Mission in Context

John Corrie and Kathy Ross (editors); Mission in Context: Explorations Inspired by J. Andrew Kirk; Ashgate; 2012; £50

The work of overseas cross-cultural Mission has been the subject of some harsh criticism over the last more than one hundred years. Mission done from Western Europe or North America has only with much difficulty shorn itself of its imperialistic guise. Christianity and Commerce did indeed go together in too many instances.
I read the book under review with much sympathy and attention because the author and I arrived on mission to Latin America the very same year—he to Argentina, I to Peru. The interest for the Catholic reader lies in the fact that Andrew Kirk is of the Evangelical tradition, a tradition with its own characteristics and tendencies. For the Catholic missionary Latin America is not mission territory. Everyone, almost, is ‘muy Catolico’. As one Peruvian bishop once told us: Our people are all baptised, but no one is evangelised. For the Catholic missionary the challenge is to evangelise other Catholics. For the Protestant missionary the task is to convert unevangelised Catholics.
Whether Catholic or Protestant the pastoral challenge is not unbelief, but injustice. This both Kirk and I discovered. And both of us had recourse to Liberation Theology. This was more shocking for Kirk than for me because as an Evangelical he was not prepared for the challenge of inventing an Evangelical discourse that could engage with a predominantly Catholic theology.
In Latin America Protestant theological work centred on the person of Jesus Christ. That is because the culture is soaked in his image. There are crosses-some of them pre-Christian, images, traditions everywhere which speak of the presence of a suffering Christ. There is also the presence of the Mother of Christ, a big stumbling block for Evangelicals. Yet, as Evangelicals observed from their studies and experiences, the teaching, example and ethics of Jesus had not touched the heart of the culture. The experience of the average Catholic believer of Christ was a devotional, spiritual one, without social impact, cultural relevance or historical density. One obstructing factor was the institutional Catholic Church itself. Its role was often described, even by Catholics, as being the concubine of the oligarchy.
Kirk had his work cut out for him. He was aided in his efforts by Evangelical thinkers such as Samuel Escobar and Rene Padilla who had for years been challenging their fellow Christians to engage with an unjust society. They must reread the Bible in the light of its Liberationist thrust and avoid any temptation to ‘spiritualise’ the person of Jesus, as though he were some kind of ‘nice guy’. The Jesus of Liberation Theology is a prophetic herald of the Reign of God which comes in the power of justice, mercy, compassion and faith.
Kirk has a vocation to theology. His first book written in Spanish was entitled, “Jesucristo Revolucionario”. By the time he left Argentina he had written two more, one of them called, “Liberation Theology”.
The value of the book under review is not just to encounter a distinguished missionary with a distinguished career, but to encounter other missionary practitioners and thinkers who write on topics inspired and guided by Andrew Kirk. Some of the topics are: truth and pluralism, inter-religious dialogue, the clash of worldviews, mission and violence etc.
One other topic is especially relevant to us here: Mission to Europe. For whatever reasons debated now by the historians of culture, civilisation and church, the decade of the ‘60s seems to be the watershed for observing deep cultural change. It was not just for us here the decade of the Beatles. It was also the years of the struggles for civil rights, for peace and for revolutionary social change in various parts of the world. And it was also the decade in which young people, along with the poor, burst onto the scene of world history. 1968 still burns in the memory of many as a year analogous to 1789. In that year Gustavo Gutierrez gave his first lecture on Liberation Theology.
Both protagonists, the poor and the young, acted with little reference to the Christian tradition. Indeed, here in Europe two generations have passed in which young people have grown up without hearing the Christian story, the Good News. Paul Tillich once wrote that we live in an age of broken symbols. Today it is easier to recognise the reference made by the golden arches of McDonald’s than that made by the Cross.
We do indeed live in a post-Christendom era. Our reference points whereby we know ourselves and our identity no longer include a Christian community. Our ethics is home-made and our identity is forged on YouTube. How does a Christian missionary elaborate a discourse which articulates an experience of the Gospel Christ and the Reign of Peace, Justice, Reconciliation and Wholiness which he came to announce and inaugurate?
For Kirk and his disciples all theology is mission theology. We announce a God who has sent us. We find ourselves in unknown secular territory where God cannot be found. Yet the secular is in God and so the sent missionary seeks the God already present in the numerous signs God gives. Maybe the churches get in the way. Their spent vocabularies no long speak to the present generation. Their almost obsessive attention to institutional survival detours the energies that should be dedicated to Mission. In a strange sort of logic, the churches must decrease, implode and shut down in order that mission for the life of the world and for the glory of God increase.
We are living a prolonged moment of cultural shift. Christian discourse is no longer adequate to the challenges of today. It is too Euro-centric, intellectual and post-Enlightenment. We need a Christianity capable of engaging with the Secular on its own terms, of seeking out the hints of transcendence hidden therein and of articulating a vision of humanity which is inclusive, open and planetary in its scope. We need new insights from Africa, Asia and Latin America. (It is symptomatic to note that the last two books which Pope Benedict wrote on Jesus Christ contain in the bibliography no book written south of the Equator.)
Andrew Kirk has served Christ and the Church well. We will read this book with great profit.

Frank Regan   http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409410034