One of my favorite movies is The Mission starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons. There we find the struggle raging between the Great Commission involving God’s liberating love for the masses and the Great Compression involving colonialism and enslavement of people’s identity.
One can be a Christian missionary in name only. There are different kinds of missionaries or ambassadors. So, too, there are different kinds of gospels and gods. We have to unpack what is in a name or title, whether we are talking about missionaries, gospels, or gods.
The Bible gives a great deal of attention to names. God tells Adam to name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). The people at the Tower of Babel wish to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4). God determines to make Abram’s name great (Genesis 12:1-3). God identifies himself by names, most notably perhaps in his various encounters with Moses. Note for example the following encounter involving God and Moses, as God calls Moses to go tell Pharaoh to let the enslaved people of Israel go:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (See Exodus 3:13-15; ESV).
One’s identity is in one’s name. God unpacks the meaning of the divine name more fully in Exodus 34, thereby unveiling his identity and character:
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (Exodus 34: 5-9; ESV).
The God who revealed himself to Moses and the people was and is a covenant-making and keeping God, gracious and merciful, though fully just in all his ways. There is much to his name. God shares that name with the children of Israel, thereby granting them relational honor and value in covenantal communion.
In the Bible, parents often reflect a great deal on the names they will give their children. The decisions can be weighty, as in the case of John the Baptist and Jesus (in fact, in the case of John and Jesus, they receive their names from above; see Luke 1:13 and Matthew 1:21). In the case of Jesus, his name is associated with salvation, and he shares in the divine name, as the Great Commission reads:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20; ESV).
As noted above, names in the Bible are intended to convey identity. We learn a great deal about God’s identity as he reveals and narrates his name. God calls a people to himself and they share in his name. He gives them relational value, honor, and dignity. Nameless deities and nameless peoples are those without identities. If left without names, others name them, and thus, create and control their identities, thereby devaluing them. That is why it was so important that God revealed his name to Moses and the people of Israel, as God confronted Pharaoh and the pantheon of the Egyptian gods who enslaved the descendants of the Patriarchs. No longer would they be allowed to enslave his people who belonged to him by name as the God who covenanted with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Later on in Israel’s history, the Babylonians sought to change the identities of Daniel and his friends. Reduced to enslaved exiles, they were given new names (Babylonian deities) in order to try and assimilate them into the empire. However, Daniel and his friends were quite secure in their identities as God’s covenant people. Thus, they would not defile themselves or bow the knee to Nebuchadnezzar or other pagan kings (Daniel 1:1-7, 8; 3:8-30; see also Daniel 6).
The Great Commission is not the Great Compression since it is all about the triune God of holy, loving communion sharing his life and name with us. God does not sacrifice our lives for his, but rather, sacrifices his life for ours as he shares his very heart in giving us his Son in the Spirit.
All too often, people can oppress others by naming their universes for them. Certainly, the Bible names the universe for us, but it does so through the cruciform story of Jesus. He does not impose his will on us, but incarnates himself in the glorious power of his humble love.
How do we share the good news of the Great Commission with others? As the Great Compression, or as the Great Communion, as we come alongside others in meekness, humility, and long-suffering love?
Colonialism is not a thing of the past. It still surfaces whenever we impose our wills on those entrusted to our pastoral and missional care. As missional witnesses and ambassadors of Jesus, we must not brainwash and indoctrinate, which is oppressive. We must approach people in a dialogical manner, whereby we educate, not pontificate. We must not colonize, but harmonize, as we reason with them. We must lay down our lives for them, as the Jesuit missionaries did in The Mission as they stood in solidarity with the people in the face of oppression. We must challenge and deconstruct the dominant cultural syntax that would oppress those on the margins and allow them to engage Jesus heart to heart and life on life whereby they take on his name and become more truly themselves as created in his image.
We who seek to be missional witnesses for Jesus must always ask how can we affirm the value, dignity and honor of those with whom we share the good news. When we engage in this way, we bear witness to the Great Commission as the Great Communion rather than reduce it to the Great Compression.