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Challenges of mission in a pluralistic world

Reflection of Wong Wai Ching Angela on Challenges of Mission in the Pluralistic World at the WCC Central committee, 2003

02 September 2003

World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 3 September 2002

 Challenges of mission in a pluralistic world

 (for Asia Plenary)

Wong Wai Ching Angela
Member of Presidium of CCA

Today, you gave me two “big” subjects for reflection: first, the challenges of mission; second, an understanding of the pluralistic world. Of course, the two are in no way separated. Yet each of the two subjects carries with it a “tradition” of debate and discussion that has in many ways generated much misunderstandings and conflicts. Mission is a “tradition” dating back to as old as the birth of Christianity. For us, “mission” has been the fundamental concept that gave rise to and has continuously to fuel the modern ecumenical movement despite controversial and conflicting applications. But the same applies to the perception of a “pluralistic world.” One can trace back to as early as 1966 World Conference at Geneva where one of the four themes was: “Living Together in Peace in a Pluralistic Society.” Indeed, as soon as Christians congregate as the Church, plurality is a fact.1 David Gill, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, quoted an observation made by Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, at the Fifth Assembly of WCC, that such a gathering of world Christians is “a sociological impossibility.” (Carino and True 2000, 15) Just take a quick glance at the materials that have been produced over the years by the ecumenical bodies, international and regional, both “mission” and the “pluralistic world” are themes that have continuously fed and shaped our agenda. Therefore as I prepared for the topic today, I could not help wondering about what is there should be said have not already been said more than a dozen times.2 Two recent excellent volumes on “Christian Mission and Plurality” are jointly produced by Council of World Mission and Christian Conference of Asia in 2000. See Wickeri’s editions below. This is my challenge.

I. Challenges of Mission

According to J.A.B. Jongeneel and J.M. van Engelen, a turning point in the history of mission was marked in 1963 by the Mission Conference in Mexico when a negative evaluation of secularization was taken over by a “yes to the secular’ (Verstraelen et al. 1995, 438). For since then the reality of the world has become the center of missiological reflection of the ecumenical churches. Over against the earlier models of evangelization of the whole world, modern understanding of mission is most represented by the phrases of “presence,” “humanization,” “dialogue,” and “liberation,” etc. In Asia, Kim Yong-bock (1982) defines God’s mission as the suffering people of Asia; Marlene Perera (1992) asserts that mission is to inaugurate the reign of God among human beings; and Prakai Nontawasee (1989), a former president of CCA, sees mission in terms of mutual solidarity, meaning the work of enabling a meeting of different souls and persons, and allowing for the lives of people to be touched by one another.

Today the churches, whether they professed to be ecumenical, evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox, have largely left the model of mission as proclamation and conversion in their literal understanding. This is not to say that churches over Asia, for example, no longer organize evangelical campaigns or revival meetings; in fact, many of our young Christians are still asked to take up conversion as their top priority mission. Every summer in Hong Kong, hundreds of mission teams are being sent by the churches to the remote countryside of China for their evangelistic exercise. What I mean in my previous statement is that all churches on the institutional level are coping in one way or the other with the questions of many contexts, many religions, many cultures and systems of values—what we call pluralism or the effects of globalization. Rather than proclamation alone, all churches are exploring in their own ways a different understanding of “Christian witness.” Besides preaching Jesus as the sole savior of human sin, they also begin to address human sin in the structural complexities of our world, and start ministering the socially poor and marginalized of our societies in their contexts.

While Asian Christians were among the first who challenged the imperialistic and militant mission that did not touch ground at the Edinburgh conference in 1919, I do not see the present “battle” in mission theology an antithesis between “mission as evangelization” and “mission as action.” After three decades of serious reflection and action, I think I can boldly say that we are on a better ground to seek a more integrative approach to mission as being Church together. The challenge before us lies less with another round of asserting mission beyond the evangelistic agenda, but rather whether there could be a sustaining Christian mission/presence/witness in the world by a concerted effort of the diverse churches. If Letty Russell (1992) is right that missio Dei is the basic source of human unity, the challenge of mission to us is not so much about finding the meaning of the cause of God (missio Dei) today but how we, Christians from around the world, appreciate our different ways of living out God’s mission in our midst and find that unity in our given diversities.

