Missiology: Mission as Economic Liberation and Cultural Identity

A focusing biblical text: Luke 4: 16-21 

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:  ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Reflection Questions:

  1. Describe the action and nature of God in this text.  
  2. What are the implications of this understanding of God for the church and the world?
  3. How does this understanding of God, the church and the world shape the practice of mission?

Description of Mission as Economic Liberation and Cultural Identity

This mission emphasis assumes God’s mission is directly in the world and recognizes interconnected global realities and relationships.  An increasing breadth of what mission includes leads to more emphasis on identifying root causes of problems.

These emphases take the prophetic strand of Christianity seriously by comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable for the purpose of creating just structures of society in which everyone can experience the fullness of life God intends.  This mission focus involves examination of how the privileged lifestyle of some is directly related to the oppression of vulnerable groups.  It takes revolution seriously in questioning whether existing structures of society can be renewed in the image of liberation or whether they need to be replaced.

God’s action is identified especially among people in situations of political and economic oppression who live in the peripheries of society.  Also in this emphasis, racial and ethnic identity are recognized as interconnected with such oppression and thus identity is integral to liberation.  Key terms such as justice, liberation, solidarity, accompaniment, indigenization, inculturation, contextualization, and local theologies become important.

Illustrating Hymns

“Through All the World, a Hungry Christ”
“Let Justice Flow Like Streams”

Ecumenical meetings that articulate Mission as Economic Liberation and Cultural Identity:

Reflection Guides:

  1. Outline world events during the 1970s – 80s.
  2. Identify the role of the Church in mission in these excerpts
  3. Describe the purpose of mission presented in these excerpts.  Discuss the positive and negative aspects of  this emphasis of mission.

The 1980 Melbourne meeting of the Council for World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches used the phrase, “God’s preferential option for the poor.”  This echoed the Puebla Conference of Latin American Catholic Bishops the previous year in 1979.  The phrase refers to the identification of Jesus with the poor, divine judgment on oppressors, and solidarity with the poor and oppressed as a central priority in Christian mission.

A.  Your Kingdom Come:  Mission Perspectives, Report on the World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, Melbourne, Australia, 12-25 May, 1980

Section I:  Good News to the Poor

“The Poor and the Rich and the Coming of the Kingdom”
“The Kingdom of God which was inaugurated in Jesus Christ brings justice, love, peace and joy, and freedom from the grasp of principalities and powers, those demonic forces which place human lives and institutions in bondage and infiltrate their very textures.  God’s judgment is revealed as an overturning of the values and structures of this world.  In the perspective of the kingdom, God has a preference for the poor.”

#4.  The coming of the kingdom as hope for the poor is thus a time of judgment for the rich.  In the light of this judgment and this hope, all human beings are shown to be less than human.  The very identification of people as either rich or poor is now seen to be a symptom of this dehumanization.  The poor who are sinned against are rendered less human by being deprived.  The rich are rendered less human by the sinful act of depriving others.

The judgment of God thus comes as a verdict in favour of the poor.  This verdict enables the poor to struggle to overthrow the powers that bind them, which then releases the rich from the necessity to dominate.  Once this has happened, it is possible for both the humbled rich and the poor to become humanly,capable of response to the challenge of the kingdom.

To the poor this challenge means the profound assurance that God is with them and for them.  To the rich it means a profound repentance and renunciation.  To all who yearn for justice and forgiveness Jesus Christ offers discipleship and the
demand of service.  But he offers this in the assurance of victory and in sharing the power of his risen life.  As the kingdom in its fullness is solely the gift of God himself, any human achievement in history can only be approximate and relative to the ultimate goal – that promised a new heaven and a new earth in which justice abides.  Yet that kingdom is the inspiration and constant challenge in all our struggles.”

We wish to recommend the following to the churches:

  1. Become churches in solidarity with the struggles of the poor.
  2. Join the struggle against the powers of exploitation and impoverishment
  3. Establish a new relationship with the poor inside the churches.
  4. Pray and work for the kingdom of God.”

(Your Kingdom Come:  Mission Perspectives, Report on the World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, Melbourne, Australia, 12-25 May, 1980, Geneva:  World Council of Churches– Council for World Mission and Evangelism, 1980, 171-178, 193-207).

