Vulnerable Missionaries (Mark 6:7-13)
In her award-winning book, Native, Kaitlin Curtice reminds us of the story of John Allen Chau. Chau travelled in 2018 to the Sentinelese Islands to evangelize and “save” the indigenous people of that place. “Chau ignored years of legal protection placed on the Sentinelese peoples,” Curtice writes, “who have remained connected to their own culture and traditions without contact by outsiders and who wish to remain as they have always been” (page 50).
“What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much,” Curtice wonders, “that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations?” (Page 50). Chau’s solo intervention cost him his life. It also illustrates what Curtice names “The Problem of Whiteness.”
As we read this gospel text, we need to keep in mind how we white, Western, Christians have done missionary work historically. “We remember that stories of Christianity and imperialism, of power and control, have been present all over the world as Christianity became a religion that benefited those at the top more than those at the bottom,” Curtice writes, “rather than a religion that encouraged people to follow the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus. Instead of doing good in the world, many Christians used the name of God to actually create those hierarchies” (page 45).
We are painfully reminded of the real grounds upon which much of our white, Western Christian missionary work has happened as authorities in Canada (and soon in the States) examine the burial sites and grave records (if they exist) for Indian residential schools. We remember with shame and horror the words of Captain Richard Pratt, who succinctly described the mission of those schools – to “kill the Indian” in order to “save the man.”
The actual result of this approach stops at the first phrase and never gets to the second one. The goal was simply to kill the Indian. “Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others, considering them less-than,” Curtice writes, “It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the ‘other’ within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really,” she concludes, “assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (page 45).
“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30, NRSV, my emphasis). That is the summary statement that rounds off the apostolic mission journey in our reading. By itself, the report of the disciples may be quite innocent. But when we place it in the context of all the ways The Twelve get off the track, the self-aggrandizing element is warranted.
It would appear that Jesus sends the “apostles” (as labelled in the text) as de-colonizing servants who are to be vulnerable as part of their mission strategy. Instead, they seem to perform as colonizing heroes who bring the answers to the places they visit. Lots of good gets done, it would seem, There’s no doubt about that. But I have to wonder if the loudness of their method tended to drown out the power of their message.
“America was founded in part on the image of the ‘just missionary’ who came to save the ‘heathen,’” Curtice reminds us, “and flowing out of that was the inability to see humanity in Indigenous peoples all over the world, including Indigenous Africans stolen from their homelands and shipped to the US to be enslaved” (page 50). One of the reasons why Critical Race Theory has become such a rhetorical flash point in our public discourse is because CRT seeks to tell the whole truth about this history – and we white folks simply don’t want to hear it.
I am reminded of one of my favorite theological films, Bruce Almighty. The movie is, among other things, a meditation on the purpose and function of divine power. Bruce begins by thinking that power is for his own priorities and pleasures. It takes him a whole script to discover that power is only worth having in the context of love. When power is placed under the rubric of love, it is not about the self. That kind of power is always in service to the Other.
The Twelve never really grasp this notion of power in Mark’s gospel account. They are constantly squabbling along the way about which of them will be the greatest – the most powerful – in the new administration. These squabbles present Jesus with opportunities to set them straight about power. Jesus comes not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. That is how it is supposed to be among The Twelve and in the Church. But the lessons are lost on them, and perhaps on us as well.
In this text we see, Moloney (2001) summarizes, that “the Twelve are missionaries of Jesus only insofar as they respond to the initiative of Jesus, remain with him, recognize that their authority to preach conversion, to cast out demons and to heal the sick is from him.” Thus, they are always “followers” of Jesus and do nothing on their own. This is, perhaps, the lesson that is lost on them. And it is, perhaps, precisely the lesson that we must grasp here.
In our text, we appear to learn about what some have described as “vulnerable mission.” On the one hand, The Twelve are authorized to cast out demons. They exercise the power of healing and engage in teaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. They are able to do these things because Jesus is with them. But it would seem that they want to take the power for themselves.
Jesus instructs them to be “dependent disciples” as they go. They can have a walking stick which, perhaps, could be used to fend off attacks. But they had no road trip snacks, no walking-around money, no extra shoes, and one jacket for the rain. They were not to shop around for the best accommodations and menus but rather to stay where they landed. If they wore out their welcome, they weren’t to take it personally. Cut your losses and move on, is Jesus’ counsel.
They were to be vulnerable in their mission work, not powerful. Anne Dyer describes this approach to missionary efforts. “So, ‘vulnerable,’ non-indigenous missionaries are those who, by their attitude, adapt to each context and attempt to use local resources only to meet local needs. When choosing to be ‘vulnerable,’ people deliberately choose not to assert control, or take authority and power” (page 39).
“Westerners have tended to see another culture from the perspective of ‘have’ or ‘have not,’” Anne Dyer writes, “particularly from a material perspective. If Christian, compassionate Westerners consider that they can improve the lot of some other people materially, they will try to do so. The problem with this,” Dyer concludes, “is that it can result in a patron-client relationship with all the colonial-postcolonial connotations of superior-inferior relationships” (page 40).
It seems that Jesus is intent on preventing these dynamics from occurring. It’s not clear The Twelve cooperate with this emphasis. In the season of summer mission, work, and vision trips in Christian congregations, this text is a challenge to our standard models of doing “short-term mission work” both in the States and abroad. Jesus is not looking for heroes and conquerors. Jesus is looking for self-giving servants who can be vulnerable in order to accompany the vulnerable and be accompanied in return.
This is not a critique of the overt motives of many folks who go on such mission and work trips. But it is a call to reflect deeply on the underlying assumptions behind and motivations for such trips. In the process of seeking to serve, are we rather underwriting and deepening the system which assumes that white is superior, and all other “colors” are inferior and in need of the “improvement” of assimilation? I know this will make life complicated for lots of youth leaders in white churches. But our life should be far more complicated than it currently is.
Our ELCA theology of mission is based on the notion of “accompaniment.” “Accompaniment helps us see mission differently,” we read in our foundational document for this approach, “In reconciliation, we realize that my story and your story are not divided by boundaries, but are both reconciled within God’s story.” We acknowledge the asymmetrical power relationships inherent in our mission efforts. And we strive to address those asymmetries through willing vulnerability to one another.
The values of the accompaniment theology, we would say, include mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment, and sustainability. We don’t bring gifts or resources. We share with one another and privilege local rather than outside perspectives. We seek to build relationships and communities, not just buildings. We regard all partners in a mission effort as those who have assets for the project.
My experience with accompaniment has been to listen and learn first. Opportunities for doing will come when appropriate. If I assume that I come with the power and the goods and others are mere recipients, then I will inevitably engage in cultural and racial violence whether I see that or not. In this day and age, there is no excuse for ignorance in this regard. The failure to pay attention to the need for vulnerable discipleship is an exercise in unthinking privilege and white supremacy.
I resemble that remark. Sigh…
References and Resources
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Curtice, Kaitlin B. Native. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Dyer, A. (2017). A Discussion of Vulnerability in Mission for the Twenty-first Century from a Biblical Perspective. Transformation, 34(1), 38-49. Retrieved June 27, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008944.
MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.
Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.
VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.
Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.