II. A Pluralistic World

Let me move to my other big subject of today. There has been much talk about post-September 11 world lately. As the date is approaching, United States is tightening up yet again its security measure. The post-911 world of “America and followers” is still very much marked by Samuel Huntington’s characterization of a war of clashed “civilizations” between “us and them.” The over three decades of persistent call by Edward Said for tolerance and radical multiculturalism continues to find its place only among the shelves. At the same time, thousands of families of the 911-victims and of victims of the Israel-Palestinian conflict are struggling still to recover from the loss of their loved ones and wondering whether the sacrifice of their lives serve some purpose. It seems that the tragedy last year demands us to look squarely into pluralism again in a given “new” context.

Yet long before 911 there have already been in Asia years of big and small rivalries and conflicts among and across people of different religions, ethnicities, geographical boundaries, economic and political affiliations. There are more recent rivalries between Christians and Muslims in Ambon Island. There are the recurrent conflicts between the government and the various local groups and among the communities themselves as a result of the coercive creation of modern states such as the case of Aceh in Indonesia. Similar situation occurred as the colonial power retreated from South Asia and left Kashmir tragically divided between India and Pakistan, and that Sri Lanka continues to suffer from the internal war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Consequently, only the case of Sri Lanka alone accounts for the loss of about 100,000 human lives and the displacement of 800,000 people from their home of origin. There is no single cause for each of these cases (Poerwowidagdo 2002). Political exploitation of ethnic, language, and religious identities by positions of power is only part of the story; the continuous manipulation of former colonial influence is another. And human frailty, miscommunication, and material competition together only aggravate the difficulties. There is no easy way out to lay blame in one or the other source of the conflicts.

What is it new about human rivalries and conflicts that we do not already know before 911? How would our acknowledgement of pluralism again at this moment help? I think if pluralism is only a way to name our reality in its increasing scale of human conflicts and rivalries, it is just another word in the ecumenical dictionary. For me, pluralism does not denote an increasing scale of diversity, because diversity and its accompanied conflicts have always been there, whether ancient, modern or postmodern. I suggest that we look at it from the depth of the problem. One definition says well: pluralism is an ideological tenor. If plurality describes a fundamental incommensurable difference between two or more parties, if a conflict as such arises is deemed to be irresolvable for lack of a single rule of judgment (Lyotard 1983), plurality is more than a description of reality. It describes an attitude of accepting difference and diversity across a very broad possible range of value and practices in different cultures across diverse communities. It does not only join Marxist, feminist, postcolonialist critique of class, gender, imperial, racial, and religio-ethnic oppression, it is also an exercise of freeing from fixed positions or judgment, and refraining from seeking universal or totalizing explanation of people and the world.

The movement of contextualization during the seventies led us to look into the well of non-European cultures for new light. Among them, Asia is always believed to be a cradle of many cultures, “co-habit” and grow together on the same land. Unfortunately Asia might be pluralistic by fact but not particularly pluralistic in the way I described above. An example in case is Malaysia. It is one of the countries claimed to be multicultural par excellence because of its very location and history. While the country’s population is composed of three major ethnic groups – Malays, Indians and Chinese – plus a few others, the drama of “us-versus-them” is being put up all the time. While the largely Muslim Malays are everything but one united community, they all organized themselves against some “foreign” others. Last year, while the Prime Minister Mahathir blamed foreign cultures for the country’s increased rate on rapes and murders; the newly formed Malay Action Front who criticized Mahathir for his leadership style attacked Chinese activists for their call to end preferential treatment of ethnic Malays. In their words, such a call is a “spat on the face” and by all means Malays should remain masters of the country. In this case as well as the prevalence of many other conflicts, Asia is no exemption from intolerance of the “others.”

Elsewhere I have suggested the paradigm of being a wanderer and the imagery of water for finding the always on-the-move space of resistance to nurture such a spirituality of radical openness and acceptance. However, I am not going into the theological explorations of them today. But for me, pluralism necessary involves a deep questioning of ourselves, with our neighbors who are most different from us, why and how we are going to live together on one planet.

III. An Ecumenical Mission Today

There was the time when the Church was demanded to reflect on the theology of revolution, a challenge brought about by Christians of the formerly colonized world including Asia at the Geneva Conference in 1966 and WCC Uppsala Assembly in 1968. The period has not been easy. It has caused great tension among the various confessional churches and within each of the confessions. But as Paul Abrecht rightly comments, it has also been the most creative and daring years of the ecumenical movement (Carino and True 2000, 263). Many fruits have been yielded as we find the emergence of networks of non-governmental organizations first initiated by the various ecumenical churches. At the same time, we are still recovering from the various levels of division caused within the body of the world Church, such as the division of North and South, East and West besides our creeds. Conflicts and even rivalries persist.