B.  Ecumenical Affirmation:  Mission and Evangelism,
WCC Central Committee, 1982

Ecumenical Convictions

“In the ecumenical discussions and experience, churches with their diverse confessions and traditions and in their various expressions as parishes, monastic communities, religious orders, etc., have learned to recognize each other as participants in the one worldwide missionary movement.  Thus, together, they can affirm an ecumenical perception of Christian mission expressed in the following convictions under which they covenant to work for the kingdom of God:

  • Conversion
  • The Gospel to all Realms of Life
  • The Church and its unity in God’s Mission
  • Mission in Christ’s Way
  • Good News to the Poor
  • Mission in and to Six Continents

Looking Toward the Future

Whether among the secularized masses of industrial societies, the emerging new ideologies around which societies are organized, the resurging religions which people embrace, the movements of workers and political refugees, the people’s search for liberation and justice, the uncertain pilgrimage of the younger generation into a future both full of promise and overshadowed by nuclear confrontation – the Church is called to be present and to articulate the meaning of God’s love in Jesus Christ for every person and for every situation.”  (International Review of Mission 71: 284 (October 1982), 427-447) 

C.  The Gospel and Our Cultures Project

This World Council of Churches’ project creates study materials, including a video, to help people identify the variety of cultures in which we live as Christians, attempting to celebrate the plurality of cultures created by God.  (Diverse Cultures, One Gospel, World Council of Churches, Friendship Press Distribution Office)

D.  David Gill, ed. “Gathered for Life,” Official Report, VI Assembly World Council of Churches, Vancouver, Canada, 24 July – 10 August, 1983  “Witnessing in a Divided World” 

Culture: the Context for Our Witnessing

#6.   While we affirm and celebrate cultures as expressing the plural wonder of God’s creation, we recognize that not all aspects of every culture are necessarily good.  There are aspects within each culture which deny life and oppress people.  Also emerging in our time are certain forms of religious culture and sub-cultures which are demonic because they manipulate people and project a world-view and values which are life-denying rather than life-affirming.

#7.  Given on the one hand the richness and variety of cultures, and on the other the conflict between life-affirming and life-denying aspects within each culture, we need to look again at the whole issue of Christ and culture in the present historical situation.

#11.  …we now have indigenous or local expressions of the Christian faith in many parts of the world, which present more manifestations of diverse forms of Christianity.  The Gospel message becomes a transforming power within the life of a community when it is expressed in the cultural forms in which the community understands itself.

#12.  Therefore, in the search for a theological understanding of culture we are working toward a new ecumenical agenda in which various cultural expressions of the Christian faith may be in conversation with each other.  In this encounter the theology, missionary perspectives and historical experiences of many churches, from the most diverse traditions…offer fresh possibilities. (David Gill, ed. “Gathered for Life,” Official Report, VI Assembly World Council of Churches, Vancouver, Canada, 24 July – 10 August, 1983, Geneva:  WCC and Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1983, 32-34, 39-41).

United Church of Christ and United Church Board for World Ministries documents:

Reflection Guides:

  1. Identify themes in the following documents that demonstrate how the United Church of Christ attempts to embody and reflect ecumenical mission emphases.
  2. How do these themes and actions effect the identity of the United Church of Christ?
  3. Do you see these emphases in the action of mission today (and into the future)?

A.  How We See It From Here

Ann Lutterman: a Peace and Justice Intern in El Salvador during 1987 (on the significance of the ministry of accompaniment)

“The very first time a group of heavily-armed soldiers entered the Betania Refugee Camp where I spent 6 months as a Peace & Justice Intern, the terrified looks on the faces of my refugee friends reminded me why I was there.  From the start I had been told that my primary role would be that of “acompanamiento” – the work of simply living with Salvadorans who feel threatened by the military, sharing their pain and suffering, acting as an international presence to deter the government from violating their basic human rights and serving as a witness when they did.  But it wasn’t until I talked with Colonel Murcia and saw for myself how much more respect he had for me as a U.S. citizen than for his brother and sister Salvadorans that I realized how important my presence was.

