Challenges And Opportunities To The Mission of The Churches

Postdate: 20-04-2010

Speech by Rev. Akuila Yabaki
CEO of Citizens’ Constitutional Forum
Presented at PCC Mission Conference, Viwa Island

Dated 12th April 2010

Whenever there is a consultation on the mission of the Christian Church in the 21st century, its important not to ignore the political context. This is particularly true of the Fiji current situation.

In Fiji free expression has been under intense pressure since the imposition of the Public Emergency Regulations (PER) since April 10, 2009, the day the 1997 Constitution was abrogated. The regulations are extended every thirty days even though the country does not have any situation of natural disaster, civil or political unrest or violence. This is a sharp departure from Fiji’s political tradition where contentious opposing views were freely expressed in the media. The censorship poses severe risks to the future of free expression in Fiji. 

Government censors are sent in by the police to newspaper, radio and television companies every day. These censors order all news that is critical of the government to be deleted. The impact is that NGOs, politicians and ordinary citizens who are critical of the government, are now unable to get any of their media articles published. The CCF itself has been unable to get any of its Media Releases published since April 13 2009. Immediately after the abrogation, a number of journalists were arrested and detained by the police for writing articles that were critical of the government. In May 2009, two Fiji live journalists were arrested and detained for a weekend, after publishing a media release issued by CCF on the release on Compulsory Supervision Orders (CSOs), eight soldiers and one policeman who were serving sentences of over four years imprisonment for a manslaughter conviction. Prominent politicians, lawyers, church officials, union and NGO activists have been taken to the army camp and warned. 15 Methodist church officials were charged with violating the PER. Several overseas journalists have been deported. The High Commissioners from Australia and New Zealand have been expelled and two former Fiji citizens have been forbidden to return to Fiji.

In addition, there was an attempt to evangelise the police force through the “Christian Crusade” that had adopted “the Jesus strategy” as the way to fight crime. Police officers were required to participate in the religious activities of the New Methodist Church founded by the brother of the Police Commissioner Esala Teleni. The New Methodist Church supported Bainimarama’s policies and actively recruited members through a demagogue style of preaching and song and dance entertainment. This religious activity was particularly discriminatory to the Indo-Fijian community in Fiji who largely belong to the Hindu and Muslim faiths, and the other religious minorities, as the police officers from these faith had to participate in the “Christian Crusade” or risk losing their jobs. The New Methodist Church also was seen as an attempt to decrease the population of Methodist church followers in Fiji.

The Bainimarama regime has cracked down strongly on the Methodist Church due to the church’s strong ties with the ousted Prime Minister Qarase’s SDL political party. Religion had already been politicized prior to the December 2006 coup, however, the Bainimarama government’s actions have been intimidating for church members and therefore discriminatory and in violation of human rights.

Good Governance

Fiji is a country vibrant with civil society organization (CSO) activities. I currently work as head of Citizens’ Constitutional Forum a leading participant amongst Fiji’s civil society organizations is engaged in carrying out awareness of the principles of good governance in Fiji. The World Bank has defined good governance as “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development.”

Good governance is the term that symbolizes the paradigm shift of the role of governments. Governance is not only about the ‘organs’ or actors, it is about the quality of governance, which expresses itself through elements and dimensions.

Good governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.

In the midst of restrictions imposed by interim government decrees and in an expanding culture of globalization and concomitant business malpractice, corruption and greed there are civil society organizations in Fiji that are involved in teaching grassroots people in villages ad settlements the values of good governance. Equipped with this knowledge ordinary citizens are empowered to make demands for good governance from their leaders in government .churches and other public institutions.

Biblical Perspective

Central to the prophetic tradition of the Jewish Bible (OT) is the idea of covenant. Basic to the idea of good governance is the voluntary covenant rather than force –the idea of equality before the law and the supremacy of the law over the whims of any ruler; the idea of dignity of the individual human being and also the idea of individual concern: the idea of service to the poor and the oppressed.

The God of the Bible is a sending God; he sends messengers, prophets and leaders to his people. The whole activity of God in creation and redemption has a missionary aspect. Mission takes place in the interim between Pentecost and the parousia. Therefore mission is seen in every person of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father shows his mission through his sending activity to man and by his perpetual working in creation.

The sending mission of Jesus does not begin with the great commission after the resurrection (Matt.28:18-20) but with the sending out of the apostles and the seventy to proclaim the imminence of the kingdom (Mark 6.7-13; Luke 10.1-20). In mission the disciples were to go out like Israel traveling light, moving quickly and with similar urgency. But the real mission can only begin in the power of the risen Christ. It is through Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit (John 20.21-23) that the new creation and the new age is really brought into being.

When we turn to apostle Paul we recognize that the taproot of Paul’s cosmic understanding of mission is a personal belief in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as Savior of the world. In Christ God has reconciled the world to himself (2Cor 5:19) , and the universality of he gospel ,as Paul is called to the task , is to herald  God’s saving victory over all God’s creation. Christ has been exalted by God and given a name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, “ in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:9-11).

