Deconstructing God's Mission

Dennis Cox /

Dennis Cox /

When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:

All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.

While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.

The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.

Why Evangelicals Should Care About 'The Mikado' Controversy If They Care About Reconciliation in the Church

Courtesy of Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society

Courtesy of Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society

In my pastoral counseling class in seminary, the professor played a video of a counseling session of a black couple. He intended for us to learn some lessons on marriage counseling from it, but it turned out to be a laugh fest for the mostly white class. Repeatedly the husband and wife cut each other down with witty insults. My sense is that the couple reminded the students of George and Louise Jefferson from the TV show The Jeffersons. I sat next to an African American student that day and during the break I turned over to him and asked, “Do you find this funny?” He said, “I’m glad you asked,” and proceeded to tell me that he witnessed this kind of behavior firsthand in his own home since his parents are divorced. Needless to say he did not find the video amusing. I encouraged him to voice this to the class, which he courageously did when we returned from break. It seems while the professor intended to communicate one thing from showing the video, it communicated another because of the manner in which the students were racialized. 

I share this story as an analogue to the recent controversy surrounding the production of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s The Mikado — a comic opera written in 1885 as a critique of British politics and institutions, set in distant, mysterious, and mostly made-up Japan. It began with Sharon Chan writing an editorial to the Seattle Times, calling the current production of it by an all-white cast as “yellowface” and “open[ing] old wounds and resurrect[ing] pejorative stereotypes.”  Since then, Jeff Yang has also written an editorial for entitled, “Yellowface staging of ‘The Mikado’ has to end.”  I will not rehearse their arguments here; I write to address why this incident matters to North American evangelicals. 

De-escalating Violence and the Human Story in Israel/Palestine

Image courtesy Jon Huckins.

Image courtesy Jon Huckins.

I was sitting in the airport the other day listening to yet another account of the current events unfolding in Israel and Palestine. Almost mechanically, the lips of the news anchor spilled out words like terrorists, extremist, escalating violence, detention, kidnapping, hatred, protest, etc. It was as though they were telling a story of some otherworldly reality that had virtually no human implications. It was all the stuff we are supposed to hear about the Middle East, so it successfully affirmed stereotypes, assumptions and prejudice.

Hobby Lobby, Rivalry, and Choosing Grace

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shu

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/

It is an identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. ...Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise." 

3 Lessons from Wild Goose: Holy Rest, Holy Mischief, and Holy Reconciliation

Fireflies in the night. Image courtesy Fer Gregory/

Fireflies in the night. Image courtesy Fer Gregory/

From hosting electronic dance revivals and nightly “beer and hymns” to featuring the hijinks of Christian carnies, the Goose sure knows how to let loose. Yet, this holy mischief is often missing in our life and work together. In our resistance to empire and the systems of domination that pervade our life and being, we tend to take ourselves too seriously. For many, Christianity has become staid and void of imagination. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we risked it all like holy fools? 

Breaking Down the Invisible Walls

OVER THE PAST 2,000 years, Christians have found myriad ways to divide the body of Christ. We are now more divided than ever, with more than 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Perhaps, in this context, we are asking the wrong questions. Do we really understand God’s desire for the church to be one? Do we as individuals have a yearning for the unification of the body of Christ? Why do we create the divisions we create? Why do we maintain the divisions that already exist? How can we break through these barriers to heal a broken church?

Christena Cleveland sets out to answer all of these questions and more in her latest book, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a young, energetic, and brilliant teacher, speaker, and researcher in the fields of social psychology and faith and reconciliation. For those concerned with reconciliation in the church, which should be all of us, hers is a voice to take seriously.

In Disunity, Cleveland quickly breaks the ice by poking fun at herself and by pointing to her own personal prejudices and biases that have led to her categorically labeling fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as either a “right Christian” or “wrong Christian.” The reader is immediately able to connect with her and realize the ways in which we have created division in our own lives, whether because of race, gender, orientation, education, location, socio-economic status, theology, or political affiliation. It also becomes apparent why we prefer our homogenous groups.

