Mission in the 21st Century

Mission in the 21st Century

The Rev. Dr. Dhyanchard Carr served as Principal of the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, one of our partner institutions in India.  Dr. Carr received his Ph.D. from the University of London, Faculty of New Testament in 1981.  His is a well-respected voice for peace and justice in the Church and society, not only in India and Sri Lanka but also in many circles in Southern Asia.

With Special Reference to UCC Congregations Committed to the Global Mission of the Church


Under the theme Mutuality of Mission, the WCM and CGM organized a Mission Event for the Conference Ministers and Mission Personnel in Cleveland on November 18-20, 2008.  I was invited to be a keynote speaker on the theme “Mission in the 21st Century.”   First of all let me begin with a word of gratitude to the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte and Jan Aerie for the invitation.  It is a great privilege and a great personal affirmation.

I thought I would take time to write up a full text of the presentation and the issues that were raised, especially as there was little time for a full length presentation and leisurely discussion.  So during the presentation I decided simply to highlight the biblical-theological position to be set forth.  There was hardly any time to indicate the significance of the thesis offered for Mission with special reference to the church in the U.S.  During the brief time of discussion, however, several points of practical importance did arise. So I have taken time to expand the presentation in the hope that it might be of help in provoking an on going discussion in the Conferences represented at the event.  The main thrust of the presentation was that Mission is to be envisaged in terms of an ongoing struggle to bring the principalities and powers, i.e. all the powers that govern life such as culture, religion and politics, to serve God’s just purposes.

The summary of the thesis offered was as follows.  The Church all over the world suffers from hanging on to an other-worldly-end time vision, which would come true dramatically and suddenly when Christ returns to the earth from his heavenly abode.  In tandem the nature of the Church is envisaged as an exclusive community set apart for this future salvation. Both of these, namely the expectation of a sudden cataclysmic end to human history and that the Church alone would be saved from damnation, are no longer sustainable, if they ever were.  It was under this twin theological presupposition the Mission endeavor of the 19th century was carried out.  People like me are its product and so cannot speak about it dismissively.  However, we have indeed shifted our Mission emphasis to critical presence and to accompany people in their struggles.  Yet, we have not yet sufficiently dislodged the old misunderstood theological basis. Mission indeed is Mission for the furtherance of God’s just reign through engaging the principalities and powers which seem to be under the control of the devil.  The Church is called upon to spearhead this struggle in and alongside of all God’s partners.  The following write-up seeks to demonstrate that in fact, Jesus had understood his mission as a mission to bind up the strong man (the sum total of the powers of evil) and thus establish the just reign of God.  The History of the post resurrection Church, however, shifted the emphasis to the experience of being forgiven and accepted by God.  St. Paul evangelized the gentile world under this Gospel and also developed the doctrine of election/predestination of the few who would be saved when Christ appeared in all probability in his own life time. 

It is important, however, that we realize that even the Apostle Paul moved on from the totally other-worldly-end time vision and also gave up exclusive claims for the Church as the community set apart for salvation.  We shall also discover that he came back to Jesus’ own understanding of his mission.  This was as already mentioned as a mission of the strong man and delivering the whole world from his clutches.   Thus Jesus envisaged the coming of the day when will of God would be done on earth.   Such a shift in Paul’s thinking can be discerned through a study of his twin epistles of Colossians and Ephesians.  Once we perceive that Paul himself transcended his own earlier understanding then we shall also be motivated to review our self understanding and consequently also of the nature of our Mission.  Let us see how Paul underwent change in his understanding and how we may also follow suit.

I.  St. Paul developed Hope for a Cosmic Redemption in Christ

St Paul seriously reviewed his earlier understanding of his eschatology, his understanding of the Church’s status and its role, when he was under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial by Caesar, towards the end of his missionary journeys.  This revised understanding is reflected in the letters to Colossians and Ephesians.  Some salient features of this revised understanding are:

i.  Earlier when he wrote to the Romans he thought of the Church as the chosen and elect community for forgiveness of sins and acceptance as Children of God, to be kept through the power of the Holy Spirit for final redemption from damnation.  They would face martyrdom maybe in their confession of Jesus as Lord in contradistinction to the claim of Caesar to be Lord, but will not challenge the civil authority of Caesar.

ii.  Because his hope for justice from Rome had been belied and the fact that he was facing trial because of the Jewish opposition, he had to seriously review the role played by “Principalities and Powers” – Though created in and for Christ (Col.1:16f) they have become rebellious and now function under the Prince of the Power of Air (Ephes.2:2).

iii.  In light of this new understanding the Church’s role is no longer one of passive waiting with a sense of withdrawal, waiting for God to complete the task of subjugating the powers as was advocated in I Cor.7:29-31 and 15:24-28,  but is rather one of active participation together with Christ in engaging the principalities in struggle.