Paradigm Shift

In discussing the manner in which the Christian church has, through the ages, interpreted and carried out its mission, and the church’s responsibility toward the world, Hans Kung  (1984;1987) submits that the entire history of Christianity can be subdivided into what he calls six major “paradigms”.

These are :

  1. The  paradigm  of primitive Christianity
  2. The Hellenistic paradigm of the patristic period.
  3. The medieval Roman Catholic paradigm.
  4. The Protestant ( Reformation) paradigm.
  5. The modern enlightenment paradigm
  6. The emerging ecumenical paradigm.

Each of these six periods, Kung suggests, reveals a peculiar understanding of the Christian faith.

Over time each paradigm changes and increasingly blurs, one new paradigm then begins to attract more and more scholars, until eventually the original, problem-ridden paradigm is phased out.

In this regard the Western missionary enterprise in the Pacific took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and would fit into the wake of the Enlightenment  paradigm; and proceeded from the conviction that God has chosen the western nations as standard- bearers of the missionary cause to the ends of the world and reinforced by the assumption of the superiority of Western culture over all other cultures.

Most of the early British missionaries however, had no  high education; they belonged to working or labour class stock. John Hunt the Wesleyan missionary who became a convert to Christian faith whilst working as a  farm hand in Lincolnshire came to Fiji with his wife, Hannah in 1839 eventually based his work station on Viwa ( here on this island). The conversion of Varani in 1845 greatly pleased John Hunt. Varani had been destroyer and eater of his enemies.

Ecumenical Missionary Paradigm

According to the paradigm shift model advanced by Hans Kung we are now in the emerging ecumenical missionary paradigm.

Inter-confessional dialogue is a feature of ecumenism and is one of the most important phenomenons of the 20th & 21st Century.

But ecumenism should not be limited to the community of Christian Churches. It must include the community of the great religions. What is Religion?  It can be defined as “ having access to the holy one”(Hans Kung).

The foundation for our understanding of the mission of the church is there is one God, no other. Apostasy in the Bible is to believe that there are other gods, that they are real and to worship them. The Bible begins with creation, a biblical concept that is fundamental to relationship with people of other faiths.

The Bible therefore is not the story of the creation of the church, or of Christians, not even Israel, but of the cosmos: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This belief is basic to the Bible; that God is the creator of everything and everybody. There is nothing that is outside God’s providence; there is no life, no experience, no worship, no liberation, no salvation that can happen outside the scope of God’s love and knowledge.

Nation Building

Most modern nation states are organized as if cultural homogeneity can only be achieved by masking the reality that the facts differ from the model. Minorities are therefore ethnic groups that do not conform to the dominant model. Here minority is more than just a numerical term; it is also sociological and political.

The parts of the world that have experienced a rise in ethnicism and nationalism are places where democracy and enfranchisement of people have been won and established. In these societies seemingly normal political forces have unleashed violence  in apparently stable, educated and civilized nation states. Education system has a role in inhibiting or exacerbating inter-ethnic conflict within the state. (Professor Jagdish Gundara , CCF Lecture 1998)

We could do well to watch against symbols often legitimated by educational systems to protect identities, which set people apart as ‘them’ against us, ‘belongers’ and ‘strangers’ or as in Fijian ‘vulagi’. Education system can also play a role in resolving these dilemmas. However in places where national identity has been closely associated with an ethnicity, there has been marginalisation and even destruction of ethnically distinct peoples whose cultures, religions, languages, and beliefs do not conform to the so-called national model.

In this regard Fiji is a case in point. Despite having a small population, Fiji’s politics are complicated by its complex ethnic make up. Indigenous Fijians were outnumbered by the Indo Fijians during the 1946 Census. The colonial and indigenous Fijian leaders used this at the time to instill fear in the minds of indigenous Fijians of a possible ‘Indian take-over’. This and the persistent demand by Indo-Fijians for political representation were used by colonial administration and indigenous Fijian leaders as justification to continue to strengthen communal rule; and this was seen as a means of divide and rule and secondly, it was seen as a means of ‘protecting’ indigenous interests.

Ethnicity and Religion

Many religious traditions have their prophetic streams. Jewish and Christian faith has their prophetic tradition. The Biblical prophets encourage us to be suspicious of the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few; to mistrust ideological rationale that endorses ethnicity as the primary form of separating the people who belong to one nation. The religion of the prophetic encourages us to be sensitive to the poor in a time of increasing poverty; the marginalized, the vulagi or foreigner.

For indigenous Fijians, cultural values are a reaffirmation of identity.  At the core of the culture is the perception that the traditional system is the ideal. Adherence to this ideal becomes the criterion by which all other communities are perceived and assessed. This belief is commonly held by many indigenous Fijians, and it distinguishes them from anyone else. It is expressed whenever traditional ceremonies are performed, and everyone subscribes to it in various degrees of conviction.

Since the time of the Cession of the Fiji Islands to the British government in 1874, this ideal has been the basis of political leadership. With the arrival of the indenture labour and the supporting colonial policy, these Fijian values had to be protected. The traditional system has to be kept apart from other factors considered to be corrupting.

