Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for November 2010

I am told that, at the recent Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, a popular American preacher and author vigorously asserted that evangelism, understood as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel, was the Church’s foremost “priority”. Since this is a typical, knee-jerk reaction that talk about social justice or “integral mission” elicits in “conservative” evangelical circles, it is worth exploring who says this kind of thing and whether they actually practice what they are saying.

If a person’s priorities are gauged by what that person spends most of his or her time doing, I am sure that anybody observing the day-to-day life of this preacher would not conclude that evangelism was his first priority.  He has spent considerable time and money in acquiring a long and expensive education. If he has children, I am confident that he has likewise invested significantly in their nurture and secured the best possible education for them. No doubt he eats at least three good meals a day and enjoys at least six hours sleep at night. He has medical insurance and access to the best medical care in the richest nation in the world. Holding a U.S passport, he can freely travel (almost) everywhere in the world, not needing to queue outside foreign embassies to get visas. In other words, his privileged way of life takes so much for granted. It has been made possible by the work and sacrifice of unknown others in many parts of the world. And it is remote from the reality experienced by the majority of his fellow Christians who were present at Cape Town.

Whenever I ask such preachers, “Don’t you want everybody in the world to have the benefits you enjoy?”, the answer I receive is either “That’s the social gospel” or “That’s not our priority, as non-Christians can do that”. If the Gospel is not social, then what is it? And, if non-Christians can make sacrifices to ensure that people like us have a decent life, why are we reluctant to do the same for them? What we are facing here is hypocrisy and double standards, the very things that stirred the indignation of Jesus!

The language of “priorities” belongs to the world of organizations (which usually have a single focus) and institutional roles. I agree that a pastor should do the work of pastoring and not get tied down in administration or seek political office. A musician is called to perform good music (and it is the pastor’s calling to help her understand what that means and to release her from church programs in order to do so). But the primary calling of both is not defined by either occupation or gifting. It is the call to discipleship.

The Church as the disciple-community of Jesus is called in the Great Commission to obey and teach others “to obey everything that I have taught you”. This is pretty comprehensive! How on earth did this Great Commission get reduced to preaching? Trying to select from the teaching of Jesus what we will obey, or trying to rank his teachings in a scale of “priorities”, is not to be a disciple of his. And, then, by what right do we call others to discipleship? Jesus expects that the Church that is proclaiming the Gospel among the nations is also living out that Gospel before the nations. Namely, she is committed to peace-making, hungering and thirsting after justice, loving her enemies, healing the sick, sharing wealth with the dispossessed, striving for unity in the midst of differences, and so on.

The nearest that Jesus ever got to our language of “priorities” was in his rebuke to the Pharisees that they had ignored the “weightier” matters of the law, namely showing justice and mercy and faith (Matt.23:23). Also, when asked by a lawyer what was the “greatest commandment”, Jesus replied: “loving God” with one’s whole being, and “loving one’s neighbour” as ourselves (Matt.22:34-40). Curiously, no evangelical statement of faith that I have come across even refers to this- it is as if the teaching of the one we call “Lord” has been displaced by the creedal formulae handed down to us by our denominational traditions.

I stated in my Blog observations of the Edinburgh 2010 conference (“A Centenary Celebration”, 11 June 2010) that clericalism has blighted the witness of the church. I repeat that conviction with regard to Lausanne. All the plenary speakers at the Congress were either pastors or “fulltime” workers in para-church organizations. They are not representative of the vast majority of Christians around the world who serve God as artists, engineers, lawyers, farmers, mechanics, biologists and a host of other “secular” occupations. They are the real “missionaries” of the Church, engaging with non-Christians on a daily basis, and whose work raises ethical issues that are at the cutting-edge of mission. As long as their voice is marginalized at such conferences, we shall continue to have such meaningless debates about “priorities”.

Would that “Reformed” pastors like the one who spoke at Lausanne give us the lead in recovering the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers!

