Biblical Reflections

Mission of God in the context of Asian, people’s suffering and struggle.

1. God of the Covenant
2. Instruments of Mission
3. Salt and Light

by Rev. Dr. A. George Ninan, Associate General Secretary,
Christian Conference of Asia

[These Bible Studies were presented at the URM Committee Consultation held in Taipei, Taiwan from 20-26 January 1989]


Part 1: God of the Covenant

I am grateful to the URM moderator, Bishop Bob Longid and URM executive secretary, Rev. Kwon Ho Kyung for inviting me to this consultation and to lead you in biblical reflection.

This is, however, not a bible study but a joint reflection. It is important that all of us reflect on the word of God as he reveals himself in our involvement with Asia’s suffering people. The insights that we will collectively share will be more valid than if we depended on the wisdom of one person.

Mission will be an important concern of CCA this year. In September the CCA will hold the Asian Mission Conference in Indonesia on the theme "Mission of God in the context of the suffering and struggling peoples of Asia." We all hope that this conference will help the CCA and member churches gather a new and more dynamic perspective to mission.

We live in exciting times. I say that fully aware that many among us and in the movements find these times discouraging. There is a general dissatisfaction with what were considered then as new and developing political economic models in Asia. Many of our expectations of people’s power in the past, appear overly optimistic, it has turned out.

In my own country, I hear about stagnation and dullness. Action groups seem unclear about their directions. They fear that they have become institutionalized. There seems to be a lack of urgency in our work, which some explain is a result of our becoming more realistic

and more mature. How do we re-vitalize ourselves, is a question commonly asked nowadays. But I say it just the same, these are exciting and positive times.

There are many hopeful signs. In reviewing church literature and recalling conversations with church leaders for example, I am surprised that many churches and even governments have now adopted the agenda of justice and peace. How these concerns are actually translated into action is another matter. But the point must be made that there is a more visible affirmation of justice and peace concerns in the churches today.

My optimism stems from a belief that God is acting today in the context of suffering people. We may slip and struggle within the churches, but thankfully God moves even without us.

In our countries, there is a perceptible growth of charismatic movements which proclaim in a louder voice, an other-wordly Evangelism. "The pie in the sky" ministry has become more pervasive. The ecumenical movement in a sense has failed to provide a strong alternative against the very narrow and Western- oriented evangelism that is gaining ground in many countries today. There is not enough articulation of mission as participation in the historical process of people’s struggle to the churches. There is not enough theological training along this line being done for our young ministers and pastors. We seem to be going about our work without too much urgency.

God’s Mission: Honoring his Covenant with the People.

Our reflection this morning is on the book of Exodus 2-5. God’s mission is the radical re-structuring of human relationship. When God saw and heard the suffering of his people who were enslaved in Egypt, he initiated action: He commanded Moses to speak in His behalf and to tell the Pharaoh "Let my people go." His mission was to bring about the end of the master-slave relationship and the freedom and nationhood of his people, according to his Covenant. God’s mission is radical in nature. In Asia where millions are in bondage, URM must do likewise. We cannot be reformists. We must radically challenge the systems of oppression and proclaim the liberating message that the poor are God’s children.

Unfolding in History

God unfolds his presence in concrete historical situations. He was in the midst of the suffering slaves. He was present in their struggles for freedom. He brought the people out of the land of Egypt into the Promised Land, and freed them from slavery.

We must also recognize God’s presence in the midst of the suffering and struggling people’s of Asia. He is revealing himself today and if we are not involved in the real life situations of the suffering and struggling people, it is doubtful that we will experience the power of his presence today.

Most of our preaching today in churches is about a God of the past. Many churches seem unprepared to proclaim that God exists today and moves people to act for their liberation. If we are not part of people’s action, then we are not part of God’s action.

God’s Methodology

How God empowers people can be seen in the way he dealt with the uncertainty and doubts of Moses. When Moses expressed his reservation, he called on Aaron to be his mouthpiece. God commanded him to "gather the elders of Israel together." God therefore called the "community" to action. In unity of community, as we can see, is strength. We all have our limitations and our doubts. Yet we are called as we are. It is up to us to respond.

The method of God is confrontational. He tells Moses to stand before Pharaoh and deliver the demand of the people. He visited plagues on the Egyptians until the Pharaoh was forced to give in to God’s power. Such too are the methods of people’s struggle.

When I was an organizer in Bombay, I was told by a Bishop that our methods were un-Christian because, they were confrontational. What does he make of the Exodus story? The assertion of a people’s humanity is confrontational in nature. The powerful want people to be docile and to accept brutallization. It is clear that people cannot become fully human unless they assert their humanity and unless they stand up. This is a spiritual empowering process which is a part of the process of liberation.

God called the leaders to assemble. This is a methodology used even today in the mobilization of people. It is a URM method to gather and mobilize people in order to present their demands most forcefully.

Finally God said, "I will stretch out my hand," and "I will be with you." God expresses his firm solidarity in the struggles of the enslaved people of Moses time and of the suffering and struggling people of Asia today.



Part 2: Instruments of Mission

Text: Genesis 16:1-16; 21:8-20

We have often thought of riches, success and power as the symbols of God’s favor to a person. Certainly, the Bible carries many stories where the blessed ones are those who have become rich and successful.

In our text, we find Abraham and Sarah as such people blessed by God. They are the privileged ones, recipients of God’s blessings, parents -to-be of a great nation. After all, it is Abraham who is promised a "land flowing with milk and honey." So we always think of Abraham and Sarah as God’s chosen people -- they have access to God, they have power, riches, success -- the very visible reflections of God’s blessing, or so we think.