iv.        I want to suggest to you, along with his own personal sense of disappointment as a citizen of Rome, he also seriously reviewed the life and teaching of Christ in the light of Isaiah’s vision of God’s future to be achieved in and through the Davidic Messiah in Is.11:1-9.

v.  The reason for this was in all probability the delay in the Second Coming,  which made Paul also do some serious reflection on Jesus’ self understanding as the Stronger than the Strong Man (the devil) and on Jesus’ universalistic understanding of the  purpose of God.

vi.        The Church is going to exist for many generations.  Therefore as members of the body of Christ — an already SAVED community — they are to cooperate with God in God’s Mission to consummate all things in Christ — Ephes.1:9&10. This meant the work of breaking down barriers to enable the emergence of the New Human Community of Peace with Justice and contending against all forces, religious, socio-cultural and political…  Earlier Paul had spoken of salvation as a future hope.  We are justified and given the status of the children of God through faith. 

vii.  Finally, we shall be ‘saved’ from judgment and damnation and will enter into the glorious inheritance becoming fellow heirs with Christ.  This was the Gospel he preached as explained in his letter to the Romans.  But when Paul writes Ephesians some six or seven years later, he talks about the Church as a community of the already ‘saved’ who already are seated at the right hand of Christ and are involved in the warfare against the powers that be.  Salvation is no longer escape from sin and damnation but being raised again from the dead in sins and being delivered from the clutches of the Prince of the Power of the Air now at work among the disobedient.  The Church with Christ as its head is to work for the final consummation of all things in heaven and earth.  They are the model new human community created by bringing together the Jewish and Gentile believers and who are together engaged in the warfare against the powers that be.

The final Consummation of all things in heaven and earth, which is the ultimate purpose of God, is to be achieved by God through the Church communicating God’s wisdom to the powers that be.  It is this process of communicating God’s wisdom to all the powers that is to be achieved in the light of Paul’s understanding of Is. 11:1-9, which is not explicitly stated but which is clearly alluded to by describing the Church as being girded with truth just as the Messiah was expected to do.  Being girded with truth the Messiah’s Mission was development of the word of God that strikes the earth and renders ineffectual all the logic of the oppressors – capitalist, racist/casteist & male supremacist. This is the sword of the Spirit, the only armor of attack in the whole armor of God we are called upon to wear.

II.      The Mission of the Church in Light of the Above Revised Mandate

Could we say that our understanding of Mission corresponds to this understanding of Paul based on his understanding of Jesus’ own self understanding?  Do we have an overview of the religious, cultural and political forces that tend to justify exploitation (e.g., the denial of overtime wages to ad hoc farm labor such as the apple pickers and the huge farm subsidies to the already rich farmers), the enormous differentials in earnings (the salaries of the CEO in comparison to the labor force), the way our society remains stratified and estranged from one another as stratified collectives?  Are we aware of all the media mischief which controls our values through the way it filters information to us? 

In the religious realm, are we aware of the terrible damage that is done by calls to Christians to unite to support Israel’s determination to annihilate, drive out or to keep the Palestinian people as disenfranchised people?  Have we got over that evangelistic motivation based on the eternal destiny of the unbelieving world and have we developed a different understanding of the imperative of commending the love of God in Jesus to all nations?  The Mission of the Church is primarily local and collective.  We shall be motivated to be involved in such a collective Mission only by first becoming aware that we are part and parcel of the processes of rationalizing injustice.  We may not be directly involved in oppression and exploitation of the poorer and weaker sections of society, but in so far as we are beneficiaries of the unjust system and structures, we belong not to the collective of the oppressed and the marginalized but to the collective of the privileged.  For example, I was told that one shoe manufacturer a very popular brand paid a famous basket ball player two million dollars for a two minute clip TV advertisement.  This amount is more than the compounded wages for two years of the laborers in Thailand who produced the shoes.  When people happily wear such popular brands unaware of the exploited labor that produced the shoes, they are also indirect participants in the injustice.  Examples of this kind could be multiplied….so the very first requirement would be to develop collective consciousness of guilt and determination to repent and bring forth fruits of repentance.

Global Mission at best can only play a facilitating role to the local churches overseas.  And, if local Mission Churches originally planted under “saving the souls which would otherwise end up in hell” motivation are to develop a new consciousness, the Mission mentors should set up concrete examples in their own soil and commend them to us.  With regard to the recent elections I shall publish abroad that the President Elect is a member of the UCC.  The election has provided a powerful sign that racial barriers could be transcended.  This is a very important message for our country (i.e. India) divided under caste divisions and prejudices.  So go ahead and produce such signs in the fields of economics and also in the field of fighting fundamentalist forces of religion.

