catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 12 :: 2006.06.16 — 2006.06.30


Good News to the poor

Of all the world’s religions, only Christianity and Islam actively seek converts, and both have long histories of violence.  One wonders if this is mere coincidence.  Thus, it is from a position of caution that I view concepts such as Christian mission and evangelism to the poor.  Yet during our stay in India, I cannot deny that there were many times I saw the result of broken social bonds in need of some remedy: in the face of a little boy begging at our car window, in the slouch of an old woman huddled over a street fire or in the canvas-covered forms of each of the thousands of men, women and children sleeping along the roads. Bryant Myers, in his text Walking With The Poor writes:

The poor are poor largely because they live in networks of relationships that do not work for their well-being.  Their relationships with others are often oppressive and disempowering as a result of the non-poor playing god in the lives of the poor…Their relationship with those they call ‘other’ is experienced as exclusion.  Their relation with their environment is increasingly less productive because poverty leaves no room for caring for the environment.  Their relationship with the God who created them and sustains their life is distorted by an inadequate knowledge of who God is and what God wishes for all humankind…Loss of hope, opportunity, and recognition mar the identity of the poor.  Racism, ethnocentrism, and ostracism erode the intended blessing of having many cultures…At the end of the day, the causes of poverty are spiritual. 1

Indeed, Myers aptly names the afflictions of the people we encountered along the streets of Calcutta, Jaipur, Agra, Delhi and Raipur.  And if we accept his claim that the root of poverty is spiritual, then it might be fair to assume that the remedy will be also.  But what does a Christian version of this cure look like if it is to have integrity and be grounded in what Bishop J. Waskom Pickett calls, “Golden Rule Evangelism"? 2 By offering a brief distinction between evangelism and mission, examining the ultimate goals of missionary efforts and addressing the modern dilemma of inadequate theology in the face of pluralist societies, I hope to articulate a version of faithful service and mission that incorporates the radical hope offered in the person of Jesus while simultaneously honoring the unique dignity and location of those who claim another story.

Often the words evangelism and mission are used interchangeably, yet I think a distinction is helpful and necessary if either of the words are to be redeemed for subsequent generations.  Evangelism is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as, “the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ; militant or crusading zeal.” 3 The historical memory of coercive westernized domination evoked by this single word has led some, including global missiologist Bryant Myers, to opt for a less loaded expression, in his case, Christian witness. 4 On the other hand, it is helpful to define mission distinctly in its own right as a word that still bears functional promise for those who use it with clarity and intention, retaining a particular independent meaning in multiple contexts. For my purpose, I define mission as a visible vocation of service.  

Within our conversation while in Jaipur, author and theologian Narendra Singh was quick to remind us that mission is irrevocably linked with “God-intended openness” toward those we encounter and that the key components of mission activity must always be held simultaneously in dialectical relationship: proclamation and dialog; universal and particular gospel implications; social action and verbal witness; immanence and transcendence.  Maintaining these dualities requires evolving spiritual maturity and discernment that is not always evident within the easy formulas of evangelism as it has been commonly understood. 

Likewise, as Christians are compelled to visible service on behalf of neighbor and enemy, the complex role of missionary proclamation arises.  For some, this might mean a compulsion to share without invitation an absolute truth that eclipses the values and beliefs of the listener.  Here again, Singh was careful to state another tension that must be honored in pluralist dialog.  That is, there often is a Divine presence at work already in the existing religious realities of those we meet which demands our willingness to not only speak of how we experience God (when asked, I would usually add), but also to inquire with an expectation to receive, how others experience God as well.

When I think back to our India travels through the lens of potential missionary promise, I would be remiss not to reflect on the various maladies, stigmas and eroded connections that some people needed to be delivered from.  Certainly what the little girl playing box-piano for rupees outside the Delhi market needed salvation from was very different indeed from what impedes my own spiritual growth.  In this way, salvation takes significantly different shapes depending on one’s location.  But saved to what?  Good News in the form of perfectly packaged certainties, a relationship with Jesus and a ticket to heaven—a message of “making it better” in the end—are simplistic and dangerous expressions of salvation for those whose realities demand much more of religious promises. 

Narendra Singh defined salvation as being set free from things that move us away from God.  He went on to add that salvation is Christ as the center of Life.  Myers named a related goal of transformational development as recovering, “…our true identity as human beings created in the image of God and to discover our true vocation as productive stewards, faithfully caring for the world and all the people in it.” 5 There is a sense that salvation, when made particular and when personally appropriated, is the continuous act of letting go of a false self, constrained by false and malignant barriers toward a realization of our full humanity as children of the Divine. 

Throughout our trip, we saw many of these falsehoods being obliterated as patients with leprosy were given new tools and training for walking, working and communal participation; as young men and women were taught creative and functional trade skills for self-sufficiency; as poor women underwent a transformation within cooperative walls from dependent students to independent teachers.  In the best of Hinduism and its practitioners, for example, we see this fullness articulated as Siva dances in a ring of fiery creation and destruction, bringing the Divine to the center and trampling ignorance and ego underfoot. 6 In the best of Christianity, as well, we see Christ as a perfect central representation of what full humanity looks like, knowing that if all lived as this Son of Man, the Kingdom would be here now.   This type of godward moving salvation—not simply an immediate cure nor an eventual release—speaking of gradual and continuous liberation from the false to a true self—toward an image of wholeness, humane living, hope and compassion—is one worthy of proclamation when invited to share and can be found in unexpected places when we are open to hearing it. 

