Jesus, the church and mission

This essay is based on two assumptions, 1/that mission is central to responding to the call of Jesus and 2/ That the institutional church has neglected the centrality of Jesus’ call to mission and constructed modes of social engagement that have no resemblance to the mission of Jesus as presented in the bible.

Rev. Graham Paulson, a respected elder, pastor and theologian, has written an essay entitled “Towards an Aboriginal Theology” that urges Aboriginal Christians to approach the bible from the perspective of their own culture and spirituality instead of the perspective of the European missionaries. Apart from a traditional protestant approach to biblical authority, Rev. Paulsen argues, the European missionaries’ context of Pacific colonialism needs to be taken into account when understanding the theology of the white Australian church.

Rev. Paulson’s essay uncritically accepts European Christianity to be appropriate and proper for European Christians and he focuses on the agenda of Aboriginal Christianity.

However in this essay I challenge the appropriateness and properness of the historical forms of the European Church, especially in Australia, as an agency to manifest the mission of Jesus. I propose a different framework for mission.

The point at which the church betrayed the mission of Jesus was the point at which the tribal indigenous spirituality of the bible was turned into the official universal religion of the Empire of Rome. This is a fascinating history that I will not deal with now except to identify it as a historical landmark in the development of European Christianity.

What is the mission of Jesus? The best answer I can give to this is the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

Luke 4:  16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18″The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Apart from identifying a clear and explicit social agenda of poverty, freedom, blindness and oppression, this proclamation of Jesus clearly locates him in the Old Testament tradition of Isaiah’s prophecy of liberation from foreign domination and Moses’ cyclical restorative jubilee law. The Jubilee year of Leviticus 25 is the festival of the returning of land to original tribal traditional owners and the elimination of all debt and bondage. The Jubilee has to be understood in the broader Sabath laws which were the framework of indigenous self government in the land of Abraham’s covenant.

I suggest, when the bible is read from the perspective of poverty, ill-health, oppression and foreign domination, especially within a tribal indigenous framework, then its meaning will be radically different from the perspective of the top of the hierarchy of economic and military empire.

I ask two questions, 1/ What perspective of the bible dominates the Australian Church today – indigenous poverty and oppression or the religion of empire and mainstream privilege? and 2/ What was the perspective of the bible writers, in particular their representation of the mission of Jesus?

I have drawn my conclusions which are that Jesus brings good news for the poor but the historical church, including in Australia, has not. It has brought some other kind of news.

Today, the church seems to have two notions of mission, sometimes but not always connected. That is evangelical proselytising and welfare/charity.

I am a big supporter of proselytising. There is a clear biblical mandate for such mission and the reality is without it the church will die (is dying). My concern however is the church’s evangelism has been predominantly the “some other kind of news” previously mentioned. Good news for the poor does not seem to be preached but the happy news of relief from personal guilt and anxiety is.

The church’s welfare and charity functions are the closest thing to good news for the poor on its agenda and this is what I want to explore in a bit more depth.

There is an opinion that the modern church is separate from the state. In many instances of the church’s life this is the case – a positive separation from the history of alignment of church and empire. However in the area of mission the church has sycophantically conformed to the welfare templates of the state. In most cases the church operates as an outsourced management structure to administer state funding for state programs designed within state policy frameworks. Churches sometimes provide supplementary resources in the form of minimal donations or significant volunteer support but all within mainstream state constructed welfare paradigms.

The church’s service to the rich in the form of private hospitals and schools is similarly constructed totally within state frameworks including funding.

In general, the congregations have absolutely nothing to do with church welfare programs. The staff of the welfare programs, being employed for their job skills alone, have nothing to do with the congregations. Mission has been reduced to an agenda item of church management and delegated up the right channels of state rather than an active process of social engagement into which congregations and individuals are called.

The welfare paradigm shared by church and state is just a bandaid methodology that entrenches people into lifestyles of poverty. It is a process of administering the poor and has nothing to do with liberation, nothing to do with personal or structural change. It is just the provision of the resources necessary to prolong the problem until tomorrow when the process starts again.

The welfare paradigm is a clear power hierarchy where the social worker and their employers are totally in control of the process. They designed it, they manage it and they make all the decisions about it. The very definition of what the problem is that the welfare agency is responding to, is a construction of the welfare agency itself. The poor are powerless recipients of what the social worker chooses to offer them. Beyond nutrients to survive until tomorrow, the poor are not empowered, liberated or healed through engagement with welfare programs. Nothing changes.

So what is the alternative?

The tradition of liberation theology that emerged in South America and the Philipines in the 1970s and 80s – and abruptly repressed by the artist formerly known as Ratzinger, offers an alternative paradigm to welfare. Apart from the centrality of liberation for the oppressed, Liberation theology emphasised the importance of the poor being the agents of their own liberation. The middle class and wider church had an important support role to play but the leadership and authority of the movements for social change must lay with the poor themselves and not with self appointed advocates within the rich world. The modus operandi of liberation theology was the base christian community movement whereby house-churches amongst poor communities not only met for prayer and worship but also to deal with the political issues of the community including defence from and resistance to oppression. The church directly empowered the poor, it was their own agency.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa, a researcher on African aid issues, along with others produced a report in 2005 into aid paradigms entitled “The poor philanthropist: How and why the poor help each other”. The report identifies a notion of “horizontal philanthropy”.

