There is a fine line between global-sized passion and totalizing imperial zeal. When that fact goes unacknowledged by Christian movers and shakers, we have a problem. A serious problem.
The former is motivated by a clear sense of the world (in all its created beauty, complexity and variety) as a divine gift. It is His world, and as such, is our home for sure, but one to enjoy as privileged guests rather than customers with rights.
The latter is derived from presumption, both to being right and to having responsibity.
While the old ‘noblesse oblige’ of ‘l’ancien régime’ undoubtedly resulted in some with privilege using it for the benefit of the less fortunate, they were probably the minority. Unfortunately, that culture has bequeathed dark legacies that remain to this day, even if they are harder to spot than they once were.
Yet even acknowledging complexity here carries risks. In the self-righteous reductionism of contemporary ‘cancel culture’, the idea that the legacy of imperialism might be mixed (rather than wholly and irredeemably evil) is suddenly contentious. As if saying “X aspect or Y event might have had a positive influence” is a statement that denies all the horrors. Which is patently absurd in all but the most diehard reactionaries.
It’s surely a matter of working for historical nuance. Because ironically enough, it’s often when some of the positives are placed alongside the prejudices and exploitation that the latter can be seen for their true barbarity. That someone capable of X actually sanctioned Y? Like getting your head around the SS camp commandant lost in sublime Schubert lieder one moment, then taking potshots at prisoners the next.
Likewise, trying to discuss the history of church missions today is fraught. Can anything good have come from it? Much entrenched ignorance is spawned on this front, not least the lack of awareness of how it was missionaries, often in the face of colonial obstruction, who insisted on the dignity of indigenous people and on preserving 100s of indigenous languages. See my brief profile of Lamin Sanneh, for example. But that’s not my point here. I simply want to bring up what is for many evangelicalism’s most objectionable feature.
1. Kingdom or Empire: so what's it to be?
If we return briefly to David Bebbington’s evangelical quadrilateral (as quoted in the first in this series), the emphasis on personal responses to the gospel (rather clunkily termed ‘conversionism’) has fuelled global mission for perhaps the last 300 years or so. For example, it is little remembered that the Clapham Sect (of Venn, Simeon, Wilberforce, Hannah More et al), was as concerned for people’s spiritual renewal as it was for political reform and justice. [In fact, the assumption that one can separate them off from each other is an enlightenment fallacy, but it’s a divorce all too prevalent in evangelical circles, with the usual result of churches abandoning one or the other. But that, yet again, is another story…]. Theirs was no parochial vision; their dogged commitment to slavery abolition went hand in glove with their passion for global mission. Their contention was simple: just as nobody should be beyond the reach of justice, so should they never be beyond the reach of grace. And who can fault them? So thousands upon thousands heeded the challenge to up sticks, often (usually?) at great personal cost.
Inevitably, various patterns of European mission took shape. But the archetype so often was the ‘mission station’ (as has often been pointed out, a contradiction in terms since the former word is dynamic, the latter static). Even when we lived in Uganda in the early noughties, several still existed, albeit in reduced or adapted forms. Back in the day, intrepid pioneers would head out ‘into the bush’ and set up in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. A station would then evolve into a hub primarily for 3 things:
- a hospital (to share the benefits of western medicine)
- a school (to share the benefits of western education)
- a church (to share the benefits of … er… western (?) religion)
So far so good. The motivations were often benign and well-intentioned. But it’s not exactly rocket science to see why so many found the arrival of Christianity hard to distinguish from an ingrained culture of white rule. As Abp Desmond Tutu liked to joke:
It was much more complicated than this, of course, and Tutu knew it. But the power imbalances were profound. To be reluctant to enjoy one of the three mission station benefits (in church, say) might inevitably undermine your access to medicine or education. How could it not? The terms were stark; the hands gripping all the reins, clear. The white man’s burden was evidently not for sharing. Good was done, but the mindset too often was imperialistic.
The problem is, despite protestations to the contrary, the attitude has not really gone away. I’m not talking about overseas enterprise since this does seem to be declining in the UK (though Eddie Arthur is far more expert on this than pretty much anybody at the moment). I’m talking about an uncomfortable aspect of evangelical subculture. We might take some comfort from the fact that in this country we don’t tend to fall into the obvious trap of naming our ministries after the leader (something that RZIM is having to come to terms with right now). But that doesn’t prevent British forms of Christian celebrity culture, or a gravitation towards strong leaders with ministries crafted in their image, or loose(ish) networks that nevertheless wait on every nod from particular movers and shakers. It’s hard to ignore the bitter flavour of small-scale imperialism. Empire-building in all but name.
Now, notice what I am and am not saying. I’m not rejecting the notion of having a shared vision for developing new ministry, or for planting a church, or for trying to be coordinated and strategic in how to meet needs in a local area (whether spiritual, social, physical or other). It is a matter of who owns the vision and, more unnervingly, who controls the vision. Or to put it another way, does it serve God’s kingdom or build a person’s empire? Perhaps it’s a mixture (because our motives are always mixed, are they not)? But even so, shouldn’t we always anticipate, and therefore plan for, an ongoing process of rooting out the latter in favour of the former? Again I can only throw out a few diagnostic questions for now:
- How dependent is the vision on one (or a few) individual(s)? Of course, that is not a problem in itself, especially as things begin. But how about in the mid- to longer-term? Do those individuals resist changing or sharing or handing over the vision?
