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Being the People of God


Dr. Girma Bekele [PhD, Political Theology] is Leadership and Missions Consultant, and an Adjunct Professor of Missions and Development Studies at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto, Canada. He has worked in Relief and Development both as practitioner and consultant. He and his nurse wife, Genet Geremew, reside in Toronto with their three children: Yonathan, 11, Mahilet, 9 and Eyeol, 2. They worship and minister at the Ethiopian Evangelical Church in Toronto and are also active at a local English-speaking church. ETHIOPIANCHURCH BLOG recently interviewed him on account of his new book, The In-Between People: A Reading of David Bosch through the Lens of Mission History and Contemporary Challenges In Ethiopia [Wipf & Stock, 2011]. Following is Part I of the interview:

ETHIOPIANCHURCH: Congratulations on your book “The In-between People”. So who are the In-Between People? Why this particular title?

Dr. Girma: Thank you. The In-Between People are the people of God, and refers to their bridging position within a society. We need to ask what it means to be the people of God in the age of polarization and extremism. The church is called to be true to itself as a community of God-in-mission – the Alternative Community, a true alternative to all other allegiances—the new humanity in Christ. Meaningful dialogue is possible by a willingness to stand in-between the gaps! In-Between People dares—with bold-humility—to suggest that the Ethiopian churches are called to stand between opposing polarities—socio-ethnic, political and economic.

May I also add that the cover of the book shows the idea of light radiating through the layers of dark rocks—in-between. Just in the same way the cross stood between heaven and earth, now the church lives in-between: in continuity with the life and work of Jesus.

Could you tell us in one sentence the central thesis of your work?

It is a missional call for the church to be true to herself in being sent into the world as a bridge, as a re-enactment of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in its comprehensives—meeting humanity in its entirety.

What are its main themes?

In spite of 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, failed successive state-enforced socio-political and economic policies and one-sided neoliberal globalization have exacerbated the socio-economic disparities Ethiopia has inherited deepening the level of poverty. The historic rivalry between the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) and Evangelical Ethiopian Churches (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. The current violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists is also a problem Ethiopia cannot afford, although this latter issue is not the immediate focus of the book. In-Between People looks at the past respectfully, but critically. It also looks to the future with great optimism for a better mission, for God is our God as much as he has been to generations before us.

Who are your intended readers?

Global church leaders, theologians, and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) and Ethiopian Evangelical Churches (EECs); and in the latter two cases: theologians, clergies and pastors, Christian public policy and law makers, academics, entrepreneurs and leaders. Taking Ethiopia as its immediate context, In-Between People considers issues facing 21st century global Christianity. The landscape and context of Christian mission and identity has significantly changed since the June 1910 World Missionary Conference, held in the city of Edinburgh, which was considered one of the most defining gatherings in the entire history of Christianity. As such, the book contains an updated research in Christian mission history. It has considered over 300 primary resources and the fact it has been endorsed by globally respected scholars such as Andrew F. Wall of Liverpool and Edinburgh Universities and Jonathan Bonk of Yale and Overseas Ministries Study Center, broadens the appeal of the book to a wider readership and gives weight to its call for renewal.

Is the title of your book a euphemism for the Cross? Is not “just be – living in the state of witness” just another phrase for “discipleship”?

Not really! The church can never replace the Cross, but cannot run away from bearing it as a witness to its purpose, meaning and fruit. Jesus is the bridge between God and humanity, for in his own body on the Cross he reconciled Jews and Gentiles; he demolished the wall of partition and thus transformed erstwhile enemies into a single humanity. As the cross-bearing witness, just like Jesus by whose wounds our wounds are healed, so the church is called to bear his scars as a living hope for the genuineness of the life of Church as the Alternative Community where walls of division are destroyed.

