Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Missionaries and Politics

A few years back I attended a major conference designed to discuss ways to advance the Gospel in India. Over 600 Christians from all over the country and around the world attended to talk about how to present Christ through media, helping the poor, women’s fellowships, evangelism, arts, schools and many other topics (I was a part of the cultural anthropology discussion group). I was disappointed with the meeting because of the political overtones of the gathering. The host, and leading figure in India, is heavily invested in fighting for Dalit rights, (Dalits are the lower caste people of India, formerly known as "untouchables"). Though the cause is great and worthy, I didn’t think this was an appropriate venue for the overall theme of how to reach the whole nation with the whole Gospel of Christ.

Down through the years I have observed the church and the on-going battle between faith and political ideology. Whether it is corruption in Africa, oppression in former Soviet countries or ethnic tensions in Asia, the battle between rights, freedom, socialism, democracy is ever with us. The tension for missionaries is how much should we be engaged in such political activity? Should we actively oppose a system that is anti-God? Should we be a defender of the weak, the marginalized and those who are oppressed because of their gender, ethnicity or religious persuasion? The answer is a qualified yes. The greater question is how and how much?

As a missiologist my bent, prejudice or focus, is pretty narrow, though with broad universal implications. I don’t see the world in binary opposites (good/bad, democrat/republican, socialism/capitalism) as much as I see a mosaic of people and systems incarcerated by disobedience to our Creator. I work in an area of over 3 billion people where 87% do not personally know a Christian. Part of the reason for this lack of penetration of the Gospel is due to political obstacles. Should I seek to overthrow the evil human system or should I seek ways of presenting Christ as He gives me (and the church) opportunity? Should I buy the t-shirts that say, “Free The Dalits,” or should I concentrate on contextualizing the Gospel to the Dalits that crosses political and ethnic boundaries even if the nations do not?

As a theologian, I see no biblical precedence for being politically active. Our Lord lived in a country oppressed by a foreign government, He mixed with the poor on a daily basis, broke bread with corrupt officials and, though He helped and challenged in each situation, He was not an activist. Jesus remained focused on the purpose of His mission. In addition to the example of our Lord, the Apostle Paul stated in Romans 13:1-7 that a Christians responsibility was to submit to government authority (and remember he was writing to persecuted Christians living in Rome), to pray for those in authority and pay taxes as required. While I may not agree with the political landscape in the countries I work or reside, Paul reminds us that it is Sovereign One who establishes those in authority. To be salt and light is our daily task, to mandate morality or ideology is clearly not a part of the Great Commission.

Finding balance is key to everything. Missionaries can be informed and pray for the world systems around them, but if politics becomes an obsession where we spend more time trying to right the wrongs of this world than telling those who have never heard about Christ, then perhaps we have lost sight of the heart of our calling.