Adapted from talk I gave at the 21 May 2021 online symposium, Mission Organisations in Times and Places of Worldwide Connectivities, Inequalities, and Imaginaries; co-hosted by the Centre for Theology and Christianity Worldwide, Netherlandse Zendings Raad (Dutch Mission Council), and Protestant Theological University-Amsterdam
For much of my life I have been wrestling with a fundamental question: Why hasn’t humanity—or at least the Church—come together to heal the violence, poverty, and injustice in our world? Why do the missional partnerships and organizations we have formed to tackle such problems and bear witness to our faith so often fail? What is it that we still do not understand? For me, and I suspect for you as well, the questions relating to how to address the dysfunctions within our boundary-crossing relationships and organizations are not simply intellectual quandaries, they are deeply personal examinations, as we seek to distinguish between what the Holy Spirit is inviting us to do and what is in actuality the voice of hubris mixed with power, privilege, pain, and prejudice.
My journey on this quest began in earnest in secondary school—the first time I traveled to the Katanga region of what is now called DR Congo. I could sense on a gut level that there was something unhealthy about the relational dynamics I was witnessing between local church leaders, the foreign missionaries, and the mission board that was sending funds for salaries and project support, but I lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate this knowing. Since then I have roamed the world, turning to countless scholars and practitioners in a number of disciplines trying to get to the bottom of what 15-year-old me could sense but not explain. And in that journey, I have been profoundly changed.
Before I could effectively teach what I was learning, I had to acknowledge and repent of beliefs I had subconsciously absorbed and accepted as truth. I needed to face my racist and classist assumptions of moral and intellectual superiority over people I wanted to help. I had to face my hubris, my fantasies about being a hero—a savior to the suffering and oppressed. I had to examine the guilt, grief, and shame I carried for living a privileged and relatively comfortable life while millions of people struggled to survive the day, and I had to get honest with myself about whether the actions I took to alleviate these feelings were doing more harm than good in the world.
And so, as I pondered and prayed on what I could contribute to the conversation, I decided that instead of offering a history lesson, I could speak to you in my heart’s language about what I’m convinced that we, as mission scholars and practitioners, need to start openly discussing. My overarching assertion is contained in the title I chose: In order for the healing of our missional relationships and organizations to occur, we must acknowledge and address the underlying toxic beliefs and wounds within ourselves—those things which for so long have been too hidden or painful for us to face. This includes, but is not limited to, assumptions of mental and intellectual superiority or inferiority, racism, savior complexes, lust for power and domination, guilt and shame relating to one’s socio-economic status, alienation, and inherited or directly experienced trauma.
Nanci Luna Jimnénez, an educator specializing in healing from oppression-based trauma, says that “no movement you are a part of will be any healthier than you are.”* Now one could debate exceptions to this statement, but her point was this—if we want our communities and organizations to be healthy, we need to get serious about our own psychological and spiritual health. Thankfully, we don’t have to start this effort from zero. There is already a wealth of scholarship out there—from Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi’s work on the psycho-affective aspects of colonialism to Critical Race Theory, Christian ethicist Samuel Wells’ writings on alienation, and even Brené Brown’s work on healing from shame and guilt. What I am inviting the missiology community to do is to take the conversations coming from the decolonization moment and the conversations coming from the anti-racism movement and the conversations about trauma, mental illness, healing and wholeness and the conversations about theologies of atonement and pull them together into our writings and public forums so that they start effectively talking to one another. I truly believe that this action is the catalyst we have been searching for in moving forward towards healthier boundary-crossing missional efforts on a systemic level.
In her recent paper Racism Awareness in Mission, our colleague Kirsteen Kim makes three assertions that I would like to highlight: 1) “The link between colonialism and contemporary racism needs to be made explicit in missiology;” 2) “At the very least, racism awareness should be integral to mission education and even a touchstone for authentic missiology;” 3) “We should examine the use of ‘culture’ in missiology.” To build on Kirsteen’s last assertion, I’d like to amplify what anti-racism educator Lillian Roybal Rose wrote about the use of the term culture in our discourse: “Let's call culture anything that is benign or spiritual or connected. And let's call anything that demeans and devalues human beings oppression. Let's separate the two. Because if we don't, then in order to not be oppressed it begins to feel, for many of us, that we have to lose our culture.”** When I apply Lillian’s linguistical distinction to the topic of church mission organizations and scholarship, it becomes clear to me that so much that has been labeled over the years a community’s culture that needs to be challenged through educational programs or evangelism, is, in fact, predictable social dynamics in response to collective trauma, oppression and extreme poverty. It is both condescending and unhelpful to frame such dysfunctions as a difference in cultures. Instead, I suggest we look to the scholarship on wholistic healing practices, both on the individual and community level.
As Christian missiologists, we have an advantage over our academic counterparts in the secular NGO and development community because we have an overflowing abundance of teachings and testimonies—both ancient and modern—from all over the world about the healing powers of Christ—about liberation from guilt and shame—about finding love and acceptance in a community of faith, experiencing salvation and at-one-ment. For example, in his powerful book, A Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells names and declares false one of the most deeply hidden assumptions held by Christians with socio-economic privilege—that while the poor and marginalized need our help, we would be better off without them. Wells says to those who go on mission trips and fund mission projects “You are not the answer to their prayer. They are the answer to yours. You are searching for a salvation only they can bring.”***
Siblings in Christ- We are the broken ones in need of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and intimacy without pretense. Boundary-crossing relationships, the building of new communities based on the values of love, equality, and restorative justice modeled to us by Christ, offer us the at-one-ment we seek. As we discuss the complexities of dismantling organizational systems built on delusions of superiority mixed with guilt, we must never lose sight of this truth.
Prayers for health and healing,
*Conversation with Jiménez on March 18, 2017 at workshop she led at the USA Embassy in Algiers, Algeria. Jiménez cited her mentor Lillian Roybal Rose as well as Shelly Brown the ones who first taught her this.
** “Healing from Racism: Cross-Cultural Leadership Teaching for the Multicultural Future,” Winds of Change (Spring 1995), 17, accessed September 1, 2017, www.roybalrose.com/healing.pdf.
***Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. p 96