by Si Johnston
Christianity has sided with all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an idea of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself. Friedrich Nietzsche in his book "The Antichrist"
It was on studying genetics at university in Scotland that I understood the concept of 'phase growth'. There have been eras in the emergence of our world and universe when growth seemed to happen at an accelerated pace. Consequently, there appears to have been more sleepy moments punctuating the historical timeline of evolutionary theory, and thus we have phases of growth and phases of relative dormancy.
Actually, this pattern shouldn't really come as a surprise to us. Take the growth of our kids, or, if you're like me and don't have any, yourself. I went from being the second smallest guy in my year at school to being one of the tallest over the course of a summer. I distinctly remember coming back to school and having my English teacher ask me if I'd stood in a bucket of manure for the summer. Those of us reading this in the northern hemisphere can look out of our windows and see summer's life perish into winter's death as the seeds of potential new life are scattered, whereas our friends in the southern hemisphere are witnessing sensational abundance. And so the examples could go on. But what of church and mission? It's clear, particularly in the Old Testament, that life with God for Israel ebbed and flowed. There were moments when great gains were made and promises were being fulfilled, and yet there were many moments of apparent abandonment, exile, and despair.
So what of us today? Is the emerging/missional church on the cusp of a season change in regard to mission? Many in the UK are asking this question by looking back into the past and attempting to trace God's direction in the alternative worship scene in the hope that it will help us resource the future. (For example, there is a national gathering of mission practitioners is scheduled for 24th, 25th and 26th February in Manchester to collectively explore the direction God might be leading us.) In the US some have recently voiced a desire to see the emerging church move beyond the foundations that now seem to be in place. Sivin is yet to fill us in on Malaysia and we all know that the antipodeans have nailed the shape of things to come.
I really can't write about how the global emerging scene is faring when it comes to justice in mission. I have done life with some communities on both sides of the Atlantic and, thanks to my news aggregator, am able to keep an eye on our small corner of the blogosphere, but I don't see a huge amount written about it. Have we bought hook line and sinker into British Telecom's jingle “it's good to talk” and talked ourselves impotent, or are we so busy 'doing it' that we don't feel compelled to write about it?
This morning I read a newspaper article about a new play called 'My Name Is Rachel Corrie', showing in a London West End theatre. Rachel was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip on March 16, 2003. Why? She had been trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes and wells. Just before she was killed, Rachel wrote an e-mail to her parents and said, "I look forward to seeing more and more people willing to resist the direction the world is moving in, a direction where our personal experiences are irrelevant, that we are defective, that our communities are not important, that we are powerless, that our future is determined, and that the highest level of humanity is expressed through what we choose to buy at the mall." As you'd expect, her words have been a spur for change. But it is more than her words that intrigue me, it is her action. It was not the going to Israel per se that was laudable, but in becoming that human shield, she finalised the movement from the known to the unknown and the journey from the safe to the dangerous. Essentially, she took a risk.
I'd like to think that mission involves risk. I say that sitting in a rather pleasant house surrounded by lush green fields on the north coast of Ireland on a mild autumnal evening. Hardly pushing boundaries! But as I read the pages of the Old Testament and the New Testament, I see biblical characters who are far from risk averse.
The selfish gene is about preserving oneself. Nietzsche's insight is helpful here; Christianity is intrinsically opposed to self-preservation. In other words, it's a lot about risk and even generating antagonism or violence (cf., Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Amos, John the Baptist, Paul etc.). For many of us, emerging church and alt.worship began as self-preservation. It was a way of sustaining yourself and your faith against the constraints and oppressive forces of wherever or whatever it was we left. No doubt, even from the beginning, much of the time our emerging communities were also missionally driven as demonstrated through contextually sensitive worship over and against previous expressions. However, when measured against the recurring theme of mission as justice and protest on behalf of the poor throughout the Old and New Testaments, how are we doing? Are these as the backbone to mission making our A-Z self-descriptions or Wikipedia explanations?
In light of the fact that demanding justice for the poor and oppressed is central to the nature of God, how biblical is our missional theology? You might want to take a moment to reflect on this in light of your own community (assuming you're not a subscriber to the churchless faith).
A few months ago, a friend of mine recently entreated me to some thoughts that have been banging around my head ever since. Greg got up in the community collective and unpacked some of his reflections on Jesus and the paralytic in Luke 5. (Greg Russinger’s book on hospitality is due out in 2006 which will include these thoughts written better than I’ve relayed them.) Who brought whom to Jesus? Was it the four who brought the one or the one who brought the four? Greg suggested that it was quite possibly the one who brought the four and yet we always read it the other way around. Without the paralytic, the four wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the in-demand Jesus. So when Jesus turns to the disciples and says "the poor will always be with you" whilst sitting at table with the leper, is it because somehow, for some reason, they (the poor) get to Jesus first? Is this the strange and mysterious world of the kingdom of God? Gustavo Gutierrez writes that "this Gospel proclamation that convenes a church flows out of a decision to side with the interests and struggles of the poor and exploited classes in a real and active way." It is here I hope and think that we might be seeing a move into new phase growth.
I have found that daily exposure to grinding poverty and human suffering can strip faith down to outright cynicism. This is why our local community is essential, but if our local community is not a collective activist or protester, then however creative or new media savvy our worship is, it's a non-starter.
Missional theology or protest theology is not about getting published, or festivals, or kudos; it takes us out of ourselves and our circles into the world in an informed way. In spite of the fact that there will still be human rights abuses, it seeks to understand those that exist in a bid to bend the ears of policy makers in order that they might do something to effect change. In spite of the fact that there will be another environmental disaster beyond Katrina and Kashmir, it will see groups sending one of their doctors or builders there to give an extra pair of hands. In spite of the fact that another set of teenagers will give their lives to old causes as if they had just discovered them, it will see us more stable in our disillusionment because a victory in bringing justice will likely only ever be partial thus keeping us ever vigilant.
Some have said to me that the emerging church isn't about big campaigns, rather it's about small actions in busy lives. I agree and am encouraged to hear that, but why aren't we telling more stories about these actions? And we tell them not so as to draw attention to our own minor triumphs, but to give ideas and inspiration to others recognising that our own attempts in isolation are always beautifully incomplete. However, these small actions shouldn't mitigate against more extensive engagement motivated by compassion and a humble acceptance of the consistently emphatic invitation to respond to human suffering and injustice.
Herein lies the risk, and the risk for us as a collective; the movement from safe to dangerous ground. But, if a biblical missiology teaches us anything, it'll teach us that when we get to the poor, Jesus might already be there. And he will teach us that the poor don't become a target for our projects, or a problem to solve, but will sit with us at table, become our friends, and lead us to himself. We need them to help us emerge into the next phase of growth.
God lead this author beyond rhetoric and mere speech to action. Amen.
Si Johnston formerly of headspace in London, now resides in northern Ireland and is a baptist minister/car salesman/blogger - www.sijohnston.com. He co-designed Protest4 which is launching the 'The Truth Isn't Sexy Campaign' in March 2006 and is currently working on a book on justice/protest and human trafficking. In a recent press release regarding the campaign on human-trafficking he writes:
“People trafficking is the human rights crisis of the twenty-first century. The only way to stop the traffickers, who move faster than governments and are more flexible than NGO’s, is through collaboration between every agency, group and individual that believes slavery is wrong. Together we need to inform and influence social and political attitudes. As the 200th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery, 2007, approaches, together we need to acknowledge that the problem hasn’t gone away, it’s gone underground. Together we need to build enough momentum to create a global change and say, once and for all, that people are not property.”