Climbing the Mountain in Japan
There continues to be surveys and accounts of the decline in attendance and affiliation with churches in the U.S. Although often characterized as evidence of the increasing secularization of the society, I believe this mischaracterizes what is really happening. At the very least, more consideration needs to be given to the trend among persons under the age of 35-40 to adopt practices of meditation and even faith in a power beyond our self from a buffet of beliefs. It is long past time to reject the label secular for any non-Christian or non-Church organized belief or form of meditation.
I am certain that for a majority of U.S. Christians the ten days I just spent in Japan were devoted to a “secular” cause. In accepting the privilege of meeting with the staff of Church World Service Japan for the second time, the first being pre-pandemic in 2018, there was no intention to gain adherents or bolster the churches there. My aim and that of the CWS Japan invitation was for me to assist in developing a public fund raising and outreach strategy for the humanitarian aid agency in a land where 98% of the population is non-Christian. Only one of the six full time staff members, Ms. Yukiko Maki, is Christian and active in the United Church of Japan. Her portfolio as Director of Programs includes cultivating the relationship with the Christian international aid network of the World Council of Churches’ ACT Alliance.
Since its creation in 2011 to help respond to the devastation of the massive earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, CWS Japan has grown significantly in its capacity and programs. Its General Secretary Takeshi Komino is now a leading voice in Japan and across Asia in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction. In a few years Mr. Komino has led other chief executives in Japan’s non profit sector in setting standards of accountability and engaging in partnerships with the Japanese Government and corporations.
So were my preparations and efforts to help further the presence and public support of CWS Japan to be considered as “secular” in nature? Only if we define religious, as do many U.S. Christians and analysts of social trends, as confined to activity advocating or espousing belief in Jesus Christ.
In fact, in my own tradition of the Christian faith, proselytism has for decades been superseded by another aim of “mission” in other lands. The founding of indigenous-governed churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America has made redundant and obsolete mission and “missionaries” primarily focused on conversion. The joint Global Ministries office of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. now recruit their partisans to “accompany” Christians and non-Christians in tasks which enhance and protect lives and the land where they are invited to do so.
One may well respond to this “call” to “accompanimiento”, as the Latin American origin of this approach to mission describes it, as a pilgrimage with people abroad and our Creator to restore and “make all things new”. This is, however, a significant historic departure from the traditional U.S. Christians’ view of “mission” in other countries. The Global Ministries avoidance of referring to their personnel deployed overseas as “missionaries” in favor of the term “Mission Co-Worker” grows out of the dramatic changes in the 20th century world. The struggles for independent nation status and self reliance resulting in the decolonization of the Euro-American colonies found support among progressive and aware U.S. Christians and their church denominations.
The new outlook on world mission that emerged in the more contemporary church bodies demanded a wholly different set of skills of their mission “co workers” in other countries. Gone was the emphasis on sending “authoritative” voices on the scriptures and preachers of “the Word” to be replaced by mutual learning, listening, affirmation and “accompanimiento”. To build relationship in an effective partnership with a colleague or colleagues in the foreign setting, one first had to devote oneself to learning about the local context. Never appropriate or needed was someone who, with little listening or learning in the local context, presumed to offer “expert” advice on any activity or program.
My rewards in taking such a posture and approach flow from the sense of solidarity and mutual affirmation I have experienced. Rather than a tally of converts I celebrate the beginning and the growth of relationships with those who fulfill the purpose of their lives with life-enhancing, loving works. Following my recent trip, I am grateful for the meeting of new CWS Japan staff and for the deepening of my relationship with those staff I interacted with in 2018. Vastly different but equally fulfilling have been the relationships enabled by mission assignments in Congo (1969-71 and 2010), Mexico (2012-2015), and with Church World Service US donors in Kenya (periodic visits 2003-2011).
