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Being the People of God

Interview with Dr. Girma Bekele - Final
You raise liberation theology. Perhaps you had in mind the argument for God’s “preferential treatment for the poor.” The same God who dealt compassionately with Hagar, however, was also compassionate to Abram. Should we not be wary of overemphasizing God’s charity to those on the margins and not also to those at the center blighted by sin no less? Not just structural sin and liberation but also personal sin and conversion? Don’t you see how theologians often are found romanticizing the poor.

God’s mission is intrinsic to his being as a compassionate God and the God of the god-forsaken. The Bible declares: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17-19).

The quest for global social justice is the fundamental question of the majority of the world’s population – the poor. Their story is a repetitive story of injustice, pain, neglect, dictatorship and poverty. In the current global inequality that has divided the world into two extremes of socio-economic and political power (what Gustavo Gutierrez calls “neodualism”) in which the poor have become poorer and the rich richer, the majority of Ethiopians cannot be called global citizens. They do not count in the economic and political equation of a globalising world. While the world is certainly getting “smaller”, the expectations of millions of Ethiopians for life’s basic needs (such as access to clean water, electricity, health care and education) are yet to be realized.

Any theology that does not address this issue is, at best, abstract, and at its worst, irrelevant! However, having said that, the preaching of the good news to the poor (Lk. 4:16-30) has to be understood in its proper perspective. First, we see the centrality of the poor in Jesus’ ministry. Second, it emphasizes the displacement of vengeance with the peace-making mission of the Messiah, for God’s grace now is universal and is extended to the ‘enemies’ – the gentile nations - whom Jews had hoped that messiah would conquer on their behalf. Finally, it presents the mission to the Gentiles, as “God was not only the God of Israel but also, and equally, the God of the Gentiles.” Jesus presents himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies (in this particular case, Isaiah 61:1), which he now redefines and appropriates. With the coming of the Messiah, the day of the Lord has arrived and the gospel is also for the poor – those who have been economically and socially marginalized. An allegorical interpretation of the “poor” that Luke talks about is erroneous, since Luke describes Jesus’ real concern for socio-economic justice. It is rather, an affirmation that a society that is structured in such a way that some suffer because of poverty while others have more than they need and can use is part of the Kingdom of Satan.

Jesus’ announcements therefore have socio-political and economic implications. One has to be careful, however, in equating his sayings with the agenda of any political movement. Jesus and his followers were never revolutionists. The disciples preached that through his death and resurrection, Christ has defeated Satan and his work that is behind both spiritual and structural evils. The meaning of salvation is deep and comprehensive, and it includes the total transformation of human life, forgiveness of sin, healing from infirmities, and release from any kind of bondage. It is simultaneously both liberation from and liberation to.

As Bosch puts it, Jesus “championed ‘God’s preferential option for the poor.’ He announced the Jubilee, which would inaugurate a reversal of the dismal fate of the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the sick, by calling on the wealthy and healthy to share with those who are victims of exploitation and tragic circumstances.

The gospel is also for the rich who feel secure, self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-satisfied. They are challenged to see that their “possessions” present an ever-present obstacle to their spiritual deliverance (Luke 18:24), and informed that the kingdom of God contains no room for the self-sufficient who think that worldly wealth will shield them from judgment (Lk. 6:20-26; 12: 13-21; 16:19-31) or for the self-righteous who see no need for repentance (Lk. 18:9-14). On the contrary, the kingdom of God is reserved for the poor, for those who know their poverty and therefore trust in God, and for the repentant who recognize their sin (both the poor and the rich) and cast themselves upon the mercy of God. The implication is that just as the materially rich can be spiritually poor, the materially poor can be spiritually poor. In their being converted, rich and poor are converted toward each other.

As such, romanticizing poverty does not do justice to the biblical view of humanity. The declaration that God is on the side of the poor does not necessarily mean that the reverse is also true. Even from a liberation theology point of view the ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves, but in God. Ultimately, no amount of social transformation and elimination of the forms of oppression will alter the condition of human sinfulness. Human redemption is fully done by Christ on the Cross. As such, ultimate transformation is thus purely eschatological. This, however, does not give us a room for escapism; rather, a hope and a reason to stand in solidarity with the poor.

Why Bosch and not Qes Gudina Tumsa to frame your inquiry? Qes Gudina, who we have contended is a Christian martyr, was also keen on ecumenism, on empowering society [through literacy and development] and defining the role of the church as a prophetic witness community not subservient to any earthly power other than to Jesus Christ who is Lord of lords and King of kings.

Your description of Rev. Gudina Tumsa is accurate, and indeed he was a great man of God. His theology and contributions deserves a study. However, the scope of my book deals with both global and local missiological challenges in a dialogical way. I have used the works of David Bosch (1929-1992), especially his “Transforming Mission”, which is eagerly studied in all continents. He was a South African Christian scholar and civil activist who opposed apartheid and significantly contributed to its downfall in a non-violent way. Bosch taught, wrote and laboured to help the churches of his day understand and serve God’s mission in a world hungry for justice, mutual respect, and peaceful community. He considered his role a prophetic one which, unlike critics who criticize from outside and always search for someone to blame, confesses from within and weeps and lives in solidarity with the oppressed, no matter how costly. For him, the quest for justice in the socio-political and economic arena is thus an integral, progressive and never ending aspect of mission. He was disowned by his denomination, had to endure the political hate of his fellow Afrikaners and the discomfort of being misunderstood as a proponent of an ‘ineffective and easy way’ solution to the problems of injustice by fellow church leaders.

Bosch lived and prayed through his conviction for mission which acts in non-violent ways, attesting the reign of God which includes the renewal of creation, and transcendently engaging human life in every form. He lived and died in his native land of South Africa, forsaking the comfort, freedom and prestige of places like Princeton, where he was offered the chair in Ecumenics and Mission. His contribution to the classic debate about the relationship between state and church is significant. He has opened many points of contact between the Evangelicals (represented by the Lausanne Covenant) and the Ecumenical churches (represented by the World Council of Churches). While I have my own points of convergence with and of departure from his thinking, I have found that his method of thought, and his struggles and suggestions on a number of issues, are helpful and illuminating. Bosch seems to be the right dialogue partner, for his methods are dialogical, too. He has a good grasp of global mission crises, and has creatively provided us with a survey of mission history using the theory of paradigm shift. I have also appropriated (very carefully) the same theory in analyzing Ethiopia’s 1600 year Christian history. To help the reader understand Bosch and his world, In-Between People includes a section on his theological and socio-political context in South Africa.

“Contextualization” is a much abused word. It is often an excuse for erecting a straw-man to demolish to prove a desired point. At the same time, we cannot but recognize the context of both source and target of Christian teachings. What do you say to that?

There is no such thing as one, universal pure theology by which the validity or invalidity of all other theologies will be judged. In fact, all theologies are local and contextual. As Bosch would argue any given theology in the between time is never without ambiguity, and it must do its work without any guarantees of the correctness of its premises. We know in part, as Paul famously told his Corinthian congregation; and as such no one single theological perspective can claim universality. It is, therefore, the responsibility of each region can develop its own theology that is appropriate to its own social, economic and cultural peculiarities. This is what I call a universal hermeneutical move – doing theology universally, relevant locally and rooted in the Bible and tradition (discerningly and creatively).

There are two extreme interpretive frameworks that absolutize a given contexualization. One temptation is to read into the Bible a predetermined ideological position and construct a type of blueprint for the church to use as a theology of justice. In this interpretive framework, God becomes whatever that ideology wants God to be – a liberator, for example, even in the revolutionary political sense. On the other extreme is the temptation to read one’s history into the Bible, such as Afrikaner history (or the history of white dominance in the global community) and identifying that with Israel’s as if that group had been called, in a theocratic sense, to act as a nation or empire with a specific divinely ordained mandate. In these interpretive frameworks, the history of each nation and people is understood as predetermined and fixed - God becomes the God of “the nationalist” or “the rightist” or “leftist”, depending on the predisposition of the theologian or civil religious group concerned.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to liberate everyone essentially and primarily from sin. His reign, by virtue of its encompassing full range of human existence – social, political and economic—stands against all forms of inter-human oppression. Although God is at work in human history, this does not necessarily mean that he favourably dictates the history of specific nations or groups of people. As Lord of history, he directs it in its entirety towards the horizon of ultimate meaning – the eschaton.

I want to suggest too that there exists a hermeneutical blind spot in any given contextual theology. All local theologies should be given a valid space in the global theological dialogue, and this should be done in a spirit of mutual cooperation. In this way, as Bosch puts it, “we may tentatively advance towards a truly ‘catholic’ theology… it is only ‘together with all God’s people’ that we shall discover how broad and long, how high and deep Christ’s love is.” The challenge for each theology is to be honest to the Bible (and not read into it!) and to be able to hold together in creative tension theoria (reason), praxis (hand in action) and poiesis (a heart that is transformed from within)!

Could you offer a passage from your book that you want all those engaged in missions in Ethiopia to mull over?

