Of mission and politics

April 20, 2016 | Editorial | Volume 20 Issue 9

Two articles in this issue point to a shift in our Anabaptist/Mennonite thinking about both our mission in international witness and our place in the government arena.

“Toss aside western church culture and rhetoric,” Deborah Froese, the director of Mennonite Church Canada’s news service, opens her “What’s up with Mennos and mission?” feature on page 4, quoting Witness worker Daniel Pantoja, who ministers with his wife Joji in the Philippines.

“Don’t call it church-planting,” cautioned Pantoja of their work in a Muslim context, “since words like ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’ carry too many colonial connotations. We pray that salaam [holistic peace] communities of Isa-al Masih [Jesus Christ] will be formed, but don’t ask what they will look like. We don’t know.”

“He doesn’t know?” you might ask. How is it that a Witness worker, commissioned to introduce Jesus to communities in the Global South, doesn’t know what a church “plant” looks like? Doesn’t their calling and the mandate from our Witness office give them some pretty clear guidelines as to what this is all about?

Well, yes, no doubt. But what Froese’s feature so clearly points out from several interviews with Witness workers and their overseers back home in Canada, is that there is a disconnect between what some of our expectations back home look like and what is actually happening abroad.

We are living in a different, more complex world than even a decade ago. Islam, for instance, has become a far-more visible world religion, one that forces us to recognize that, as a competing faith, it is more integral to our local and worldwide communication. Many of our congregations and area churches are working intentionally at Christian-Muslim relations.

In our global witness we have discovered that, contrary to a deeply embedded belief, we were called to introduce new revelations of God to nationals that, to our surprise, found that God was already there, albeit in different forms, and that to be successful it was necessary to recognize this and integrate the gospel with another prevailing spirituality. To do less was to offend important components of the local “community” and prohibit communication with local leaders in a particular culture.

And that business takes a long and patient effort, requiring years of sometimes painstaking development to achieve. But when done with compassion and understanding, it results in a “vibrant and growing ministry,” as the Pantojas have demonstrated.

Witness workers try to convey this to us “back home,” but are we listening? Do we get it?

In a similar fashion, there has been a transformation in our thinking about our role in politics, happening mostly under the radar. The appointment of one of our own to the Liberal cabinet in the person of Jane Philpott as health minister has brought us, front and centre, to see how we will work out our faith values in that setting. Philpott, who grew up Presbyterian, is now a member of Community Mennonite Church in Stouffville, Ont.

In an interview with Canadian Mennonite before her appointment, she said her Anabaptist core beliefs would influence her political work: the values of generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, looking out for the interest of others and respect for others. These “are woven into the fabric of my character and should always influence my thought processes, decisions and actions,” she said, adding that her faith community helps her by “being a place of refuge and restoration.” (See a recent interview: “A Liberal dose of generosity.”)

In contrast, on page 19, Peter Harder, recently appointed as the Liberal government’s leader in the Senate, applauds his Mennonite roots growing up in the Vineland, Ont., area, but is now more “comfortable with the United Church.” Unashamedly, though, he brings his Anabaptist core beliefs to his position, saying, “When we talk of peacebuilding, we are really talking about how to build political communities that work, that share certain core values and that can deliver essential services to their members.” (See “I am proud of my roots.”)

In both the missional and political arenas, we are changing our thinking about how to adjust to life in a post-Christendom era. No longer can we afford our religiously parochial views as we carry the gospel to our international neighbours, nor should we keep our core beliefs to ourselves as we interact with our government in the many issues that face us as a nation.

Both Philpott and Harder have their challenges already, as do our Witness workers in various global settings. Can we stand behind all of them with our prayers and personal support?

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If the editorial of April 25, 2016 is a true statement of Mennonite theology, then the Mennonite Church in Canada is in crisis.
First, it seems that Mennonite Witness overseas workers don’t believe they are church planting because it’s colonial. It’s true that in their attempts to be transcultural Christian missions have often been oppressive. But in its best incarnation, for 2,000 years the Christian church has always planted local congregations. This is because the Christian faith is both communal and relational.
Second, we are told that rather than “introduce new revelations of God to nationals” we find that God is already there. Therefore we should not “offend important components of the local ‘community’.” But isn’t the core of the gospel that it offends all our human attempts to link to God apart from Jesus Christ?
Third, the central biblical warning about idolatry is to avoid every form of syncretism, the blending of Yahweh faith in Jesus Christ with any and all opposing faiths. So to state that we must “integrate the gospel with another prevailing spirituality” is anathema. This spirituality-blending is the one thing that casts people outside the new creation in Rev. 21:8.
Are we in theological crisis? I fear for us.

Lawrence Burkholder, Gormley, ON

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