My emphasis on “just be – living in the state of witness” guards us from defining the Christian mission as sets of various activities (whatever those sets may be, for instance, evangelism plus social action). These are problematic and open a door for extreme passivism (withdrawal), exclusivism (no openness to other possibilities and confinement in own-world view) or utopianism (diminishing the eschatological dimension of the church). I have argued that the mandate for mission is “just be—live continually in the state of witnessing”—be in mission as a response to the call of God in Christ in its entirety. As such mission is not just what the church does, but it is the radiation of what the church is. Mission happens when the church realizes that her members are the living people of God—transformed by him through the life and work of Jesus Christ and now empowered by the Holy Spirit as sign and agents of the same transforming power in the world. The testimony the church has to offer to the world is none other than herself as being redeemed by the power of God’s compassionate love. As Bosch puts it: “Belief in God is a matter of confessing that one has been known, loved, called, redeemed by Another whom one only knows because [that Other] has so acted. It is moving from the language of argument to that of testimony. We cannot argue ourselves into knowledge of another person. That person must meet us.”

I like the term “the Marxist interlude” for, indeed, the 1974 Socialist Revolution did irrevocably alter social relations in Ethiopia. On the other hand, collaboration between the state and the church before and after the Revolution has remained unchanged. We see the state meddling in the affairs of the church [or church leaders playing it safe and in the process living in a state of “un-witness”. Do you think much has changed at all?

State-church relationship has always been one of the thorniest issues in the Christian debate; and there is no one fixed blueprint that suits all. I will dwell a little longer on this question.

First, the theological/theoretical aspect. The question is perhaps best answered by underlining the universal fact that the church is both and at the same time a sociological and eschatological entity—earthly and transcendental. These two characteristics need to be held in a creative tension, and maintaining the balance of between these dual existences is a constant challenge; and we need to accept the fact that ambiguity will always be a part of church’s identity. The temptation for the church is to lean to one side of her mode of existence – neglecting the validity of the other self. It is a temptation to become either “irrelevant (behaving irrespective of what goes on in the world) or absorbed (becomes like any other social group where the demarcation between the Church and the world is blurred).

Second, the pragmatic question. How, then, is the church, with its two-dimensional existence, to behave in the face of injustice? How can the Church behave responsibly in her relationship with the world? At the outset, I would like to correct two major misunderstandings regarding the relationship between Church and world. First, the assumption that “world” and “Church” can be neatly distinguished. This misunderstanding manifests itself both by isolationism and triumphalism. In the former instance, the church “may be characterized by a ghetto mentality and the latter refers to a view that sees the world as something to be conquered and hence, success-oriented, as exemplified by the optimism of the 1910 World Mission Conference of Edinburgh – that nothing was impossible. The second misunderstanding is the “absence of any tension between Church and world”—where the church is identified with the world and self-invalidating her own uniqueness. The church becomes redundant as it is the world that sets the agenda and the individualness of people and their need to meet God is overshadowed with “preoccupation with macro-structures and world-wide problems.” The church forgets that at times she is part of the problem and blames the world for all wrongs. In the process, there is presumptuousness that the church has the solution to the problems of the world forgetting that we can never say for sure that our programs and solutions are in full accordance to the will of God. The church is caught in the battle for the recognition of her own socio-political voice like any other socio-political program that hopes for utopia, neglecting the reality of sin and evil that is beyond human realm and ability to address. The ambiguity that exists between the Church’s words and deeds or inaction is easily forgotten.

A contextually relevant mission holds sociological and eschatological dimensions of the church in creative tension. While sin indeed shows itself and bears its bitter fruit in the evil structures of our world, it is fundamentally a state of every individual person and people. It is an ontological state of humanity; and no amount of social transformation, humanization of structures and elimination of forms of oppressions will radically cure it; such efforts will always fall short of the ideal. The Community of God, as the Alternative Community, should guard itself from a secularized, horizontalized and even politicized mission for that would mean the elimination of an essential boundary between the reign of God and the affairs of the fallen world—blurring the eschatological and sociological dimension of the church. On the other hand, the Alternative Community must not condone escapism. The quest for justice and the struggle to be in active solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and those who are at the margins is an integral part of authentic mission. It is a witness to the compassion and justice that has already arrived in the reign of God in the “here and now”—“in the already-yet tension”, and is offered by the risen Lord as a gift to be fully embraced by the Alternative Community, which in turns shares it with world. Such is the seed, the beginning of the new creation; and its fullest realization will come at the end of the present age.

