by Rafael Vallejo, Ph.D.
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”
– Arundhati Roy
Christian Mission has a long history and the meaning of the word “mission” has evolved through time. It used to be that when people talked of “missions” they were referring to people from the North who went overseas to “evangelize” or live with poor communities in the villages in the Global South. These people were called “missionaries”.
Today’s theologies of mission contain big words like evangelization, prophetic dialogue, contextualization, inculturation, inter-religious dialogue, common witness, liberation.
What I would like us to do here is to revisit how different understandings of Mission evolved through church history. Kwame Bediako from Ghana argues that church history is mission history.
In the first century of the Christian movement, many of the first ecclesial communities believed that the promised return of the Christ was happening anytime soon. The goal of mission then was to “preach the gospel” to as many people as possible so they may be “saved”. Christianity spread from Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean world until it became the official religion of the Empire in 380 CE.
Given the diversity of groups and gospels, the Church focused its energies on “right belief” and in the process went to battle against those who held other beliefs (e,g. heretics). Seven ecumenical councils (e.g.Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon) worked to create right language around Christian belief in the form of doctrines and creeds. In 1054, the Church of the East broke away from the Church of the West over doctrinal differences.
During the 15th century, powerful countries in Europe started explorations into distant lands. In what is now referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery”, mission came to be understood as “civilizing mission” that went hand in hand with “discovering” and taking ownership of new lands and turning them into colonies. Civilizing missions were conceived as bringing “the light of the gospel” to “the heart of darkness”, the backward, uncivilized colored indigenous peoples in the colonies.
In the 20th century, after the experience of two world wars, former colonies struggled and won their independence. People from former colonies started to migrate and settle in the countries of their colonizers (eg. UK, France, USA). Migration gave rise to pluralist societies marked by a diversity of worldviews, languages, cultures, religions and traditions. By this time, the center of World Christianity had shifted to the Global South.
Now in the 21st century, much of the language around Christian mission has changed but some of the previously held interpretations are still present. In “Together Towards Life” (TTL) the World Council of Churches (WCC) during its 10th General Assembly in Busan, South Korea (2013) spoke of Mission as “resistance and struggle”. This is the frame I am working with in this series of blogs on “Refugees and Resistance: Enacting God’s mission in liminal spaces.”(Vallejo, 2020)
I think of Missio Dei as engaging the powers and domination systems that are operative in today’s world. I want to re-describe the heart of the Triune God’s work as struggle in a world dominated by “Empire”. Empire as defined by the Accra Confession 2004 refers to “the convergence of economic, political, cultural, geographic, and military imperial interests, systems, and networks for the purpose of amassing political power and economic wealth.” Empire is what stands in opposition to God’s purposes for the world. They “obstruct the fullness of life that God wills for all” (TTL 45)
I find support for this view in resistance literature embedded in the biblical narrative. In the people’s struggle in Egypt, the narrator shows the fragility of the Pharaoh’s power compared to the mighty arm of the deity, later to be known as YHWH. The same theme of resistance and struggle runs through apocalyptic literature in the First and Second Testaments.
In many ways, border crossings performed by refugees/migrants today is an act of resistance against nation-states who consider it their absolute right to decide who may or may not enter their borders. Refugees are resisting not having voice or visibility by breaking the silence and showing up in huge numbers at international borders, even in the midst of the current pandemic. While this kind of resistance may not be enough to improve their situation or change the system, at the very least they hope to raise awareness that something needs to be done. I believe our God struggles with them as they travel through liminal spaces.
I invite us to think of our mission as mobilizing the church for social engagement and prophetic witness and the flourishing of all of God’s creation. Should we as Church choose to stand alongside refugees and migrants, we need to be prepared to resist and struggle alongside them.
Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.
Rafael is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and his pieces focus on the experience of refugees and mission.