sinful effects of this world. That includes our own North American culture. When there is mutual respect among people, regardless of whether they have a relationship with Jesus or not, no one feels superior to the other. The whole premise that those who follow Jesus are superior to those who don’t is a false premise. However, we who follow Jesus do have something that is very important to share: the good news of Jesus and an invitation to become his disciple.