Over the last several years, mission and outreach have become major emphases within the Community of Christ. I must admit I often feel quite uncomfortable with this. Missionaries have a long history of collaboration with imperialism and have a record of insensitivity to cultures other than their own. I am not always convinced that we, who often have difficulty defining precisely what we are and believe, have something so much better to offer than other cultures and religions.
Indeed, stripped of all political correctness, the job of a missionary is to go tell people that they are wrong and that they must change the way they think and act. This holds incredible potential for arrogance – at its root is a belief that the missionary knows better than the potential convert how to live one’s life. Unsurprisingly, this does not jibe very well with the notion of a pluralistic society, in which diverse cultures and faiths are tolerated, celebrated and encouraged to thrive.
One way to think about this issue is to look at the different approaches to mission that were expressed in the work of Charles D. Neff, one of the Community of Christ’s most prominent missionaries from the early 1960s to 1980s. I believe his work in Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya has rich potential for teaching the Community of Christ how to interact with people of different faiths and cultures. His understandings of mission evolved over his career through at least five different models:
1. ‘One True Church’/Imperial Model: When Neff and other missionaries were sent by the World Conference in 1960 to plant the church in Japan and Korea, they went with a confidence that they represented the ‘One True Church.’ This sectarianism was a cornerstone of church doctrine at the time – all other churches, religions and cultures were considered either ‘in apostasy’ or outright heathens.
The missionaries believed they had a monopoly on the truth and that mission involved persuading people to abandonment totally their local culture and convert to the ‘culture’ of the church. However, as Neff and his staff began to interact with people and learn more about local cultures they started to feel uncomfortable with this model. They began to wonder how much of their ‘faith’ was actually simply American and Western culture.
Dale Bethel, who worked alongside Neff, said, “There was a kind of slow awakening that we were doing ineffective things. We had not been prepared to understand deeper political, cultural, and economic realities of the country where we were working. Simply talking about this great American prophet and an American church was not what people wanted to hear.”
Furthermore, through the ages, this model of imposing one religion on other people has unsurprisingly been closely linked to imperial projects. European missionaries and colonists colluded closely in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the end of the 19th Century. Similarly, initial Community of Christ contacts in East Asia came as a result of US military and commercial expansion after WWII.
Slowly, Neff began to appreciate how much they could learn from Japanese and Korean culture. There were concepts that were completely lacking from Western understandings of the world, which nonetheless seemed to resonate and speak truth. Moreover, certain things that were seen as so important to American members – their distinction from Mormons or other Christians, salvation, heaven, hell – did not always make sense to people of other cultures and faiths. To impose one’s faith and culture on people, and ask them to abandon their roots wholesale seemed arrogant and insensitive – particularly since much of the Community of Christ message was rooted more in modern Midwestern American culture than the faith of a first century Jewish teacher.
2. ‘Fulfillment’ Model: As he lost confidence in a sectarian approach to mission, Neff began to believe that the Community of Christ represented not a replacement of local culture and faith, but rather a ‘fulfillment’ of it. Having joined the church as a young man, he saw the Community of Christ as a fulfillment of his Baptist upbringing, not a replacement of it. As a result, just as many Christians think of their faith as a fulfillment of Judaism, Neff believe the message of the Community of Christ – particularly the worth of persons and the reality of a personal God – could fulfill and enrich other cultures and faiths.
“While recognizing that some aspects of the culture must be transformed, our general attitude should be that the Restoration gospel fulfills rather than displaces,” he said.
While this was more sensitive to the value in other people’s backgrounds, Neff eventually also became dissatisfied with this approach. There is something vaguely patronizing about assuming that one holds the key to fulfilling what are ultimately seen as inadequacy in other cultures.
3. Dialogue Model: Neff eventually began to see mission as a “two way street”, a dialogue between equals in which cultures and faiths learn from each other and enrich each others’ understandings of the world. He envisaged a day in which the Community of Christ would accept Confucius and Lao Tzu as other sources of scripture – a radical reinterpretation of the church’s doctrine of open canon.
“To assume that the gospel as understood in America can fulfill the Orient [sic] culture but that no reciprocation is possible because the Western cultures are already refined and sanctified or because the Saints of the Eastern churches are inferior Christians is arrogance of the first order,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, conservatives in the church found this very threatening. They felt, with some justification, that Neff was becoming a cultural relativist. They argued that if all cultures were equally valid then one opened the doors to ‘anything goes.’
