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Engaging Christian Mission After All

Broken chain-link fence

I confess that I get nervous when I see that the theme of this quarter's Adult Bible Study Guide is mission.

A part of my response, I know by now, is simply a matter of personality. I am wired in a way that makes reaching out and asking anything of anybody intimidating and exhausting. 

In my late teens, I was wooed by promises of wealth and fancy kitchen tools, somehow convinced to become a salesperson for Cutco knives. I sailed through the sales training, high on the kitchen shears' ability to cut a penny into a corkscrew (but why??). I also made it through the ten practice sessions with friends and family—because when it came to the big ask, I had an out. I still remember instinctively employing the conditional mood in my grammar: “This is where I would ask you if you would like to buy the Homemaker Set," which of course implied, "but I'm not actually doing such a presumptuous and ridiculous thing right now with you." 

From the list of referrals harvested from those acquaintances, I set up my first cold call appointment. I knocked on the door, cut some leather and a penny, and somehow got through the big ask. A half-hour later, I walked out the door clear-eyed that my sales career had ended right then and there. Asking a stranger to spend over $700 (in '90s cash) on knives did indeed feel presumptuous and more than a bit ridiculous. No thank you.

Mission, I confess, especially that share-your-faith-with-your-neighbor version of "personal evangelism," has always felt a bit like that sales pitch experience to me. But my uneasiness with the quarter’s theme stems from more than a shy personality. Mission, and especially Christian mission, has a complicated history. The broad outlines of this history will be familiar to Spectrum readers. Willie Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, details the ways that the missionary stood between the merchant and the soldier in trying to transform the strangeness of the New World into the familiar. Too often, Christian theological construction and ecclesiological aspiration have been active co-signers of the colonial imagination that drove European empire, expansion, and exploitation.

Still, I am drawn to and challenged by contemporary conceptions of Christian mission that take this history seriously. For example, Marion Grau, professor of systematic theology, ecumenism, and missiology in Norway, makes a compelling case that to back away from mission altogether because of the shame of colonial complicity is not only to leave mission to those who deny such histories but also to miss opportunities to reckon with, exorcize, and transform history’s hauntings. She writes:

In this reckoning we encounter what has been so difficult to name without collapsing into incessant claims to destructive power because our relations to the sacred, to life energy, cannot be engaged other than in the fullness of all our relations: the divine, God, Wisdom, Spirit, Christ, the many ways of sacrality we encounter between, beyond, among, and within our psychophysical relations.

If, as she claims (following Mayra Rivera), salvific transcendence is found in non-consuming relationships of “mutual touch rather than encompassing grasp or complete detachment,” then a missiology that engages “zones of encounter” is indeed indispensable to the Christian gospel. Mission means mutual encounter at the boundaries of difference.

This is where the opening two weeks of lessons are hopeful and helpful in inviting us to get clear on the fact that we begin any conversation about mission with God’s mission to us, to all of creation. The opening sentence is one to continually return to this quarter: “Mission finds its origin and purpose only in God”—a God who, we are reminded on Monday, “longs to be with us,” to be with all of creation. Mission begins with God’s perseverance in opening spaces for encounter with us, with creation. 

Simply recognizing mission as encounter, however, certainly does not resolve all of its tensions, in part because genuine mutuality in encounters is rare. As renowned scholar Gloria Anzaldúa has unforgettably expressed, the borderlands—the place of encounter where “the Third World grates up against the first and bleeds”—is una herida abierta, an open wound. La frontera is a place of trauma, of conflict—and yes, of encounter, of exchange. Echoing many voices who reflect on postcolonial identity, she describes those who occupy borderland spaces, who live always in a state of in-betweenness and never completely belong here or there. Anzaldúa’s act of resistance, however, is to grab hold of this place and demand a spiritual blessing, which she finds in napantla. She writes

Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla es tierra desconocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement—an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of “home.” Though this state links us to other ideas, people, and worlds, we feel threatened by these new connections and the change they engender.

Without romanticizing the grating, bleeding, or wounding for even a moment, Anzaldúa develops a deep, decolonial spirituality of in-between places and existence. Never letting go of her critical edge, but also refusing to retreat to isolation, solipsism, or hyperindividualism, she makes a home of displacement, of borderlands.

It matters that Anzaldúa writes from the liminal spaces of colonial modernity. It would sound and mean something radically different for a person in a position of dominance to idealize the suffering of in-betweenness. Still, somewhere in the critically conscious spirituality of wounded/ing encounter is a vision of mission that recognizes its complicated past and present and is compelling even to an introverted failed salesperson. It is a vision of mission that tacks much more closely to the incarnational and wounded mission of God, evident in the Word’s enfleshed and encamped dwelling in Jesus (John 1:14). Mission mirrors God’s seeking out and making a home at the borderlands, the places of encounter across difference and deep transformation.

To all the courageous Sabbath School teachers and facilitators and participants who will travel with quarterly in hand from now until Christmas: in addition to absorbing and reflecting the lesson’s wise foundation in the mission of God, perhaps this is a good week to assemble a set of questions to carry with you throughout the quarter. Some I’m starting with are:

For each of the relationships envisioned by the quarter’s lessons, how would you describe the presence and flow of power?
What wounds, historical and otherwise, are present in these places of encounter?
Who is being asked, cajoled, or pressed into living in-between here and there in a state of displacement, and who is able to maintain safety and distance?
How might these dynamics be resisted, subverted, or transformed?

If you have other questions that turn out to be generative and useful, I’d love to hear about them. May the God who seeks new life in the midst of open wounds guide your learning and imagining together this week.


Vaughn Nelson is Spectrum editor of Adult Sabbath School commentaries for this quarter. He can be reached at vaughn[at]spectrummagazine[dot]org.

Title image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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