A primary difference in my recent experience in Japan has been the strengthening of my conviction that there are many paths up the mountain of faith. Christians are by no means alone in their life work of seeking and paying homage to the hope, peace, joy and love we celebrate at Christmas as Jesus’ offering to all humankind. During this latest Japan visit, I found new strength and assurance from those of other faith traditions and no faith at all in my own trek up the mountain of faith. As we join persons taking a different path we can all know the solidarity and love of Christmas every day as we climb to the mountaintop.
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Visit the CWS Japan English website at https://www.cwsjapan.org/english/. Make a monthly or one time donation while there!
Muslims and Christians “Together Towards Life”
These days, we in the United States continue to discover new intersections of our personal political positions and our personal theology. In this year’s campaign for President, the issue of immigration policy has taken a new direction with even more obvious theological overtones in the contrasting positions of the two parties on admitting Muslim refugees.
As we approach the presidential election, it is likely that Donald Trump’s opposition to Muslims being admitted into the country will continue to feed the perception that the nation with the most Christians in the world is conducting a war on Islam. Some U.S. Christians counter that perception with action such as helping Syrian refugees resettle in the country (as reported in the last posting of this blog). In our context of xenophobia and fear, such action needs now to be joined by defense of freedom of religion along with declaring trust and respect for adherents of Islam.
It is also important if not urgent for Christians in the U.S. to clarify their views on mission and evangelism in the Muslim world. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, conservative Christian mission boards in the U.S. had considerably stepped up efforts to convert Muslims overseas to the Christian faith. The Southern Baptist Convention began distribution of a prayer guide in the late 90’s to guide their followers in praying for conversion of Muslims at the same time they considerably increased the number of missionaries being sent to majority Muslim countries such as Kyrgyzstan.
Fortunately, U.S. Christians seeking ways to unite with Muslims in movements of reconciliation and healing worldwide can find guidance and encouragement in the beautiful statement written by the Commission on Mission and Evangelism of the 349 worldwide churches making up the World Council of Churches. Led by a Bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Commission unequivocally proclaims that the aim of Christian mission and evangelism today is to join with persons of other faith traditions in affirming human life and the whole of creation.
A summary statement of the Commission’s 2012 document “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes” declares, “Authentic evangelism is done with respect for freedom of religion and belief, for all human beings as images of God. Proselytism by violent means, economic incentive, or abuse of power is contrary to the message of the gospel. In doing evangelism it is important to build relations of respect and trust between people of different faiths.”
At the beginning of the document, the Commission envisions its task as discerning the implications of the “shift of the centre of gravity of Christianity”. One outcome emphasized is the accompanying “shift in mission concept from ‘mission to the margins’ to ‘mission from the margins’” and the ensuing question of “what then is the distinctive contribution of the people from the margins?”
Living the Christian faith as a minority community on the “margins” leads to some profound reflections on our relationships with persons of other faiths: “Plurality is a challenge to the churches and serious commitment to interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural communication is therefore indispensable. What are the ecumenical convictions regarding common witnessing and practicing life-giving mission in a world of many religions and cultures?”
One conviction that emerged from the Commission’s deliberations is that “mission activity linked with colonization has often denigrated cultures and failed to recognize the wisdom of local people. Local wisdom and culture which are life-affirming are gifts from God’s Spirit.” Christians in mission today who join with “local people”, whatever their faith tradition, in life sustaining and life enhancing actions find that “marginalized people are reservoirs of the active hope, collective resistance, and perseverance that are needed to remain faithful to the promised reign of God”.
In this time of deep division within the two political parties of the United States and within the country itself, the World Council of Churches’ overview of Christian mission and evangelism calls us to a new vision of unity. The document “Together Towards Life” challenges us to include the entire human species in our interpretation and celebration of the familiar words of Psalm 133:
“How very good and pleasant it is/ when kindred live together in unity!” (NRSV version)
Pour la traducción en español du document de la Comisión ver
For a copy of the “Together Towards Life: Missiona and Evangelism in a Changing Landscape” document go to: