Friday, November 16, 2007

"Mission" as Neo-Colonialism?

I spent the last two and-a-half weeks in Europe, meeting most of my staff and co-workers and beginning to become acquainted with some of the local lay leaders of our church across Europe. It was a tremendous tour, and a lot could be said about it. But there's one thing in particular... (of course).

My denomination is just starting to talk about "mission" - and has even re-named regional administrative units "Mission Centers." But the "Europe Mission Center" has consistently declined using that term in reference to itself, preferring simply "the Europe church." You see, Europe has had enough of "mission-talk."

Europe is made of of former-Empires: the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Russia, and so on. To their credit, when they look at their histories, even discussion of their respective "Golden Ages" (when they were at the peak of their imperial expanse) is trimmed with shame at the arrogance of imperialism and colonialism, embarrassment for their exploitation and oppression of other peoples, and a self-consciousness about even historical talk of military, racial or ideological superiority. To the European Christians in our church, "mission" sounds too much like a re-birth of this ancient vice.

Mission and missionaries are language that harkens to a period in Christianity (specifically European and American Christianity) where "civilization" and "European-style Christianity" were considered the same - and the spread of "our culture" went hand in hand with the gospel and the sword. Religious conversion (or corraling) was most often the first step in economic expansion, likely in the form of exploitation of labor and resources, if not outright slavery. Mission was the destruction of native sensibilities and structures, and the imposition (forced, if not voluntary) of North-Atlantic norms.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's something powerful about contemporary "missional" Christians attempting a redemption of that term - actually turning it on its head, meaning to serve those disadvantaged and oppressed, and taking place largely outside of official organizational structures. There is something powerful about converting the tools of the oppressor into ones that serve liberation. But there is also danger there that, in our eagerness, we might overlook.

Remember that even those most colonial of missionaries likely thought of themselves as serving the people they met. Civilization and the gospel, after all, were in the best interests of everyone - from the perspective of the missionary. The question we are now able to ask about that time period is did those missionaries (and armies and businesses that followed) have the right to determine what was in the best interest of another people? And is it any surprise that they determined that their own way of thinking and acting, their own values, were the superior ones that needed to be brought to those poor heathens, by carrot or stick or lash? It is easy for us to point to those years and those motives and eye them with suspicion. But are we so able to look at ourselves with the same critical eye?

Consider this. "Mission" talk has taken hold first and foremost in the United States in the last five years or so. This is at the same time that the United States has been talking about itself as an empire, even considering itself (favorably in some cases, unfavorably in others) the new Roman Empire. Is there something in imperial politics that draws the church along? Or is it simply a matter of people talking who hold both discipleship and citizenship?

Have we North American Christians unwittingly embraced a revised ("kinder, gentler") imperial theology? Are we assuming that our values are the values that should be universalized and normative? (Don't we think that, surely, the world would be better if it adopted our way of thinking?) We may not be as culturally imperialistic as our forebears, but that is something to watch out for. And could it serve as a distraction from prophetic discipleship to focus on patchwork social justice without working toward a larger, revolutionary system?

I'm just throwing these ideas out there. Honestly, I'm a missional Christian. I'm just starting this discussion in my head. So I'm less prepared than many to identify the imperialistic qualities of my theology. Perhaps in this way I actually do need Christians and people of other faith persuasions to push back against me. Perhaps, for my own sake, those whom I would convert must first convert me.

That seems to me the only way out. But again, I may be narrow-minded here.

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December Scriptures: Not Your Usual Christmas Story

"In North America, December marks the start of our annual frenzy of conspicuous consumption, and churches often counter the market’s hijacking of our feast day with poor substitutes: charity and triumphalism.

"The scripture passages for these weeks do not support our holiday evasions. While sometimes hopeful, the verses are neither cozy nor celebratory. Certainly we find stories of Jesus’ birth, but they come amid news of prisons, lions, vipers, swords, armor, and genocide. The lections’ strongest themes are of justice, violence, and the role of prophets.

"Over five Sundays the lectionary takes us through seven books spanning eight centuries, and we engage with some of the best-loved passages in scripture: “A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1); “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6); “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Matthew 3:3); and “my soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:47). The dominant texts are Isaiah, the book from the Hebrew Bible most quoted in the Greek Testament, and the gospel of Matthew, the book in the Greek Testament that draws most often from the Hebrew Bible. In a complex interplay, the texts read each other, we read the texts, and the texts read us and our times.

Read the whole article and commentary
for each Sunday's scriptures online at Sojourners.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

"religious people"

I forgot to post last week, but hopefully this will be an entertaining enough post to make-up for that. - Shannon

religion dropdown

So I've been thinking lately about what it means to be a "religious" person. I decided, sort of on a whim, to put up a profile on the lavalife and "plenty of fish" dating sites. Mainly I did it in order to try and meet some potential dates, since the pools I normally swim in are a little on the thin side when it comes to potential mates. What I have learnt from this online dating experience so far is various and entertaining, but I want to just reflect on one aspect: the "religion" drop-down field.

Now, there are various ways by which one might classify oneself on social networking sites (I'm speaking broadly here of not just dating sites but other networking sites like MySpace and Facebook): by which schools one has attended, by profession, by location, by interests, by tastes (in music, film, tv, books), but by far, for me, the most fascinating category is that of "religion".