The church is always in motion, and she confronts every power and structure that dehumanizes and seeks justice, freedom, equality and fair prosperity for every human being. She is always on the move and does stay on the “right” or the “left”, and can be critical of both. The tension between the Church and world will always be there and the moment the church begins to settle in, her “theology will easily be displaced by ideology.” What if her prophetic voice is rejected? I agree with Bosch who answers by pointing to the very meaning of the cross, for the church cannot copy the way of the world in resolving problems but has to follow the way of suffering. There on the cross, the irreconcilable difference between God and humans, Gentiles and Jews, Romans and Zealots got its final solution. In the same way, “wherever the Church is truly the Church, wherever it is faithful to its calling and its essence to the point of suffering, it cannot but irritate and frustrate the powers that be, whether these power structures be political, religious, economic, or social… By its very existence [it] is a threat to the status quo.”

In a nut shell, I am suggesting for a creative, progressive and contextually relevant answer to different forms of injustice exerted under different styles of government – from tyrant on one end to supposedly Christian and democratic on the other – for I believe that the church has tremendous significance for society precisely because she is a uniquely separate community — indeed, salt and light! I suggest readers carefully read a section in my book where I discussed the quest for global social justice looking at various models in the trajectory of mission history, including the four state-religion models that were operational at the time of Jesus. These four models – which my dialogue partner, Bosch, calls the human options, were in many ways classical and find their voices, fully or partially, in various missiological self-expressions.

How would you define a community from a Christian perspective? How does that differ from, say, a Marxist or a Neo-liberal definition?

The church is not a gathering of people around common ideology or any social program. Rather, it is a living gathering of people around the person of Jesus Christ – the unique and the only Word, Way, Truth and Life. When a person follows Jesus he or she is affirming, both in word and in deed, allegiance to God and the values of His Kingdom. Any other reason for existence other than accepting and radiating this truth makes the church just another broken social group within the larger meta-narrative of brokenness in a society. The church as the Alternative Community does not mean the creation of an alternative society—a ghetto with a pessimistic view of the world as irredeemably lost and without hope. Neither is it to be conformed to the values of the status quo. In being called and sent out at the same time, the church must live as the Alternative Community (a counter community to Satan and his kingdom that manifests itself in evil, both personal and structural) in the world but not of the world. The church lives as a hope for the world, against the hopelessness of the world. The church is distinct, unique, and alternative to any other form of community. As such, she has to be true to her identity as a community that is both sociological and eschatological at the same time. Despite imperfections, she remains a social entity as well as the sign of the Kingdom of God. She is the embodiment on earth of the new order, the new “government” which has been inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ where all human-made differences are made relative. And of course, values and differences that are contrary to the Kingdom of God are demolished!

One of your goals in studying the role of the church in society is to stimulate debates on reconciliation within society and on formation of a frame for actionable proposals. First, your goal, if I am reading you correctly, would seem to suggest there is a conflict. The official statement coming from our homeland, on the other hand, would contradict such a statement. In other words, it is ‘diversity,’ not ‘ethnic conciseness,’ as you yourself aptly phrased it; ‘developmental state,’ not ‘centralization of power,’ etc. Second, who do you have in mind to buy into your recommendations? It appears the Orthodox Church is herself experiencing great discord within her ranks compounded by fear of change and challenges coming from those outside her fold. Evangelical churches, at the leadership level, are busy acting “foreign” and turning into “exclusive groups” fearful of input from outside their respective circles. Could you speak to that?

I begin by mentioning the obvious that Ethiopia’s political and religious landscape has changed dramatically in the last two decades. The current regime can be fairly and legitimately criticized for its shortcomings, like any other system of governance. However, one of its exceptional and commendable achievements is ensuring freedom of religion. This is very unprecedented, certainly for Evangelicals.

