Article published in "Challenges and Prospects of Mission in the Emerging Context" (Faridabad: Dharma Jyoti Vidya Peeth, 2010) and The PCTA Journal 2008.
Re-visiting ‘the other’: Towards a postmodern understanding of Christian mission
Rev. Y.T. Vinaya Raj
In the history of Christian mission there has always been the process of translating the faith into new languages and cultures. According to Andrew Walls the attempt to transmit faith in Christ across linguistic and cultural frontiers revealed that Christ had meanings and significance never guessed before. However, the modern missionary movement bears the scars of its epistemological inclination with the colonial modernity. Colonial modernity that theoretically founded on the European enlightenment and Euro centrism, defined the modern Christian mission as the ‘White Man’s burden’ to reach ‘the unreached’/ ‘uncivilized’/ ‘undeveloped’/ ‘unevangelized’ of the ‘other’ part of the world.
Robert Young defines the Euro centrism as the epistemological search for the ‘other’. The modern theology of mission that constructed in the Euro-centric mould has been monolithic and assimilating. It consciously constituted a ‘missiological other’ by the programme of universal mission. The ‘metanarratives’ of modern universal mission stories but consciously neglected the voice of the local ‘missionized’ people. Of course, the encounter between the colonial missions and the ‘natives’ has constructed specific subjectivities for both. Lamin Sanneh contends that Christianity has grown as a result of its encounter with the “other”. Time has come to re-visit this missiological ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Postmodernism as an epistemological shift, provides necessary tools to the people those who have been categorized as the ‘missiological other’ or ‘colonized’ to re-locate their subjectivity and create different discourses of Christian mission and theology. This paper looks at this issue and tries to sketch out the contours of a postmodern theology of Christian mission through a deconstructive reading of the biblical text Mark 5:1-21.
“Mission is not an innocent word”: postmodern< > modern dialectics
According to Jacques Derrida, the Euro centrism is nothing but ethnocentrism, the process in which ‘the West’ imposed itself upon the world. It is well evident in the programme of modern missionary movements. In parallel to the European colonial agenda, it carried on the universal mission programme especially ‘evangelizing’ the ‘aboriginals’ of Asia and Africa. In the modern sense the mission was always the mission to ‘the lost sheep’. Sociologically speaking, the mission envisaged by colonial modernity was empowerment programmes in order to ‘lift up’ the ‘weak’ and the ‘vulnerable’ to the modern/civilized/ developed civil life. Thus we had the ‘missions’ to Africans/ Afro-Americans/ Asians etc. The changed social-theoretical, epistemological and theological context challenges these colonial ‘missiological metanarratives’ and provides impetus to create new ‘little’/ ‘local’ conversion stories of the so-called ‘colonized’.
Postmodernism is more an active critique of the Euro centric premises of Western knowledge. In the postmodern theoretical framework, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction programme shook the Euro-centric epistemic foundation, through which the project of modernity rationalized the existence of “non-European”-“variations”-“Marginal”-“colonized” subjectivities. Derrida detected a series of binary oppositions in western thought that have been pivotal in efforts to establish an order of truth: viz, speech/ writing, presence/ absence, meaning/ form, soul/ body, masculine/ feminine, literal/ metaphorical, natural/ cultural, transcendental/ empirical, cause/ effect and so on. The two terms in these oppositions do not represent equal values. The first term is superior and the second is defined as a derivative or subordinate. There is a power/ knowledge play in the construction of meanings. Derrida undermines this hierarchy. By disrupting/ displacing the hierarchy, deconstruction allows the so-called “colonized” can represent themselves as active social agents rather than as a binary opposite. This is the political programme of deconstruction. For Robert young deconstruction is a deconstruction of the concept, the authority and the assumed primacy of ‘the West’. This is the postmodern theoretical tool, in which the so-called “missionized people” find possibilities in their theological/ hermeneutical programme of altering subjectivity.
Here an attempt is being made to sketch out the contours of a postmodern missiology through a deconstructive reading of the story of the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’ in Mark 5:1-21.
1. Re-defining discipleship: The integral motif of Christian mission
According to the Biblical theology, mission is the divine engagement for transformation (missio dei). People of God/ Church is the called out community to be a collective agency of this divine intervention of transformation. The mission of God is evidently embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Biblical theology defines the mission as a programme of calling everyone to the new life in Christ as a community. Mission entails movement, and this is the movement of invitation to discipleship. Christian discipleship is a kind of formation through which the human agents in association with the Divine transform themselves as the divine agents of kingdom of God.
