The Weakness of Christian Missions

“In the world of religions, the Christian religion is in a position of greatest danger and defenselessness and impotence than any other religion. It has its justification either in the name of Jesus Christ, or not at all.” Karl Barth, Dogmatics I/2, p. 356.

For Barth, Church history should be told as the long, lamentable, and predictable story of the various attempts Christians have made to evade this position of weakness. Christian history reveals “the attempt which the Christian makes, in continually changing forms, to consider and vindicate his religion as a work which is in itself upright and holy. But he continually feels himself thwarted and hampered and restrained by Holy Scripture, which does not allow this, which even seems to want to criticize this Christian religion of his” (337). The history, therefore, is a history of our stumbling; it is the history of our attempts to become masters of ourselves, to vindicate ourselves, and therefore, of necessity, to detach ourselves from Christ and flee from his judgment against our religiosity, self-confidence, and self-assertion.
While tracing the various attempts to assert Christian truth as our own possession, Barth touches on the “comprehensive readoption of the missionary task” (336) during the modern period, especially towards the close of the 18th century. The new “confrontation” of Christianity with non-Christian religions went in the wrong direction since the “sending Church was itself seeking its strength at a different point from where it could be found” (336). The missions stemmed from a new Christian self-assertion, not from a new commitment to Christ’s mastery. It is not as though these missions were completely ineffective in witnessing to Christ; however, God’s gracious unveiling through these missions had to go against the “tendencies and directions” that dominated these missions. To put it concretely: the recipients of European, Christian missions encountered Jesus in spite of these missions! Reading through Savage Systems by David Chidester is a perfect illustration of this point: that anyone encountered Christ in the South African missions is the work of the Spirit usually in opposition to the operations of the colonial mission.
Barth provides a helpful way to interpret and move past the missional failings exposed by Chidester. He analyzes a shift that begins back in the 16th century and explodes during the 18th century in which “revelation” becomes understood within the more general idea of “religion,” instead of religion being approached only on the basis of revelation (Jesus Christ). Once this shift took place, “revelation” became “a historical confirmation of what man can know about himself and therefore about God even apart from revelation” (289-290). Revelation fulfills our own notions about religion, our own sense of who God is and who we are and ought to be. Revelation confirms and extends–perfects–our own projects and concerns. (Barth argues that without this history in mind, “we are defenseless against the ‘German Christians’ of our own time,” meaning, the Nazi Church, 292).
For Barth, the fundamental sin that underlies this whole movement is a rejection of the lordship of Christ. No longer is it held that “Jesus Christ is now his Lord, and man belongs to Him, and lives under Him in His kingdom, and serves Him, and therefore has all his consolation in life or death in the fact that he is not his own but is the property of Jesus Christ” (292, emphasis added). Barth places this rejection of Christ’s mastery within our attempts to master others. In the missionary encounter, “we must not try to know and define and assess man and his religion as it were in advance and independently. We must not ascribe to him any existence except as the possession of Christ” (296, emphasis added). Thus, behind the turn to “savage comparisons” stands a rejection of the lordship of Christ over both our own selves and those we encounter. To master the others (and be masters of ourselves), we have to undercut all of our dependence on the mastery of Christ.
Rejecting the sufficiency of Christ’s lordship, European missionaries strove to display the superiority of Christianity over the variety of other religions (or absences of religion). No longer content with the final (and hence only) word coming from the gracious forgiveness of Jesus, missionaries had to come up with some other final word justifying Christian truth. It must be a word imminent to themselves (otherwise it could not be used to elevate them above the others). Christian theology starts taking “refuge in reason or culture or humanity or race, in order to find some support or other for the Christian religion” (357). The options are various, but they all coalesce around the same practical result: they explain Christian superiority, non-Christian inferiority, and therefore justify Christian domination (one wonders what the missions in South Africa would have looked had no attempt been made to see what the “natives” were in and of themselves but only to look at them as those already claimed by Christ’s lordship…).
