“Mission turns the world upside down” declared Metropolitan Geevarghese Coorilos in the World Council of Churches’ mission conference in Arusha 2018 in one of the most impressive speeches of the whole conference. The Metropolitan challenged the old role of Christianity as the domesticating agent in the service of the powers that be.
Does Trump carry out God’s mission?
Today, missio Dei, God’s mission is the buzzword that mission theologians dutifully repeat. So, one can expect that the idea is that God, through His mission, challenges the worldly structures. There are many Christians considering themselves involved in God’s liberative mission. In early January 2021, we saw a bunch of Christians (among others) storming the Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. in support for their God-sent leader, Donald Trump. Is Donald Trump an agent of God’s mission in the world? Knowing the good Metropolitan, I suspect that he did not have exactly this kind of turning the world upside down in his mind.
However, in ecumenical mission discussions there has been a strong tendency to acknowledge also (some) actors outside of churches and Christianity as active participants in carrying out God’s mission in the world. In this recognition of the non-Christian actors, God’s mission has been a useful tool: the Church’s mission is not the totality of mission. Recently, riding on the wave of right-wing Christian populism, this acknowledgement of non-Christian players in promoting God’s will has been popularised. Donald Trump, in spite of his occasional Christian posing, does not meet the Evangelical standards for Christian life due to his language and stormy private life. Yet, he is seen by some believers as a modern-day king Cyrus who, while outsider to the people of God, greatly contributed to its wellbeing. In this manner, the floodgates of what all could count as God’s mission have been opened also in some Evangelical thinking.
God’s mission facilitates working misunderstandings
And here lies the problem with the concept of God’s mission: for some, it means liberating the sexual minorities whereas for others, it means liberating the world of them. Both sides are deeply convinced that God is on their side. Do Christians have two gods or is one (or even both) of the parties wrong? How do we know that what we promote is God’s mission?
God’s mission is a far too easy concept to use in today’s mission theology. On one hand, it is an empty signifier that one can fill with whatever one wishes. On the other hand, it is a wonderful fig leaf to cover the differences and thereby produce a working misunderstanding. When the content is not defined, both parties of the working misunderstanding fill God’s mission with whatever content suits them best.
When the contents are defined, the talk begins. We are correct and the others wrong. Why? Because the Bible says so, and we read it with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In some circles additionally a pinch of tradition and a spoonful of Church Fathers will make the concoction perfect. The problem with this wonderful solution is that each Christian group seems to have its own holy spirit, and its own tradition of interpreting the Bible (even if many claim that they read the Bible as it is – yet arriving in different conclusions).
God’s mission and whatever it is made to mean is meaningful usually only within an in-group. And there it serves like much of other God-talk: to convince oneself that we are correct. The amount of knowledge of God and the certitude of that knowledge cannot but astonish the poor outsider. Perhaps these true believers have found the tree of knowledge of good and evil – and even tasted the fruit that made them know just like God?
Should missio Dei be completely scrapped?
Hiding behind God’s broad shoulders through the use of the concept God’s mission is not a sufficient reason for dismissing the concept. Abusus non tollit usum – misuse does not nullify the right use. Instead of using the concept as an excuse for poor theological argumentation, we need to find genuinely beneficial uses for it in order to keep it. I can think of two.
First, God’s mission is helpful in overcoming ecclesiocentric exclusivism. Mission, acting for the will of God, is not only a churchy thing. God can use, and probably uses, many kinds of actors outside Christianity.
Second, this concept, when rightly understood, helps us to relativise our actions, positions, and ideas. God is the ultimate Mystery beyond our understanding. Maintaining that I or we possess an inerrant and full understanding of God’s will in the world amounts to blasphemy. Instead of being a shortcut from theological convictions to divinely sanctioned political action, the concept of God’s mission should do the exact opposite. It should lead us to introspection and respect for the other – after all, inasmuch as we both are honest seekers of truth and justice, we should have something to learn from each other.