4. Social Service Model: In the 1970s, Neff began to work in the developing world – the Philippines, Liberia, Nigeria and Kenya – and started to feel his understanding of mission had lacked an attention to the real material problems faced by the majority of the world. He believed Christianity meant little if it didn’t speak to issues of massive poverty, disease and suffering:
“When I think of the mission of the Church,” he reflected, “I recall the face of the poorest person and ask: Will it restore the dignity that every man should enjoy? Will it set him free? Will it heal his broken heart?”
As a result, he set up a series of humanitarian and community development organizations to provide aid and empowerment to the poor. The culmination of these efforts was Outreach International, a small international development NGO loosely affiliated with the Community of Christ.
While the earnestness of his social service efforts was widely respected, many members worried that Neff was moving away from religious mission toward secular humanitarianism. They felt a church could not simply become a social service provider; rather a church is an expression of faith.
5. Prophetic Witness Model: Toward the end of his life, Neff started to move away from the Social Service model for a different reason – he felt it inadequately dealt with the root political and social systems that caused poverty and conflict. Influenced by liberation theology, he became increasingly radicalized and felt the mission of a religious leader must be to denounce as heresy those human institutions that oppress, kill and steal.
He acknowledged that many would “not agree that it is appropriate for church leaders to be involved in the secular world,” but stressed that he felt “I not only have the right but the duty to speak out on the concrete issues of the day as they affect the well-being of God’s Creation.”
Within the church, he condemned the limitation of priesthood to men as exclusive, even calling for the abolishment of priesthood offices altogether. He publically criticized the construction of The Temple in Independence, arguing that the money would be better spent in helping the suffering.
His opprobrium was not limited to the church. He used a sermon to the World Conference in 1982 as an opportunity to forcefully condemn the nuclear arms race. He joined marchers in Washington protesting against US support of right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.
“I try to be a voice for the cause of human rights,” he said. “I believe God is a respecter of all persons, concerned for their well-being and that I should be also. If Christians don’t take the lead in advocating peace, liberty and justice, who will?”
He thus felt the church must be prepared to risk everything to be a prophetic witness of God’s justice in a world repressed by sinful structures. This meant the church could not avoid engaging in the political arena – it had to play the role of Nathan to the world’s King Davids.
“The call of Jesus to the cross was a call to love God and one’s neighbor in so direct a way that the authorities in power could only regard it as revolutionary and also subversive,” he said. “‘Taking up the cross,’ ‘losing one’s life,’ meant being willing to die at the hands of political authorities for the truth of the gospel, for that love of God which encompasses all humans.”
Obviously this approach angered many people, who felt Neff was using his position as a church leader to forward his political agenda. Ironically, the Prophetic Witness Model is similar to the One True Church Model in that it firmly believes in its own truth.
Which Model for Contemporary Community of Christ Mission?
Given the above five models, which is the most appropriate for the Community of Christ’s mission in a pluralistic world? Personally, I find the first two – the One True Church and Fulfillment models – to be imbued with an unacceptable cultural superiority and parochialism. The Dialogue model, while not a bad approach to pluralism is a little wishy-washy for my tastes. There is a great deal we can learn through cross-cultural dialogue – indeed in a globalized world I believe we are called to engage with ‘The Other.’ However, I believe religious institutions are also called to arbitrate and determine the difference between right and wrong.
Much of my own career has resembled the Social Service model. I work in the secular world, within the humanitarian and development sectors. The last thing I want to be called is a missionary. But nonetheless I think that the church is called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned. However, I recognize that simply providing social services is not sufficient – it can even be paternalistic. To give the poor food without asking why they are hungry and who is to blame, is an exercise in irrelevance.
Therefore, I think the most powerful model of mission for the Community of Christ is that of Prophetic Witness. As a church we must emulate Jesus, standing with those who are suffering and speaking truth to power. We must work to transform those systems of oppression that prevent each person being valued as an image of God – no matter their culture, religion or background. We must be ready to risk the very life of our institution to be relevant to the world’s needs – to speak with authority and vision, calling for the fulfillment of the dream of the lion and lamb lying together with the child, where all can live in peace and unafraid.
To read Matthew’s previous blog postings on the mission and direction of the church, click here to read his article ‘Managed Decline or Rejuvenation’, or click here to read “The Community of Christ is Not a Peace Church.” To read his biography of Charles D. Neff, Apostle of the Poor, click here.