What about Hagar, the slave girl whom Abraham took because of Sarah’s barrenness? The same person who was banished by Sarah, Out of jealousy, when she had born him a son by the name of Ishmael? I propose to look at the movement of God in the oppressed figure of the woman Hagar.

Who was Hagar?

Hagar was an Egyptian. She was therefore a foreigner, an outsider and subject to discrimination as many migrants today suffer. She is a minority person, not being of the same tribe as Abraham.

She was also a slave girl, without rights. When Sarah could not bear Abraham a son, Hagar was given to Abraham. She could not refuse just as today bonded laborers in India and Pakistan cannot refuse to work for their masters. She could not participate in any decision-making action. She could not even decide for her own self.

Hagar bore Abraham a son named Ishmael. However, Sarah became jealous and started to beat her and treat her unkindly. Hagar was forced to flee with her son into the wilderness. Again like so many unfortunate women who run away after being abused by their masters. Hagar was rejected.

Now in the midst of the wilderness, the angel of God meets Hagar. She had decided to leave Ishmael to die, when this happened. In the midst of hopelessness and oppression, God reveals himself and promises Hagar that Ishmael will be the father of a great and big nation. Hagar is upheld by God.

In this story, God clearly shows himself to be the protector of the oppressed and exploited. Hagar’s humanity is affirmed. God promises that her son will be a leader of a great nation. The God of Hagar is for all people, not only the chosen ones. He is a God of hope and salvation.

The story is significant for us in two ways, I think. It tells us that the elite will not be successful if they do not marginalize a certain sector of the population. The basis for their wealth and power rests on the oppressed condition of people like Hagar. It is our duty to identify with these most oppressed sectors for it is to them that God reveals his saving action.

Secondly, I think what this means is that by promising salvation for Ishmael and nationhood to his offspring, God shows that he can and often works with those so-called non-chosen people of God. Therefore, he works with people outside the church, outside our circles, outside action groups, outside URM. We have no monopoly of truth and justice.

This should humble us a lot. We often have many unwarranted assumptions about ourselves, being priveleged for one reason or another. It should be clear to us that God works through other people, through those whom the chosen one’s least expect God’s favor. It is evident that God is active in lifting up the oppressed, and asserting the right of dispossessed persons like Hagar and Ishmael.

The other important point is the woman issue. Here we read about two women. Sarah and Hagar. One oppresses the other. One is master the other slave. To me this means that women must unite. In our world today, women are divided into classes. The struggle of women has to be seen in relation to the struggle of society as a whole against common oppression.



Part 3: Salt and Light

Text: Matthew 5:13-20

The verses are a powerful repudiation of those who are comfortable in the belief that they are the chosen people of God, the chosen instruments of his will. No one is exempted from his judgement not even the Pharisees and the Scribes.

He will overturn those who think that they are doing God’s mission but who are not. He will reject those of us who think we are "in" as if URM is a club. He will throw away those who have become comfortable, those who think that URM is an exclusive club. In some respect, URM has become fundamentalist, at times, thinking that only URM is right and all others are wrong. Have we become exclusivist? Are we bringing in new people or are we the same club meeting over and over again?

We are called to reflect a new value system. God goes beyond the experts -- the Pharisees and scribes who have made a business of serving God. They have made religion legalistic, but not human. This is where URM must show itself capable of sharing a new value system. The URM style is free and unorthodox. We dance and sing. We laugh and cry in the context of our successes and failures in our involvement in the grassroots.

In verse 20, we are told that if our virtues do not go deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will be rejected and have no place in his kingdom. How should we reflect these new values?

I am reminded of a criticism made on Christian arrogance. In Kerala there is a festival in autumn, after harvest, when people celebrate life in general. In this situation of revelry, the Christians were heard shouting noisily about the "Love of God". As you know Christians in general are a privileged lot in this area, living above poverty and quite segregated. A non-Christian was moved to comment, why are Christians so noisy about love? How is this love expressed among the poor in real life?

Gandhi was once heard to say: "Why are Christians so noisy? If you are a rose, your fragrance will quietly attract others. But if you are not a rose, no matter how much you shout that you are a rose, no one will believe you and you will never smell like a rose." To me, the values we speak of must be seen in action, in deeds rather than in words. For example, we speak a lot about women’s emancipation in URM. How seriously do we reflect this concern in our deeds?

Even URM can develop a jargon. It can say and preach radical messages, but when un-substantiated with action, the message lacks power. We must make deeds match our words. The way this deeply-rooted philosophy has been internalized by many in the URM has meant many sacrifices and our own share of martyrs.

To put URM’s role in proper perspective with respect to being instruments of God but also with respect to the danger of thinking about ourselves as messiahs, verses 13-16 in chapter 5 are instructive -- we are to be the light and the salt of the earth.

What this means is that we are catalysts. Salt is necessary only to bring out the flavor or taste of a dish. We are not the dish. We are only the salt. In terms of people’s empowerment, we are not the people. We are merely instruments of the people.

Salt is not meant to exist forever. It is meant to disappear after use. We merge and become like the people. We are to bring out the best in people, but we cannot do this, unless we are involved in the local struggles of the people.

Once I visited Korea and an old URM friend said, everyone is talking about national politics. Everyone is out to build federations. Nobody seems to be taking care of local factories and local communities anymore.

I think the danger in this instance is in having no confidence in people. URM is not the only instrument of God. He will find someone to do what we cannot do. Therefore, we must be humble and know our place at any given time. We must try our best in our particular area of work among the people and become their instruments so that, like a catalyst, things happen.

The fundamental thing, however, for URM and for salt, is that their essence is in being ready to disappear and to be transformed into something else. Let us join hands with the people and become part of their movement.