Earlier this week I visited the de-militarized zone on the border between North and South Korea. This is the last frontier of the Cold War, and the zone is anything but de-militarized. The tension is palpable. South Korean guards stand to attention facing the north, their roving eyes hidden behind dark shades and their fists clenched in the tae-kwon-du position of military preparedness. On the other side of the dividing line stands a solitary North Korean soldier, in full military regalia, peering at us through his binoculars. We were told that that is what he did all day; and that there were other eyes, human and electronic, that were following our every move. We were instructed by our guide not to wave at them, raise our arms or point any fingers, as these were hostile gestures. They could provoke hostilities and trigger the next world war!

There is a comic, even farcical, aspect to militarization wherever it happens. Young men and women, barely out of school, strut around in robotic fashion, with an air of self-importance and speaking their own arcane jargon. Like government bureaucrats, only with guns instead of forms (but filling in forms is also a part of army life). The Indo-Pakistan border must be like this, I thought. North Korea, India, Pakistan- governments which cannot feed their own populations but rich enough to build nuclear stockpiles and massive standing armies. Is the US any better? Perhaps my American readers should answer that. Military expenditure far exceeds Obama’s health reform costs, but one hears hardly a squeak about this from any of the political parties and their followers.

Armies, we are told, bring out the best and the worst in human beings. No doubt this is true to some extent. The worst would be sadism, brainwashing and blind obedience. The best courage, self-sacrifice and discipline. But what about the courage of someone like Father Michael Lapsley, a white South African and a member of my tour group, who lost both his hands opening a parcel bomb directed at him because of his anti-apartheid activity? Lapsley is the founder-director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, where he helps others damaged by the trauma of war and terrorism learn to forgive and work for reconciliation in violent societies. Why are Father Lapsley and scores of others like him around the world not held up as examples of courage to schoolchildren? Why are their stories not depicted in films?

Lapsley and I were in Seoul for an international conference on peace and reconciliation, co-hosted by a British university and the first “megachurch” In Korea, Youngnak Presbterian Church. The latter was founded in 1945 by Rev. Kyung-Chik Han who fled the north after Soviet troops replaced the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. The conference is partly in honour of Rev. Han whose tenth death anniversary fell this year. He was, by all accounts, a remarkable man, widely recognized as the greatest Christian leader that Korea has produced. He began the church with twenty seven of his fellow refugees. The church now has over 50,000 members and over 600 sister churches all over the world. It has an extensive education program, from primary levels to tertiary, and has a passionate commitment to serve the people and churches of North Korea. Han’s mission was holistic, and he seems to have remained a humble, simple man despite his fame and the vast sums of money that flowed through his hands. He was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1992 for his tireless efforts in organizing regular shipments of food to starving millions in the north.

I was surprised to find a chapel in the demilitarized zone. I was not surprised to learn that it had been built by Youngnak church and that, every day, groups of South Korean Christians gather there to pray for the unification of the peninsula. I too pray for the collapse of the brutal regime in the north, and for the release of all prisoners of faith and conscience. But, while I respect the passion of many South Korean Christians for political unification, I am unable to share it. Unification is something the northern Koreans, too, will one day need to decide for themselves.

What I find curious is the lack of any similar passion for the unity of the Church in South Korea. Perhaps this reflects the individualistic gospel they inherited from American missionaries. But the visible unity of his church was surely a passion for Christ; and Christians who cannot work together have no witness to bear in a divided world. It seems that ethnic unity has displaced Christian unity in the consciousness of most Korean Christians. Not surprisingly, they export their divisions and rivalries to the rest of the world, just like their British and American forebears did (and some still do).

One of my translators at the conference was a young Korean woman, armed with two university degrees, who is a marketing agent for a well-known multinational tobacco company. She told me she was in the job because they paid well and had a good management program. For all her education, she was unreflective about her work. She didn’t ask herself “who bears the cost of what I do or the skills that I am acquiring?” I wondered how different she and other university graduates like her in the South were from the North Korean soldier I saw peering at me through his binoculars. She, at least, can change her job. He doesn’t have that choice.


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