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Introductory Remarks

The following theological elaboration is a contribution from the networks and initiatives associated with the World Council of Churches (WCC) Just and Inclusive Communities programme. It is informed by those who experience discrimination and marginalization within the church and society. These are:

  • Those who are suffering on account of and struggling against the cultures of racism and casteism, both of which−by holding them as inferior and unworthy−deny them the right to live with dignity and deprive them of “life in all its fullness”;
  • The Indigenous Peoples who struggle for identity, their homelands, their language and for survival amidst displacement and dispossession;
  • People living with disabilities who struggle for a life with dignity and participation; and
  • The migrant communities, and people who are forced out of their countries and communities on account of dispossession caused by human aggression and greed, and who are treated as the unwanted “others.”

People as mentioned above, as well as in other categories, are victims of the ongoing processes of “othering” and “objectification” that derive inspiration from certain unjust and narrow views and values of life that continue to shape much of the cultures, structures and the ways of our world. The small group of theologians representing these groups, who met in Geneva in June 2011 to draft this statement, were indeed conscious of other marginalized groups and other cultures and forces that marginalize and disempower many sections of people in the church and society.

In order to understand the reasons for this attempt to re-imagine mission from the margins, we must recognize a few common features of the experience of those on the margins. First, these groups of people are a part of the church in many contexts around the world that unfortunately experience discrimination and marginalization right within it. Secondly, they have also been victims of churches’ missionary expansion and theologies that took shape amidst and legitimized historical processes of discrimination and oppression of the weak and the vulnerable. And thirdly, these groups of people have been generally referred to or seen as recipients or objects of churches’ mission. Therefore, it is unique that these marginalized sections, the former victims, former objects of mission, now attempt a missiological reflection, not as a reaction to what mission has been to them in the past but of what they imagine God intends for the whole world and creation today.

Traditionally, mission has been viewed and pursued as an action done from a position of privilege, power and possession. However, if mission is the inevitable vocation of every Christian, what then would be the mission of those who are poor, impoverished, disempowered and dehumanized? This elaboration of mission through the vantage point of those on the margins unveils creative possibilities for new understandings of mission.

It does so, first of all, by claiming that the marginalized people are the most preferred partners of God in mission. In the biblical account, we encounter a God who opts for the poor. God does not opt for the poor out of paternalistic compassion but in order to make clear that God stands in solidarity with those who are sinned against, the victims of all systemic injustice, those who are taken advantage of, and those made vulnerable. Indeed, the mission of God that Jesus understood and pursued was a mission of realizing the reign of God with those considered the last and the least, the sinners and outcasts. To that extent, he rejects power and privileges, identifies himself with the poor, takes upon himself their vulnerability and allows himself to be broken and crushed. These were the people who formed his first community, witnessing to the hope of the coming reign of God that Jesus thus inaugurated. The mission of the church, therefore, begins with the mission of God that Jesus lived out among the poor and the marginalized.

Second, it asserts that God's mission is beyond the churches' interests in safety, stability and expansion, but expresses itself in contexts of struggles for dignity, justice and life for those to whom these are denied. It is not only their suffering but their struggles to overcome the unjust, and life-denying forces that hold their life-worlds as places of witness for the saving and transforming grace of God. In other words, the mission of God is not to build the church but to transform the world through affirmations and actions of courage and hope. Their assertions point towards the possibility of discovering church as an event of liberation and transformation, and in the happening of mission.

Third, it argues that mission is not acts of charity or of binding the wounds of the victims. It is about exposing the sinfulness of the world. Mission is action that confronts the forces of evil that deny and abuse life, and transforms situations and people so that the purposes of God for God's good creation may prevail. Through this affirmation, marginalized people not only assert their understanding of mission but also their privilege of participation and call others in the church and elsewhere to join them so that God's will may be fulfilled.

Fourth, by holding mission as proclamation of good news of salvation in word and deed, it underlines that mission is not a mere narration of the story of salvation in Jesus Christ alone but prophetic utterances, speaking truth to powers and holding them accountable. Jesus, through his own life, message and hard choices proclaims that mission is a vocation in risky obedience. He rejects the temptations of easy access to power and glory but opts for hard ways, the way of the cross. This is mission in Christ's way, the mission of the marginalized people, and the mission of God for a new, just world!

The following theological reflection is the result of the collective work of Dr Beverly Mitchell, Professor of Historical Theology, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC., USA; Ms Carolyn Thompson, Consultant, Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network, Boston, USA; Rt Rev. Dr V. Devasahayam, Bishop in Madras, Church of South India, Chennai, India; Dr Luiza Tomita, General Secretary, Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, São Paulo, Brazil; and Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, Programme Executive, World Council of Churches, Geneva, Switzerland. Following their first meeting, which was facilitated[1] by the Just and Inclusive Communities Programme of the World Council of Churches at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland from 15-18 June 2011, the draft statement was further enriched with contributions from Dr Wati Longchar, Dean, SCEPTRE, Kolkota, India; Ms Maria Chavez Quispe, Consultant, Indigenous Peoples, World Council of Churches; and Ms Sydia Nduna, Programme Executive on Migration Issues, of the Just and Inclusive Communities programme of the World Council of Churches.

Deenabandhu MANCHALA