Vinoth Ramachandra has had links with All Souls for quarter of a century – and he and his wife Karin have been mission partners for many years. So it was a joy to have them join our staff meeting last week, while they were passing through en route between two conferences before heading home to Sri Lanka. One of the things that was often said of John Stott by those from the ‘majority world’ (including Vinoth) was that he was very good at genuinely listening to their perspectives and concerns, rather than following a paternalistic, one-directional relationship.
So in that spirit, Hugh asked Vinoth to speak about what he perceived as the blind-spots of the western church.
Vinoth does not pull his punches – but he spoke in a very constructive, if challenging, way, and we all found it a stimulating time. So I thought I’d post a few of his thoughts here.
Having come to Christ simply through reading his Bible as an older teenager, he therefore shared none of the assumptions or divisions imported by missionaries to Sri Lanka. Having been a student in London, during which he was a member of All Souls for a few years, he returned home to Sri Lanka to find that many of the challenges he now faced had never been addressed by the British church: e.g.how do we handle acute poverty, should believers join in a political revolution, should they fight in a civil war etc etc.
What hequickly realised that the traditional evangelical go-to-books were not much help. He gave a grimly hilarious example from the New Bible Dictionary. He looked up ‘poverty’ and found only a cursory, half page article. Then he noticed that he previous entry was on pottery – which extended for over 3 pages. An unfortunate ratio – and not a little revealing.
So here are the 3 Blind Spots which we should do well to take seriously and rectify
1. Justice is not essential to our gospel
It is interesting how many English translations render dikaiosunē as ‘righteousness’ most of the time – and of course in certain contexts that’s absolutely fair. But what this does is to overlook the many more occasions when ‘justice’ would be more accurate. French and Spanish translations, for example, don’t make that judgment. So this is perhaps one contributory factor for this blind-spot. Another would be our relative comfort and the reliability of most western justice systems (at least by comparison with those in the majority world) – we don’t think we necessarily need God’s justice so badly.
It wasn’t always like this in Western evangelicalism, of course. The Clapham sect were very clear on its importance. But many of our churches have lost it. I found that our years living in Uganda profoundly challenged my old assumptions in this area and forced me to take a much more integrated approach.
2. Disunity is not scandalous to us
We are so quick to draw our boundaries and create our shibboleths. We believe in unity but only within very narrow parameters. While of course not advocating unity at all costs, it is staggering how strong the New Testament is about the unity of believers. So a chapter that is as crystal clear on the wonders of the gospel as Ephesians 2 seems only to be half-read by western readers. We stop at v10. But the second half of the chapter is a profound challenge to our individualism and lack of corporate concern.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily entail organisational or structural unity – but it does challenge us to a greater degree of mutual openness, association and sharing of resources. As Vinoth put it, “if you’re not willing to do this, then you’re not ready to be baptised.”
3. Mission is not what the western church does abroad.
For 2 centuries, mission has been what the western church has done for the rest of the world. We have the resources, personnel, and, above all, theology and ‘know-how’. But that’s no longer the case. We no longer have an empire, and nor should we. The global church is a global southern church – and we have MUCH to learn from the rest of the world. In fact, the American and British churches need to get real about how things really are in our own backyard before jumping to ‘solve’ other people’s issues. It’s perhaps harder for American churches because the USA has been globally dominant for most of the last century – it’s hard for the churches not to carry through the same attitude.
This is one reason that at All Souls, we no longer use the term missionary. Everyone is a mission partner – regardless of whether they work 500m or 500 km or 5000km away from All Souls.