BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – It is sad to recognize that our own PC(USA) has spent so many years and General Assemblies embroiled in the politics of cultural and societal change to satisfy the whims of a few that we are missing the real ministry of mission and spreading God’s word to those who have yet to hear it.
So wrote one of the Outlook readers earlier today in response our posting of Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons’ brief introduction to the business being engaged at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches that has been meeting here for the past 9 days, and will wrap up tomorrow.
I certainly appreciate the spirit in which the note is written. For at least the first 20 of my 40-plus years in the faith, I saw the Christian mission as singly “spreading God’s world to those who have yet to hear it,” and for the other 20-plus years I’ve certainly seen proclamation at the heart of our mission. Indeed, Jesus’ closing words recorded in Matthew’s gospel commissioned the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations.
The work of engaging political issues looks so small in contrast to that – or so it has looked that way for this American evangelical Christian.
But through these 40-plus years in the faith, I have encountered in increasing numbers – due in large part to increasing opportunities to travel, to meet non-American evangelical Christians – that the simple dichotomy between evangelism and politics has been dismantled.
And nowhere more so than here and now in Busan where Christians of all colors, languages, accents, ecclesial garb and personal agendas have converged to talk about being the church in mission together everywhere.
What has surprised me – contrary to the press I’ve read through my 40 years in the faith – has been the huge amount of time and energy that has been poured into intense Bible study and prayer. Each day begins with 90 minutes of prayer and Bible study and ends with 30 minutes more of prayer. Add to that the many other prayer meetings, workshops on evangelism methodologies, on Christian education, on new curricula for children’s spiritual formation, and the very rhythm of this gathering has been drummed by my kind of evangelicals.
However, while feeling that drumbeat, I keep getting arrested by the witness of fellow Christians talking not in theoretical terms about issues we Americans easily write off as party politics, but in existentially immediate, life-threatening, spiritually critical issues they are facing in the here and now of their daily lives.
Take, for example, Tafue Lasuma, a pastor on the independent, small island country of Tuvalu in the south Pacific, which is home to 10,000 people. Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, it is comprised of cluster of nine tiny coral atolls totaling 10 square miles. Of note is the fact that the high point of the land is 4 meters above sea level, with most of the land much lower than that. “We are threatened by the rising waters,” Lasuma told the delegates at the WCC meeting. “Every sphere of life is threatened. Our security, our health, our very identity as a people on the planet are at stake.”’
He pressed his point further to faith matters. “If we look at the flood narrative, we see that those who caused the flood were the ones swimming in the sea. In the face of climate change, the question always comes up, ‘Why us? Why do we have to face the consequences of things we have had no part in? Where is justice in this?’” And he pressed further. “We don’t want the pity of the world.”
What do the Tuvalu Christians want? They want the world community – led by Christians who understand that God commissioned humanity to steward the planet for God’s use, not exploit it for our own sinful pleasures – to take responsibility for and reversing their practices that are fostering climate change and renew hope in his people as well as millions of others living on Pacific islands and other low-lying areas worldwide. In other words, he’s calling for repentance. Metanoia.
Yes, that sounds like an appeal that, back in safe America, one party would lift up as a rationale for regulating corporations and redistributing Americans’ hard-earned income to non-Americans, while the other party would scorn it as bad science, depressing the U.S. economy and the promotion of a welfare state. But such categories won’t fly in Sunday worship services in Tuvalu, where Gospel proclamation mixes with the intense praying of congregations living a threatened existence.
Personal testimonies by participant upon participant in this gathering of devout believers have set off knee-jerk reactions in the body of this evangelical – who still carries a passion to proclaim the gospel that saved my life back in the dear ol’ U.S.A. But time and again, my reflex reactions have turned into gut-wrenching empathy and, more importantly, mind stretching imagining of what we Christians could and should do in partnership with our sisters and brothers in the faith who are seeking to fulfill the Great Commission in lands not quite so secure, so safe, so prosperous, so free as our own.
How can we be family with those who don’t enjoy the luxury of writing off such questions as climate change, or for that matter, migration, sexual slavery, gender discrimination, the prosecution and execution of sexual minorities, the persecution of Christians and other faiths, crushing impoverishment in lands that cannot sustain crops, the real and present threat of nuclear destruction?
Call it mixing politics with religion. At the World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly in Busan, it’s called a prayer, “God of Life, lead us to justice and peace.”