Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Failure

A few days ago a former colleague shared with me that another former associate was facing some difficult times. He was doing alright financially and at work, but his wife had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The local hospital had declared it inoperable and he had taken her to the University of Chicago Hospital, which is a teaching hospital. I called him and he asked me to pray for him. He said he was hopeful that his wife will be healed, and that many other friends are praying for them. I offered him help with looking after kids or any other meaningful help, but he lived a ways from me, and though he acknowledged my offer politely, did not take me up on it.

This friend is a very socially active person. In the days when we worked together he organized the local Indian community to donate food and supplies to a local humanitarian organization called Loaves and Fishes which helped the homeless. He also teamed up with the pastor at a large Assemblies of God church to work with his community to support Loaves and Fishes. He has been working with the mayor and leadership of his city to support community activities among Indians. He is a leader in the local shakha or wing of the community organization Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. This organization enables training in Hindu virtues and doctrine. Borrowing a page from Christian youth education, they have Sunday school-like classes, along with social activities with a cultural twist, including regular picnics and camps. He has hosted Hindu victims of persecution from countries which have treated Hindus shabbily, and his love for them is genuine.

Often in conversations he would complain about his job and the fact that many people around him do not respond to his work rightly, that often there is unfairness in performance reviews. He firmly believes that Indian ethos means essentially good things, and anything such as rape, female infanticide or other social ills in India are in fact foreign and the result of the advent of Kaliyug, the final dark ages in each cycle of an aeon, which repeats itself infinitely.

Over the past few weeks many events in my life took my attention away from his case- sicknesses and deaths of near and dear ones- and I followed his updates on Facebook. Recently he mentioned that his fruits and flowers which he placed before the idol in his home showed traces of a sacred flame, and felt that these were signs that God was listening. He also posted messages of thanks to over a hundred (literally) friends individually. These people had visited him, helped him tangibly, bringing food, prayers and other elements of support. He posted pictures of some of them, and was touched by their support.

From my own interactions with people, I have often wondered how much they are called to sacrifice to move out of a community with such strong ties and pledge allegiance to Jesus. To a person whose life revolves around such community ties, we often offer a poor imitation of the real thing. Missionaries, especially cross-cultural ones, intentionally offer them real and sincere friendship, but I wonder if such things could ever be a match. Granted, my friend was so active socially, that a lot of this is natural. I doubt that even if with my own family and friends numbering in the hundreds, I would receive such love and support in such a situation from so many.

Is it any wonder then, that when we approach a person with the message that Jesus loves her, she finds it nothing more than a well-intentioned generic message of God’s love that she could uncover from any religious text anywhere? The message of Jesus’ sacrifice is singular and unique, but as we proclaim it as a proposition, without proof in and through our lives that He indeed loves her, I don’t believe that what we are proclaiming is in fact the full gospel. If that were the case, we could send notes containing the basic message of the gospel and not inter into anyone’s lives at all.

In the book ‘In the Company of the Poor’, Gustavo Gutierrez, credited with coining the term ‘Liberation Theology’ in his 1971 book ‘A Theology of Liberation’, says, “Liberation Theology begins with the question, ‘How do we tell the poor that Jesus loves them?’” Sharing the gospel with the poor must accompany our understanding of their longing for justice- and not only eternal justice, but temporal justice as well. Without the missionary herself identifying with the poor and actively undertaking to accomplish justice on behalf of the poor, I believe that what the missionary preaches is in fact not the Gospel. Liberation theology is often accused of having a horizontal focus with even an intentional denial of the propositional gospel. This is not universally true of liberation theologians, though, and while I think this is a serious mistake and denies the gospel outright, I believe the propositional gospel as a proposition, as a set of facts without a personal context is not the Gospel. The propositional gospel must inform the contextual evangelization and the love of the missionary for the people in order for it to be the full Gospel.

There are reports of people having come to faith by just reading the Bible. The Holy Spirit works to accomplish what we cannot. I believe that this upends all our claims to be effective workers for the kingdom. In that sense, the propositional gospel enters into the lives of people through God's direct intervention. More often, though, God works through people to make this happen- and He himself seals the deal through conviction, repentance and faith.

History is replete in many places, and often in India, of missions attempting to replace a community’s most cherished attributes with a culturally compromised version of the Gospel- and not just in the songs, religious text, practices, holy days and community. Sometimes this is necessary, but often not so much. I feel I have let my friend down in his time of need- but many others, some from his community and some others from outside it- have not. In my goal to be an intentional missionary to everyone that I come across, I have failed miserably to care enough for this person. And this should be food for thought as to whether what I’m sharing is the full Gospel.

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