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Mission means... handling the ambiguity of power

Chris Wallis and his wife Helena work with the Anglican Diocese of Northern Argentina, based in Santa Maria, Salta Province. Their call: to share with the Wichi people in the pursuit of knowing the trinitarian God, understanding his word in their language and living as Christ taught us. Here, Chris reflects on what their context teaches them about power.

“Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you.’” (Psalm 66:3)

Do we not all long to see manifestations of the power of our Lord? Seeing them, others will believe and, incidentally, believe us who seek to spread the name of Jesus among the nations. We cannot doubt that Jesus worked wonders: he healed the sick, raised the dead and fed the 5,000, but when the people sought to make him king he withdrew to the mountain by himself. Evidently, it wasn’t power that he sought. Satan tempted Jesus to show off his miraculous powers by throwing himself down from the highest point of the temple. But Jesus knew that the motives for such a demonstration would be like those of the Israelites at Meribah, when they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17) Do we not sometimes pray for a miracle to prove that God is with us? This may not be far from manipulation and can become an attempt at somehow possessing God.

We cannot escape the fact that our hearts are not always right before God and that, like Simon the sorcerer, we may be attracted by the power of the Holy Spirit for the wrong reasons (Acts 8:9-24). Simon was a man who had a great following. And just as he amazed the people of Samaria with his magic, so he was astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw performed by Philip. His desire to purchase from Peter and John the ability to confer the Holy Spirit reveals that he understood this ability or power as a personal possession to be acquired.

Seeking power: the Wichi context

Before the arrival of the gospel in the last century, the Wichi indigenous people, with whom we live in the Chaco region of northern Argentina, depended on shamans to relieve them of woes: sickness, drought, evil spirits and other enemies. The “saving” ability of the shaman is derived from his or her relation to spirit beings who, like the mythical ancestors, possess powers not found in human beings.

This kind of power in the Wichi language is called käpfwayaj and can be compared with that typified by Aladdin’s lamp: say the word and it becomes reality. What we might call a truly effective word. And so it has often been translated as meaning a “blessing” or a “curse”. It is the power to transform reality for both good and evil ends through pronouncing words. This power was frequently exercised to produce selftransformation. Thokfwaj, about whom there are many enthralling stories, eluded one calamity after another by transforming himself from one entity into another.

Käpfwayaj, like Simon’s magic, is essentially a possession and within this mode of understanding spiritual power the key issue becomes how to access it, directly or indirectly, whether it be for our own benefit or others’.

A common quest

There are so many situations in which there seems to be no way to bring about change other than spiritual intervention. Inevitably, this tends to be even more the case for those who do not possess material means that might offer a physical solution. Situations of suffering, violence, injustice, sickness, anguish or our own deep failings, can repeatedly lead us to pray for a manifestation of God’s power.

Sickness in particular has always been understood by the Wichi as primarily a spiritual condition and healing likewise is sought through bringing spiritual forces to bear on its cause. Sickness may also become a way to acquire spiritual power, since within the Wichi shamanistic tradition, that which causes sickness is the same power that can remove it. So a person who survives some dire ailment may be thought to have acquired some special power and can thus become a channel for healing others. Common to this way of thinking, and maybe not so distant from some contemporary expressions of Christianity, is the idea that spiritual power is what we need to tap into or harness for overcoming enemies and evils of one kind or another. And it is not surprising that for many Wichi it is the manifestation of God’s power in their lives that becomes the touchstone for belief.

Faced with this kind of attitude, there has often been a tendency in missionary apologetics to want to show that the power of God is greater than all other powers. And there are certainly many stories that demonstrate that this is true. In the 1930s there was an early Wichi convert called Fwapo Chalaj (Mariano Perez), who became a missionary among his own people and had several encounters with Wichi shamans. Despite repeated death curses against him, he survived and the shaman who threatened him suddenly died. It is said that "after this manifestation of God’s power many of the Wichi in that village surrendered to the Lord and from then on Mariano taught them the Word of God" (from the writings of Helen Sohns).

Seeking love

While we wouldn’t ever want to deny the power of God acting to transform lives, it is crucial – especially when living and working among peoples who put a high priority on access to spiritual power – to remember and to teach that Jesus healed not to prove his power, but as a manifestation of God’s love and compassion. All his miracles are signs of God’s compassionate nature.

Jesus didn’t say that all will know that you are my disciples by the mighty acts of power that you perform, but rather that they will know this “if you love one I have loved you” (John 13:34-35). The power of God revealed through Christ, the power that Paul sought to know, is the power of Christ's resurrection (Philippians 3:10), but this power comes through “becoming like him in his death”. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Christ’s death on the cross is surely the supreme expression of God’s love for humankind and should compel us to seek before all else, even before his power, the manifestation of his love in our lives.