Geoffrey Nelson-Blake is a PhD candidate in Religion and Practice at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He previously worked for a decade as an Adventist pastor and a community organizer.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vaughn Nelson: Hi Geoff. Thanks for doing this. You are—full disclosure—married to my sister, and you and I began PhD programs the same month on opposite coasts. Since missiology is one of your concentrations at the GTU and since the Adult Bible Study Guide’s theme for this quarter is mission, I thought you might be able to provide some ways of thinking about mission constructively, in light of its complicated history. People who understand the ways in which Christianity has gotten caught up in the projects of European empire and colonialism in the last several centuries are often uncomfortable with mission. As someone who has worked as an Adventist pastor and a community organizer and now studies mission at a progressive theological school, how are you thinking about Christian mission lately?
Geoffrey Nelson-Blake: Thank you, Vaughn, for this invitation to think together about mission. One framework that I have found helpful is from a missiologist, Stephen Bevans, who talks about Christian mission as “prophetic dialogue.” The enunciating/speaking part of the dialogue includes critiquing injustice and joining in solidarity with those who are oppressed (following Jesus, Luke 4:18-19). The listening part of the dialogue includes paying close attention to people’s cultures, traditions, experiences, and—I would add—their knowledge systems (which is something I’ve dug into in my doctoral work). Thinking about mission as prophetic dialogue can be a source of motivation for expressing one’s faith in public through social change modalities such as faith-based community organizing.
The other thing that keeps coming to mind for me is how relatively easy it is to complain about mission being complicit with colonization and use that as a reason for its complete dismissal. It’s much harder to actually combat the most powerful forces for colonization in our world today and ask how Christians might be a part of an anti-colonial movement. Again, not pretending like Christianity has not been complicit and even an agent in colonialism, but when we look at multinational corporations—when we look at global capitalism—these forces are arguably much more powerful and involved today than any one religion in furthering (neo)colonialism. How might we attend to the realities of Christianity’s colonial ties and not allow these sins to paralyze us for present and future liberating action serving the mission of God?
I taught a class last spring at the GTU called “Decolonizing Mission,” which I designed as a dialogue between mission studies and decolonial studies. The class description in the syllabus starts with naming a duality, the false binary choice of either dismissing Christianity's colonial ties and moving forward without attention to socio-historical context; or, because of Christianity's historical colonial relations, dismissing Christianity's commitment to participation in the mission of God. Toward the beginning of the term, a lot of our work together in class was complexifying mission and notions of mission.
Complexifying the realities and histories of mission and moving beyond the usual duality sounds really generative. Can you give some examples of how your class approached this process?
There's a short film called Gente de Razón: People of the Missions (1997), which was put out by the National Parks Department. The film is located close to the southern U.S. border, particularly the San Antonio River Valley. This is a secular film that's talking about the geography, the topography, the history of the valley, and the people. A large component of the film traces the violent colonizing mission that took place there. Then, in describing the Tejano people and culture that now exist there, the narrator uses the term “unintended consequence.” It's too simple to say that all of the consequences of colonial mission are ugly and evil when it also birthed this new group of people with their own culture and their own knowledge—all these beautiful things that stem from a violent, colonizing mission.
Another example is from Jennifer Davidson's book River of Life, Feast of Grace. She mentions how the Christian practice of baptism has been used in missionizing efforts. On the one hand, whole groups have been forced to be baptized when colonized. On the other hand, there have been times when new Christians have wanted to be baptized because of the social equity and liberation associated with this Christian practice. Baptism allows them to move from a specific social group with a variety of worldly identities (including subaltern or minoritized identities) to being a citizen of the Kingdom of God on equal footing with every other child of God. So the same Christian practice, baptism, has been used in mission in both oppressive and liberating ways.
Then there are missionaries like 16th-century Spaniard Bartolomé de las Casas, whom Stephen Bevans and Roger Schroeder mention in Constants in Context: A Theology for Mission Today. For these authors, Las Casas is an example of a missionary that resists or goes beyond the colonial weaponization of theology and the church—who actually listens to the people and can be a source of liberative accompaniment. These kinds of stories show that missionaries are not a monolith and that there can be a distinction between individual missionaries (who may be listening closely to local people, their customs, experiences, and knowledge) and the larger, more powerful entities that are sending them.
For you, what does it look like for mission to become a foundation for liberative and decolonial work? What do we miss when we sweep mission under the theological or ecclesiological rug?
A couple of things come to mind. One brings me back to my own experiences listening to faith leaders. If they're not feeling called to do something beyond their church walls and religious communities, then their engagement with justice is often abandoned. What gets left behind are movements for justice in our country with alternate visions, alternate images, and alternate eschatologies beyond marketized capitalism. That’s how Felipe Maia describes it in his book Trading Futures: we are inundated with these visions of eschatology handed to us by marketized capitalism, shaping how we think about our future. For example, I'm in so much debt from school loans, now my future is narrowed. Or, in public political life in this country—much of it controlled by marketized capitalism—how do I think about relationships beyond the tit-for-tat currency of power? Sure, the currencies of money and power are realities of the world as it is (and I am not here to argue one economic or political system over another); still, there's something beyond the logic of these systems to point toward, to imagine. As people of faith, as Christians, as Adventists, we have a hope-filled vision of the future to offer the public—an alternate eschatological option to stoke our imaginations and inform our ethics.
