What does it mean to celebrate mission efforts? What is the role of critique within mission? How do celebration and critique relate when reflecting on the church’s mission efforts? A paper this past October (2021) by two anthropologists, Philip Fountain and Laura Meitzner Yoder, entitled “Celebrating Service: An Anthropology of Mennonite Festivity” (presentation begins at the video’s 53:40 minute mark), has prompted me to reflect on these missiological questions and on the practice of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the church agency with which I work, in new ways. While Fountain and Meitzner Yoder advanced an anthropological analysis of the role critique has played within MCC celebrations, their argument is relevant for missiological reflection not only about MCC but also about the valid role of celebration and critique within the church’s witness.
Meitzner Yoder and Fountain offered their paper at a conference hosted by the University of Winnipeg and sponsored by MCC Canada and MCC U.S. on “MCC at 100: Mennonites, Service, and the Humanitarian Impulse.” [See videos of all conference panels here.] The conference, originally slated for MCC’s centennial in 2020 and delayed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, brought together over 30 relief, development, and peacebuilding practitioners alongside academics from diverse disciplines to examine different moments and locations from MCC’s one hundred-year history of service “in the name of Christ.” Some conference presentations gently probed tensions and ironies in MCC’s history, while offered strong critiques of MCC practice, past and present: all sought to bring critical reflection to bear on MCC’s history and its current initiatives.
As the final presenters at the “MCC at 100” conference, Fountain and Meitzner Yoder called attention to the peculiarity that “the celebration of MCC is frequently combined with critique,” with MCC-sponsored conferences and publications functioning as celebrations that have incorporated both self-criticism and external scholarly critique. This “embrace of scholarship as a primary vehicle for festive celebration of MCC anniversaries is remarkable,” Meitzner Yoder and Fountain claimed, suggesting that this integration of criticism within celebration makes MCC distinctive among international humanitarian relief, development, and peacebuilding agencies. Typically, they argued, neither church agencies nor humanitarian organizations create room within celebratory spaces to highlight external and internal institutional critique, focusing instead on attempts to mobilize and galvanize support for their organizations’ future work.
Fountain and Meitzner Yoder suggested multiple reasons why critique has been interwoven within MCC celebrations. First, as an inter-Anabaptist agency that brings together Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and other groups that have differed and continue to differ in many ways on matters of theology and practice for the sake of common action, MCC provides a “space for conflict” among these different groups, or, perhaps better put, a space for managing conflict among these groups in order to make joint relief, development, and peacebuilding action possible. With the ongoing contestation of the meaning and shape of Christian service built into MCC’s structure from its inception, one should not be surprised to find MCC welcoming criticism as it celebrates ongoing milestones.
Second, Meitzner Yoder and Fountian highlight, offering “critique is an important mode of expressing belonging,” with criticism of MCC functioning as “one of the primary ways in which Mennonites discursively possess MCC as their organization.” In fact, they assert, one can see the “harshest of criticism” of MCC as “enacting a technology of celebration” and as an assertion of belonging to MCC. One could, in fact, narrate MCC’s history as progressively expanding circles (albeit sometimes constricting) of the people who participate in criticism of MCC, laying claim to MCC through the process of criticism.
Finally, Meitzner Yoder and Fountain explain that criticism and confession amidst institutional celebrations “enact a performative modesty,” a public acknowledgment of the limits and imperfections of MCC’s relief, development, and peacebuilding work. This modesty, they continue, “reflects a broadly shared, anti-triumphalist impulse” within MCC, a circumspection about successes and accomplishments.
The analysis advanced by Fountain and Meitzner Yoder resonated with an argument I made in my missiological history of MCC, published at the end of MCC’s centennial year. In that book, I argued that the meaning of service within MCC has been a site of ongoing construction and contestation across MCC’s century-long history. The readiness of different Anabaptist groups to collaborate in the common work of relief, development, and peacebuilding could be understood as a readiness to engage in ongoing conversation—and sometimes disagreement—over the meaning that common work. Celebrating MCC’s history is thus at least in part a celebration of conversation (and argument) across difference, conversation that will thus inevitably include critique.
More generally, I have found Meitzner Yoder and Fountain helpful for reflecting on the proper place of celebration and critique within the church’s mission and witness. Celebration and critique are essential dimensions of the church’s worship—sober confession of the ways in which we as followers of Jesus fall away from our created goodness (both in ways we recognize and in ways of which we are unaware), with that confession coupled with celebratory thanksgiving to God for the love and unmerited grace we have received. Part of the liturgy’s celebration, then, is giving thanks to God for transforming and using our broken, imperfect actions to serve God’s mission to reconcile all of humanity and creation back to God.
Remembering the interplay of critique and celebration within the church’s worship should in turn inform our reflection on the church’s mission work past and present. Christians should welcome critical investigations into the church’s mission work, be they conducted by “insider” mission practitioners or by historians, sociologists, economists, anthropologists or other academics, be they sympathetic, deeply critical, or even hostile. Receiving critique reminds us that our knowledge is limited, that our efforts are imperfect and at times deeply flawed, that Christian mission in the modern era has unfolded and continues to unfold within systems of oppression, including colonialism, racism, and global capitalism.
Even the harshest critiques of Christian mission efforts are valuable in helping mission practitioners to better understand the myriad complex entanglements, both historically and today, of Christian mission with systems of power and to better discern what faithful action in the present looks like. Receiving criticism humbly and non-defensively should not mean foregoing celebration—after all, we believe in a God who can and does transform our flawed witness, turning that witness towards God’ purposes. Non-defensive reception of criticism, however, should help ward off the danger of our celebrations of mission efforts past and present becoming exercises in self-congratulation, with our celebrations instead marked by confession alongside thanksgiving for the mission of God’s reconciling Spirit to redeem and transform our incomplete and deeply fractured efforts to share God’s love with neighbors near and far.
Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for Mennonite Central Committee and is the author of Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).