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Being the People of God

Interview with Dr. Girma Bekele - Part ll

Before proceeding with the next portion of the interview, do you mind clarifying your response on the oft-repeated “religious freedom” in our country in light of state-church relations stated in Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 13?

It is unlikely that the Ethiopian church will find herself again facing state enforced persecution. Certainly, not to the degree comparable to those dark years of the communist regime. And it is my prayer that this freedom will last and be used effectively. Regardless, the church should be true to herself and her mission “in season and out of season” [2 Tim. 4:2]. Her freedom would be meaningless, and in fact, unbecoming, when she behaves contrary to her identity as the unique community of God. 

The church should not seek to please powers nor should she blindly endorse socio-economic and political programs without due scrutiny just for the sake of ‘freedom’. A shallow understanding of “power” or “authority” in Rom 13:1 makes one to submit blindly to individuals, groups, or political parties. I am not a New Testament scholar, but my own finding has led me to a conviction that Paul is referring to an “office”. Ultimately, all power comes from God! As such, it is clear that action or inaction and morality and ethics of any given government can be called into question and even challenged in the light of the Word of God. As far as state-church relationship is concerned, Romans 13:1 should be understood in its comprehensive context that: (1) All authorities are ultimately accountable to God; (2) God is in charge, he is on his throne from where he directs human history; (3) Governments are given power to serve people; (4) What a government does, at least in terms of basic human rights and values, should be compatible with basic Christian conscience. Bosch makes it clear that the conscience which submits to the state when it works for the good of the people, under God, is the same conscience which opposes the state when it works contrary to the good of the people and not under God.

Don’t you think your optimism may be misplaced about state-enforced persecution not getting harsher than during the previous regime - especially considering Jesus's warning of events preceding his return [John 15:20; 2 Timothy 3:1]? If, as you stated above, God is the Ultimate Governor, is there any reason to believe earthly rulers are the real purveyors of “freedom” or that they could persecute without the Governor permitting it? Jesus has given the church authority to “loose and bind” on earth which, likewise, will be loosed and bound in heaven [Matthew 16: 19]. Scripture also instructs believers to pray for those in authority so that there will be peace, godliness, holiness and that people will be saved through the preaching of the Gospel [1 Tim 2: 1-4]. In other words, are not the “freedoms” we enjoy really the result of prayers and not necessarily because of government largesse?

I am optimistic at least in the immediate sense of it. Regardless, the church’s true freedom is fundamentally being herself as the body of Christ—the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth that embodies and radiates all its values both in word and in deed. The church is commissioned by none other than the risen Lord who said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me... Therefore go…” (Matthew 28: 18). Her empowerment comes from the Lord. As such, the church cannot count on governments’ favour or approval for her existence and her mission. The church’s missionary agenda is set and defined by the word of God, and she is to be guided by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the church ought to pray for governments that they may discharge their duties peacefully, justly, wisely, morally and ethically. The church ought to pray against all powers, systems, beliefs and values that oppose and hinder the spreading of the gospel. God does answer prayers in his own way and rescue his people. In a system of governance where freedom of religion and speech is upheld, it is natural to expect that the mission of the church flourishes. As history attests, however, this has not always been necessarily the case and if fact quite the contrary. Certainly, that is true of the contemporary Ethiopian Evangelicalism.

When the church is true to her calling, persecution (it may have various faces and degrees from time to time) is inevitable. You may know that Christians in Jimma (over ten thousand) are now in the middle of fierce persecution from Islamic radicals. This is a serious concern, but the gospel cannot be confined for it is the work of the Holy Spirit through dedicated children of God.

May I also remind readers to pray (and help through the Ethiopian Evangelicals Churches Fellowship -EECF- office in Addis Ababa or through Kale Heywot Church which has been assigned by the Fellowship to look after the believers in Jimma) for churches in Jimma.