In terms of the socio-political system, by all accounts, most political parties agree to some sort of federalism that recognizes the diversity in Ethiopia. As such, the challenge is not so much whether or not some form of federalism is needed, but beyond contention, it is a political necessity for the peaceful co-existence of Ethiopia’s diverse people. The question of ethnic self-determination has inseparably been intertwined with the making of Ethiopia’s national socio-political and economic agenda. Nonetheless, the credibility of any federal-regional political system hinges upon the maintenance of a constitutionally inclusive, transparent and sustainable distribution of power between the centre and the regional states through a democratic process that allows a meaningful dialogue for the mutual and common benefit of all. In country such as Ethiopia preferential option for the poor and the marginalized is both a moral (I go even further by saying a Biblical) and socio-political necessity. .

There is a genuine (at least implicit) fear of dominance and anarchy. The current political mistrust that may be evolving into protective and exclusionary walls between ethnic groups can, in one sense, be explained as a reflexive action, revealing the deep-seated wounds of the past. Federalism built on fear of each other is not free from vengefulness and paternalism. There is an implicit resentment, to say the least, that reveals itself in exclusivism or a form of neo-paternalism. Unless these walls of fear and suspicion are transcended with genuine reconciliation and meaningfully negotiated share of power, they will make federalism very superficial and diminish the ground for mutual flourishing, creating a highly insecure society made up of ethnic groups that refuse to see each other outside the keyholes of ethnic walls. The perfecting of federalism in Ethiopia, thus, has to be a matter of progressive and open dialogue that takes into account various local as well as global socio-economic and political dynamics. The solution is not to dwell in the past, but to learn, un-learn, read, and re-read history in its context and move on. Otherwise, we will be prisoners of history!

What it is the role of Ethiopian churches in this dialogue? They cannot pretend to remain unaffected, for that involves the denial of the sociological dimension of their existence. Nor can they afford merely to dance to current political tune, undiscerningly agreeing with or denouncing how history is understood and used in framing political agendas. The church is called to be a healer—a salt to preserve, heal, and give life a test and a light in darkness. The challenge that is presented to the contemporary Ethiopian church is, therefore, whether or not she will live up to this true calling and identity as the sign of the Alternative Community whose members see each other not through the prism of ethnicized political history but as heirs of salvation history. The church lives neither for the north nor for the south, but in living for Christ, she becomes the sign of the community of God, redeemed out of all tribes and languages and from all walks of life.

Evangelicals are now enjoying unprecedented freedom. The rather pressing question is whether there is a mature leadership to guide the church towards healing, reconciliation and reformation. Does one observe a shift of tone within the evangelical community that is symptomatic of a kind of reverse religious supremacy and paternalism? To this day, the EOTC remains in denial that Evangelicals had any patriotic Ethiopian significance. Now, are Evangelicals doing the reverse but in a different sense? In other words, are Evangelicals denying any spiritual and salvific significance to the EOTC entirely invalidating the latter’s missionary journey and the role she played in preserving the Christian heritage (however fragmented it might have been) and ignoring her struggle to preserve the unity of the country against foreign aggression? To speak as if God was at the margins during the 1600-year history of the EOTC, even if she allowed indiscriminate syncretism (partly due to lack of theologically erudite priests) suggests the same religious hegemony that the EOTC is criticized for. The current attacks on each other that have surfaced on the web do serve no purposes but mutual alienation. This is a very immature behavior that will affect their individual missiological significance. Healing in the country begins when these two Christian bodies find ways to dialogue – a step towards a genuine reformation as the people of God!

Evangelicals, more than ever, are facing the question of credibility for they not only are being drafted, wittingly or unwittingly, to ethnic particularism, but are deeply divided (sadly, due to immature leadership and personal ambitions) with a decline on basic Christian values. This is a spirit-quenching road to nominalism—the very criticism that they have been leveling against the EOTC. It is very hard to assert that evangelicalism in Ethiopia has universal public voice on any given social, moral, theological, ethical and public policies. It is hypocritical to talk about national unity and healing, when the church is deeply divided and contributing to the problem.

