The other day John Carr made a comment on the Presbyterian Church in Canada Facebook page regarding a post from missional-aries.com . He correctly pointed out that we do not so much bring hope someplace as we are hopeful in a place. Both Vivian and I had been uncomfortable with the end of the original piece and John helps to clarify why. We both felt that it ended in a traditionally pious way. It was not the piety that was the problem but the tradition.
The problem with the way that we phrased our response was that it implied that we would bring hope. This is very much the understanding of the missionary movement from the past. We, usually Western white Christians, have Jesus Christ and therefore we will bring Him to those who don’t know him, usually the global south non-white population. This attitude is still common in phrases like reaching unreached peoples with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Two fundamental errors should have been clear to me when I read those words, “bringing hope.” First, we do not control God. As soon as we believe that we have God and others do not we begin to say that we control God. This is true of all the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) as well. We do not possess these things, control them, because to do so is to fall into idolatry. It is a theological error to say, “I possess or control hope such that I can give it to someone else.”
I am teaching on the Major Prophets, and Isaiah has this stinging criticism of those who have Gods other than the God of the covenant:
Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low;
Their idols are borne by the beasts of burden.
The images that are carried about are burdensome,
A burden for the weary.
They stoop and bow down together;
Unable to rescue the burden,
They themselves go off into captivity. (Isaiah 46:1-2)
To bring God (or hope in this case) means to carry God, like beasts of burden. This responsibility is wearying, a burden that we cannot bear. And it makes God into an idol. In the case of past missionary activity, there has been a great deal of extra baggage that has been carried along. With the Gospel has come the idea that the Western world also has “civilization” and it is our responsibility to bring it to other cultures. The “white man’s burden” was understood as a noble enterprise, bringing eternal life and civilization to those who would otherwise be damned and barbaric.
As well intentioned as missionaries might have been, as Isaiah notes, our concepts and understandings of God—when we have made them into idols because we have made them into an object—are powerless even to lift themselves up, let alone other entire civilizations. The critical difference between the idols and the God of the covenant is that the idols are ideas made concrete whereas God is a lived relationship. Idols take the dynamic and solidify it; the covenant of God provides a solid structure for the constant dynamic interplay of a living relationship. We cannot bring hope anywhere because it is an idol of hope. We only find hope within a dynamic relationship with the God who has covenanted to be faithful through despair.
The second problem that arises from the idea of bringing hope is the idea that somehow God is not already at work in all places. We can acknowledge that there is brutality and evil in every culture. The very same cultures that were to bring “civilization” to others created the barbaric Holocaust. King Leopold in the then Congo Free State is an example of how egregious is the idea that North Atlantic countries had an exclusive relationship with God (and therefore had something worthy of bringing to others). There were living and vibrant cultures that did not know Jesus Christ, some that would arguably be more civilized or Christian than the “civilized” Christendoms bringing the Gospel.
The presence of goodness, whether that goodness is found in justice, mercy, kindness or any other fruit of the Spirit, gives rise to the thought that it is possible that God is already at work in all cultures. In seminary I had Dr. Don Juel for a number of New Testament classes. He gave a lecture on the crucifixion scene in which he made a great deal out of the fact that the curtain in the temple was torn when Jesus died. Among the many brilliant things he said were these simple words, “The torn curtain means that God is on the loose.” That is, God is no longer located in a particular place but in a particular person named Jesus Christ. I may push past Juel at this point, but the essential point is this—that with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the covenant is no longer between God and God’s chosen people. Now the covenant is between God and those who are found in Jesus Christ. As God is on the loose in Jesus Christ, it means that God is at work in all cultures. This is what we see in Acts when first there is a baptism by Spirit then various cultures that encounter God. At times aspects of those cultures are affirmed and at other times they are condemned. But no culture is outright and in toto condemned. God is already at work there and it is the missional-ary responsibility to suss out where the Spirit is at work.
This idea likely pushes past the idea of common grace. The common grace argument is that there is no part of God’s world that is not already under God’s sovereign control. God’s creating and sustaining presence in the world is given to all regardless of their particular relationship to God. An unreached people group still experiences the sun and rain and this is a kind of grace. Common grace should actually be sufficient for all to have some humility because we are all universally in need of it. The argument I make above goes past creation and sustaining to actually suggest that the Spirit might be bringing about God’s fruits.
To return to the phrase “bringing hope” it is presumptuous and likely wrong to think that there isn’t already hope in Malawi. There is. God is on the loose and we do not carry God around on our backs, doling out hope to the Malawians we meet. Rather, God has gifted us in particular ways to participate in the coming Kingdom and in doing so, we will discern those moments of hope. We do not control the hope but rather it is a gift to us and to the people we minister with. John Carr was right – we don’t bring hope but live hopeful lives.