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A Refusal to Hate: Tent of Nations Family Responds to Destruction of Farmland

Photo via Tom Getman

Photo via Tom Getman

This week’s “10 Best Stories” missed an important news item from Palestine — not about Pope Francis but rather a family that practices what the pope preaches.

Tent of Nations, in the Occupied West Bank, has become a sign of hope over the otherwise fruitless last decades of peace negotiations. Interlocutors have nibbled around the edges of a “two state solution” since the early 1990s with the result that Israel has been able to confiscate vast areas of Palestine. The Nassar family, represented by Daoud and his parents and siblings, have built on their 100 acres a veritable garden of peace. This luxuriant vineyard is 15 minutes from Manger Square, Bethlehem. It has been owned by the Nassars since Ottoman times, and “Tent” has illustrated, what is declared on a stone at its entrance – non-violent action in its most faithful form. More than 7,000 visitors from around the world along with children in summer camps, as well as both Israelis and Palestinians, have been buoyed by the Nassars' 100-year commitment to living peaceable amidst turmoil by expressing biblical principles of loving neighbors, forgiving those who oppress, and peaceful coexistence with their neighbors.

Early on May 19, military bulldozers destroyed 1,500 fruit trees nearly ready for harvest in the valley below the Nassar dwellings. There was no warning of the impending destruction of the trees and terraced land, left in a state of rubble with no hope of being replanted. Daoud said the family was awaiting word on an appeal submitted after military orders to stop cultivation; bulldozers came before a legal response.

Part IV: Identifying With the Oppressor

Over banana beer and fried plantains, we sat around a communal table—us and them. Together with both a victim and a perpetrator of genocide, it seemed impossible. My mind could not comprehend the juxtaposition I was seeing with my eyes—from betrayal into brotherhood, these men came. As they sat beside each other, I felt as if I were watching a live screen play of a fantastical story propagating the ideal picture of justice and reconciliation. But there was no fanfare of propaganda, no idealized sermon—just their painfully honest and vulnerable journey toward friendship. Their presence was humbling and their hearts, full of truth. Every detail of their innermost fears and failures came to life and I was left in awe.

In the various situations in my life, I’ve often asked myself this question: Which is easier—to forgive or to seek revenge? My human nature automatically errs toward seeking revenge—I’ve attempted to “punish” with silence or take away what I formerly gave as a way of protecting my broken heart. In desperation, I cling to what I know is “right.” It’s easier to identify with the victim, but to identify with the convicted? I’d rather not.

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Immigration reform rally in California, Richard Thornton /

Immigration reform rally in California, Richard Thornton /

As we quickly approach Holy Week in the Christian calendar, our attention turns increasingly to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. According to the Gospel accounts, one of the last phrases that Jesus spoke while suffering on the cross is a recitation of the opening line of Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Even Jesus, whom Christians hold to be the Son of God, experienced feeling forsaken by his Heavenly Father. And the words of the Psalmist go further, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

As I reflect on the plight of the undocumented immigrant in the United States today, I wonder if the words of the Psalmist, echoed by Jesus on the cross, don’t hit a little too close to home.

Citizen Action Making a Vital Difference in South Africa

South African flag over human face, Aleksandar Mijatovic /

South African flag over human face, Aleksandar Mijatovic /

In the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, Baphumelele Respite Care Centre and Clinic serves abandoned children as well as ill adults. The staff faces daily the anguish of caring for babies and older children with serious congenital alcohol and drug syndrome or HIV/AIDS complications. A compassionate professional team and scores of volunteers provide education and rehabilitative residential care for countless patients and support to child headed homes.

A nurse friend on the staff gave witness to the disparity between day-to-day realities when faced with the inadequate response by government and societal leaders. It is stunningly the case in South Africa in the post-Mandela era. The clinic was started in 1989 by the local founding-director Rosealia Mashale, “Rosie,” who could not abandon vulnerable children to the trash heap.

Even with more than 25 similar agencies active in the sprawling location of mostly substandard housing and services there are thousands still in need.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, a trusted commentator in South Africa and author of We Need to Act, reminds citizens to leave their comfort zones and contribute to righting the wrongs of society