The kindness of God (2) Mission, violence and suffering

Kindness of GodWhat can we make of the fact that Christian history is soaked in blood?

Christianity is a cross-shaped faith. Christians follow a Messiah who freely gives up his life on the cross for us. The death of Jesus, God’s son, is the critical event of the NT and forms the core of the missionary proclamation. The message of the gospel is one of reconciliation and peace with God and with one another.

Yet in events like the Crusades, the cross of Christ was paraded as a symbol of God’s blessing on military carnage. Where soldiers were promised forgiveness and absolution for participating in God’s work on the battlefield (a sort of Christian jihad when you think about it).

What do we make of the fact that spiritual giants like Bernard of Clairvaux could write hundreds of deeply devotional hymns and yet be a passionate supporter of the wars against Muslims?

These are some of the questions considered in chapter 3 of David Smith’s The Kindness of God, called ‘Mission, Violence and Suffering’.

David points to different voices and approaches to Islam such as Francis of Assisi, who ‘waged peace’ on Islam in Egypt (interesting story this). Smith gives other examples; his point is how to engage ‘on the frontier’ with other cultures, particularly Islam, is a critical challenge in global mission.

Conversion is at the heart of mission. But there is a difference between proselytism and conversion. The former seeks to make the other exactly like me.  Conversion sees the other come to Christ but does not necessitate the other losing his/her cultural identity. You see this cultural pluralism in Acts 15 and the inclusion of Gentiles into the budding church.

Smith offers three guidelines or principles for doing mission in our troubled and deeply divided world.

1. ‘Other worlds’ across cultural boundaries are going to be places of surprise.  Mission is ultimately God’s initiative and we are given the privilege of joining in what he is already doing. This means for example, suggests Smith, that God may already be at work within Islam, preparing the way  and he quotes an Islamic prayer as an example.

What do you think of this notion of (some) divine revelation within other religions? Smith points to how God was ahead of Peter, working in a pagan Gentile’s life (Cornelius).

I recently met an ex-student who comes from Iran. It was not only wonderful to see him again, but encouraging to hear of many stories of what God is doing among Iranians in Iran – very often through dreams and visions. God is present and active well beyond the ‘reach’ of formal mission contact.

2. The need for an informed and sensitive understanding of the social, political and religious factors that may have caused a negative reaction to evangelism. Smith mentions Muslim and non-Western reactions to Western imperialism. (Ireland is a good example here too with its long legacy of politicised Protestantism suppressing the Catholic threat to English rule.)

3.The task of disentangling the gospel from the cultural wrapping in which it has been contained. Along with an understanding, in our post-Christendom west, of the factors why Christianity has, and is, being rejected. Only then can the church begin to re-translate the gospel afresh to the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome

The Kindness of God (1)

At IBI we are looking forward in a couple of weeks to a visit by David Smith, who is senior research fellow at International College Glasgow and the author of significant books on urban mission and theology – some of which I have blogged on. David is coming to teach for a week on our Masters programme.

Kindness of GodI’m going to do some posts on his new book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World, (2013). David writes both passion and with compassion – a rare combination. And I can guess he ain’t go to be popular with Christian supporters of the blessings of free-market capitalism.

One of the flip sides to global mission is that it is not a one-way process. In the past, there was the notion of Western missionaries bringing the ‘pure gospel’ to the pagan rest of the world. This gospel was imagined to be culturally free. But as David Smith, says, mission “triggered entirely unanticipated critical question concerning the relationship between the message of Christ and the missionary’s own culture.’ (39)

And the critical questions he refers to revolve around the relationship of Christianity in the West with free market capitalism. He puts it this way,

“I want to propose that in truth the most urgent dialogue which needs to take place is that with the advocates of modernization and Westernization and that therefore our primary task is to reflect on the degree to which the fundamentally secular assumptions of the ideology of market economics may have distorted our understanding of the gospel and compromised our mission.” (36)

In chapter 2, he traces the story of the rise of economism, where economics began to be treated like science, with the associated credibility and prestige of being ‘true’. This development was a fruit of Enlightenment optimism and confidence in human reason. The future would be brighter, richer and progressive. As economics advanced, theology retreated to the realm of the private and personal – even as evangelicalism grew in strength in the 19th century.