Let's start out by saying this: I think I definitely have to call myself a religious person. I figure since I am actually an ordained minister in a church, there is really no way of pretending that I don't find some value in organized religion or identify somehow with organized religion. But here's the funny thing, when I signed-up for lavalife, I was reluctant to choose a religious affiliation from the drop-down box provided on my profile page. Weird, eh?

I think partly the problem is that if I choose one from the box, the closest one is 'christian - other', which just seems to be strange. Why can't they just put 'christian' and leave it at that? Or just put 'religious', and if someone wants to know more, they can ask. The 'non-religious' field-choosers don't have to specify what type of non-religious person they are, so why the pigeon-holing of us religious types? And then what about hybrid types? Yes, I'm christian, but I come from a strange little denomination, and I find value in the teachings of Buddhism, and I really enjoy the way the Hare Krishna folks worship, and I really love the traditions and practicality of Judaism, and I also find just being in the outdoors to be a profoundly religious experience, and not just in a Christian 'creation spirituality' kind of way. So what am I? What drop-down menu selection ought I to choose?

facebook religion

I like the fact that Facebook, instead of having a drop-down box where you must select from a list, instead just has a field where you can fill-in whatever you'd like, I think that is a little bit better for being able to specifically articulate what one believes in such a personal area, and for the longest time on there I have been "Christian, Process Theology, Community of Christ".

But on the dating sites the choices are limited, so I picked "other". Not "christian - other", just "other".

And I had a couple of messages. Two of which asked what kind of grad student I am. Hm. Now there's another good question. So I told them I studied theology, and in relation to this bit of information they both asked "so, are you a religious person?" Yes, I am a religious person, but - and this is the key part - I really wanted to say "but I'm not THAT, kind of 'religious' person". I'm not the shove-it-down-your-throat type of religious person, I'm not the you're-going-to-hell type of religious person, I'm not the let's-pray-together-on-our-first-date type of religious person.

And so after those two awkward questions, which I pretty much just avoided answering, I changed my profile. I selected "christian - other", in order to avoid that question in the future. And yet I'm not necessarily even particularly comfortable with that, because I don't want to get messages from, get this, THAT kind of "religious person". And I am also afraid that someone might avoid even sending me a message, out of fear that I am one of THOSE kinds of religious people!

Perhaps I am over-thinking this and really I'm just not ready for the world of online dating sites....

But because of this little identity drama I have been reflecting on what it means to be a religious person. Is it merely because I have a card in my wallet that says I'm an ordained minister? Is it because my name is in a computer database at church headquarters on the list of "members"? Is it because I have studied theology? Is it because I go to church every Sunday? I ask these questions because there are plenty of religious people who do all of those things and are also judgemental, self-absorbed, destructive, unloving, and I don't think any of those latter qualities are marks of a truly "religious" person.

I'm reading a little book right now called On Religion by John D. Caputo, and he has some very interesting things to say about what religion and religious people ought to be about. He says things like "religion is for lovers" and says that religion is not such a singular thing as it is often made out to be, but is instead a bunch of ways people have come up with to love God. And "anyone worth their salt" says Caputo, ought to love God.

There are points that I don't meet Caputo on precisely, but much of his general thesis appeals to me, namely that the focus of anything we want to call "religion" ought to be love. And not just love of self or friends, but love of God, the world, and everyone.

And so on Facebook, the one place where I can freely say what I wish about what I believe, I now say this:

religious views lover

I think anyone "worth their salt" can see these religious views in me once they get to know me, and I think I will just have to trust that as I meet new people, my "religiousness" will speak for itself, and I won't have to explain it away, nor squeeze myself into a little box.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Face to faith

All faiths must accept pluralism if we are to defuse strife caused in the name of religion, says Jay Lakhani

The Guardian
Saturday November 3, 2007

Not long ago, interfaith dialogue in this country was based on the idea of "tolerating" other religions. This was clearly a derogatory attitude, suggesting that other religions had to be given permission to exist. The dialogue has since moved on and is now framed in terms of "respecting" other religions. This may appear to be a more mature approach suited to the needs of a multi-faith society, but in reality this terminology is a camouflage, shielding an exclusivist, non-negotiable agenda of the Abrahamic faiths.

Read the whole article at the Guardian.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

New Book: EMPIRE

Reading the Christian Theological Legacy for a New Day

The radically altered situation today in religion, politics, and global communication—what can broadly be characterized as postmodern and post-colonial—necessitates close rereading of Christianity's classical sources, especially its theologians.

In a groundbreaking textbook anthology from Fortress Press, Empire and The Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians, twenty-nine distinguished scholars scrutinize the relationship between empire and Christianity from Paul to the liberation theologians of our time.

The contributors discuss how the classical theologians in different historical periods dealt with their own contexts of empire and issues such as center and margin, divine power and social domination, war and violence, gender hierarchy, and displacement and diaspora. Each chapter provides insights and resources drawn from the classical theological tradition to address the current political situation.

Kwok Pui-Lan is William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at Episcopal Divinity School.
Don H. Compier is founding Dean and Professor of Theology at Community of Christ Seminary, Graceland University, Independence, Missouri.
Joerg Rieger is Professor of Systematic Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

First Images from Rotterdam

"Groenezoom" is the street where the Rotterdam church and the church's apartment is on. The slideshow (click on the pic) is a few of the first images from the church, apartment, and surrounding area - for those interested in a more personal look at our future.