Horizontal philanthropy recognises that mutual aid is a common characteristic of poor communities. Although they have little resources to distribute they have existing natural and organic systems of distributing resources. They are the point of greatest understandings of problems and opportunities on the ground.

The report identifies the problem of “vertical philanthropy”, that is traditional aid structures based on foreign or extra-community intervention, can tend to undermine and obstruct natural and organic local processes and in some cases operate in contradiction to their objectives.

The report calls for a systematic intersection of vertical and horizontal modes that can facilitate both the generosity of external philanthropy as well as the empowerment and resourcing of local philanthropy.

This intersection of vertical and horizontal philanthropy is, in my opinion, the nub of constructing new modes of church mission.

This nub (I love that word) is not the intersection of state funding and grass roots poor agendas, although the church can certainly provide innovative leadership to state policy in this regard, but it is the intersection of the church itself and the agendas of the poor, independent from the state and its policy frameworks.

While it is true that the church’s financial capacity to tackle the needs of the poor is dimensionally less than the state, this is no excuse for the church to abandon the biblical principles of economic redistribution inherent in the jubilee tradition and the story of Jesus telling the rich young man that he must sell all he has and give it to the poor. Economic redistribution is a central element of Jesus’ good news for the poor and it cannot be avoided by rich christians and their church.

What this redistributive principle means in the lives of individual christians is not my business or the church’s. This is a private matter with God. The church can and should facilitate and promote options for individual christians – and others – to redistribute wealth. This need not be simply donating money but could also include partnering in economic development projects that benefit the poor.

On the other hand, what the church does with the common wealth of the body of christ, the assets held by the church, is a matter that should not only be open to public discussion but, ideally , would be a light on the hill providing direction for others.

Perhaps the real estate presently used to provide private hospitals and schools for the rich could be put to some other use. Perhaps church investment strategies can be designed to utilise capital assets, such as housing the homeless or investing in economic development in Aboriginal communities, rather than invest them in the stock market or property development for minimal (and recently negative) cash flows to pay staff to cater to the needs of the middle class church.

If the church wont invest in the poor, what integrity do the various church social justice agencies have in calling for the government to do so?

But even if the church, or some collective within it, decided to dedicate resources to the poor but simply replicated the hierarchical disempowering modes of welfare, then nothing has changed. Unless principles in accord with liberation theology and horizontal philanthropy are the platform from which good news to the poor is delivered then the church, however innovative, will still be the privileged, self appointed advocate of the poor rather than an agency of the poor.

There are two aspects of Jesus’ mission that are absent from church mission paradigms and are not able to be addressed by state welfare paradigms, that is prophecy and eschatology.

A church that designs its mission in accordance with state funding guidelines and is dependent on state funding for its existence is in no position to engage in prophetic ministry, of calling the people and authorities back to God. This mode is not capable of any innovation beyond tinkering around the edges of the status-quo and is certainly not capable of incarnating an alternative vision – they would be defunded immediately. They cannot criticise government policy as that would be biting the hand that feeds it. The church needs to step outside of the state welfare machine and, with whatever limited resources it can muster, both build alternative modes of mission and prophetically call governments to engage in different modes to the illusory and dysfunctional status-quo.

Jesus mission was undertaken with the urgency of the imminence of “the end times”. While the church seems to think that this is yet to come, Jesus explicitly said it would occur in the life of the new testament witnesses – and it did! In 70 AD the Roman military genocided Israel and smashed the temple. Acts and the epistles clearly document the persecution that Jesus spoke of. Jesus’ eschatology involved imminent catastrophe in real, material, historical terms.

The “end times” came to Australia in the genocide of the nineteenth century and incarceration in reserves in the twentieth century and the associated destruction of sacred places. A whole culture, lifestyle, law and consciousness came to an end – just like what happened to the Jews during the time of the writing of the new testament. For many communities in Africa a big drought has meant the end times as starvation or refugee migration wipes out entire cultures. For hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Maralinga, the end times came half a century ago.

The ecological crisis, in particular climate change has made the rich world aware of the imminence of global catastrophe. But the rich are always the last to realise there is a problem. Climate change is already the end times through drought in Africa, floods in Pakistan and the flooding of small Island nations.

The rich are horrified about the recent oil spill of the coast of the U.S. but are barely aware of the pollution in the Amazon and Indonesia by oil drilling or pipelines resulting in the end times for communities dependent on clean waterways. The hypothetical future crisis that the rich have just discovered has been genociding the poor for a long time already.

The church can and needs to, but doesn’t, address mission with an eschatological urgency that reflects the perspective of the poor who are being genocide by the rich. Instead the status-quo seems to reflect the perspective of comfortably numb affluence and a boiling frog gradualist approach such as household water and energy conservation, drinking fair trade coffee and participation in band aid welfare programs, things that mainly resolve the anxiety or religious obligation of the rich but offer little good news for the poor or the fragile global ecology in real terms.

John Tracey

“Making common cause with the poor” – the Liberation Theology of Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff

Building Community Philanthropy
Interview with Susan Wilkinson-Maposa, co-author of “The Poor Philanthropist”.

Building Community Philanthropy (Full report)

“Towards an Aboriginal theology” by Rev. Graham Paulson


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