What are important are some recent emerging models of intervention by the churches into the complexities of community conflicts which demand only more utilization of our spiritual wealth. Just last week on ENI, more than 2,000 Indian Christians wore white ribbons on their arms to attend a church gathering in Ahmedabad, the commercial capital of Gujarat state. On the same day in Bangalore, a city in the south of India, over 500 activists led by the convenor of the Global Council of Indian Christians organized themselves into a human chain wearing white ribbons on their hands. The protests were directed to recent communal killings in the western state of Gujarat. White ribbons stood for their determination to seeking peace and reconciliation among their communities.

In the same week, the news of the return of some Tamil refugee families to their original home at Kanniya was reported. It was a return after 12 years of being forced to leave. What is significant is the role played by the Methodist Church at Trincomalee. Acted as the key intermediary, Rev. Satkunnayagam Sylvester Terrence, the Methodist pastor went through several rounds of discussions with the Sri Lankan army and leaders of the Tamil Tigers. Together they finalized one of the first permanent rehabilitation plans for those displaced by the conflict. While the Army cleared the mines in the lands to be re-occupied by their original owners, the Tamil Tigers brought the families back to Kanniya from the refugee camps at Trincomalee. At the same time, the NCC of Sri Lanka of which the Methodist Church is a member granted 11,000 rupees (US$ 115) each for the 30 families to buy daily necessities and to erect temporary shelters. Grateful to the efforts of the church, a senior army official in Trincomalee sincerely addressed the people’s indebtedness to the church for her “delicate peace mission.” This is only the beginning of a fragile mission.

These great efforts of bringing peace have been most of the time defeated. So difficult that the officials of the Latin Patriarchate claimed that only faith in the Almighty could stop more suicide bombings in Palestine. There are fears and suspicion everywhere generated by communities in rivalries, often reinforced by opposing political powers for fear of loss of control. Many people engaging in these peace processes know how difficult the reconciliation could be and how fragile is the little result temporarily achieved. This is precisely what is required of us as religious communities and that we have to work together for the very grave demand on us.

Like Ruth of the Hebrew Bible who brings reconciliation between Moabites and Jews is often seen as betrayer on the one side or a natural addition to their dominant power on the other. Her active agency as peacemaker is not appreciated but rather easily abused. A real peacemaker must be able to empty herself of an absolute position, a willingness to venture into new understanding of opposing voices and contradictory experiences and afford to loose everything before she could arrive anywhere. To be able to play such a role requires from us that from among “incommensurable” differences is a belief in a common goodness; that the best future of humanity and all creation lies in our being able to live together with each other in one world. That we would be able to see the interests of the others as ours, and that their fate and our fate belong together. This requires us a radical openness and acceptance to people about whom we know very little, or upon whom we build all different conceptions. This demands not only a re-understanding of our world but more fundamentally our faith and our God; that the mission of God lies in human unity.

The Indian philosopher and historian, Raimundo Panikkar, sees pluralism as existential acceptance of the other as the other, i.e. without being able to understand or to co-opt her or him. C.S. Song stretches it further asking the work of Christians to be checked against the well being of the others, asserting that our theology cannot be said to be sound until its results are tested by people of other traditions of faiths.3 Quoted from Rienze Perera’s “Religion, Cultures and Peace: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism and the Common Life of Asia” (Carino and True 2000, 112-113). Pastor Terrence of the Methodist church says it well, to make the cease-fire of Trincomalee meaningful to the displaced people, they must experience the peace process in their lives. For us, to be agents of very difficult mission in bringing peace to communities in conflicts, we as Christians from “impossibly” diverse traditions must bring peace to our own families and experience peace in our own lives. Mission is not some kind of tasks we perform out there.

There is one Taiwan folksong I learnt first as a love song and later as an ecumenical song sang during my SCM days which says very well about unity. A summary of the lyrics goes as follow:

There is you and there is me
Like two vases we break into pieces
Mixed again with new mud and stirred in some fresh water
Again as two new vases we stand
There in you and there in me
are both mixture of you and me.

Existing boundary is broken, new elements are added in. Each becomes an incomplete piece but of a bigger part of the whole. This is what I believe how ecumenism started its journey of mission and how it should continues going.

1 David Gill, the former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, quoted an observation made by Margaret Mead, an American Anthropologist, at the Fifth Assembly of WCC, that such a gathering of world Christians is "a sociological impossibility". (Carino and True 2000, 15)
2 Two recent execellent volumes on "Christian Mission and Plurality" are jointly produced by Council of World Mission and Christian Conference of Asia in 2000. See Wickeri's editions below.
3 Quoted from Rienze Perera’s “Religion, Cultures and Peace: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism and the Common Life of Asia” (Carino and True 2000, 112-113).


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