Plenary on Christian identity and religious plurality

Prof. Dr Assad E. Kattan is professor in Orthodox theology at the Wilhelms-University in Münster

Thoughts of a Protestant missionary 

A missionary's story…

I am a missionary. My father was a missionary, as was my grandfather. I am a Protestant missionary. However, I could just as well be a Catholic or Orthodox missionary. Today it seems that the confession to which one belongs is of no great consequence. For in this third millennium which Christian confession is the most numerous will certainly be far less important than whether Christianity itself can actually set the pace (1).

I am a missionary. My family is almost entirely made up of missionaries. One of my ancestors came to the Near East -where we all later lived - to preach the gospel to the Muslims there. Unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately - the Western missionaries had hardly any success with the Muslims. As a result my ancestors turned their attentions to the local Christians. Doubtless they meant well. They were full of enthusiasm, although at that time they did tend to identify the gospel with the form it had taken in their own culture. Many people in the Middle East today acknowledge that the missionaries have left an enduring legacy, in the form of education, freedom and democracy. My ancestors did mean well, so well that some of them even came to the opinion that only the local Christians could succeed in evangelizing Muslims, for they shared the same language and culture with them. For that to happen, however, the local churches had themselves to be reformed, for in the course of time the gospel had been replaced with many traditions. Particularly the fact that local Christians were attached to images of Jesus, Mary and the saints was considered by my ancestors to be a serious obstacle to persuading Muslims of the self-evident truth of Christianity (2). That is an approach which certainly no intelligent Protestant would have today, since the days of Protestant iconoclasm and Christian glorification of one´s own culture are long past. None the less, my ancestors did mean well. However, they ovelooked one thing: a considerable number of local Christians did in fact consent to be reformed, but few of them had any interest in making Muslims into Christians. Of course, their experience with the Muslims was not always milk and honey. And many of them, who in debates with the West are today attempting to idealize this history, are simply creating a myth that must be demythologized. None the less, despite tensions with the Muslims, despite occasional instances of persecution and massacres, the local Christians were content with their Muslim neighbours as they were. And these neighbours often visited them, not only to be able to have a secret drink of wine with them, but sometimes to pray together with them.

I am a missionary. It is indisputable that our missionary activity has been of benefit to the local peoples of the Middle East, whether Christians, Muslims or Jews. We translated the Bible into Arabic, which resulted in a revival of Arabic language and literature. We established schools, universities and hospitals and thereby comunicated the values of the gospel through people who were inspired by God´s living Spirit. I have to admit, however, that the process of learning was mutual. On this subject I could tell you many things that I have heard from my father and grandfather, but I will limit myself to my personal experiences. As a missionary in the Middle East I have often come into contact with Arabic literature. An Arab Christian has written a beautiful novel in which he refers to a liturgical song that is sung in the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Rite on Good Friday. In the song, Joseph of Arimathea approaches Pilate to ask him for the body of Jesus, with non-biblical words, in which the dead Jesus is described as a foreigner…

Give me the foreigner,
Foreign as a foreigner from childhood
Give me the foreigner,
Killed as a foreigner,
Give me the foreigner,
I am amazed that he is held by death.

What I find striking in this song is that Jesus is perceived as a foreigner, not only on the day of his death - as if all living people had rejected him, as if no alternative were left him but to find hospitality in the kingdom of the dead - but that he is also portrayed as a foreigner from his childhood on. Jesus´ foreignness was thus not dependant on his situation but was a permanent condition. I think that the reason why I remember this image is because being a missionary also means being "foreign". We are foreign, we live in a foreign land, we are peerceived as foreigners. And the context to which we have to relate is also foreign. There will always be an element of foreignness remaining in us despite all our efforts to become part of this foreign world, to familiarize ourselves with it. Jesus, however, who in this song is presented as a foreigner, identifies not only with us missionaries, who in any case live in a foreign land, but also with those people whom we meet and who seem foreign to us, to whatever culture they may belong.

I am a missionary, who - probably like many other missionaries - is constantly wondering what our Christian identity over against other religions means. What is the relationship between one's own perspective and the perspective of others, one's own position and the position of others, one's own belief and the belief of others. And just like so many other missionaries, despite my full trust in the gospel, I have no clear answer, but have an inner feeling mainly of brokenness, interwoven with hundreds of questions, such as ‘Did Jesus reveal himself by concealing himself and did he conceal himself by revealing himself?' I do know one thing, however. When people are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, then they meet the Crucified One. We can draw a picture of this encounter in our imagination... Those baptized are taken to Golgotha. They seek Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, in order to die his death. And what do they see there? On the cross Jesus of Nazareth is not alone. There are two other crosses, one on either side of him, two crosses with unknown faces. Everything happens very quickly - the bitter drink, the abandonment by God, the cry of dereliction. And then all three crosses are caught up into God's silence, like in the Old Testament cloud that accompanied a foreign people through the desert, and was an anticipation of the light of the resurrection. Some missionaries have over the course of time have developed an ability to sense the power of God, which for a moment makes itself known, as at the cross, through silence… in our silence, in the silence of events that have not been significant enough to be mentioned in the history books, in the silence of our failing church institutions, in the silence that comes out of the foreignness of other religions.

It is difficult for us Christians to define ourselves unambiguously. It seems to me, however, that the event of the cross, which we all confess, can put us in the position to include in our identity foreignness, brokenness, and silence. And when we reach that point a door can be opened for the others who are standing outside. Any attempt to determine a Christian identity must never skirt around OR must never avoid taking the way of the cross.