In Mark’s Gospel the whole picture of ‘Gerasene demoniac’ comes into the midst of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. The content of their dialogue is discipleship and it’s focus-the kingdom of God. Jesus constructs the message of kingdom of God consciously in order to re-construct divine subjectivities in the colonial setting of Roman imperialism. Roman imperialism provided a submissive ‘habitus’ for all through which it legitimized its power of slavery on all ‘subjects’. Jesus defines discipleship as a counter institution of a ‘discursive formation’ by which they re-define their subjectivity and social space (Mk.3: 13-15). This intentional strategy of Jesus is unknown to the common people (Ochlos). On the other hand the disciples are supposed to recognize it. Thus Jesus exhorts disciples not to be like the common people who do not realize the politics of the formation of subjectivity. That is why Jesus asks them on their way to Gerasene while there is a great storm, “why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (4:40).
Entering in to the discipleship means engaging oneself for a renewed understanding of relationship. It is to enter in to the ‘responsibility for the other, being-for-the-other’. It is an invitation to engage with new imaginations, new relationships, new practices and new dialogues of fraternity. The discourse of ‘Gerasene demoniac’ is also comes into the midst of these dialogical engagements of defining discipleship.
2. Re-visiting the ‘other side’: Mission as the symbolic journey from hostility to hospitality
The phrase “let us go across to the other side” (4: 35) is very important here. The ‘region of the Gerasenes’ as a ‘pagan city’, is a ‘constitutive other’ of Jewish/ Roman territories. Roman imperialism constructed a mixed culture of Judaism and Greek-Hellenistic culture- by which they diffused the ‘other local identities’ in order to legitimize their political/ social power. Gerasene as a socio-symbolic space of ‘gentles’ is identified as Decapolis (means “ten towns”)-a Hellenistic region and loose territories of Roman empire. The ‘natives’ were given a subjectivity of ‘the other’, which is evident in the picturisation of the ‘demoniac’.
The land in which the ‘demoniac’ lives is the ‘other side’ of the Roman/ Jewish inhabitance. That is why Jesus consciously uses this term repeatedly (4:35; 5:1, 21; 6:45,53; 8:10, 13). There is a sea in between. Sea, for Jews is a symbol of chaos. The land across this sea is pictured as a terrific land as we used to tell in the fairy tales. It is the abode of evils-the demons, tombs, chains, swine, stones and cries. It is a place of violence and terror. In our society we use this imageries to talk about Dalit/ Tribal colonies! Discipleship is an invitation to go beyond our own social constructions of ‘otherness’.
By exhorting the disciples to “go across to the other side”, Jesus asks them to deconstruct their subjectivity conceptions and move beyond to an existence of fraternity. Jesus shows his interest to talk to them by sitting ‘in the boat’. The ‘boat’ symbolizes the reconciliation between the ‘shores’. Jesus was taking the disciples to a new understanding/ other side of humanity, which has been unknown/ foreign to them. It was a journey into the new imaginations of fraternity. Here ‘crossing’ means ‘bridging’ and that is why it was a stormy journey for them. It was a symbolic journey form ‘hostility’ to ‘hospitality’ rather than a marine transit. Jacques Derrida when speaks about hospitality, cautions us that it is not a kind of patronage but recognizing the right of the ‘other’/ ‘stranger’ not to be treated with hostility.
3. Re-positioning subjectivity: Mission as dialogic engagement for ‘alterity’
There are traces of ‘otherness’ in the representation of the demoniac too. He lives in a ‘submissive’ social space of violence and impurity. He is an ‘abnormal being’, who cries incessantly and ‘tormenting himself’ (5-1-5). He represents all submissive subjects under the Roman imperialism. He embodies the hegemonic power of Roman colonization. By naming himself as ‘legion’ (a Latin word, which means “a battalion of soldiers”), he expresses his ‘colonized’ subjectivity. All subjectivities are power constructions. Here Roman imperialism provided him a ‘subordinate’/ ‘colonized’ subjectivity. It is evident even in his body. Of course, body is the ultimate site of all power violations!
He may be creating an imaginatory inner world to resist the Roman hegemony. Robert young puts it as ‘the Empire within’. It is the power structures that determine the ways of resistances too. Here the colonial invasion is pictured as the ‘possession’ of (foreign) unclean spirit. Frantz Fanon says: “The colonial subject is always over determined from without”. Jesus invites him to a renewed subjectivity through the symbolic act of exorcism. It is a conversation where the language takes the form of a dialogue through which the dialogical partners take the position of alterity rather than oppositional. Alterity is the theoretical poison of Immanuel Levinas, by which he proposes ethics, ‘substituting a respect for the other for the grasping of it, and a theory of desire not as a negation and assimilation but as infinite separation’. This dialogical engagement disallows the taking up of any position beyond the partners from which they can be integrated into a larger totality. Here the ‘demoniac’ re-imagine himself as a democratic social agent who is capable enough to determine his own social space. Our freedom is determined by the epistemological re-understanding of our own socio-political agency/ space when we reject the social positioning of colonialism.
