The following submission is a response to a previous article in the Anabaptist Witness blog, found here.
I would like to thank you for expressing your thoughts and voicing your concerns. It is this communal engagement and discernment that allows us to learn from one another as we explore how to journey in the ways of Jesus together.
Allow me to offer a response to your article.
- Like you, I am deeply uncomfortable with the often violent method in which the church at large has used when it comes to “mission”. There is a long history whereby the church has acted alongside other colonial, and as you say, “supremacist” mentalities that have long been embedded in the practices of the church. This is especially true for the way in which the church has responded to different cultures. There has, unfortunately, been a lack of sensitivity, an unwillingness to learn, and a culture of “supremacy” in both the message and the practices in which such a message has been presented. No other example is most apparent than that of the history of the Canadian Indian Residential Schools (IRS). This is a painful example of the unfortunate ways in which the church, and “mission”, have failed to live, embody, and witness to the love and peace that Jesus exemplifies. This should rightfully make us sad.
- Unfortunately, the brush you have used to paint “mission” and its goals is very large. You define “mission” as that which seeks “conversion”. You then argue that the driving force for such mission is “the belief that those outside of its belief system are by definition insufficient and inferior.” I recognize that you are making reference to Hippolyto Tshimanga and Nelson Kraybill’s comments made at the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in July 2015. And yet, these two are no slouches when it comes to theological reflection. I suspect that they too are concerned that the practices in how we share the gospel of peace must coincide with the message of peace itself. It seems to me that there are a couple of comments necessary regarding your constructed argument.
- It seems to me that part of the dilemma is that a common word is being used (i.e., “conversion” or “mission”) but which contains significantly different meanings. Alan Kreider, for example, in his excellent book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, demonstrates the way in which the notion of “conversion” was understood pre-Constantine and post-Constantine. Although there is a common word, “conversion”, there was a significant shift in understanding this term. Kreider demonstrates how the pre-Constantine notion of “conversion” marked a process of transformation regarding one’s beliefs, one’s sense of belonging (i.e., a change in the way community was understood and shaped), and in one’s patterns of behaviour (i.e, the way one lived in the world). “Conversion” was not, in other words, simply about inviting others who are deemed to be insufficient and inferior to a more enlightened belief system. It was, rather, recalibrating one’s life and loyalty to courageously, as a community (understood not as a homogeneous group but as a group that consisted of different peoples, cultures, locations, etc.), be a response to suffering and the principalities and powers. Tom Yoder Neufeld has also responded to your original reflection piece regarding the notion of “conversion”, and he is much more able than I to respond to the way in which “conversion” was (and is) interpreted throughout the biblical narrative. I simply want to highlight the fact that I think there is a conflation in how “conversion” is being defined and used – and I don’t think that the way in which you describe “conversion” is the way in which Kraybill, Tshimanga, and others understand and define it (remember that Kraybill and Kreider have a long history of friendship and of being colleagues).
- Likewise, another example is the different ways in which “mission” is defined and understood. And here, unfortunately, your comment that “I fully admit that I do not have a handle on global perspectives on missions in the Mennonite church” and that “I do not have years of diverse experiences speaking with churches and individuals about their experience of mission” is apparent. It is important to note the way in which “mission” has been understood and embodied differently (just like the way in which notions such as “church” have also not been the same through Christian history. Indeed, the Mennonite understanding of church, which stems from the Anabaptist movement, has been substantially different than other ecclesial expressions). The military, for example, also uses terms such as “mission”. And yet it often refers to a vastly different reality and practice. Not all “missions” are the same. Likewise, the way in which “mission” is embodied is not all the same. Within Mennonite history, Mennonite “mission” has often been very different than the way in which “mission” has often been done. Mennonite “mission” has often been done (albeit not perfectly…) in a way that does not seek to force and/or seek the changing/convincing of others. Much of Mennonite mission has been about accompanying (and this was before the notion of “accompanying” became popular within missiology…). I would warmly invite you (and others!) to come and learn the way in which Mennonites have been at work in South Africa and Africa in general. Allow me to highlight a few examples from the Mennonite history of mission in South Africa (if you’re interested, you can also read my recently published article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review published in April 2015).
- Mennonites, rather than coming to South Africa and planting new churches, made a conscious decision 40-50 years ago to not plant new churches, but instead to walk with and support already existing churches. This has led to a long history of working with, what is often described as, “African Initiated (or Independent) Churches (AICs). This has been a significantly different model regarding “mission” than that of other ecclesial and mission bodies. There is an unfortunately notoriously distrustful relationship between AICs and “main-line churches” because of the practices to “win” the others to one’s own denomination (what you might describe as “supremacist” tendencies). And yet, Mennonites have a long history of trusting and trust-filled relationships with both AICs and “main line churches” in South(ern) Africa and indeed in much of Africa itself precisely because that has not been our guiding practice. And this relationship, which you rightly highlight ought to be a priority, has been created through a long history of intentionally “doing mission differently.”
- Mennonites, although being a small body, found and continue to find ways in which to support churches in South Africa in exploring and embodying justice, reconciliation, and the ways of peace. Indeed, once again, there is a long history in which we have been involved in such activities and pursuits. (Again, you can read my article for a longer narrative in how this was done in the South African context.) Interestingly, due to the different way in which Mennonite mission has been done in this context and the deep and mutually transformative relationships that have come to exist, churches throughout the spectrum (from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal/Charismatic churches) have asked for Mennonite input to help them be consistent in their desire to pursue and embody peace, justice, and reconciliation.
- Indeed, far from being “supremacist”, mission in the South African context can be credited with fostering and feeding the type of “prophetic Christianity” that challenged and disposed of the truly (white) supremacist ideology and politics of apartheid. Put simply, this highlights the exact opposite of what you argue! I would encourage you to read Richard Elphick’s recently published book, The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, which demonstrates the way in which missionaries in the South African context helped to plant the seeds of equality among the different races, later sprouting into the struggle for the freedom from oppression as well as the pursuit of freedom from the white supremacist ideology of apartheid.
- Unfortunately, the knee jerk reaction against “supremacist” forms of mission (to use your words) has caused you and others to paint, interpret, and understand all mission in that light. And yet, there is a long history that has demonstrated something very different than what you are painting.
- Given the desire for a truly transformational encounter of mutual learning – or as you put it: meeting others on level ground, being willing to give and receive blessing, willing to be persuaded and changed in as much as we might hope for others to be changed… — Mennonite Church Canada was incredibly deliberate and intentional about identifying its “mission” ministry as “Witness”. Part of the reasoning and decision to describe it as such is precisely because of the bi-directional activity that takes place in “witnessing”. On the one hand it does mean demonstrating something (e.g., witnessing to something). On the other hand, it also means seeing and learning from something (e.g., being a witness of – i.e., watching or seeing something take place). “Witness”, in other words, speaks of a double directionality of activity. Put another way, it assumes and takes into account structurally that we are not the ones who necessarily have the answers, but that there is much that we need to and should learn. This too has been Mennonite Church Canada’s attempt at “doing mission differently.” (And I take it from your final words in your reply to Tom that this is something you might in fact support…).
- But the ability to meet others “on level ground”, as you say, requires many, many years of building a solid and deep relationship with others in different contexts and backgrounds. And, unfortunately, if the Future Directions Task Force proposal regarding international work is carried, especially the proposal regarding time frame for such work (the suggestion being that most assignments involving personnel would be 2 mo. – 1 year), the opportunity to form such solid, trusting relationships will be significantly more challenging if at all possible. It would thus make it increasingly difficult to find ways of relating to others on a “level ground”. What’s more, this doesn’t just happen overseas. The ability and necessity to build loving and trusting relationships, it seems to me, is something that the church is called to seek and seek to embody. This is a way in which we are all invited to embody our faith. Thus the whole notion and understanding of the church being “missional”.
- Once again I can point to the vast history in how such opportunities for mutual transformation have changed the Mennonite church, especially in the latter part of the 20th Indeed, it was precisely through such experiences that shaped Mennonite theology, especially its theology pertaining to the way peace and justice, and their interconnectivity, are understood (i.e., the theology that has undoubtedly shaped your concerns!).
- If we don’t pay attention to the ways in which we have sought to intentionally and consciously step out of violent methods, for example in the way we have come to understand notions such as “conversion” and “mission”, we are bound to repeat such violence. And this, unfortunately, I see happening with your article. Although, I agree with your desire to step outside of violent and potentially oppressive (what you describe as “supremacist”) ways in which faith has been embodied, my fear is that you are re-enacting such tendencies in how you speak out against such practices without fully understanding them. Are you not, therefore, acting on a conviction that any such attempt at engaging – and being engaged by – another culture is deemed to be in error and insufficient (or rather supremacist)? Does this not fall into your own supremacist logic?
I hope these words and reflections in response to yours continue the much needed conversation as we together seek to be faithful followers of Jesus and his ways.
As I said earlier, I would also warmly invite you (and anyone else!) to come to South Africa for a visit to learn and see first hand the way in which Mennonites have done mission. Our door is always open and the kettle will be hot!
Andrew Suderman is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness Worker in South Africa with his wife, Karen. They help to coordinate the Anabaptist Network in South Africa as it strives to walk with, support and grow communities of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
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Thanks Andrew for taking the time to respond here. There are of course many points of agreement. I know full well the church and Christians have been involved in commendable movements and actions. Sometimes this has flown directly from our theology and other times, perhaps, in spite of it.
And yes, there are many ways of understanding ‘mission’ and ‘conversion’ and I do agree that the understanding of ‘witness’ that you give makes a lot more sense.
But I still, all too often, find that these changes and good actions function in a structure that carries many elements of our supremacist theology. We really seem to be talking about building better church support and contextual engagement globally. I totally understand the need for the mutual support of churches globally. Regardless of how we understood past missions the reality is that there are churches around the globe that need both support and accountability. And I think a lot of people get this and seem to do this well. So I definitely understand why some people took what I wrote very personally.
However, my criticism (which has included myself and my home denomination in past pieces I have written) is that we still seem unable to articulate this in our core documents of theology and practice. So when I talk with people about some of my concerns I often get broad agreement but then when I go through our texts and push against the fact that we consistently and almost unanimously consider and articulate the truth as that which moves from the church out to the world then suddenly I get blank stares.
So this is why I push on this because I think if indeed the church has worked out of a supremacist logic or theology then we need to try and identify it and root it out as deeply as we can. And I still think there is work to be done. If you are interested I have written a bit more of my own thoughts on this.
I wonder whether Jesus wouldn’t be accused of (and possibly re-crucified for!) “supremacist theology” in today’s pseudo-relativistic and PC-obsessed culture. He and his apostles were happy to suffer terribly for the exclusive truth-claim that only Jesus Christ is true Lord of all, which flew in the face of the dominant thinking of their day -not unlike ours- that there are many complimentary and equally valid deities/”truths”. If we profess to be Christians, shouldn’t we better concentrate on how, “in this adulterous and sinful generation”, to be humbly FAITHFUL to -and unashamed of- this Jesus and his words, which he promised would outlast heaven and earth?