Your last question concerns whether the “freedoms” we are enjoying today is the result of prayers. Yes, that is true in a sense that ultimately God is in charge of human history, just as much as of Salvation history. He holds all power, and he gives and takes it away. My only concern is the temptation to read any given (or one’s) nation’s history or socio-political program into the Bible, even “theocratically”. Often people are too quick to ascribe “the hand of God” to a given government only to find it to be a delusion later. Discerning the hand of God in history is a matter of faith and often can be very ambiguous. What is certain is that God is on his throne directing human history to its meaningful end, and as such ultimately no earthly power is outside of God’s rule! 
How would you define heaven? Do you believe there is hell? How would belief or non-belief in those two realities impact the missionary enterprise?
I believe heaven is located within God’s universe—creation. I believe it is already here, inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Heaven is where all true believers will eternally enjoy fellowship with the Triune God. It has already invaded the present, but yet it is to be fully realized in the second coming of the Lord. It is the home of righteousness" (2 Pet. 3:13); and in the interim it is behind us, among us, around us and within us! (John 14:2; Rom. 8:21; Rev. 21:22-27). 
I do also believe in the existence of hell; but the motivation for mission is the love of God and not the fear of hell, for hell is primarily and essentially the final destination of Satan his followers! God loved the whole cosmos and he sent his Son Jesus as the unique and the only way to heaven. The parousia, the second coming of the Lord Jesus, is real and without which history has no meaning. The eschatological dimension of the church reminds us that the quest for justice is a progressive journey, and that it will be fully realized only at the parousia. The church as the Alternative Community lives dialectically – in the here/already and the not yet. The church exists between the ascension and parousia and therefore lives in mission expectantly. Being expectant should not make the church escapist, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not only a future reality but is already present in our midst. That is real hope! 
So what is at stake for the church’s mission in Ethiopia? 
First, mission that embraces a God-given ethnic innocence. We need to be alert to the damage being caused to the unity and distinctiveness of the church as the unique body of Christ by excessive ethnic self-consciousness. While the EOTC has to find some ways to prevent the current conflict between the Ethiopian Synod and the Exiled Synod from being exploited along ethnic and political lines, the Evangelical body has to keep itself from regressing to nominalism and entanglement with ethnic exclusivism. They need to rise above walls of ethnicity that we see in the current compromise between centralism and regional particularism. The church is called to be a healer. 
Second, Christ-centered Leadership. It is suicidal that the church is seeking the help of secular law to resolve her internal conflicts. Leadership conflicts within the EOTC and (with varying degrees) Evangelical churches are mixed with excessive ethnic self-consciousness. One’s theological or socio-political views, as well as one’s actions or inactions are seen through the prism of ethnicity, regardless of one’s intention. Within the evangelical body (both in Ethiopia and in diaspora), churches split easily and there is a professionalization (or even a personalization) of ministry (often characterized by feelings of insecurity), failing to recognize that “ministry is not a personal achievement.” Personal ambitions, lack of the fear of God, and the decline of Christian integrity are all unwitting refusals of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who through the Holy Spirit is the owner of Christian mission, including the church herself. All these make the church just another “broken social structure” — a failed status-quo. 
Finally, the fate of the millions of poor and the destiny of the next generation. My work has been an eye opening experience, and at the moment, what is at stake is the destiny of our nation and indeed of its majority poor. One can only imagine the possibilities if the Christian majority in our county were united around a common goal and finds some respectable and intelligible ways to dialogue to expand common ground for mutual enrichment, reformation and betterment of the life of the poor. I believe we can make a huge difference. Having said this, however, I am very conscious that the church is not an NGO; rather she is the visible sign of God’s kingdom on earth. Although global justice must be a great concern for contemporary Christian mission, it is wrong to equate evangelization with political action or salvation with social justice. 
What, in your opinion, accounts for the churches not speaking out against distributive injustices, corruption, and human rights [to limit their activities simply to evangelization and to emergency and charitable endeavors]? 