The Christian proclamation of Good News, that we have been shown full humanity in the person of Jesus, is only half of the story when it comes to mission.  Humans still have to do the work of appropriating it.  Unfortunately, many evangelistic activities have been content to stop with a Gospel message, leaving communities with an overly “thin” 7 theology that is incapable of truly moving one toward deeper relationship with others, with the Divine and with their own experience of reality.  In The Road to Delhi, Bishop Pickett highlighted this very problem when he criticized the lack of church follow-up during mass movement evangelization, leaving converts without communities or leaders to shape their continued development and education. 8 Conversely, Narendra Singh pointed out that the result of open dialog between spiritual practitioners should lead to a mutual examination of conceptual and traditional components between religious systems. 

But how many evangelized populations, like those mentioned by Pickett, have been given the theological tools or literacy to conduct the conversations suggested by Singh—to ask difficult questions and to comparatively contrast revelations between religious texts, personal experience and dogma?  It seems a major consequence of global conversions is the creation of populations unable to do the labor of “thick” theologizing which is needed for authentic pluralist dialog. 

One wonders if we do not destroy the uniqueness of our own tradition and the intellect of its courageous followers by perpetuating a watered down message of personal salvation through Christ’s death that leads to heaven for the individual.  Is this the full import of the story of Jesus’ resurrection?  Did Jesus only die so that we could make good choices and go to heaven?  Or is the Christian narrative telling us that Christ was killed because the world is terrified by the message and potential reign of God that comes when we live into our full humanity? 

The language which accompanies mission, if it is to be shared, cannot abandon the fact that salvation is an ongoing process of personal appropriation within community.  Proclamation should not be content subsisting on pie-in-the-sky promises but requires of its believers the difficult examination and honest appropriation toward the transforming reality of becoming Christ-like (and even perhaps Buddha-Like or Brahman-Like).  We do ourselves no favor by cultivating seeds in thin soil, and in fact, damage the great depth of all traditions by leaving followers with shallow theology and skills to get on in a complex world of human experience and relationship.

As I wash the last scent of India out of my clothing and pack away my memories and mementos, the experiences of people and places continue to reel through my mind, and I recall many occasions in which I thought to myself, “if only…” If only I could put this girl in school.   If only this mother could get her son to a doctor.  If only these people had subsidized housing.  If only there were a sanitation system.  If only people would reach out to these untouchable children.  If only the caste system would truly disappear.  In my mind, I had numerous potential solutions to improve the lot in life for the many marginalized people we came across.  From my vantage point, it seemed I had many resources from which I could and should give for help and hope.  On the other hand, I often found myself, with full knowledge of my riches and access in the world compared to the people of India, wanting to refuse an offer of kindness: an apple, a song, a dance, a ride,  a hair clip, a seat, first place in the food line, the last chapatti in the dish, a touch to the forehead in respect.  I fought the urge to decline what I felt was an unaffordable excess to the giver that I did not really need.  It felt somehow wrong for me to take more from people who have less, be it tangible, social or relational.  And I think there is a lingering lesson in that for me, as I reflect back on our tour, remembering one young woman, offering a gift to me with the commanding words, “Do not refuse me.”  So I didn’t.  And her words ring in my ear as if they were those of the Christ himself. 

There is a danger in always approaching the world with what you have to offer it, be it mission or religion, money or friendship.  Giving to others and forgetting that we are also meant to receive is the essence of arrogance and exclusivity.  Working to “save” others and forgetting that those same people might well point us toward our own work of salvation, is the essence of atheism and power gone awry.  Perhaps this is partially what Myers meant when we he wrote of the broken social bonds of the disenfranchised, “Their relationships with others are often oppressive and disempowering as a result of the non-poor playing god in the lives of the poor.” 9 Playing god can indeed be an overt abuse of position, education or wealth, but in its more common and insidious form, it more likely the inability to give as well as receive from those whom we deem in need.  It is more likely the inability to talk as well as ask and listen to those whose social and spiritual realities we deem inadequate.  It is more likely the inability to expect that we might be the ones in need of salvation from our false selves even as we proclaim saving news to those bound in their own illusory shackles.  To avoid this arrogant misappropriation, our efforts in mission, when defined with intention and clarity, must include mutual openness and sincere dialogue—a willingness to minister when asked and be ministered to from the unlikeliest of sources.   Those who participate in visible vocations of service must not be content with simplistic answers to complex realities, but must point to the ongoing appropriation of communities to move through any barriers that keep their members chained in faulty identities to the liberating promise of being true children of the Divine. 

And lastly, the difficult theological work of healthy, educated and evolving Christ-centered networks must never be traded for gaining converts with thin religious formulas.  At its core, this latter method of evangelism destroys the compelling nature of the very message it hopes to spread by simplifying the living narrative’s ability to speak to complicated and timeless realities that cohere with human experience.  As we face the increasing plurality of our world, we indeed need Christian adherents capable of conversing with and listening to other practitioners from the depth of their tradition; capable of examining the revelation of religious system in light of broken relationships, injustice and inequity; and even capable, perhaps, in their best form, of being shown the centrality of Christ, illuminated from unexpected places, light coming forth from what was previously thought to be only darkness.  

1 Myers, Bryant L., Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999) p. 13.
2 McPhee, Arthur G., The Road to Delhi: Bishop Pickett Remembered 1890-1981 (Bangalore, India: SAIACS Press, 2005) p. 175.
3 Merriam Webster Online, viewed on 26. January 2006 at
4 Myers, p. 4.
5 Myers, p. 3.
6 Fisher, Mary Pat, Living Religions 5th Ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002) p. 106.
7 Attributed to Miroslav Volf: terms “thin” and “thick” religion, Radio Interview with Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith, Minnesota Public Radio, 11March2005.
8 McPhee, Pp. 219-25.
9 Myers, p. 13.


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