III. Some Concluding Remarks based on the Discussion after the Presentation

The question was raised whether it is appropriate to use the metaphor of the warfare and talk of the sword of the Spirit.  When we are up against powers of evil we have to talk about a struggle and warfare.  Jesus compared himself to a stronger than the Strong Man who was  keeping guard over his possessions (usurped and robbed from God the rightful owner), then the Messianic deliverer enters as the stronger than the Strong Man who disarms him, binds him up and plunders his goods, i.e. restores the possession to the rightful owner.  Although it is language of robbery in the instance of Jesus’ own parable and warfare in the language of Paul and also in the vision of the Prophet Isaiah,  the weapon is Word of God, i.e. the counter logic of the capitalists, those who justify enormous differentials in earning and the low wages paid to the poor laborers, male chauvinistic logic which dared to say once openly if a woman was sensible she would not seek to have the right to vote, the racial supremacists/colonizers who justified the killing of the aboriginals in Australia, the pushing of native Americans to the peripheries and who justified slave trade.  The counter logic does not kill although “slaying the wicked” as a metaphor is used by Isaiah; but it renders the logic of the oppressor dead and ineffectual.  The warfare is spiritual against the spiritual powers that are behind all power structures controlling the way they function to the advantage of the rule of the Power of Evil.

Another question was with reference to the recession now enveloping the economy, the loss of jobs, and the reduction in incomes.  People are now turned in on themselves and their own woes.  How can any talk of Mission be meaningfully indulged in?  In fact this is the time to motivate them to struggle.  What is happening is the irresponsible “Free Market” which indulged in sub prime lending, which supported the paying of the CEOs enormous salaries and perks and all the time blamed the labor force for demanding unreal wages, no restraint was placed on speculation and gambling on the futures and derivatives — all of which diverted the money away from productive use. Industrial capitalism of yesteryears has now become finance capitalism.  In addition to unrestrained “Liberal Orthodoxy” there was also the irresponsible government spending on a totally unjustifiable war in terms of trillions of dollars.  We need to unite to give a strong message that the people of the nation would not tolerate trillions being spent on such wars of aggression.  In such a bleak situation some are making attempts at keeping mortgages alive by slashing their own profit proportions and making credit available to low income groups.   Such ethical attempts should be identified and encouraged.  But please let our people remember that in the whole world nearly two billion people cannot afford one good meal a day and as many do not have proper shelters, their children are exposed to malnutrition and diseases and do not have the opportunity even for minimal education to equip themselves for some jobs.  Even in the US there are many who depend on food stamps and are without proper health care in the midst of plenty.

The struggle in any case does not have to do with forces of economics only.  We are to be constantly involved in life as peace makers.  My wife Padmini and I had the privilege of staying over a week-end with Deborah Blood, the Chair of WCM.  Deborah took us out on a tour of Hartford where people live in clearly demarcated segments of the town.  She also told us that Hartford is a city where the highest income people and lowest income people in terms of national averages lived.   Her own Church is making some efforts to attract people from different ethnic groups.  I heard also that the Seminary in Hartford is making a strong effort at building bridges.  Such efforts need to be multiplied many times and our people need to be encouraged to participate in attempts to build bridges and bring about communal harmony along with participation in other out reach measures like Food Share and Samaritan’s Purse…  I feel very encouraged whenever I go to different floors of 700 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland where you are constantly reminded of the commitment of UCC to concerns of justice. I also feel greatly elated that I am making this presentation in the Amistad Chapel which reminds me of the rich heritage of commitment to justice that under girds UCC history. I am myself a partner of a joint venture between CGM – One Great Hour of Sharing and the Foods Resource Bank in that I am able to channel help to a community of four hundred poor farmers.  Given the magnitude of the problem these are but token efforts.  We need to challenge the rest of the world where there are lots of resources to do far more to combat mass poverty. No real peace is possible without achieving justice. We need to be in constant struggle against forces that keep many poor and a few rich.  We need to bring about a situation in which all racial and ethnic plurality enriches human life and do not function as forces of division and enmity so that the dream of One New Human Community becomes a reality little by little. We need to be able to help our people understand that, without solving the problem of the Palestinians, and allied questions of vested interest involvement in West Asia by imperialist governments such as that of the US, and also the growing imperialist ambitions of my own country being sorted out with a deep commitment to justice.  It is very difficult to overcome Jihadistic Spirit of some fundamentalist Muslims without understanding that there are deep wounds which get festered which must be healed first.   Therefore it is important to challenge Christians who are madly supporting Israel.  We need to be doing all we can to fight the growing Islam phobia, everywhere.

Well, I shall not indulge in pontification as to what you ought to be doing.  The above comments arose from the questions that were raised.  Let me conclude by saying that it does encourage my flagging spirit whenever I am here for spells of a week to a fortnight. I envy the sincerity and seriousness with which you lead the Church, compared to my own church’s pretentious ways and indulgence in large scale corruption.  So I am grateful for this great opportunity to be in your midst to think through about Mission which I shall also seek to share in my own context.  Thank you and God bless.