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Mission to the Cities? They Are Us

One of the most potent ways Jesus challenged his people was by calling for and demonstrating equity and inclusion in a world divided by ethnicity, gender, socioeconomics, and religion. Jesus spent time with Gentiles and Samaritans, elevated the place of women, and treated the poor with dignity. The derision aimed at these groups was often felt to be deserved and even God-approved. Jesus confronted such theology and ideology, instead teaching—through action and word—that bias and prejudice have no place amongst the people of God. As the Sabbath school lesson points out, in emphasizing the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Roman centurion, and the poor and blind Bartimaeus, Jesus showed that God is actively working in all human lives, that all are on equal footing before God, and that all belong to God. 

The lesson, however, makes some assumptions that undermine its emphasis on Jesus’s ability to overcome divisions. Its framing implies that most Adventists must live in rural areas, while cities are the very embodiment of being outside the fold. Further, the lesson assumes readers need considerable convincing that those in the cities are deserving of salvation. It is jarring to sense that we still need to be convinced that everyone everywhere is worthy of finding a freeing and liberating relationship with Jesus. It is also odd for those of us who live in thriving urban contexts to be placed outside of an assumed rural Adventism. As the lesson points out, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Is assuming a rural Adventist norm really the best approach?

Why is this important? Less a concern about demographic accuracy, the problem lies in the way that these assumptions further instill the idea of “otherness” that has long hindered simple human connection and deep transformative relationships. To speak specifically about those “lost in the cities”— the “urbanites”—separates them from us; it makes them the Other. To draw parallels between Adventists and the biblical Jews and between the “urbanites” and the biblical Gentiles only increases the distance between us and them—and of course ignores the fact that all Adventists, unless they are a convert of Jewish descent, are themselves Gentiles. 

It would be more accurate for Adventists to relate to the “urbanite” in the same way the Gentile readers of Mark related to the Syro-Phoenician woman—as one of us—than for Adventists to identify with Jewish readers of Matthew in their approach to this Gentile woman—as the Other. More than a concern for accuracy, this language matters because it perpetuates the very prejudice and bias the lesson seeks to deconstruct. To be told that we must move into the cities to minister to “urbanites” assumes their otherness. Flatly calling out different groups of people as a mission field assumes a stereotype about them. 

When we spend time constructing people’s otherness, we miss opportunities to discover our shared humanity in God. This is not unique to Adventists; it has been the way of Christendom. While Christianity was originally an Eastern religion, the West claimed ownership of it and began to look at the East as the “other.” The West identified itself with the Jews of the Bible and saw the rest of the world as Gentiles who were far from God and needed saving. They did not see the East as their fellow Gentile brethren. Never mind that Eastern cultures can more closely identify with the customs, practices, and ideology outlined in the Bible—an Eastern document. 

The West adapted an Eastern religion to fit its ideals, philosophy, culture, and practice. Modern Christianity is now seen as a Western religion, devoid of its Eastern roots, due to the degree to which Western societies molded it to themselves. However, when missionaries went out into the East, the same liberty was seldom given to the Other. Missionized people were ironically not allowed to adapt Christianity for themselves, although it would more closely align with their own cultures and ideologies. Instead, to adopt this religion, they were taught that they had to strip themselves of their cultures, traditions, and customs and be re-created in the image of Western Christianity. This is what happens when objects of missionary activity are flattened to caricatured Others—the relationship becomes corrective rather than collaborative. 

Acts 15 is a stalwart example of early Christians who did not seek to remake people in their own image of Christianity. They allowed the Gentiles to practice Christianity in a way that was not a burden and allowed for the expression of culture and identity. The act of circumcision, over which God was willing to kill Moses in Exodus and which also was a precious sign between God and the people, was now not required of the Gentiles. Beyond the theological implications, the reason given in Acts 15 is that it was a burden for the Hebrews, and they did not want to encumber their Gentile brothers with the same custom and practice that they found too heavy to bear themselves. They identified with the Gentiles, found a commonality of experience, and allowed them to remain in their own customs. 

The New Testament attributes many explosive and confrontational pronouncements to Jesus. The most scathing, blistering, and corrective statements are directed at the deeply religious and most God-fearing. Why? Perhaps because when we congregate around a similar religion, belief, or practice, the risk is that we prioritize our oneness at the expense of the integrity and value of those who are different. Admittedly, it is easier and more comfortable to be homogenous. There is nothing wrong in seeing oneness in each other; it is, in fact, what Jesus prays for in John 17 and what is taught about the cross in Ephesians 2. The challenge comes in seeing “oneness” while preserving and honoring difference among all people of the world—those that live in the city or the country, those in the East or the West. Whoever they are, wherever they come from, God has preserved a part of the Godself in all people because all are on equal footing before God, and all belong to God. 

Title image by Matteo Catanese on Unsplash.

About the author

Pranitha Fielder is the executive pastor of Sligo Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, where she has served in various roles since 2002. More from Pranitha Fielder.
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