Specific to Evangelicals, their involvement in constructively contributing to the shaping of the country’s socio-political and economic direction was very limited during the last two regimes—the Monarchy and Military Marxism. Historically, during the initial stages of the Marxist military regime, evangelical churches, particularly in the South, had endorsed the government’s policy for they, like many other social groups on the periphery, were excluded from power in the centre, and the Marxist claims of ‘equality, justice and freedom for all’ was very appealing. Of course, the Derge sent a deliberate and misleading picture of itself as the upholder of religious freedom, and the evangelicals took that at its face value. It was quick and shrewd in exploiting the religious sentiment of the southern evangelicals, who felt that they had been treated as second class citizens during the Monarchy. In addition, when the revolution erupted, most evangelical churches (with some exceptions, such as the Evangelical Ethiopian Church Mekane Yesus) had just begun organizing themselves as indigenous churches at a national level. They lacked a theological framework to critically assess and determine the boundaries between the claims of Christianity and the emerging Ethiopianized Marxist-Leninist ideology. Some exceptional voices existed within the evangelical churches, however. The most notable of these was Qes Gudina Tumsa, General Secretary of EE CMY (1966-1979) and an evangelical martyr who was executed for his critical, non-violent political stance. 
In my opinion, the evangelicals need to address their own in-house problems as a crucial step without which they have no credible voice in the socio-political and economic arena. Both evangelism and social concern (the shaping of public policy as relates to poverty, distributive injustices, corruption, and human rights) are at stake. It is ironic that the very churches that were persecuted under the Monarchy and the Derge, and historically who had been pleading with authorities that their right to exist was threatened simply because they worshipped God, are now suing each other and asking the government to build walls between them! Inevitably, the mark that distinguishes the church from the world is increasingly being blurred. While historically, Evangelicals irritated (or attracted) the world around them, now more than ever they are facing the question of integrity and credibility—increasingly making Christian mission redundant. No single denomination remains unaffected, including the Mulu Wongel, which has significantly contributed to the transformation of Ethiopian Evangelicalism into Pentecostalism, including being a positive force for the movement of Evangelical ecumenism. 
What will it take to mobilize expatriate evangelical missionaries to move on from making only [denominational] converts [in their own images] and engaging in individualized acts of charity to playing supportive role to native leadership to policy advocacy in their own countries where a particular foreign policy is often cause for abuses to human freedoms? 
We live in an age of consumerism, and unfortunately contemporary mission praxis is influenced by it. A certain ‘denominational’ aspiration becomes the ‘gospel’ and method for the success of institutional expansion (or preservation in the case of mainline churches) is taking precedence over faithfulness! In such a missionary model, substance is replaced with style and it is easy to compromise, for it is ‘people-’ or to be clear ‘consumer-’ driven. In such a missionary paradigm, mission becomes whatever a church or a mission/ministry organization does. By January 1999, in Ethiopia, there were over 200 registered ‘mission/ministry or charitable Christian organizations’, a ratio of almost 20 for every established denomination! Some have done (still do) good jobs in partnership with local churches or the national office. It is also encouraging that some church/ministry leaders in Diaspora are returning (long term or short term) to work with churches in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, their contribution is a mixture of blessing and pain. The pain is as a result of (probably unwitting) missiological paternalism owing to their financial influence. This leads them to want to dictate the content and direction of mission in Ethiopia with little regard for the autonomy (or vision) of both local churches and the national office of the Evangelicals. Supporting ministries can really be effective if they are guided by a matured leadership, sound missiology, vision and a working cooperation with local churches and/or the EECF in the areas of healthy church planting, theological training and involvement in social concerns. 
Mission originates with God, and it refers to the total task of the church — sent in her very being into the world, where in this movement evangelism is the heart of that task. Theology has no authentic existence of its own apart from mission, and it occurs as a natural outcome when the church faithfully lives out its missionary mandate. The current parallelism that we see between a narrowly defined mission and evangelism on one side and theology on the other side can be addressed effectively if the church understood herself and her existence essentially and exclusively in terms mission! If she is the sign of God’s Kingdom on earth, then denomination is relativized as an accent. The Kingdom has no boundary, and we are not enlisting people for an ‘organization’ but for the Kingdom of God! 
