Recently I participated in a Mission Conference of three days as a part of celebrating the Mission Year. About 30 papers were presented during the conference, highlighting different dimensions of mission in the context of today. Except a few, all of the speakers quoted the Gospel passage Mt. 28:19-20 or Mk: 16:15-16 to prove their understanding of evangelization. The essence of these two Gospel passages is that disciples of Jesus are expected to go to the whole world to preach the Gospel, make people disciples, baptize them and teach them what Jesus had taught the disciples. Most of the speakers were emphasizing the inevitability of preaching about Jesus. One speaker said that we should preach that Jesus is the only saviour and one can be saved only through Jesus. While listening to this belligerent statement from the perspective of a non-Christian, I was wondering what will happen to the 70% of the world population who are not Christians and who have not accepted Jesus as their saviour?
I did not quote the above mentioned two passages in my presentation because my understanding about evangelization is very much different from the fundamentalist perspective. When I was a student of theology, my scripture professor had taught me a few basic principles for understanding the Gospels. He had taught me that I should never take one particular passage from the Gospels and interpret it without relating it to the central message of Jesus. The second principle is that the Gospels were written about 2000 years ago in a particular socio-political, religious and cultural context. Therefore, in order to understand the true meaning of any passage it is essential to know the context in which it was written. Thirdly, for knowing the person of Jesus and his message, I have to focus not only on his words but also his deeds. Finally, I have to ask what does the passage means to me and the people in today’s changed scenario. He also taught me that a literal understanding of any Biblical passage without relating to the central message is not only harmful but also dangerous. Many vigorous and aggressive evangelists are committing the grave mistake of taking a Gospel passage and interpreting it without relating to the central message and not referring to the context in which it was written.
One of the powerful speakers of the mission conference, in which I participated, asserted that the commandment to go to the whole world and preach good news is the last commandment of Jesus and hence it should be given the topmost priority. Anyone who has a preliminary knowledge about the way the Gospels came to be written knows that the Gospels are not chronologically written history of Jesus and his teachings, although there are historical facts in the Gospel narratives. The four Gospels assumed the written form only between AD 66 and 110 AD. Till that time the Gospels were spread through oral tradition. One finds many differences even among the three Synoptic Gospels, even though their source is the same. There is also the possibility of interpolations. Against this backdrop, giving pre-eminence to Mt. 28:19-20 seems to be a flawed approach. It is to be understood in relation to the whole teaching of Jesus and his life.
On the basis of my limited study and reflections I understand that evangelization is INTEGRAL LIBERATION. In fact, I prefer to use the term MISSION rather than evangelization that has got more of imperial and colonial overtone than continuing the mission of Jesus. The colonial evangelization resulted in the death/destruction of many people. That is why Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis asked pardon for the Church’s crimes against the indigenous peoples during the colonial era, when they visited the Latin American countries. Aggressive evangelism can produce the venom of prejudice, misunderstanding and conflicts in a multi-religious and multi-cultural country like India.
The central message of Jesus is love and it is to be expressed through forgiveness and reconciliation, sensitivity and compassion, justice and non-discrimination, placing human being above rules, rituals and traditions and respecting the dignity of every human being. That is why Jesus gave the new commandment as a sign of discipleship. “I give you new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples” Jn. 13: 34-35). Love is the sign of a disciple of Jesus and not preaching about Jesus from the street corners. The Sermon on the Mount (Mathew- Chapters 5, 6 & 7) delineates how this love is to be lived. It speaks about the transformation that has to take place in a person: his attitude, behaviour and relationships.
The practice of love requires liberation of a person from everything that makes him/her a slave. Liberation and Love are the two sides of the same coin, according to Jesus. That could be the reason for Jesus starting his public life with the clarion call, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Jesus was calling people for turning away from their old way of life and adopting a new way of life as described in the Sermon on the Mount. It was not a conversion from one religion to another religion. Hundreds of people who were baptized by John the Baptist did not change their religion. Baptism for them was an external symbol of the internal change that took place in them. Baptism has no meaning unless and until a person undergoes a total transformation and commits himself/herself to follow the way of Jesus by practising his teachings. “Faith alone will not save anyone. “So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead” (James 2:17).
