The very being of the Church is inextricably tied up with its participation in the mission of the Triune God. That this mission involves “evangelization,” that is, bearing witness in the power of the Holy Spirit to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by word and deed, as individuals and in community, is not to be challenged. I have no intention in these brief remarks of calling the importance of evangelization into question: it is one of the practices by which the Church is turned inside out and directed, in love, towards the neighbor. But I do want to reflect on what evangelization might look like — and what it probably should not look like — in societies that we share with people of other faith traditions1. That is, I am interested in what the religious plurality that we encounter every day might be teaching us about the appropriate shape of the witness that we Lutheran Christians strive to bear to our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the first questions that occurs to me is whether “evangelization” (or its oddly Latinized cousin “evangelism”) is the best word to use. Whether in English or its translations around the world (I’m thinking of the word tabshīr in Arabic), the term has often become entangled with some of the less fortunate aspects of the missionary endeavors of the past centuries, e.g., a perceived collusion with colonial power and privilege, a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority, and a readiness to pour great resources of personnel, planning, and well-funded programming into communities unprepared for what’s coming. In my own speech I tend to use the word “witness”: in many places it carries less negative baggage than “evangelization.” Besides, it’s deeply biblical, a point to which I’ll return in a moment.
First though, my list of some “less fortunate aspects of the missionary endeavors of the past centuries” may provide us with a set of “should-nots” with regard to any attempt to bear Christian witness in religiously plural communities:
- We must shed our Constantinian assumptions. We U.S. American Christians have often been in the habit of dividing populations into the “churched” and the “unchurched”; let us remember that others have the right to the same sort of categorization, e.g., the “mosqued” and the “unmosqued,” the “templed” and the “untempled,” etc. The “playing field” should be even. (That the playing field is not even in many places in the world is an issue to be addressed in the appropriate forums, but should not be a reason for demanding Christian privilege in our own communities.)
- We need to confront any lingering sense of cultural and intellectual superiority that we carry with us into the interfaith encounter. That sense will probably soon take a beating, in any event! Most of us have had the experience of meeting people of other faith traditions who are more pious than we are, more compassionate than we are, wiser than we are, who know their tradition better than we know ours, in fact, who know aspects of the Christian tradition better than we know them! Hopefully, we’ll learn to rejoice in these meetings and learn from them. Hopefully, what will result is a dialogue in the most meaningful sense of the word: not an exchange of platitudes, not an attempt to rise above difference, but a conversation that proceeds through (dia) the deepest commitments (logoi) of each speaker2 — a conversation, Christians will hope and confess, that is enabled by the same Spirit who created understanding on the Day of Pentecost and who leads into all the Truth.3
- Ours is a nation addicted to technique, and it has long been a temptation of U.S. American Christian communities to see the other-than-Christian-commitment of a particular population as a “challenge” or “problem” to which we can engineer a “solution.” Here perhaps it is helpful to remember that much of the growth of the early Church (pre-Constantine) came not through programs or specialized agencies, but through believers talking to friends, family, and coworkers; the phenomenon has been called “gossiping the gospel.”4 I also think that it’s helpful here to remember the Golden Rule, which with respect to our witness in religiously diverse communities might be glossed in this way: “You shall not bear your witness to others in ways that you would find offensive if others used the same approaches towards you — or your children.”
The Great Commission of Matthew 28 is another text that merits very close study: “making disciples” refers us back to everything that we learn in St. Matthew’s Gospel about discipleship — indeed, about the cost of discipleship.5 I think it poses us sharp questions, about the quality of our own discipleship and that of the communities we lead and are a part of. Is our discipleship such that we can, with integrity, invite into it people whom we know can accept the invitation only at considerable personal cost? Or are we asking people to make sacrifices about which we know very little?
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer the term “bearing witness” to the word “evangelization” — and I take some biblical justification for this from St. Luke. The risen Christ promises his disciples that they are/shall be witnesses of his suffering, death, and resurrection, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:48, Acts 1:8); what follows in the Acts of the Apostles shows these witnesses in action. The witness is non-violent, non-coercive; in fact, the witnesses put themselves on the line for the witness they bear. It is no accident that the martus is a witness…or a martyr. In the Arabic-language Christian texts that I study, shahādah is the witness’s testimony…or the witness’s martyrdom.