Quoting Newbigin, who talked of the ‘syncretism’ of the church in with West, Smith’s argument is that Christianity in the West has developed a dualistic theology that has left it dangerously comfortable with the status quo (the quasi-religious deification of the sovereign power of the market and the privatised world of faith). A result is that the church has been ill equipped to offer prophetic critique to the gods of the age.

Returning to the theme of mission, Smith suggests that it is Western Christianity’s captivity that led Western missionaries to engage in mission without questioning their assumptions around capitalism and colonialism. And of the greatest challenges of world mission today is Islam, for it is Islam which has resisted such dualism and fears Christianity is but a vehicle for Western imperialism. It is the Islamic vision of the just state which offers for many a powerful and attractive alternative to the ugly ruthlessness of Western capitalism.

So, Smith asks, will it be places like Africa that will develop new theologies of the political and economic realm? For it is Africa that Christianity intersects with Islam and with the terrible realities of human suffering and injustice.  (there’s a challenge to Hargaden, off to do a PhD in Aberdeen on the theology of money!).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Urban Theology 16: an alternative ekklesia

It’s past time I finished up this series on David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations: theology for an urban world.

Earlier, Smith talked of the NT ekklesia as a counter-cultural community within a Graeco-Roman empire. To close he asks what sort of ekklesia might demonstrate an alternative model of being within a context of economic globalisation. He suggests:

1)      It will be missional. But not an old sense of urban mission – focused on narrow segments of society like the poor. But holistic,

“while ministry among the poor remains a priority, the most urgent and challenging tasks may be to bring the message of the kingdom of God to those people whose lives are lived in close proximity to the idolatrous systems we described earlier.” 234

2)      New forms of Christian ekklesia will be needed to connect with the social and cultural realities of our world. Old assumptions of cultural stability no longer apply. One example he gives is this,

“the networked, mobile ‘liquid’ nature of life in the postmodern city creates new patterns of behaviour and relationships so placing issues concerning the structure of the church, the nature of its leadership, and patterns of nurture of fellowship firmly on the agenda.” 235

3)      The emerging ekklesia will be catholic – in the sense that the exponential growth of world Christianity is a global movement that already reflects the eschatological hope of Revelation the people from every tribe and nation will worship the Lamb of God.

Many people, looking at the state of the world, its inequality, its violence, its urban crises, and its looming environmental crisis, are tempted to despair. Smith longs for Christians with a deeply theocentric vision that transcends a materialist, secular worldview.

 “Can we hope that a church which, for the first time in two thousand years is truly ecumenical in its geographical extent, can discover a catholic unity which will give credibility to its challenge of the idols of our time and would offer the world empirical evidence that the gospel can bring to birth a human family united in love and the practice of justice?” 236

Good question. Can we?

Urban Theology 15: the gospel and Pentecostals in the Global South

We’ve reached the final chapter of David Smith’s Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world. Part 1 engaged with urbanization; Part 2 with the biblical narratives, this section seeks to be an interpretative bridge between the two, working towards a theology for an urban world.

What then is a Christian response to our urban world?

Smith paints a crucicentric picture:

1) The death of Christ reminds us of the systemic evil confronted at the cross

– such evil has cosmic dimensions

– the cross is a victory over the powers of evil and is a reminder of the continuing power of evil and injustice

2) The cross is a reminder of the character of God and his relationship to the world

– the suffering love of God which reaches into the darkness to offer salvation, forgiveness and joy

– the cross reaches out across deep barriers in a divided unequal globalised world

– the cross reaches out beyond personal faith, to world transformation

3) The cross leads to the resurrection of the vindicated Son of God

– Urban mission brings hope, significance and meaning to a culture marked by a loss of hope and frequent boredom and meaninglessness

4) The cross and resurrection are followed by the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit which creates a new covenant community.

This leads to a new urban form of community, visible and public and attractive.