- money (along with the ‘money-men’) play in the vision because with money comes power? Whoever pays the piper always calls the tune, we’re told. That’s certainly how the world works. But it is all too true in the church, isn’t it? Does wealth automatically render someone spiritually mature? Put like that, of course, it sounds absurd. But I don’t think we stop to think about it enough. Now, I know of a number of remarkably generous (what we might call mega-) donors and they do have maturity and insight that shouldn’t be ignored. But that’s not my point. I sometimes worry that ministry and missional agendas and priorities are almost exclusively set by donors.
- How do these ministries and projects (which may well bring unique characteristics and gifts to the wider community) relate to others? What is the rhetoric about those who are different (especially when they are so similar as to be barely distinguishable)? Does it breed a them-vs-us mentality? Surely that is more likely in a human empire than a divine kingdom mindset?
But we must move on. For while leaders might well have a genuine and legitimate heart for inviting and serving all and every person they cross paths with, there is a bit of an undercurrent. Some of the recent scandals have shed light on it.
2. All invited but only usual suspects chosen? Who holds the reins?
Let me repeat. While it was never perfectly adhered to, inevitably, the professed commitment behind world mission was that all human beings, wherever they live and whatever their race, are made in God’s image and therefore to be included in all kingdom invitations. Without exception.
This is why it is so agonising, if not actually abhorrent, for churches and their leaders to manifest prejudices that do make exceptions. Of course, this is rarely explicit policy, not in our egalitarian age. Still less would it be acknowledged in public teaching. Quite the reverse.
Now, the tightrope to navigate here is very tricky in the current climate. Language is constantly shifting and so meaning is fluid. A word like ‘inclusive’ will connote all kinds of different things, especially now it’s become a political signifier. It seems to me that a biblical approach is to be resolutely inclusive because God’s kingdom is; which means being inclusive of all people and types in our gospel appeal to trust in Christ AND inclusive to all in our gospel call to repent to Christ. As Bonhoeffer warned us. Grace must never be cheap.
The problem is that there are some who implicitly regard inclusivity as some kind of worldly agenda that denies a need for personal surrender or change. Which is pretty weird, because I’m pretty sure that inclusion agenda in its original form derived from God. See the bible passim – not least this subversive little cracker:
Sure, people can do some funny things with that one, but the plain meaning is plain – Christ shows NO PREJUDICE of any sort. And nor should his people. End of.
So let me ask a few questions that trouble me [and before anyone points it out, I am all too aware that, yes, I am a super-privileged, white, Anglo-Saxon, privately educated doctoral student, male with friends in high places (secular, ecclesiastical and international) who in 50 years has now enjoyed the kind of opportunities that few even dream of. Yup, I’m one privileged brother]:
- Why does the British church still seem to mirror British social divides so closely? Especially when it comes to leadership? And evangelical leadership in particular? Race is a profoundly entrenched boundary marker in UK society, but if there anything is even more entrenched it is surely class. Don’t misunderstand. People can’t be faulted for having privileges, only for failures to recognise those privileges and then making kingdom use of them for the sake of those who lack them. It is not even necessarily wrong to work with others of similar background; but what surely is suspect is the attempt to ensure (perhaps in the guise of seeking ‘trustworthy and faithful gospel co-workers’) that it is always the same type of person who leads. We have to at least question how much our backgrounds have formed our assumptions, presumptions and prejudices. The scary thing is that they will have done so to a considerable degree.
- So a question I find myself returning to is this: in the immediate social context of a local church, who are the marginalised? Who are struggling at the bottom of the social ladder? Are they represented in a local church? If not, is there a way of reaching out to them? If they are, how precisely do their roles in the church mirror those they might have outside it? If, for example, there is a particular immigrant group in the neighbourhood, they will probably be doing the menial jobs like cleaning, deliveries, night-guarding. If they do the same thing in church and nothing else, in what way can the church be said to be different from the world? If such folks are regularly overlooked for mentoring or for a toe-dip into ministry waters, there must be something awry, mustn’t there?
- Why is paternalism still so rife, towards churches outside the big city centres, and then beyond, to churches in other countries? What makes us think we have a monopoly on both truth and practice so that we always know what should be done? As if we are the ones uniquely entrusted with influence elsewhere? Of course, we have an amazing heritage, with generations of experience and resourcing to draw on, as well as the old imperial networks to exploit. All can be used for good. And there have been, and I hope will continue to be, great ones who serve and love in the most extraordinary ways? And some of them have been quite posh! But why the presumption that only certain types have it in them to be in charge? A side-effect, of course, is that those who are not ‘the certain types’ live with perpetual insecurity which leads to trying even hard to be that type, rather than accepting who they are; with sometimes very grim consequences. An extreme example cropped up a number of years ago, while I was on the faculty of that small Ugandan seminary. I’d heard about a British church leader discussing a seminary they were supporting in another African country by sending a couple of workers there. In the course of drumming up support for this vision – a friend who was there and heard it – this leader said that, of course, the seminary in question was the only place in Africa where the Bible was being taught properly! My first reaction was to feel a bit miffed because I thought I was doing a reasonably proper job of it. But my second thought was to be aghast at such absurdity. Apart from the impossibility of knowing such a factoid, it revealed a profoundly dangerous, but alas common, mindset. Unless they do things like I do, and unless I know about it, it can’t be good.
I could go on. But I worry (again perhaps because of the 5 mores) we are blind to the prophetic demands on scripture on the wealthy and powerful are being conveniently overlooked in churches. After all, it only takes a cursory read through the letter of James to throw up some very awkward questions.