Another great biblical mission text is from St. John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The “As … so …” construction opens up a rich field of reflection. Is the shape of our mission in the world consistent with that of Christ? In my own reflection on the shape of mission in this world that we share with people of many faiths, I have been led to the very beginning of St. John’s Gospel, where we read:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God … (John 1:9-12, NRSV)
The Word came into the world…seeking to be received. The Word came as a guest, seeking hospitality.6
In recent years, hospitality has become a major locus for Christian theologians in this country. While there are fine studies dating back some 20 years and more,7 it strikes me that there has been something like an explosion of books on the topic since Christine Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition in 1999.8 This explosion is probably a sign of the times, as U.S. Americans, who, in general, are capable of magnificent hospitality and like to see themselves (ourselves!) as hospitable people, have struggled with religious difference, post-9/11 trauma, fears regarding immigration, debates over human sexuality — all of which have struck a xenophobic nerve and have at times and places led to anti-“other” agitation and even draconian projects of legislation aimed at protecting us from the stranger. My own interest in the topic has been in what the biblical and patristic witness about hospitality might teach us about Christian existence in a religiously plural world; verses such as Romans 12:13b (especially when read in context, verses 13-14)9 and Hebrews 13:2 strike me as directly relevant to our situation.
In my own writing and speaking on the theme of hospitality I have tended to stress the role of the host: part of our interfaith hospitality is to “make room” for people of other faiths — in our communities, civil society organizations, even in our church parking lots. A more profound part of that hospitality is to make room for our neighbors of other faith traditions in our hearts and (theological) imaginations.
And yet I am struck that the role of host is one to which we U.S. American Christians are naturally inclined — as it is the role of greater control (and control, along with technique, is something many of us greatly value). Perhaps, then, what we really need to be schooled in, in our interfaith encounters, is how to be a guest. How to be sent, as the Father sent the Word — or, indeed, as God sent Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) — seeking hospitality. How to eat “with tax collectors and sinners.”10 How to participate in the conversation at a table that is not ours.
If we think of Christian evangelization as the witness borne by guests, then perhaps we can see a way to think about evangelization in a religiously diverse world: as a sharing that has to begin with listening, being oriented, depending on others. And as others learn to bear their witness in similar sorts of ways, perhaps we can imagine religiously plural societies in which people can freely share that which they hold most deeply, without any manipulative force, for the blessing of the community as a whole.
On these issues, see now the remarkable document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,” issued jointly (!) by the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance. The document is readily available, e.g. on the website of the World Council of Churches (at http://www.oikoumene.org/fileadmin/files/wcc-main/2011pdfs/ChristianWitness_recommendations.pdf ), or in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research 35.4 (October 2011), 194-96. See also Prof. James Scherer’s essay in this issue of Let’s Talk, which discusses the statement at length.
I learned this exegesis of the word “dialogue” from my former colleague at Luther Seminary, Prof. Charles Amjad-Ali. See his “Towards a New Theology of Dialogue,” Al-Mushir 33/2 (Summer 1991), 57-69. I give a fuller explanation in my “‘Thinking through’ Islam,” Word & World 22.3 (Summer 2002), 264-74, available online at http://www2.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/22-3_Conversion_Conversation/22-3_Swanson.pdf; see p. 274.
On the relation of dialogue to evangelization, see the statement published jointly by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples: “Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Vatican City, Pentecost 1991), online at the website of The Holy See (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_19051991_dialogue-and-proclamatio_en.html ).
See what is becoming a classic text by colleagues at the Catholic Theological Union: Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), Chapter 3, “Mission in the Early Church (100-301),” where the phrase “gossiping the gospel” appears on p. 88.
See another classic missiological text: David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), Chapter 2, “Matthew: Mission as Disciple-Making.”
See my essay “Commending Hospitality and ‘Polishing the Theologian in Us’: Reflections on Theological Education for Mission,” in News of Boundless Riches: Interrogating, Comparing, and Reconstructing Mission in a Global Era, 2 vols., ed. Lalsangkima Pachuau and Max L. Stackhouse (Delhi: ISPCK/UTC/CTI, 2007), 2:236-49, here p. 248. (Contact me if you can’t find a copy but would like one.)
E.g. John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985); Patrick R. Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1999); her bibliography shows that the revival of hospitality as a locus for Christian theological and pastoral reflection was already well under way. For works since then, see, e.g. Amy G. Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001); Letty M. Russell, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009); and many others.
In Romans 12:13-14 there is a triad, where the first imperative concerns the Christian community, while the third imperative concerns non-Christian persecutors. The middle imperative (“pursue hospitality”) would then apply to non-Christians who are not persecuting the Church.
The willingness to eat the food is, every missionary knows, of the deepest importance. I’m struck by the explicit mention in Genesis 18:8 that Abraham’s and Sarah’s mysterious visitors actually did eat — a fact that caused much consternation to later interpreters of the passage.