During the next 6 months, the military made several visits to the Betania refugees.  Sometimes just a truck or two of soldiers came.  Other times, entire battalions of 450 or 500 men armed with M-16s entered the camp to search for weapons and people they considered “subversives.”  Each visit, regardless of its length or size, caused considerable fear among the refugee population, and after each visit I learned more about the unbelievable atrocities committed by the military which eventually cause the refugees to flee their homes.

I have no doubt at all that my role of accompaniment at Betania was much appreciated by the refugees and that my presence may likely have discouraged the military from taking greater actions against the camp residents.  It is important to note that not a single Betania refugee has been captured on the premises since international volunteers have been living there.”   (Whole Earth Newsletter, Winter, 1988,  4).

B. Dan Romero, General Secretary, Mission Program Unit “A Theology of Struggle or a Theology of Success” 1989

“In making my way from the Philippines through Taiwan to Japan in March, I witnessed a steady economic progression from one country to the next.  There was extreme poverty and suffering in the Philippines, signs of rapid economic growth and development in Taiwan, and stunning economic achievement in Japan.  The Mangyan people of Mindoro are just one example of the poverty that pervades the tribal people in the Philippines, a people nurtured on the land but who do not share in either its current productivity or in its future potential.

To travel from one country to another in this progression, one could not help but observe shifts in the role of the church and its theological perspectives in each of those contexts.  It would be too simplistic to say that the gospel became or had the potential of becoming more privatized as one moved up the economic scale because the social, political and cultural dynamics are far more complicated than that.  But in a sense one could not help but wonder if the church does not run the risk of diluting the radical claims of the gospel as economic security replaces struggle.

In the Philippines, for example, church leaders refer to a theology of struggle which identifies the cross of Christ as pivotal in the Filipinos’ faith pilgrimage.  The church is numerically strong, active and deeply committed to human rights. …In Taiwan, the predominant Protestant presence is the Presbyterian Church, many of whose leaders have suffered at the hands of the government.  Pastors are imprisoned for the “political” thought as the Taiwanese debate their future vis-à-vis China.  Aboriginal and tribal groups are a constant reminder that economic prosperity and equality are not experienced by all...During the past few decades economic change in Taiwan and Japan has been rapid and dramatic.  With hardly any natural resources and with a war-damaged 

Economy, Japan, the producer of cheap export goods in the 1950s, now has one of the world’s strongest economies.  This economic growth has been based on political systems which have been generously called “hierarchical.”  Japanese governments have stressed obedience, conformity, sacrifice and hard work, as well as respect for authority.  Japan is showing all the marks of a society encumbered with materialism…The Koreans in Japan suffer indignities and second-class citizenship.  The Buraku people are an artificially created class of Japanese whose vocations are disdained and who do not share in the fortunes of the society.  The presence of both these groups challenges the church to risk its security and abandon its refuge for a far more visible role in addressing human rights.

…Our increasing awareness of a global mission and ministry may be what saves all of us from ourselves.  As partnership relations among churches are nurtured internationally and opportunities for mutual sharing and reflection become more available, the struggles in the Philippines, like those in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia, may lift us out of our respective inwardness into a global arena where God’s reign is truly experienced in the lives of people.”  (Whole Earth Newsletter, Spring 1989, 3).


C.  Lois Wilson, a WCC President, “Wilson Challenges UCBWM,” Annual Meeting Address United Church Board for World Ministries   1988
(Wilson challenges her audience to consider the changing context in the world in which we engage in mission.)

“First,” she said, “is the shift in the axis of the number of Christians and the vitality of Christian faith from North America and Europe to Asia and Africa.  The younger churches are no longer young.  Where Christian community is growing fastest is in South Korea and in Africa.”  She suggested that we have things to learn from these Christians, including their perception that both Europe and North America
are now mission fields, that we are seen and viewed by many in the world as exporters of violence, that in many ways we are seen as putting the Christian faith into cultural captivity to our economic systems, which exploit the Third World.  She also reminded her audience that in the global context there is the “discovery of the poor being central to the message of the Gospel.  The poor of the world.”  She added, “And your church and mine, because many of us are not poor, we have to really find ways to be in solidarity with the poor.”