Here’s another, more personal way I’ve been thinking about these ideas: as parents, Natalie and I feel a responsibility for our role in the religious formation of our kids. If we don't have any intentionality around religious formation, I would argue (following Felipe Maia, Jung Mo Sung, and Keri Day, among others) that the default societal formation flows out of marketized capitalism. Marketized capitalism is the dominant force in society and is only gaining in power. So if we want an alternative option for our kids—if we want them to be able to imagine a more life-giving, hope-filled, grace-oriented future and ethics—we have to choose that, constantly.
This dynamic of personal formation can be true for the public sphere as well: without the intentionality of offering and sharing a different vision, the default image of the future is not life-giving. A charge of mission today could be taking one's Adventist Christianity into the public sphere, offering alternate images of the future that can inform the present. These images can be more life-giving, hope-filled, and grace-oriented than the dominant images operating in the public sphere currently. This needs to be done with humility, a spirit of generosity, and listening as much—or more than—talking. Offering alternate images of the future is part of a prophetic dialogue.
I was looking at the Sabbath School quarterly for this week, and it uses familiar language that mission requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. Sometimes I wonder if that language has been used mostly to get introverts like me to hand out Adventist literature, but do you think there is some promise within this well-worn notion that mission invites us out of our comfort zones?
I was intrigued by a question in the second day’s lesson (which is Sunday, I guess, because the week’s lessons start with a work assignment for Sabbath?).
The section “Moving Beyond Our Comfort Zone” ends with a prompt that gets at that question of “why mission at all?”
Are you part of a group or ethnic community that is more comfortable among themselves? In what ways may you possibly engage with others who are not part of your race, ethnicity, or nationality?
There are myriad problematic ways to engage with others, of course. There are also ways to get out of our comfort zone and learn from others. One way to learn from others is to actually talk to people and hear their stories (which is the foundation of community organizing). We have to leave our house and our church home to do that. Part of my interest in the field of missiology comes from the reality of walking outside my front door and simply encountering people who are of different faith traditions. So, even if I were never to go on an overseas mission trip, or a more local mission trip, I have to choose as an Adventist Christian how I relate to people who aren't like me (religiously, and otherwise) every day in my neighborhood. We can get out of our comfort zones by listening to others’ stories and learning from their experiences and knowledges.
I love that notion you mentioned of mission as offering alternative eschatologies to the public square, and it seems like these intentional personal encounters you’re describing can help shape those alternatives even more imaginatively. What do you think your Adventist Christian tradition might offer to these alternative, liberative images of the future?
In recent reading for my dissertation, I came across George Knight's article titled “Adventism’s Missiological Quadrilateral: A Holistic Approach to World Mission.”  According to Knight, the Adventist missiological quadrilateral is made up of publishing, medical, educational, and conference (organizational) aspects of denominational work. In Knight's understanding, the Adventist missiological quadrilateral correlates with Adventist holistic theology, not separating the spirit, soul, and body of a person and not separating the secular and the sacred—all of life is sacred. So, along with an emphasis on the second advent of Jesus, early Adventists seemed to have had a congruent view of eschatological future hope and present mission to the whole person.
I mention this because of a question I'm asking as I am working on my dissertation. The Adventist Church has the largest Protestant network of schools and hospitals in the world, and from its inception that work existed alongside a seemingly future-oriented eschatology focused on the second coming of Jesus. How did early Adventists hold those two seemingly disparate emphases together—focusing on a future eschatological moment while building hospitals and schools in the present? It’s not a new question at all. Many others have thought about it, and I think it was even one that we were asking over two decades ago around La Sierra’s South Hall, right?
Two decades? Stop.
Ha! Speaking of destabilizing notions of temporality . . .
Anyway, at least part of the answer is a congruent view of eschatological future hope and present mission to the whole person. Somehow, the Adventist story manages to break down the incongruence between these categories. Holding eschatological future hope and present mission to the whole person together is a way of breaking down a lot, actually. It's breaking down time, temporality (future and present). It's breaking down all these aspects of mission that can be isolated: community organization, development, and infrastructure from education, proclamation, and witness from healthcare.
It seems as if early Adventists had fewer silos and barriers than we have around ideas of what we should be doing as Adventist Christians—and what we should be believing. That's another barrier, between the ontological and the epistemological, between being/doing and believing/knowing.
I view Christian eschatology, especially informed by my Adventist Christian tradition, as being potentially a minority subversive image of the future today—an alternative vision that can be life-giving and enchanting of the world.
The way you expanded on an answer to the question feels new since South Hall—really compelling and promising for the work you’re doing. I’m excited. Thanks for being willing to chat on the record in the midst of dissertating and the rest of life. You mentioned several great resources already, plus you recommended Marion Grau’s book that I relied on for the first lesson’s post (thanks!). How about three books that consider mission through the framework you’ve described?
Sure; and thank you again, Vaughn, and the Spectrum community, for this opportunity to dialogue about mission.
Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (2009).
Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramírez-Johnson, and Amos Yong, eds., Can "White" People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission (2018).
Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta, eds., Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy (2011).
 George R. Knight, “Adventism’s Missiological Quadrilateral: A Wholistic Approach to World Mission,” in Proceedings of the International Scientific Symposium on the Development of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Eastern Africa: Past, Present, and Future, edited by K.B. Elineema, 17-30. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, August 4-8, 1992.
Vaughn Nelson is Spectrum editor of Adult Sabbath School commentaries for this quarter. He can be reached at vaughn[at]spectrummagazine[dot]org.
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