From Charity to Justice: A Prophetic Reinterpretation of Christian Mission

From Charity to Justice: A Prophetic Reinterpretation of Christian Mission May 24, 2012

Reading Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Gathering at God’s Table made me proud to be an Episcopalian in the ordination process.

Then again, this is nothing new. Every time I hear Jefferts Schori preach or read her sermons and essays, I am re-energized in my vocation, renewed in my passion and reassured that the Episcopal church is my spiritual home.

That’s what a good bishop does.

In her new book, Jefferts Schori does the profoundly Episcopalian thing in her book on modern mission activity. She takes the mission tradition of the Anglican church (the five marks of mission) and reinterprets them through the Table and the baptismal covenant with informed, reasoned and prophetic messages. This easily digestible book should serve as a wonderful introduction to the encouraging direction Jefferts-Schori hopes for in the Episcopal church. The book, heavy with anecdotes from her travels as a presiding bishop of the denomination makes the book not only move quickly and intimately but also makes the book a terrific work of story-telling evangelism in itself.

Toward the end of the book, Jefferts Schori begins to shift toward a more social justice and systematic perspective on mission. To me, this is significant. Until then, the book had been filled mostly with progressive versions of being witnesses to God’s love for all and with examples of charitable outreach. Her move toward the more systemic approach to mission provides a both/and tone, but I can’t help but read a certain push in her concluding chapters toward a more systematic approach within the church regarding mission and justice work.

And with good reason, too.

“Mission” certainly has a problematic history, tied as it is to imperialism, genocide and wiping out indigenous religions, languages and traditions. To her credit, Jefferts Schori doesn’t ignore this. But importantly and prophetically, she points to another blindspot with Christianity that might one day prove to just as problematic: the church’s charity complex.

“Networks are a powerful counterforce to the charity or colonial models that have too often characterized Christian mission. we are beginning to heal from some of that unidirectional mission work … that grew out of an arrogance about supposedly superior gifts and they are healed or corrected through discovering the gifts of the poor and the other.”

Instead of relying solely on charitable work that often requires a “victim” and a “savior” (you can see its appeal to Christians!), Jefferts-Schori recommends building networks and collaborations with other Christians, those of other faiths and those who do not follow a religious path. She saves this dynamite punch for the very end, after peppering her book with almost examples almost exclusively of church charity.

Recasting mission in these terms might well be provocative to many, I would wager, because it forges the meaning of mission not in terms of making Christians throughout the world but of doing justice with others throughout the world. But it had me nodding in agreement and saying, “Thanks be to God” over and over again.

Hopefully, if Jefferts-Schori ever updates her book for a future edition, she’ll have to edit in a number of examples of churches doing justice on a systemic level. I truly hope for this and that our churches will embrace our bishops vision for mission in the 21st century.

Read more about Gathering at God’s Table, including a Q&A with Jefferts Schori, at the Patheos Book Club.

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