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ۼ 2020-2: By Chong Kim Ʈ   
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Bangkok Forum 2020

May 31, 2020


Chong H. Kim


COVID-19 is like a colossal and unpredictable hurricane that is wreaking havoc on countless lives, and systems and consequential ideologies both on societal and global levels. It is unlike we have ever seen in anybodys lifetime. One area that has been dealt a significant blow is how people do their religions.


There has been enough distance both physically and mentally (and should I also say fundamentally) from regular religious activities for the last several months that many are asking what their religious participation really means for them in their everyday life. This period of quiescence and pause is doing us a service of creating sparks of epiphany for many to realize that their religiosity and spirituality do not necessarily mean the same thing. What COVID 19 has accelerated is this spiritual awakening that is independent of ones religious affiliation or level of religiosity. This is not to deny that there are not also others who see greater value and attraction to their religion. Some choose to be spiritual without being religious while some choose to be spiritual while being religious.


The phenomenon of pursuing spirituality without being religious (or beyond religion) is not new. It can no longer be seen as a dawning movement, but perhaps that of a bright mid-morning reality. Brian McLarens book published in 2016, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the Worlds Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian, deals with this topic head on. Ive also personally witnessed and dialogued with pockets of people and leaders who are in this migratory journey globally and thus are familiar and agree with McLarens assertions. My only disagreement with McLaren is his usage of the term, Christian. It is no longer a movement of a Christian kind. It is fundamentally another reformation in the making, potentially as disruptive and hopeful as was the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago. I published a paper on this topic, Another Reformation on the Horizon, from a missiological perspective in 2006.[1] What I failed to see lucidly at the time was a reformation from within Christianity. These streams of genuine followers of Jesus from Islam, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions and followers of Jesus outside of traditional Christianity are converging like no other time in history, at the least blurring or perhaps even effectively dismantling the known and accepted boundaries of religions.


To be human is to be spiritual and to be spiritual is to be human. Whether to be religious or not is secondary. Jesus was a spiritual person. He did not fit into any one religious category of His time. He did not choose Judaism over other religions in His time. (He would not place Christianity over other religions in our time!) That was what drove the devout religious Jews piping-mad toward Jesus. Jesus could not and would not be confined within Judaism. Jesus both affirmed and rejected certain aspects of Judaism. Jesus was impelled to transform the religion from within to be as close to the Kingdom spirituality, like the parable of mustard seed. He refused to play the game of favoritism and presented Himself as the Savior and Messiah for all, regardless of their cultural and religious traditions.


This spiritual drive originates from the truth that all human beings are created in the image and the likeness of the Triune God. From the community of producers of God, each of us was created in the image and the likeness of God. The end of spiritual journey is to be in union with God (transformed into the likeness of God), thus fulfilling the vision of imago dei. The Gospel of John confirms the narrative this vision unlike any other book of the Bible, highlighted by Jesus prayer of union at Gethsemane.


What would happen if current and future missions endeavors (our participation in missio dei) were to be launched out of the imago dei? The so-called Third World Missions phenomenon started in 1970s (though there were earlier pockets of this phenomenon, the decade of 1970s is widely accepted to be the beginning of the movement) and thus within in our lifetime. Even the global colonization drive and craze is only one generation removed. My parents still remember living under the Japanese occupation. In U.S., it is uncovering and helpfully exposing the systemic stronghold of the white privilege and white supremacy mentality that has seeped into so many layers of the society ever since the founding days of the nation. White privilege is a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context, writes Robin DiAngelo, in her book, White Fragility: Why Its So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism. Charles W. Mills in his book, The Racial Contract, defines white supremacy as the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. As I write this paper, U.S. is experiencing dozens of irenic protests and contentious outbursts of anger and mayhem all over the nation (and around the world), notably sparked by the latest incident of incidents--the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. His dying words, I cant breathe, may have prophetic utterance on global societal consciousness as well as missional consciousness that is built on white privilege and supremacy.