The deeds of Jesus speak more than his words. His acts of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead, lambasting the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and exploitation of the people in the name of God and religion, violating the laws and rituals that did not promote life and cleansing the temple of corruption and commercialization were aimed at liberating people from an exploitative, oppressive, hierarchical, patriarchal and male dominated socio-political structure. Unfortunately, the aggressive evangelizers of today keep mum on the face of the rampant violation of human rights, atrocities on women and children, mob lynching of innocent people by the religious extremist groups and arresting and putting behind the bars the human rights activists and journalists who question oppression and injustice.
During the three days of mission conference, out of the 30 persons who presented their papers only one spoke about gross human rights violation and denial fundamental rights to 8 million people of Kashmir in the aftermath of the deletion of Article 370 and Article 35 of the Indian Constitution. 19 lakh people of Assam, who are not included in the National Register of Citizens and who are going to be put in detention camps, did not find a mention in these presentations. It is doubtful how many of the aggressive evangelists are aware of what is happening in the society.
At the time of Jesus, persons suffering from dreaded diseases, physical deformities and mental illness had believed that they were punished by God either because of their sins or the sins of their forefathers. The society at the time of Jesus also made them to believe the same by ostracising them from the community. In order to heal and empower them, it was necessary to liberate them from this wrong belief. That is why Jesus told them that their sins were forgiven prior to the healing. Liberating people from superstitions and blind faith along with physical healing was an important dimension of Jesus’ mission. As a result of healing, their exclusion from the community came to an end. Hence a significant dimension of evangelization today is struggling to put an end to any kind of exclusion and discrimination, especially the exclusion of women, dalits and other socially depressed communities. Joining the movements for social inclusion and organizing people against social and gender discrimination is an inevitable dimension of evangelization today.
All over the world economic inequality is increasing unprecedentedly. According to the report of OXFAM 2018, 73 percent of the wealth generated in India in 2017 went to the richest one percent, while 67 crore Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw one percent increase in their wealth. Globally, 82 percent of the wealth generated in the same year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while 3.7 billion people that account for the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth, said the Oxfam report. In the case of India, the growing economic inequality is also due to the educational system that provides poor quality education to the poor through the government schools.
2000 years ago Jesus fed the poor with bread and fish. But today the followers of Jesus have to pressurize the government to put in place policies that will reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Enhancing the quality of the government schools through advocacy is an important means to reduce the income gap in the long run. A highly unequal society is not in tune with the Kingdom of God. Against this backdrop struggling to liberate people from all kinds of inequalities, especially income inequality and gender inequality, is also part of evangelization.
Signs of fascism are found in many countries of the world including India. Suppression of dissent, gross violation of Human Rights and muzzling the media are some of the signs of the emerging fascism that is diametrically opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God. Liberating people from being brainwashed by the fascist leaders and preserving democratic values are urgent needs in many countries of the world. All kinds of struggles for freedom of expression and dissent are part and parcel of integral liberation and Jesus’ mission.
Religious fundamentalism coupled with ethnic nationalism, which is often militant, has become the greatest threat to peace and harmony in the world today. The religious fundamentalists hold the view that their religion is the only true religion and all others should accept it. They even try to impose it on others by hook or crook. Fundamentalist preachers are increasing in number in almost all religions. Liberating people from religious fundamentalism and promoting harmony and understanding among the followers of different religions is a very significant dimension of evangelization in the context of today.
Evangelii Nuntiandi of Pope Paul VI presents a comprehensive understanding on evangelization. It is a holistic approach explaining the various dimensions evangelization in the modern world. The colonial method of evangelization, focusing on increasing the number has proved to be a great failure. Against the backdrop of emerging ethnic and militant nationalism in different countries, evangelization is the integral liberation of people by practising the teaching of Jesus. Jesus mission was holistic and his disciples are expected to continue the same approach. Let every follower of Jesus become a rose flower, emitting beauty and fragrance. This is the greatest challenge for the followers of Jesus.
(email@example.com)(Published on 04th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 45)