Barth recognizes that this self-assertion–the rejection of Christ’s mastery–could be accomplished without any explicit deviations from Christian language. The transformation of Christianity into a vehicle for self-articulation (and hence self-mastery and world-mastery) happened most often within the confines of Christian language and through. The rejection of Christ’s mastery was sometimes bold and upfront; but often it was hidden behind pious language (and even hidden from those involved in the transformation). For Barth, this is not surprising since Jesus Christ exposes all religion to be nothing more than “idolatry and self-righteousness” (314). Even, and especially, the Christian religion. In fact, the problems of modern, colonial missions are born from our frequent desire to forget that “the sum total qualities of even the Christian religion is simply this, that it is idolatry and self-righteousness, unbelief, and therefore sin. It must be forgiven if it is to be justified” (354).
The Christian religion cannot point to itself to ensure its security and stability within the encounter and confrontation with various religions. In and of itself, it has nothing meaningful through which to distinguish itself as superior. Jesus Christ calls us to remember this situation. We are sinners, saved by grace. The question of the truth of the Christian religion is simply this: “who and what are they in their naked reality, as they stand before the all-piercing eye of God?” (356). In response to this question, Christians can do nothing other than point away from themselves (even from their own concrete structures and ethical programs) and point to Jesus. It is only in Christ’s mercy that we stand before God as righteous. This righteousness is never a righteousness we possess, and hence it is never one we can deploy to distinguish ourselves as superior to others (or others as inferior to ourselves). The Christian religion is not the truth in itself; it is the true religion only by God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ. It’s calling, therefore, is not to “out narrate” other religions; nor is it to “persuasively embody” the truth of its superiority. Even the posture of weakness, insecurity, or self-emptying does not demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Our standing before God does not depend on our rhetorical skills or our moral effort; it stands (or falls) with Jesus Christ alone. Christian religion has a claim to be “the true religion” only as it points to the truth and “proclaims it” (358). This work of proclamation is not a “power or authority of its own” but is the action of the Holy Spirit (359). Therefore, it is not an action it can point to so as to establish its own truth; it is a work that depends only on God’s free mercy.
It is for these reasons that revelation–God’s judgment and forgiveness of us in Jesus Christ–pushes the Church into a position of utter weakness. As Christ’s possessions, we are called to see all others as also already possessed by Christ. Neither “we” nor “they” exist apart from Christ’s mastery. Therefore, the truth of who “we” are and “they” are is a truth we cannot articulate. Nor need we. The truth has already been spoken regarding who we all are: we are all sinners living under the gracious lordship of Jesus Christ.
Far from undercutting the need for missions, this situation enables the Church to fulfill its mission. For its mission is not to replace Christ but to witness (by the Spirit) to Christ’s continual work (in the Spirit). Since the church’s life is not its own, neither is its mission. Since missions is God’s work, we need not worry that we exist in such a weak and impotent position (regarding other religions). We need not flee from the insecurity in which we stand. God’s word to us in Jesus is our security; and God’s power–not ours!–is made perfect in our weakness. Within this weakness, the church is not free from the temptation to proclaim itself. But it is put on guard. It is threatened. And we hope and pray that we will continue to remember our precarious position; we hope and pray that we will not cease to proclaim the sufficiency of Christ, and Christ alone. We hope and pray that our mission will be, by God’s grace, a real witness to the Spirit’s mission.
This entry was posted in barth, chidester, missions. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Weakness of Christian Missions

  1. Barth. Barth, Barth. Does it never get boring?! 🙂 Love you, man. Wish I could pick on you in person.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tim McGee said:Not at all. It just gets better and better. Seriously, the last few books I've bought aren't even theological books at all; they are examinations of Christian missions in the colonial context (e.g., I just purchased ___Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule__ and also ___Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853___). Barth is enormously helpful for thinking through the problematic performance unleashed by theology itself (i.e., colonial modernity). You should be glad you aren't here to pick on me in person–I would rant much longer in person!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s