And Smith links Pentecost with the explosion of Pentecostalism globally. The new community of Acts 2 is found afresh in the favellas and barrios of Latin America and the Global South. It is the poor and dispossessed and marginalised who make up the majority of the world’s Christians. Who find community and hope in the 21st century version of the early church. The sheer scale of global Pentecostalism has the potential to effect massive social change.

Smith is not uncritical or naive – global Pentecostalism has its warts and they are big juicy ones (my language here!). But it has the potential to change the world in parallel ways to the first Pentecostal church. These are poor churches, but they contain seeds of hope.

How’s this for a challenging quote to us Christians of the rich West?

The testimonies of humble Christians  … bear compelling witness to the power of the gospel in creating hope in desperate situations, but they may also cut through the coldness and complacence of churches which have existed so long in contexts of material satiation that they have forgotten the liberative life-bestowing power of the gospel. 231.

Urban Theology (13) The New Jerusalem

In the final section of chapter 7 ‘From John of Patmos to Jesus’ in his book Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world, David Smith turns to the book of Revelation and John’s deeply subversive vision of the future.

A comment to start: if the current global financial crisis has shown us anything, it is that what we assume is stable and fixed and certain is, in reality, anything but. Our ‘Western way of life’ and all its many assumptions about the why things should be, is looking decidedly shaky. And it is only major shocks to the system that make us begin to re-imagine different possibilities, different ways of being. At the moment the entire post WWII European project is up for grabs – and some would say the very structure of the capitalist system that has underpinned it.

So to David Smith – who suggests John’s Revelation offers a different imaginative world to the readers. A shock to the status quo, a dramatic visual text enabling them to reimagine the unimaginable – a different world to the dominant, all-powerful, military and economic might of the eternal city – Rome.

He quotes Richard Bauckham, Revelation is

“the most powerful piece of resistance literature from the period of the early Empire”

Smith identifies three ways the Apocalypse achieves this subversive purpose:

1) It provides an alternative Christian imagination to that of Empire. John is soaked in visual imagery and dramatic symbolism – an imagination with an almighty God at its heart, ruling the world.

2) It tells the alternative subversive story of the nations – in contrast to the myth of Rome [Babylon], the whore. Rome is built on suppression of the nations. Pax Romana is exposed as a convenient story behind which lies political and economic exploitation. The true story of the nations is a future where every culture is respected under teh Lordship of the crucified and risen Christ (5:9-10; 7:9; 21:24).

3) John tells of an alternative future: of a city that is yet to come, a utopian vision of the New Jerusalem. This vision lies in utter contrast Babylon [Rome] and the destruction of the Rome and its empire is a perquisite for the arrival of the heavenly city.

And the basis for this alternative vision is the resurrection of the crucified Lamb (1:17-18), an event which of course has already happened.

So a big point: this future vision is

a culmination of a process by which, from Pentecost onwards, the alternative city of God has been under construction, built on the foundations laid in the salvation of the world brought about by Christ.

This is inaugurated eschatology – although ‘not yet’ visible, the future is present and changes the meaning of the here and now.

And coming back to the urban theme – this future vision is of a giant city. And Smith proposes a form of continuity theology here – a city in which all of human art, culture, politics, work and activity that has contributed to establishing this new age of justice, carries over into the heavenly city.

A city in which urban life and nature live in harmony. A city of healing and beauty. A perfected vision, that no urban planner has been able to create, however utopian the dreams.

A city in which there is no temple (no church) – in other words where God is all in all and where there is no sacred / secular divide.

What implications all this theology has for our modern urban world is the question to which Smith turns in the last chapter.

Any strike you before we get there?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Urban Theology (12) Jesus, City and Empire

Is Christianity a set of timeless truths which have then been adapted into different contexts throughout church history?

We’re looking at Chapter 7 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world, ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

This is a key chapter of the book in terms of a NT theology of the city. And the point Smith is making here is that Christianity cannot be understood properly apart from its specific 1st Century context – and that context is an urban one.

Pauline Christianity is entirely urban, located within cities of the Roman Empire. Paul was a city person.

So the NT documents reflect the urban context of the first century. Their primary purpose is to tell the story of Jesus in that setting and to provide teaching and pastoral support for small and marginal groups of Christians scattered through cities of the Graeco-Roman world.