The current impact of U.S.s clumsy dealings with COVID 19 is aiding deglobalization, which is synonymous with dewesternization. The current missions endeavor is a milder or more sophisticated extension of the blatant western colonization which existed not too long ago.[2] In other words, no one would dare to admit publicly that the current missions effort is another form of westernization based on white privilege. To be sure, the Protestant missions effort was launched right from the colonial context of western dominance and privilege. I would be quick to affirm that we have made tremendous progress toward equality and integrity of the vision of imago dei—that all are created in Gods image and likeness and that no one is above or below, in or out, or with or without. Even then, there are subtle nuances and remnants of white or western privilege at work. At the same time, the flavor of the Church globally remains generally western, and sometimes the Church in the majority world remains more western than the West. It is a highly complex web of reality and thus I am not isolating western as simply the West.


Control Through Certainty and Effectiveness

Reflecting on our current participation in missio dei, Id like for us to consider the detrimental effects of how our drive toward certainty betrays the very concept of imago dei. The drive and even obsession toward certainty creates elitism and perhaps unintended class system. It inevitably creates and draws the line of who is right and who is wrong—driving toward orthodoxy as if there is one supreme orthodoxy! The areas of certainty undoubtedly stem first and foremost from unattainable theological certainty and spill into areas of systems of how missions is done and should be done. Our concept of God can never amount to God. Our idea of God is not God. God is so much bigger than what Christianity claims God to be. God refuses to be contained in a religious box! Gods altar cannot be confined to churches or cathedrals or mosques, but the whole world is teeming with the wideness and wildness of Gods wholly presence.


Certainty exists when the world is built on simplicity. (Here, I am certainly J not saying that there isnt any certainty in the world.) Weve become more aware of the fact that life and the world are complex, more complex and mysterious than we care to admit. Recent books by Gregory Boyd and Peter Enns described certainty as an idol and sin respectively.[3] Paul Tillichs seminal book[4] ends with this italicized sentence, The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt. These books show that doubt is not the enemy of faith, but certainty is. Doubt is a natural and integral process of the spiritual journey. The drive toward certainty at its worst can translate into control and even manipulations, often disguised as carefully constructed effective systems.


Effectiveness is a top currency of modern progress. Bible addresses faithfulness, sometimes even against being effective. The actuating force toward effectiveness showcases itself as results (or fruits) driven, which has its roots in money, which also translates into control. If the results or fruits are the natural outcome of faithfulness, we ought to be glad and rejoice. Fruits are Gods gifts of encouragement to us, affirming that we are on the right path. However, our posture should be fundamentally that of seeking faithfulness, not effectiveness. Bible also portrays Gods love as never possessive or controlling, which is to say Gods love is unconditional. Can you imagine God operating out of effectiveness?


Imago Dei as a Foundation for Missio Dei

What then are some implications for embracing imago dei as a foundation for missio dei? Right off the bat, it levels the playing field, as it were. Nobody is above or below, in or out, with or without. We are all created in the image of God and the likeness of God. No exceptions. This foundationally should change how we relate to one another as fellow human beings. (We are human beings, not human doings, by the way.) This leads to the biblical concept and image of all humanity as fellow pilgrims and sojourners toward union with God. As we know, the concept of imago dei (Gen 1:26) is closely followed by the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28). The cultural mandate is a natural outflow of action from the reality and vision of imago dei. In other words, promoting the cultural mandate without the foundational assertion of imago dei can easily be distorted and dangerous in such ways that it can tilt and favor certain race over the others.


Paul Hieberts assertion of centered set model (over bounded set) some 40 years ago is a helpful framework with a couple of cautions. One is that while affirming that Jesus Christ is at the center, we dare not add our own theological convictions. The other is a precaution that no one (or group) judges who is moving closer to the center, who is going sideways, or who is going astray. If we are not careful, it can easily turn into a judgment game of who is closer. I understand this language of moving closer to the center is significantly better expression than who is in or out. Even then, it requires humility and vulnerability of our journey of all from all. Furthermore, Paul Hieberts addition of self-theologizing as the fourth self along with earlier foundation of the three-self principle proves intelligible for embracing imago dei. In other words, the concept of imago dei is the starting point for the four-self principle. Without this understanding, four-self principle morphs into a mere behavioral list of what to do or what not to do. Mike Stroopes book, Transcending Mission: The Eclipse of a Modern Tradition, where he encourages the use of the words like pilgrim, witness, and the kingdom is quite helpful. In this vein, I am continually in favor of alongsider language.


