Sometimes, when I go to the movies, I can’t tell the film’s name 24 hours later. It’s all gone: plot, players, why I bothered to spend $11 to sit in a dark room for two hours. There are those few, though, that affected me so profoundly that, even now, 26 years later, I can still remember where I was when, unexpected, “The Mission” reshaped my soul.
Having grown up in a conservative Christian home, I’d learned, by other names, notions of American Exceptionalism, and that white guys always wore white hats because we always had the moral high ground by claiming that, whatever our cause, God was on our side. That movie, so brilliantly crafted, began plowing the soul of my heart, chipping away at all those hardened assumptions. A more thorough reading of church history furthered the process, and the Christianity’s rethinking of mission planted new seeds, so that now I can see, with greater clarity, some truths that we desperately need to recover if we’re to recover our real calling of making Christ visible in the world:
1. “Church” as institution has insidious dangers in it. The most powerful scene in the mission is that one where the church authorities come to Jeremy Irons, the local missionary evangelist who has intertwined his life with a tribe, loving them, serving them, pointing them to Christ. The authorities tell him that both he and the people must leave the land (because there are resources that Europe needs for their economy, and this tribe, on this their own land, stands in the way).
“Tell them they must leave”, the authority says.
In a short and powerful dialogue, the priest responds by saying that they don’t want to leave, that this is their home, that they’re afraid of the forest. When the church authorities threaten not only war, but the loss of salvation if the people resist relocation, Jeremy Irons tells him that their not leaving and, holding a child in his arms, that he’s not leaving either.
The choice the priest made was between the kingdom of God, dressed in the clothes of poverty and simplicity, and the powers of the world dressed in the wealth and fear wielding of a power hungry church. It’s tempting to think of “the world” as that which happens out on the streets, or in crack houses, or maybe if you’re really liberal, in board rooms somewhere. But 26 years ago it began to dawn on me that perhaps the most dangerous form of worldliness all is the ambition and lust for power that can easily hide behind big Bibles and high flying flags. The idols of nationalism and institutional religion are both bad. Together, they’re a toxic cocktail. That’s why I resist any attempts to align Christianity with any single party, or denomination, or church.
2. Outside the camp is where good things happen. When Jeremy Irons walks away with a child in his arms, he seals his fate of excommunication. And at the same time he seals his fate as one committed to being the presence of Christ with people he loves.
I’m increasingly of the opinion (and it’s just that – my personal opinion), that the best moments of church history have happened outside the camp. I think of the Celtic Christian expressions that thrived outside the reach of the Roman hierarchy. Rural, de-centralized, co-ed in their leadership, adhering to a sound creation theology, and with a bent towards co-opting cultural elements rather than destroying them, they ended up with people like Columbanus and Patrick, Hilda, and Caedman.
Then there’s the Taize work, the work of Dr. Paul Brand with Lepers, and the people who are simply fed up with all the trappings and politics of religion, like Shane Claiborn, and decide to get on with it, and seek to actually live like Jesus.
I think of Gahigi, in Rwanda, and his reconciliation work. There’s no political gain in it for him, or prestige, or money. He’s sitting between perpetrators of a genocide, and their victims, talking about Jesus as the source of all forgiveness. None of these people are trying to start movements. They’re just trying to get with the real work of following Jesus, and sometimes doing that necessitates walking away from the argumentative, politicizing, self-righteousness that has become too much of institutionalized Christianity.
There are good ways of being the presence of Christs that come because of structure, surely – things like community meals, homeless shelters, free medical clinics, and more. But it’s tempting for some of us to think that being part of a church that offers these things is all we need to do. Nope. The reality is that we, all of us, are called to love actual people somehow, and being part of a church with homeless shelter doesn’t make me missional any me than going to a Mariner game makes me a baseball players.
I need to take real steps – real acts of service. I see people taking such steps all the time, both through structured ministries, and through their own personal initiatives. When we serve that way, for the love of Christ, we’re offering water in Jesus name. Those cups of water are the river life that our thirsty world needs – and I pray we’ll, each of us, become part of that river.