This Saturday, June 5th, at 7 pm we will celebrate our belated 25th anniversary at Global Scholars Canada. It is going to be a little subdued, in part because it is not in person but on Zoom (all are free to join, just send us a note and we’ll send the link!)
We delayed the celebration by a year (thus +1 in the title), hoping that we would be able to host some sort of modest banquet and give thanks for two-and-a-half decades of God’s faithfulness. But COVID lingers and so we celebrate from our homes. The one advantage is that people can join us from around the world—something I think we will do at future celebrations even if there is a banquet setting here in Canada.
There is another reason for being a little reserved about the affair, and it’s not that our own organizational history is stained by scandal or failure. It is not, thank God. In fact, some really good and faithful work has been done by divine grace that has equipped thousands of students for vocation and ministry around the world. Our partnership with Global Scholars (USA) and the Society of Christian Scholars multiplies that legacy significantly further. There is certainly reason to celebrate.
The Christian Question
In the West, however, there is a growing assessment of the wider legacy of Christian mission that may subdue any celebration of global missions because it indites missionaries for their part in colonization, enslavement, and the cultural and racial genocide of countless peoples—a terrible legacy that is said to be the direct cause of global geo-political injustice and strife to this day. This narrative is no doubt the dominant narrative about Christianity on our public university campuses across Canada.
I cannot begin to do due justice to the story of the 215 bodies found on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School just this past week. Linked to the Roman Catholic Church and the federal government, it’s a devastating finding of shocking proportions. It is significant to us, because it involves Christian mission and the education of indigenous peoples—something we are invested in on a global scale.
In fact, I note that a PhD is being defended through the Institute for Christian Studies this week by Dean Christopher Dettloff which suggests this could be called “The Christian Question”—an allusion to the infamous Jewish Question pre-Holocaust (and see its complement, The Muslim Question in Canada, a book by Abdolmohammad Kazemipur). Really, these are not references to a question as much as a problem. These religious/people groups were/are considered a problem that needed solving and now the same irate approach is turned on Christianity.
This is both disconcerting and ominous and deserves more response than I can write about here. It appears that Dettloff’s dissertation ends with lots of nuance, but the abstract shows the title “Christwreck: An Accidentology of Christianity” and includes this phrase: “the invention of the ship is also the invention of the shipwreck.” Not knowing all the layers that Dettloff unpacks in his research, this phrase suggests good ships can flounder, crash, and burn, and that maybe the ministry of Jesus since the 1500s in the West at least, has been one such casualty. A good ship that came to bad ends.
I do think Christian missions need to answer to this accusation—and to be clear, this is something that Dettloff himself is attempting to do. We need not justify ourselves—there are higher powers that will judge us for our work–but we are accountable to our constituency and to the wider world we purport to serve. We need to own our failures and repent as any good Christian should. As we look ahead to another 25 years in GSC, if God would grant it, I’d like to lay out a chastened missiology that gives good reason for continuing the mission, and to do so with gratitude and joy. As I have blogged elsewhere, the ethic and era of a one-way, top-down patronizing “West to the Rest” is over, and we are working out a new posture and politics in our work—one poised for reciprocity, gift-exchange, and a polycentric orientation.
Before I lay out a few points, I would like to draw attention to the now classic 1986 British film The Mission. Based on historical events, it dramatizes the complexities of Christian missions in the 1700s in South America. The film shows that on one hand, the stories of civilizing white missionaries blessing primitive peoples with education, medicine, and spiritual hope are indeed caricatures that overlook the shadow-side that was mixed in with colonization and slavery. On the other hand, the revisionist renderings that overlook how many missionaries resisted the colonizing and enslaving military-political powers are likewise skewed and biased. This movie highlights the complexity of many overlapping and competing forces, and even the differences that lie within each. Consider it one helpful window into the dark diversity of our past.
Navigating Post-Colonial Waters
In light of the problem stated above, here are a few points that mark our current work and will do so into the future:
- Lament: We continue to confess, lament and repent of Christian complicity in not only atrocities, but also any actions or discourse that did not honour the inherent dignity of the image of God in the diverse peoples of the planet.
- Christ, not Christianity: Jesus Christ is our governor, guide and goal—not Christianity—and we continue to seek his kingdom and his grace, as we reform, correct, and reshape our faith and its traditions. In fact, our encounter with other religious orientations has intensified our self-reflection and potential for transformation into the likeness of Christ’s kingdom. Our mission is to follow his cruciform path towards the healing, education, and liberation of all people who invite us into their lives and cultures.
- Polycentric: The simple fact is that we are no longer “the West to the Rest” in our operations: we are polycentric and transnational–what some have described as “from everywhere to anyplace.” We have a Korean professor with Canadian status teaching in The Gambia; a Congolese professor in Ottawa teaching Africans on-line; a Cyprian lecturing and publishing from Canada in Brazil; the list is longer than this, but you get the point. The flow of traffic is much more complex today.
- Accountability: We believe that the work we have done and continue to do reflects the ministry of Jesus, and has not be forced upon any people but rather welcomed and appreciated by almost everyone. We continue to evaluate and revise our approach as we go forward, and we know that there are more places that would welcome us than we can visit. The needs remain larger than our ability to address them.
- Indigenous Empowerment: Finally, our goal has always been empowering indigenous leadership. We serve where we are invited to come, not to create dependencies or set up pipelines for leaders to come to us, but for leaders to be equipped and sent within their own contexts for service that lends itself to the flourishing of human life and the planet.
I believe this continues to be a worthy mission—chastened by the shadowed legacy we are constantly reminded of here in Canada, but sharpened for a better, more Christocentric and shalom-spreading vision. If we think of Christianity not as one ship, but as many ships, while it’s true many have ended in a wreck, there is plenty of evidence that many continue to sail true to the wind of its original Spirit. We continue to correct our course, navigate through the storms, and re-tool our crew for the work we have been welcomed to do. The captain continues to call us, and there are goods to distribute with judicious generosity around this broken planet.
Christ’s own mission, after all, centres on redemption. Early in the film The Mission, Rodrigo Mendoza, the mercenary slave trader who killed his brother, says to the primary priest character, Father Gabriel: “For me, there is no redemption.”
Father Gabriel replies, “God gave us the burden of freedom. You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose your penance?”
Our mission can be in part our act of penance for the sins of other past mission organizations. So we celebrate our quarter century as a young transnational ministry, but with a joy sobered by a legacy we wish not to own. We must now be the servants of our global brothers and sisters, serving them with the gifts we still have, and accepting their gifts—including their forgiveness—in return.