Having said that, in a country such as Ethiopia, mission should address the plight of the poor. In spite of its many centuries of triumphal history as one of the oldest independent nations, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world. The combined effects of famine, war, successive failed state-enforced socio-political and economic policies and one-sided neoliberal globalization have exacerbated the socio-economic disparities Ethiopia has inherited—further deepening the level of poverty. The historic rivalry between the (EOTC and the EEC, which together constitute about 63% of the population) and the encroachment of nominalism are causing self-inflected wounds on Christian mission in the country. 
A lasting answer to the plight of the poor and their welfare is inextricably linked to the much needed missiolgical reformation and cooperation between the EOTC and the EEC. The temptation for them is to yield to the institutional instinct toward self-self-preservation; thriving and transforming mission can only be possible by being the community of God in the true sense of the New Testament. 
Regarding the synthesis between theology, mission and evangelism, we need to learn from the mistakes of mainline churches in the west that have made theology a very abstract intellectual enterprise. May I suggest that theology has to be local (with global hermeneutical considerations), contextual and missional; but rooted in the invariable truth of the Scriptures. In terms of social concern, we need to move from an emergency response to a sound public policy analysis, sustainable development, capacity building, and advocacy—becoming a prophet who commends when government behaves well according to the values of the Kingdom of God, and denounces when it does the contrary. The LORD says:
“Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” [Jer. 22:3] 
Your interlocutor, David Bosch, launched his initial addresses from a South African frame of reference. How would you account for the fact that South Africa is very different from religious, spatial, and cultural realities in Ethiopia? Christian, Islamic, and Judaic influences are part and parcel of the Ethiopian psyche, whereas, in South Africa, whatever Christian influences there are were in large part tied to the West, colonialism, and apartheid. Second, of immediate concern to South African churches [led by such leaders as Desmond Tutu] was racism and absence of social justice and therefore the church struggled against those inhuman policies and practices. In Ethiopia, on the other hand, one hardly found a period with identical sets of challenges. In the past fifty years the church and her leaders hardly failed to collaborate with current rulers [excepting, probably, during the “Marxist interlude”, 1974-1991, when Evangelicals disobeyed state-imposed restrictions on worship]. 
It is absolutely true that the contexts of these two countries are different. I have also made it very clear in my book that although there is an observable pattern of similarities and differences between the making of Afrikaner nationalism and of Ethiopian nationalism, both have different historical contexts with different outcomes. In both cases, the state-churches, the DRC (Dutch Reformed Church) and the EOTC, have played a significant role, though in entirely different historical, socio-political and economic contexts. At the outset, however, an important contrast must be emphasized: while state enforced and theologically justified racism and exclusionism were the defining essence of the ideology of the apartheid regime, Ethiopian monarchism, on the other hand, was classist, but relatively inclusionist. Apartheid was a centrifugal force that pushed away all other ethnic groups or made them rotate around the orbit of Afrikaner nationalism, while Ethiopian nationalism began as a centripetal force that attempted to create a single conforming national identity by assimilating other cultures and ethnic identifies into one religio-cultural identity. In this social transformation, the EOTC was the religious conscious for the monarchical movement from the center into the peripheries. Nonetheless, it is to the credit of the EOTC that Ethiopian Christianity was preserved without the tinting of European colonizers (a theological syndrome that other African nations and Latin America and some parts of Asia still suffers from). The births of various liberation theologies were partly a result of resisting a western theological hegemony. The EOTC’s theology in that sense is very nationalistic and independent! However, both Ethiopia and South Africa give good examples in analyzing state-church relations in their contexts. 
May I also add that Ethiopian Evangelicalism/Protestantism too is different from its African counterpart in its psyche. Missionaries in Ethiopia began their work with a very different missiology than was practiced in most of Africa. While their legacy has its own blind spots, it must be recognized that it has made a valuable contribution in providing a more healthy foundation than churches in some other countries experienced. 
Yes, you are right that we are yet to have people like Gudina Tumsa – and I think what is lacking is vision. It is a matter of prayer as well that God would raise prophets, or that those who are called to be act like one!