What would our participation in the missio dei look like (or change) if we embrace wholeheartedly the concept of inherent dignity and respect for each human being? This assertion is miles away from simple rejection of modernity in favor of post-modernitys (or post post-modernity's) dismantling of anything centric or specifically western-led systems. As I alluded earlier, pursuing union with God is not an individualistic journey. We were created by the community of (the triune) God. In other words, we are created not only to belong to ourselves as individuals but to one another. That is ontologically embedded in our creation account.


There is a big difference between personalism and individualism. Personalism recognizes the inherent dignity of the person and not the individual self. Borrowing words from Thomas Merton, this recognition of inherent dignity requires respecting the unique and inalienable value of the other person, as well as ones own, for a respect that is centered only on ones individual self to the exclusion of others proves itself to be fraudulent. Personalism allows oneself to see oneself as well as others with compassionate and generous eyes. This posture of compassion toward oneself and others is a crucial foundation for all our missio dei efforts.


So how do we move forward in our participation in missio dei? In short, a new missio dei model would have to have as its origin imago dei. It would certainly not start from the Great Commission, which is to highlight the several selected verses in the New Testament. It would not even start with the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12). We must go all the way back to the creation account. Additionally, the fact that we are created in Gods image and likeness means that we are created by Love (which is the curt conclusion of Apostle John). No wonder Jesus summarized the Old Testament into the commandment of loving God, loving oneself, and loving our neighbors. Jesus neighbor would even include our enemies. Thus we are created by Love, for Love, and to Love. Love is an ontological concept. Love is a culmination of why God exists and why we exist and why the entire creation exists. Love is both our identity and the final vision of our human and cosmic destination.


Love integrates who God is, who we are (and who we are becoming), and what this world needs to become. Gods kingdom coming on this earth articulates that vision of love immersing into every single fabric of reality. To be sure, for love to be love, it has to show itself in action. When we say God touched us or we experienced God, what we are saying is that we have experienced unconditional love, grace, and mercy. As such, we can begin to envision this circle of unconditional love touching, impacting, and ultimately transforming all (every human soul, all peoples and societies and structures, as well as all of Gods creation) on this earth.


Personally speaking, Ive noticed that my motivation for missions has progressed from obedience to pursuing the glory of God to love in the last 36 years. It is certainly not wrong to serve God out of obedience or pursuit of the glory of God. However, love unites God, myself, and others. Who I am and who I am becoming is excluded when I operate out of obedience and the glory of God motives. What we are told is that we must die to ourselves and surrender in order to serve God, which is not wrong, but incomplete. Love explains and answers my lifes trajectory from its origin to final destination. From this perspective and motive of love, our participation in missio dei has to be subservient to the Great Commandment. Love is the final and ultimate barometer for why and how we engage in missions.


Love trumps strategy and effectiveness. Love rejects any effort that is stemming out of our need to control and to preserve our elitism. Love truthfully creates a fair field of collaborative play among all (churches, other spiritual communities, agencies, and nationalities) who are involved in missio dei as we each are faithfully pursuing to become Love (that is unconditional). True collaboration is possible as fellow pilgrims on this journey of becoming Love and a deep and profound sense of solidarity finally would find its place of belonging. Who we are and who we are all becoming dictates what and how we do. In other words, our human doings are natural by products of our human beings. Naturally, I hope how we mobilize, recruit, train, and deploy our workers reflects this new missio dei model.


Finally, I dream of a new order (community of people beyond any one religious stream) where peoples recovery and discovery of inherent dignity of their soul is taken with utter importance. Naturally, discovering ones unrepeatable unique inherent dignity and identity is never an isolated individual journey. It can only be done in an intentional community where safety, generosity, and freedom are viscerally and continually experienced. The cultivation of our beings experienced in intentional communities are a true testament of Gods Kingdom coming on this earth and a good gift (good news) to this world where people(s) do not have to become like me (or us) to be accepted and to flourish.

[2] To be fair, I accept and understand that not everything in western colonialism was inherently bad. Even then, the colonialism in general promoted and maintained a belief and system of advantage based on race.

[3] Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty by Gregory Boyd was published in 2013. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs by Peter Enns in 2017.

[4] Courage To Be was published in 1952.

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