… “The second road that is closing is tribal theology,” Wilson said, “theology that says we are the norm, we have it all figured out.”  Rather we need to hear what is being said out of the variety of contexts in which theology is being done today – feminist theology, black theology, minjung theology, and others.  What they have in common, she suggested, was that “they start from the needs and the experience of people.” And if we start there, we may be able to move from seeing mission as crusade to a mentality of vulnerability, “walking the road of the crucified one.”

…In all this, “Christians better be doing their biblical homework,” Wilson said.  “We need to be biblically literate and theological literate.  By that I mean knowing what our story is, who we are, remembering who we are as the people of God, because, if we know who we are, we are likely to know where we are to be going.” (Whole Earth Newsletter, Winter 1989, 1-2).

D. How We See It From Here: The Rev. Robert Molsberry, Community Development Coordinator  in Nicaragua, 1992

“Some kids pawed through our garbage yesterday.  It was inevitable.  We have the best garbage on the block in our Managua neighborhood.  While our neighbors throw out banana peels and corn shucks…we throw out…jelly and peanut butter jars and two-liter plastic pop bottles.  It was only a matter of time before we were found out.

…What do I have to give up to feel, finally, justified in the eyes of God and my sisters and brothers?...Too often…we’re motivated by guilt to unload our material things and live in atonement for real or imagined sins…Look instead to liberation… (As spoken by an Australian aborigine woman) “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  I had been thinking too much in terms of the sacrifices involved in simplifying my lifestyle, and not enough in terms of the benefits.

The conveniences that make our lives so comfortable also impoverish us.  They isolate us from the most precious commodity of all:  human relationships.  Together, the marginalized of the world and we First World refugees ought to be able to forge a radically new future.” (Whole Earth Newsletter,  Nov. 1992, 5).

E. Goel Bagundol, Missionary to the United States from the Philippines “Mission Shifts the Gears of Faith” 2000

“A divine appointment that redefined my commitment and orientation of God’s ministry to our youth and children,” was how Goel Bagundol described his experience with the Disciples of Christ Youth and Children’s Camp in Kentucky this summer.  He came from the Philippines as part of the Global Ministries program to promote shared life and mutuality with our global partners.

‘Faith in God is not for an individual alone, but such faith is intended for the community,’ Goel said.  He found that in spite of the hi-tech world we live in, most of the campers he met had no idea how other countries had been suffering…

But Goel found that his presence there, and his conversations with the campers, ‘enabled them to shift the gears of the faith into a more conscious Koinonia, ’ to realize that faith is present not only in this country, but also present in all the world.  ‘I do believe that mission is vital to opening the horizon of these children’s faith, a horizon that unites them to a global community of faith.’ 

‘Hope is what we are living for each day, and, as for me, hope is our ongoing struggle towards God’s Shalom.  It is a struggle of knowing, redefining, and working toward such goal.’   In the first four camps, he found he often received a silent reception after sharing the story of the church in his country. 

He didn’t know he said, ‘If they were serious about it, ashamed of the destruction brought by American policies in the third world, or if they just wanted to drop the subject.’  Then, in the fifth week, in a Junior Camp, after he had talked about the struggles of his country, a young girl spoke up and said, ‘Shame on us for doing bad things to your country!’  He was a bit shocked by the remark.  ‘And the best thing,’  he continued, ‘was that there was another girl, an eight-year-old little girl, who said to me, ‘Will you forgive us?’  Such innocent confession moved me to tears deep inside.’  Such a statement is one that Filipinos have been eagerly waiting to hear regarding actions of the U.S. government, he said, ‘Oh, how I wished that all oppressed countries would hear such a statement.  Oh, how I pray that the American government would make that statement.’  Goel felt his experience with the camp was wrapped up with such statements, made by the Junior Camp’s small group.  And he saw validity in his mission here, ‘because of the hope I see now and the hope that I see in the coming future. 

Truly, Jesus Christ wanted us to be like a child, a child who is willing to admit a mistake and willing to ask for forgiveness.  Indeed, the door of Hope for Christ’s church is open now!’….”  (Whole Earth Newsletter, Fall 2000,  8).


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