The religious  divide is also the ethnic divide  – most Fijians are Christian and most Indo-Fijians are Hindu or Muslim. For Fijians, most of whom are Methodists, their Christianity has become closely intertwined with their culture. Similarly, for Indo-Fijians, whether Hindu or Muslim, their religion and their ethnicity are one.

We Christians seem to find it difficult to accept that Hindus and people of other faiths are not only created by, but also sustained by, God the Creator. The Biblical understanding of God as creator should lead us to understand that all people, their cultures and spiritualities are within the sphere of God’s love. Wesley Arirajah says, ”My Hindu or Muslim neighbor, whether I like it or dislike the way he or she worships God, is still a child of God”. ( The Bible and People of Other Faiths, P11).

If we truly believe that God is one, we cannot also believe that Hindus worship other Gods, or that there are other Gods who answer their prayers. Hindus and Muslims have different concepts of God, but there are some commonalities they share with us Christians, and they acknowledge God the Creator. We cannot set limits to the saving power of God.

Land

In a country where claims of ownership and domination of land by one ethnic group is so loud as to become unsettling for others the Bible points to the a higher claim by asserting that Earth  is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof to be shared by all God’s children (Ps. 24).

The Pacific understanding of land is derived from understanding of creation.

Land is a gift from God; there is a mystical relationship between the people and the land; it’s sacred trust which was entrusted to the ancestors and passed to the present generation to use and to pass on to future generations. This is very different from the European concept of land which views the land as commodity.

But what does the gospel say in relation to Pacific concept of land?

The Scriptures endorses the view that God created the land (Ge.1:1) And more important it supports the notion that land is a gift from God entrusted to the care of the people ; its not to be treated as commodity to be traded. But land must be seen as gift to sustain life, human life as well as the life of creation. There are Churches in Fiji and the Pacific which own large tracts of land; the church needs to reassess its relationship to the land; the land must be used in the service of God. The church is in a strategic position to speak out against greed and exploitation of the land but it can only speak with authority on these matters when in it demonstrates in its own management of resources and mission God’s care for all his people.

Openess To Others

Alan Richardson (1982) has described the theology of mission in various ways. Three of them seem particularly relevant to the present discourse about multicultural societies. These three ways of doing mission are relevant to the context in which we carry out the mission of the church within the emerging ecumenical paradigm.

  1. Mission as Response  Mission is the Christian response to a loving and sending God. The mission belongs to God. He takes the initiative. In the Bible the sending God demands a response from man in mission (Isa. 6:1-8; John 20.21-23). Mission is the response of the Christian community to the gospel.
  2. Mission as Dialogue. The way of dialogue is the way of openness to others and personal encounter. The missionary is one who crosses frontiers with the gospel. These frontiers are not just geographical; they may be social, racial, cultural or political ones.  The mission partner who goes out in dialogue must be aware that Christ has gone before him and that he breaks down the barriers between men (Eph.2.11-16). In dialogue the Christian and non-Christian seek out the basis of their shared humanity to find the true meaning of life, which the Christian believes is in Jesus.
  3. Mission as Translation  God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ was a process of translation into the terms which men could understand. The whole process of kenosis (Phil. 2.5 -11) is a process of translation into terms which men could understand. So the mission activity of man in response to God’s mission may be seen in terms of the translation of the gospel into the language of the people to whom the gospel is to be preached. Here we are not simply talking about linguistic literature translation but the risk which is necessary and must be undertaken in mission. Translation requires not only an understanding of the gospel but also an understanding of the language and culture of the people to whom the gospel is to be preached.

This understanding of the process of translation can lead to indigenization as we seek to relate the gospel to indigenous culture not only in preaching but in the way churches grow and develop.

The Temptation of the Church

“The danger of the Church is always the danger which our Lord met in the Temptation – to try and attain her end by self-preservation, to preserve her life at all costs, to regard herself as beleaguered fortress, to defend herself against the world, to keep the institution going at all costs, to persuade men not that she will support them, but that they must support her.” ( Bishop Robin, once of Adelaide in Journey of a Soul, Appleton .G 1974).

The Gospel Reading of First Sunday Easter (yesterday) John 20:19-31 is about the sending mission of Jesus, the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples met with doors shut for fear …; the disciples met behind locked doors. When the church shuts the door it may be for the purpose of assessment and consideration of its role in mission; in finding new ways to open doors as widely as possible.

But if our shutting of doors is out of fear then we have to consider carefully what is it that we fear. Could we fear to preserve life at all cost? Or fear to keep the institution going at all costs or fear to defend herself to the outside world, calling on people to support her not the church to support people! But here in the scripture Jesus sends out disciples, “ As the Father sent me so I send you”. Then he breathed on them the Holy Spirit for their empowerment. The Holy Spirit is available to the sent-church not just for the defence of the status quo. . The Holy Spirit has a role in bringing about structural reform in order for the church to fulfill its mission in our time.

In mission the church has to rediscover its prophetic tradition. The Biblical prophets encourage us to be suspicious of the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few; to mistrust ideological rationale that endorses ethnicity as the primary form of separating the people who belong to one nation. The religion of the prophetic encourages us to be sensitive to the poor in a time of increasing poverty; the marginalized, the vulagi or foreigner.

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