4. Ritual re-memory as a postmodern missiological method
Here the drowning of the herd possessed by the unclean spirit reminds us the drowning event of the pharaoh’s chariots and his army in the exodus event (Ex.14). Israelites always kept the logic of exodus to reject the imperial logic in their whole life situations. The re-articulation of this memory was a political/ pedagogical agenda for their new generations (ex.15: 1-2). Thus exodus event has become ritual memory through which they kept their new generations in an anti-colonial logic. The ritual re-memories are effective tools/ discourses to re-constitute subjectivities. Here Jesus enables him to uphold his collective subjectivity of people of God embodied in his tradition and to reject the imperial logic invaded him.
Ritual re-memories are not external empowerment. Rather these are the discourses through which the subjectivity is being constructed. Thus these discourses are helpful tools to re-formulate subjectivity collectively and internally. Here is the importance of the liturgy, the rituals and sacraments of the church, which the modernity considered as invalids. The modern secular rational being, who is devoid of any internal bonding and the empty passive consumer who is devoid of any social commitment in the market logic have become ‘‘an orphan” in the postmodern period. Thus the contemporary culture of Market demands these ritual re-memories of liberative experiences in order to re-constitute a dialogic/ collective/ communitarian social existence for all.
5. Engaging locally: The focus of postmodern missiology
The ‘demoniac’ represents the ‘colonial imaginations’ of the local people as they live under the roman imperial power. The healing of the ‘demoniac’ is perceived as a fearful incident, because all social relations of that place are determined within the ‘colonial imaginations’ (5: 15). The subjectivity of the discipleship creates disturbances in the undemocratic social spaces. The local people ‘begged’ Jesus to leave their district (vs.18). The exercise of power is so local and specific and thus the resistances also must be local and plural. There is the need of constructing new social practices and languages of fraternity locally.
Jesus asks the ‘demoniac’ to go back to his home with the renewed subjectivity. Family is one of the basic/ specific local space in which we establish local democratic social practices of fraternity. Biblically speaking, family/ local church is the local embodiment of the kingdom of God. The colonial imaginations are rejected locally in this new social/ theological/ missiological relationship of fraternity. The hope of the future is located in our local social engagements of transformation. Local is not to be treated as the other of Global. In the postmodern context the global is localized and the local is globalized. Thus the local is the embodiment of the global. Envisaging the local church as a democratic dialogic community, in which the worshipers are re-imagined as creative social agents and creating new social/ liturgical practices and languages of fraternity determine the content, challenge and hope of the postmodern mission today.
Christian mission, biblically speaking entails movement-a movement of invitation to Christian discipleship. Discipleship is a discursive formation through which we transform our subjectivity in to divine subjectivity. Discipleship is a journey towards new understandings and new imaginations. It is there we find new relationships of fraternity and we reject the conceptions of ‘otherness’. By rejecting the notions of ‘otherness’, Jesus invites the ‘Gerasene demoniac’ to deconstructs his social location/ position. The dialogical engagement enables him to re-place himself as an active social agent. This is actually a hermeneutical engagement of Jesus in his mission of envisaging local kingdom communities as against the Roman imperialisms. Unlike the colonial modernity and the modern missionary movement, postmodernism defines mission as a symbolic journey to hospitality where the ‘other’ is treated as a ‘neighbor’ or ‘friend’. Postmodern mission understanding provides impetus for new hermeneutical engagements with the ‘other’ texts/ territories/ people. Mission is nothing but a hermeneutical engagement for the transformation of all.
Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movements in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1996), p.xviii.
Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (London and New York: Routledge, 1990)
The term mission is derived from the Latin word “mittere”, designating “to send”. Even though it is not a biblical word, the concept mission inherits a cardinal space in the biblical theology.
Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1989)
Postmodernism is an epistemic shift. It fills the epistemological gaps created by the project of modernity. The project of modernity is a product of European Enlightenment that laid the theoretical foundation of European colonialism.
Deconstruction is a form of hermeneutics, which brings out the politics behind the construction of meaning. It was Jacques Derrida, a French Poststructuralist, who developed the theory of deconstruction in 1960’s. see John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997).
Robert Young, op.cit.
According to Michel Foucault, subjectivity is a discursive formation.
Immanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity. Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard A Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 52.
 Ched Meyers, Binding the Strong Man (New York: Orbis Books, 1998) p.190
Jacques Derrida, Hospitality, in Derrida- Habermas Reader, edited by Lasse Thomassen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 208- 230.
Ibid. p. 191
 Robert Young, Op.cit.
 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White-Masks (London: Pluto, 1986)
Immanuel Levinas, Op.cit.
Walter Bruggeman, Texts that Linger: Words that Explore (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 36
Y.T. Vinaya Raj, “Re-locating Local Congregations in a Globalized Context”, in ncc review, Vol. CXXVIII, March 2008.