Stumbling out of the train in pitch darkness, I’m bundled unceremoniously into a rickshaw. “Don’t show your face. Don’t speak. Keep your head down.” My companions and our luggage on board, the rickshaw jolts off through the night. Arriving at our destination, I’m rushed inside. Three days later, still inside, I have full-on cabin fever. Frequent requests for a walk are politely declined: “It’s not safe.”
Eventually I protest: “Why is it unsafe? What’s so dangerous?” The answer follows a long pause: “To be honest, it’s not your safety that worries us. Our concern is for ourselves and our work. People here know we are Christian. They tolerate us as long as we are thoroughly Indian Christians. This was a colonised country. In some ways it still is. Please understand, it would not go well for us if people saw you here… You are our guest, if you insist on walking we won’t stop you.”
Fast forward and cross the map to another country, never successfully colonised, that has endured decades of military occupation and the cultural, economic and political domination that accompanies it. The world leaders who initiated the international intervention self-identified as Christian. One described the country as a “Godforsaken hell-hole of a place.” All proclaimed a salvific gospel (liberation for women; education, prosperity and democracy for all) interspersed with oracles of retribution and pre-emptive strike.
In this country, local Christians are not tolerated and never have been. Now, after decades of occupation, associating with foreigners puts local people of all persuasions under suspicion and exposes their communities to danger. Experience shows that well-intended attempts to contact local believers and work alongside the local church often alienate the church from its community and are as likely to prevent transformation as to promote it.
Anthropologist James C Scott explains that we cannot begin to gauge the depth of a people’s anger until we understand the cultural shape of their humiliation.1 Only then will we begin to realise that our sincere attempts to serve with love and compassion risk stripping those we would serve of their last vestiges of dignity and pride. Only then will we begin to sense how difficult it is for good news to be heard when spoken by those associated with forces of domination and oppression.
Vinoth Ramendchandra warns us not to assume that nothing is happening unless we or our team engage in all dimensions of integral mission.2 The challenge is not to balance our activities (words, mercy, social action) but to refuse to draw unbiblical distinctions between different aspects of mission. It is God’s mission, not ours! We are not the only people involved. Anyone and anything that serves God’s purposes contributes. Putting aside our strong desire for personal connection and and involvement frees us to step back from front-line tasks confident that local folk are quietly going about Kingdom business even though we don’t – and shouldn’t! – know what is going on, where and how.
So what roles are appropriate for Interserve Partners in contexts like these?
- We may counter the violent ‘Christianity’ visited upon subjugated nations by living as locally visible foreign Christian communities that refuse to serve worldly power, renounce violence and coercion, and respect all people.
- We may create a somewhat safer space for local believers by working alongside but not with the local church, praying for them without associating with or otherwise drawing attention to them.
- We may celebrate the many things Muslims and Christians share (our fundamental conviction that God is good, just, merciful and compassionate; our confidence that God created the world and loves all people; our recognition that all have sinned and need salvation) rather than reinforcing walls of distrust and suspicion.
- We can partner with and work alongside local people of faith and action from the majority religion.
Authentic partnership becomes possible when we invite other-faith friends and colleagues to teach us about their faith experiences rather than assuming that we know what their faith entails. Such partnerships do not fit easily with Christendom mindsets. Many questions arise.
Missiological certainties fade in the light of individual stories and actual experience. When expatriates working with our agency spent a week together, we shared stories: stories of disappointment and failure, stories of bewilderment and confusion, and stories of discovery and joy. Some of us confessed to being humbled by the courage, dignity and
wisdom of local neighbours and colleagues. Others were sceptical. Some recalled conversations through which they glimpsed a Muslim brother or sister’s intimate relationship with God. Others doubted this was even possible. Some shared their admiration for Muslim colleagues, people of faith and action, who lived out their vocations to bring healing, alleviate poverty and seek justice, sometimes at great personal cost. Others questioned how people who did not themselves know Jesus could possibly facilitate transformation. Personally, I’m amazed at how God’s Spirit works through cross-faith partnerships to transform communities and individual lives – including our own.
Judith* has lived and worked in the hard places since 1992.
*Names have been changed.
1 Scott, J. C. (1990). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.
2 Ramenchandra, V. (2006). What Is Integral Mission? In: Micah Network Triennial Consultation on Integral Mission and Violent Conflict. [online] Thailand: Micah Network. Available at: www.micahnetwork.org