Do you think “religious freedom” would have continued had the church taken a stand on social issues?

I do not think so; and even if it did I do not think it will be worse than during the communist regime.[*] Regardless, the church has no choice but to be true to herself—and cannot escape from being irritant to any system that behaves contrary to the values of the Kingdom of God. First, the issue of credibility is the urgent question – the church cannot speak against injustice when she mirrors the world in its corruption and injustice. One cannot claim to be a good shepherd to his/her congregation where the majority are poor and yet his or her life style is immoderate, to put it mildly. We have to deal with a similar issue of social elitism that some early missionaries were guilty of.

You talk a great deal about centering the debates on the realities of poverty and structural injustices. We bear witness to intensity of evangelistic outreach going on in our country. This is a positive development and we praise the Lord for it. The reality over the past two decades especially in evangelical churches is such that the community is also being challenged by individualism [proliferation of personal ministries competing with the church], consumerism and rise of Christian celebrities, imported strategies, bad theology [for example, that material comforts are a sign of God’s favor]. Churches are enjoying “new freedoms” and avoiding confronting structural evils or simply denying they exist even as their witness is marred by corruption and moral failures of every kind. Just listen to songs and sermons – rarely do you hear mention of heaven – that is, if you could manage to wade through the half-English, half-Amharic verbiage.

There are three ineffective ways of answering this question. First, that of an idealist who fails to see the concreteness of our earthliness—we are in the process of being perfected and the church is too late for the world, and too early for the Kingdom, as Bosch would say. Second, is that of a pessimistic view that fails to see anything positive, with the feeling of despair. The final is that of a utopist that fails to recognize that perfection is at the end an eschatological destiny. None of these is helpful. My approach is optimistically prophetic, meaning we believe that God is at work and he is not confined with the shortcomings of the church and he does work and transform his church in his own way. Some time we feel like Elijah who felt so lonely that he wanted to resign from the Kingdom’s task! He felt hopeless that the spiritual, moral and social decay within his people was too severe to reform. It is good to be reminded that God is still in charge, and that he has a remnant in each generation. As a prophetic critic from within we should speak against corruption—spiritual, moral, socio-political and economic. God is with us!

The challenge for us is to be found amongst his remnant. When the church loses her saltiness everything in society sours! Yes, we need a sound theology, and a move away from consumerism, institutional competitiveness (well we live in the age corporate rule!) obsession with blessings exclusively in terms of material gain. At times, the current charismatic crisis is due to a false hope, a false expectation and unrealized false dreams. Our pulpits are very vulnerable to emotionally charged shallow sermons. The temptation is to become a personality- and opinion-driven motivational speaker and fail to put the cross of Christ at the center. We cannot endorse everything that is being said from church pulpits – we are to discern what of the Spirit and what of the flesh. Just as we are saved by grace alone, so do we serve by grace alone. We can add nothing to this fact and it is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit to convict the world. There is a legitimate concern Ethiopian churches are being shaped by consumer-driven, seeker-friendly high-tech preaching of American mega-churches. We should not forget that we are called to model Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, Benny Hinn is only human and so are Ted Haggard, Bishop Eddie Long and many others…! We need to come back to the Bible without reading our presuppositions into it or making it speak our ‘shallow and incoherent theologies’. Truthfulness to the Bible and Spirit-filled commitment to the life that Jesus demands should inform and shape our theology; and theology our spirituality, spirituality our character, character our destiny and of those whom we serve! No tradition or single person or school of thought has the whole truth, and certainly cannot replace the biblical norms.

[*] Dr. Girma requested we replace the above response with the following: "I do think so; and even if it does not, I do not think it will be worse than during the communist regime."

First posted 20th June 2011 by Ethiopianchurch Blog | Interviewer was Mitiku Adisu | You may also want to read Part II and III