Yet much of Western Christianity interprets these documents through the lens of Christendom, assuming the place of the church at the centre of political and religious life.

So Smith’s appeal – which sounds sympathetic to an Anabaptist reading of Christianity and Empire.

With the passing of Christendom and the exploding urban world of the 21st century, he says there is an urgent need for a re-reading of the NT, recognising the marginal urban setting of the first Christians.

– NT Christians created ‘contrast societies’ within urban settings.

– the use of the term ekklesia was a common Greek word for assembly of free citizens in a Hellenistic city. Smith suggests this reflects a self-understanding of an open, engaged mission to the city rather than opting for a withdrawn religious minority cult identity.

– Church is here an authentic ekklesia, in contrast to the propaganda of Rome that its rule extended freedom and peace to all. Here is another, an alternative, assembly for ‘all nations’ under the universal Lordship of Jesus. Smith traces how in Acts, the mission of God’s universal blessing to all nations stands opposed to Rome’s mythic narrative of world domination.

Next post: Smith takes a look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, not as a set of ‘timeless truths’ but as a counter-cultural text, written to an ekklesia of urban Christians living in the very heart of Empire.

Urban Theology (11) Jesus, Jerusalem, Christians and the city

Chapter 7 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world is called ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

This is a key chapter of the book in terms of a NT theology of the city. I’m sketching and highlighting here over a couple of posts because it is another big chapter.

One value of this book is to look at familiar themes through the lens of urban theology. So in this regard, it’s important to look at Jesus’ relationship with the ‘holy city’ of Jerusalem.

Under Herod, it was undergoing an intensive period of Romanization and urbanization – much of it suffused with a paganism abhorrent to Jewish faith: Greek style games with naked wrestlers, gladiatorial contests, amphitheatre, hippodrome, pagan symbolism and so on. Even the impressive extending of the temple complex into a magnificent spectacle was in Graeco-Roman style and the temple complex itself had become ‘a central and powerful economic institution’.

Smith argues for a sort of ‘ideological religion’ that oppresses the poor and generates profits for the insiders – the powerful within the temple cult. And it is this injustice that Jesus sees as the ‘antithesis of the kingdom of God’.

And so Jerusalem, the dwelling place of Yahweh, was fatally compromised ‘by a pagan culture of death’. So Jesus’ lament over the city (Luke 19:37-44). By its rejection of Jesus’ shalom, and opted for compromise, idolatry, and collusion with oppression and injustice. Judgement, conflict and destruction would follow.

Smith proposes, convincingly I think, that Jesus’ institution of a new Passover within the city was a deeply radical move: a new covenant and a new salvation revolving around the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah, meant that even in Jerusalem, Israel was enslaved.

The path to the cross was thus the way to a new and greater liberation, an exodus which in its spiritual depth and geographical reach would fulfil the visionary hopes of the prophets for the arrival of the age of God’s shalom. 190.

And it’s a fascinating point, how ‘the rejection of Christ and his death outside the city walls, together with the subsequent flight to the suburbs by his followers, provides one possible (anti-urban) paradigm for a Christian response to the urban world.’

Christians, the writer of Hebrews says, have ‘no enduring city’ and ‘are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb 13:12-14). See also James and his warnings against compromise with Roman urban values associated with the making of money. See God’s revelation to John on Patmos, and the command to ‘come out’ of the worldly city and away from her sins (Rev 18:4).

Smith leaves this hanging a bit, but implies that this anti-urban reading is incomplete and ultimately a distortion of the full NT picture. For that bigger picture is of cross as the surprising victory of God. The post-resurrection encounters with the risen Christ lead the scattered disciples, men and women, to re-enter the abandoned city and testify to Jesus within its walls, indeed right back within the temple itself. And it is from their testimony that the gospel goes out into the great urban centres of the Mediterranean world.

Interesting parallels here to contemporary Christians’ attitudes to the city: flight and abandonment of the ‘evil’ city versus a committment to ‘return’ into the city with the good news of the resurrection of the Messiah?