“Both the Orthodox and evangelical traditions need to offer themselves up as the Alternative Community, since this kind of transcendent identity is sorely needed in a country whose political structure was crafted out of fear and mistrust inherited from past history. Ethiopian Christians need to make a choice to re-direct the country’s mixed legacy of bitterness, fear of domination, mistrust, and excessive ethnic self-consciousness by continually re-committing themselves to a missional life that transcends all human barriers. Such a commitment must be lived in radical recognition of this community as unique and distinct from any other community, living from the truth of its calling as the body of Christ. Such an understanding of the church as God’s in-between people illuminates the past and helps to shape the present, by making a choice to move, from being a prisoner of history to being a “prisoner of hope.” Being a member of this community means seeing one’s fellow human being not through the prisms of history, but from the viewpoint of Christ Jesus who has made all things new through his death and resurrection. The church as Alternative Community means that her members choose to see each other through the lens of the kingdom of God with its radical values, and not through the keyhole of one’s own ethnic enclosure.” [In-Between People, p.415.]

Let us go back one more time to your goal of initiating a dialogue. How would you go about doing that and who would that include or not include?

Yes! First, a good starting place for dialogue is within the academic community. I am suggesting establishing a federation of denominational theological schools. The idea is not to create a huge structure, but to focus on core values and address common issues in a united way, but with independent academic autonomy and aspiration. It is possible, and it takes humility, and ability to see mission in Ethiopia beyond the prisms of denominationalism. A collaborative hand can even be extended to the EOTCs theological school. While I do understand that western theology has immensely contributed to the development of theology, one –to –one corresponding academic curriculum is futile.

Second, I also suggest creation of a graduate center for the Study of Christian Social Thought – a research-focused program that addresses contemporary missiological issues in the country: poverty, leadership, public policy analysis (health, education, development, gender, globalization, etc.)

Third, Evangelicals both in Ethiopia and in Diaspora need to find some ways to work together in a unified way. There is a need to strengthen the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia. In Diaspora (especially in North America) the struggle for monopoly by various ‘ministries’, fellowships, congresses, etc., really need to find ways to have a unified voice and work together. We can only imagine the potential. Individualism should not take over communalism.

Fourth, the EOTC and Evangelicals should be willing to journey towards a meaningful dialogue, healing and mutual reformation. EOTC has survived several internal and external crises, and, equally has served as the repository of cultural and religious heritage, while serving as a force of national unity during various historical periods in which the country was facing disintegration. There are many wars (theological, socio-political, local and global) that have shaped and limited its missiological self-understanding. While recognizing that the EOTC had shortcomings in resisting reform from within and without, and that its rigid structures tend to repel any form of contemporary contextualization, it would be unjust to apply a 21st century missional understanding onto its past and to judge it accordingly. A fair and constructive reading pleads for an understanding of the historical parameters within which it has existed, operated and struggled for a meaningful missiological self-expression. As such, to erase its legacy as a complete void not only devalues centuries of spiritual sincerity, but also denies the presence of the Spirit of God working both inside and outside the walls of the supposedly ‘perfect’ church with its ‘perfect’ theological and missiological outlook!

Equally, the EOTC must recognize that Ethiopian Evangelicalism was born out of the ambivalence with regard to the “type” of Christianity that had existed in Ethiopia. It was an avoidable and inevitable clash of mission paradigms. Despite the challenges it faces and its missiological shortcomings, present day Ethiopian Evangelicalism has reached a stage where its role as an authentic national force for social and religious transformation cannot be dismissed. The stereotypical labelling of Evangelicals and their religious self-expression as ‘foreign’, even to this date, has lost its historical validity. The EOTC, for her part, needs to redefine her mission and identity within the comprehensive sense of mission and see herself beyond the horizons of nationalism. Her “counter-reformation” should not be motivated by concern over losing her base or anxiety about how to recover her former power. Rather, it must come from within, from a genuine and passionate urge to live true to her own original and biblical wisdom and to radiate the love and life of God, for love of whom she has endured so much suffering throughout its history. It is a deliberate recognition that the church is the only community on earth which already belongs to the new age; it is based on a completely new value system. Her members are asked to renounce the false values of tradition, culture, and any other identity and to live as an alternative to all existing communities because it is based on a new definition of solidarity with the mission of God. This means a turning away from institutionalized self-preservation towards an incarnational and contextually relevant mission that builds a community of God and takes the Bible and its demands seriously.

Do you have plans to have your book translated into the official Amharic? As you well know, it is not accessible or affordable to many in its current form.

I am considering that, time and funds permitting. For now people can buy it online at a discount from WIPF and Stocks. Alternatively, I can bring some copies at author’s discount (50% plus shipping and handling) and speak at their churches. I have been travelling within Canada and it has been a blessing to speak on the direction of mission and revival in Ethiopia.

Thank you. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Dr. Girma could be reached at these addresses: Ethiopian Evangelical Church office in Toronto: 416-461-7024; direct 647-835-9857 or E-mail: