Editorial: Faultlines in mission

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Editorial: Faultlines in mission: reflections on race and colonialism | ANVIL vol 36 issue 3

by Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy

While it is premature to assess the legacy of this year in history, we can certainly agree that 2020 has brought to the fore the imperative need to revisit the past, paying particular attention to societal and systemic fractures adversely impacting the lives of many around the globe. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, millions of people took to the streets of our cities demanding radical change, and calling for the toppling of an old order and its symbols of power, objectification and commodification.

This issue of Anvil is inspired by a willingness to offer an introspective response to this global wave of protest calling for racial justice and asking with insistence whether black lives do indeed matter in our societies and institutions. It felt imperative to ask the question of Church Mission Society and its particular contribution to the subject both in its distant and more contemporary history. While this is not set out as an assessment of CMS’s record on questions of systemic racism and the legacy of imperialism, this issue aims to examine potential fault lines in Christian mission, with a particular attention to the legacy of empire in our formulation of missional practices and strategies.

At the invitation of Cathy Ross and James Butler, both from CMS, Dr Harvey Kwiyani, Rev Shemil Matthew, and I agreed to co-edit this issue of Anvil. From the outset, we wanted this volume to offer a more personal approach, and provide a more reflective and introspective tone.

At the heart of this edition is a commitment to pose a number of critical questions examining the tension between imperialist/colonialist ideals and Christian ideals of redemptive justice and liberative narratives. Through the various contributions, we hope to outline possible avenues towards a critical missional framework that offers a solid pathway towards a future in which racial justice and reconciliation are an achievable reality.

We have invited contributions from a variety of voices to help us address the theme of Faultlines in Mission: Reflections on Race and Colonialism. These consist of longer essays, personal reflections, interviews, poetry and book reviews. Each contribution seeks to speak with the authority of personal experience.

Harvey Kwiyani’s article offers us a crystal-clear view of how white privilege and white supremacy have provided the buttresses for empire and have made mission in their own image. To illustrate this, he movingly weaves his own story from his childhood in Malawi to living in George Floyd’s city of Minneapolis to now forming part of the tiny minority of black and brown people who lecture in theology in the UK. His article challenges white people’s ability to experience such little discomfort at empire, mission history, the slave trade and the current context for mission.

My own reflection entitled Hope reimagined: making the world that ought to be, is an invitation to lift our gaze beyond a vision of personhood essentially defined in self-reflective and polarised moods. My reflection draws from the concept of afrofuturism whose aspiration is an attempt to release the imagination in order to sublimate the impossible, to reimagine a different world, a better world. This reimagining is inexorably turned towards the future, a future in which what was alienated is sublimated. My hope is to rethink mission at the intersection between eschatology and immanence. I explore how the murder of George Floyd offers a critical vantage point from which to rethink and redefine mission in ways that lead towards transformed structures and restored relationships.

Bishop Emmanuel Egbunu provides a clear overview of the shameful humiliation of Bishop Ajayi Crowther by European colleagues and the far reaching impact this has had. It makes for sobering and painful reading; as late as 1960, an Anglican church in Nigeria still did not want to come under the episcopal authority of a black bishop. This was only finally rectified by the Nigerian military government in 1991. In 2014 at the 150th anniversary of Bishop Crowther’s consecration, the Archbishop of Canterbury challenged those present to consider whom they excluded because of race in their desire for power. These injustices from the past visit and profoundly affect subsequent generations.

In his article titled Colonialism, Missions and the Imagination: Illustrations from Uganda, Angus Crichton offers a critical overview of the legacy of CMS’s mission with a particular focus on Ugandan experience. He examines the conflicted and often contradictory intersection between European colonialism and Christian mission, and the emergence of a church movement negotiating the tension between assimilation and indigenisation. Angus gives a compelling overview of a movement caught between allegiance to and collusion with the colonial venture on the one hand, and an often-timid critique of the paternalistic approach on the other hand. He also highlights the tension that emerged from CMS’s failure of imagination in recognising and releasing indigenous leadership and in fostering local agency. Angus reminds us that despite this, an African-initiated missional movement flourished. In his reassessment of CMS’s heritage and legacy, Angus insists that there are lessons to be learned. He invites us to rethink the future of our missional engagement as one that is framed in repentance and reassessment of action. One that reflects mutuality in mission, and acknowledges the shift southward of Christianity’s centre of gravity.

In a compelling theological exposé, Rev Dr Sharon Prentis invites us to revisit the biblical concept of lament as a blueprint towards a life framed in mutuality and solidarity in love. As she highlights the inescapable reality of sin, personal and corporate, and its propensity towards categorisation, fracture and segregation, Sharon reminds us that Christ’s mandate for the church is framed in interdependence and calls for the building of the beloved community. Such a community, she argues, is only possible through a shared commitment to engage with lament as poetic protest that names and articulates the reality of what frustrates reconciliation. As such, lament births hope of a resolution not solely concerned with cosmetic changes, but painstakingly committed to repentant and restorative work.

When the Poisonous Tree Attempts to Produce an Antidote: colonialism, colonial CMS missions and the caste system in Kerala, is a stimulating reflection on the challenge of a missional organisation caught at the intersection between colonialism and the caste system. In this essay, Rev Shemil Matthew speaks with the integrity of one who considers himself an insider to multiple contexts. He starts by offering an informative depiction of the socio-religious nature of the Varna system and goes on to show how it was distorted at the contact of western colonial ideals in engendering what is known as the caste system that has come to shape identity questions in India to this day. Shemil reflects further on how unfiltered western philosophical assumptions, preoccupied with categorisation and classification, permeated the western missionary movement and facilitated its collusion with a model of Christianity that excluded and marginalised, and ultimately struggled to foster the effective social change it sought to promote. Shemil has invited his PhD supervisor, Rev Dr Anderson Jeremiah who specialises in Dalit theology, to give a short response to his article, which provides a further layer of insight.

In his essay, Home is Where the Heart is – a story about race and post-colonialism, Gilberto Da Silva Afonso reminds us that there is no theology that is not at its heart biography. From his native Angola, to inner city London, to the soulful tunes of Marvin Gaye, Miriam Makeba, and Michael Kiwanuka, and through the complex historical and socio-political landscape of his heritage, Gilberto illustrates both the tension and opportunity of hybridised identity. As he relates his quest for identity and belonging, he denounces the debilitating forces of assimilation and othering. Helpfully, Gilberto’s honest and generous account invites all to reconsider paradox and nuance as fundamental ingredients towards a healthy missional engagement for the future. For him, mission needs to migrate from objectification and commodification of black bodies to full integration and participation of those historically marginalised and minoritised.

Pastor Dupe Adefala recounts the experience of planting a church in the UK, the challenges of minoritised living, the painful reminder of racial fault lines in British society and everyday experiences of racism in her interview with James Butler. Together, they reflect on practical challenges for Christians and for CMS as they attempt to respond to the issue of racial injustice. The interview concludes with an encouragement to continue the conversation and hold it with a redemptive focus.

Eleasah Phoenix Louis, who self identifies as a churchgrown Black-British millennial, brings the perspective of a seldom heard voice in theological discourse. In this thought provoking reflection on Faultlines and Factions: a theo-political conundrum in the era of Black Lives Matter and New Black Religious Movements, Eleasah raises a number of pertinent questions about normative whiteness as the frame of theological reflection and missional development, and its failure to imaginatively engage with the experience of oppression and liberative aspirations of many black Christians (especially those of her generation) in their quest for God and realised self. In this essay, she exposes the limits of a modern philosophical framework that seems to only find expression in the tension between theological liberalism and conservatism. She offers a vision that promotes a deconstructed and decolonised reading of identity and theology; one that embraces paradox and nuance, transcending fracture and segregation, and fully informed by a multiplicity of cultural perspectives. Eleasah’s description of her research work is a compelling plea to move from the primacy of the universal to the contextual, from homogeneity to plurality, from the critical to the postcritical. She sees in the Black Lives Matter movement and other black liberative or womanist theologies an opportunity to affirm black humanity and agency, and an opportunity to tell anew the experience of the Church in mission.

Awais Mughal brings a deeply personal and moving reflection on Racism Dishonouring the Image of God. Inevitably, the murder of George Floyd casts a long shadow on her piece. She takes us through an exploration of the expression of racism in the Church’s mission and ministry through various interpretative lenses. Awais reminds us of the lasting and pernicious legacy of the pseudo-scientific race theory on the Church’s theology and practice, imbuing its iconography with racist ideals. She then reflects on the enduring influence of cultural imperialism and colonialism and its predilection for the language of mastery on Pakistani society, especially its treatment of minority groups and communities. She concludes by highlighting that one of the tasks of mission is to remind the world of God’s image in humanity. As we do so with integrity, we can foster the emergence of a society in which we can all flourish in our shared humanity.

This volume will be punctuated with a poetic reflection: Let Me Breathe by Natasha Godfrey is a visceral responses to the murder of George Floyd: a protest, a plea, and a prayer. Above all, it is a lament, a prophetic complaint appealing to the heart of God, and whatever humanity is still present in those listening.

Our hope in focusing this volume on the question of race and colonisation is not merely an attempt to join the bandwagon and do our bit for the cause. What drives us is a willingness to engage in meaningful and continuing conversations about what we believe is a fundamental Christian ideal – racial justice. As publisher of Anvil, CMS is mindful of the fact that, as an organisation, it is not in any position to lecture others. Our prayer is that as we raise questions and engage with these contributions, they will stimulate our own reflection, and encourage us to remain active agents for racial justice and reconciliation.

Rev Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy
For the editorial team

About the author

Rev Canon Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy is the BAME mission and ministry enabler for Leicester diocese. He is an ordained Anglican minister with a passion for social justice and a desire to see global voices amplified in theological discourse. He is a trustee of St Mellitus College, Church Army, and deputy chair of the Board of Initiatives of Change UK.

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