Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A Borderless Church for a Borderless World?

Thank you for the invitation to lead this Bible study on the borderless Church.  I confess it is not a theme that has caught my attention, but I am always grateful for the opportunity to go to our Scriptures to seek understanding for what we are called to in our worship and mission.  While my brief internet search suggests the theme of a borderless church has released some energy for some Christians who have responded to the theme, I am concerned the topic may be a distraction for what I suggest is the weightier question of how the church is to live in an increasingly borderless world.

So first, I will share with you how I have come to the initial conclusion that the theme may be a distraction for our conversation as CSI-global partners.  The clue that it may be a distraction comes from a bible study of the Genesis creation story, which helped me to give voice to my own yearning for this gathering and led me to a deeper reflection on what it may mean for us as CSI-global partners to live in a borderless world.   St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians provided me with a helpful reflection, which reorientated me to Christ’s cross.  There I found a still point that may well be the foundation for our lives together in the family of God, a still point that in drawing us together may well be borderless.

Our Australian mission workers tell of a conversation with some year 10 Tamil girls at Jaffna College.  The Australians had introduced the topic of “holidays” to an informal English conversation group with the girls, and asked the group what places they had visited for a holiday.  One by one each of the girls spoke.  None of them had been outside Jaffna for any reason, let alone to go on a holiday.

When the mission workers told me of this conversation later, they laughed at their own culturally-blind assumption, that the poor village students at our school would of course have holidays away from home.  But their wrong assumption about life in the Jaffna context is quite benign compared with some of the assumptions of other mission partners.  For some of these just take it for granted that our resources, theology and governance, for example, should be modelled on their own experiences and should be implemented to western standards.  So there is not a lot to laugh about in their mistaken assumptions. Sadly, these relationships deny the reality of the pain and struggle of our Diocese in a post-war environment that after thirty years of civil war has left our people traumatised, our resources massively depleted, and a lurking fear of violence.

Our experience of miscommunication and misunderstanding with some of our mission partners reminds me of the Biblical narrative of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  This Genesis story is a theological picture of how we humansstrive to build ourselvesup to the height and power of a god.  ‘Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves”’ (114).  The intention of this building work is to live without God, so that humankind may take on divine power.  But this desire is idolatry, which God cannot tolerate.  ‘And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”’ (116).  Here is God’s response to a borderless people in pursuit of the oneness or unity that will elevate their mission to achievements beyond imagining.  God sees that this is really the desire to cloak their quest for human power and world domination with religious legitimation.  Brueggemann names thisdesire ‘disobedience, arrogance and violence that profoundly contradicts God’s way.’[1] The consequence enacted by the sovereign God is social fragmentation and distorted communication.  ‘”Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth’ (117).  God’s judgment on the human desire to be as gods is to act to establish limits to human behaviour.  There are God-given boundariesto what it means to be human.  Borders!

Perhaps the image of a borderless world owes its genesis to Kenichi Ohmae’s book The Borderless World: Power and Strategy in the Global Marketplace, published in 1990. The book was written to ‘show companies how to win in the new global market-place’.  Ohmae argues that national borders are less relevant than ever before and identifies the key characteristics of top performing nations and corporations.  He attributes the success of the American economy in the 1990s to its seamless entry into the borderless world.  The justification for a borderless world under the banner of globalisation is economic progress.  But who really benefits? When I think of a borderless world I think of corporations that avoid paying tax in the countries where they earn their profits.  I think of tax havens for the rich, the emerging slave trade, oil wars, and an unending stream of refugees unable to find asylum.  What do we in CSI have to say to our global partners about this changing reality of global power relations and the penetration of Indian and Sri Lankan sovereignty by these forces of global expansion?

The Genesis text discloses more of what it might actually mean for God’s people to live in a borderlessworld.  The borderless city envisioned by the builders was called ‘Babel’, a poetic reference to the great imperial power of Babylon.  The early chapters of Genesis counter the violent, war-justifying Babylonian creation myths with Israel’s creation narrative that affirms the Israelites’ trust in God’s goodness.  Then in chapter eleven, the tower of Babel story reminds God’s people of their exile in Babylon and what they experienced living under Babylonian religious and political pretensions of world domination.  ‘Babylon presented itself as autonomous, invincible, and permanent.  When Israel entered fully into the ideology of Babylon … it accepted … its own fate as completed defined by Babylonian reality.  This is a classic example of the phenomenon …of the victim willingly participating in the ideology of the perpetrator.’[2]As the emergence of the concept of borderless churches follows the economist’s enthusiasm for a borderless world, Brueggemann’s insight about the Babel narrative provides a timely warning.  Are borderless churches providing religious legitimation for rapacious political and economic corporations?  Or perhaps more pointedly, what is the reality of church life that this new ‘enthusiasm’ is hiding?

The conversation with global partners I yearn for is only possible if our starting point is our unity in, and as, the body of Christ.  It is the body of Christ that was crucified by imperial Rome. Some recent scholarsare suggesting that Christ’s brutal death at the hands of the Roman Empire has been minimised by western Christianity.  Studies of Paul’s lettershave begun to be re-examined following ‘the emergence in the early 1990s of empire-critical studies, under the guidance of Richard Horsley … within the Society of Biblical Literature.’[3]In fact, the New Testament writers find the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion clearly located in the Hebrew Scriptures and its themes of imperial idolatry, exodus from Empire,and exile under foreign rule.

The reality of Israel’s exile under the Babylonian empire becomes a window into the plight of the early Jesus followers under Roman rule and successive Emperor-gods.Simply put, to be baptised was to be joinedin the crucified body of Christ with all those other baptised followers of Jesus – Jews and Gentiles – who had been conquered bythe god-Emperor Caesar.

Maybe no one understood better than St. Paul how life really was, living as conquered people under the daily threat of violent imperial power.  Therefore, it is Paul’s missionary work that holds clues for how we in CSI-global partnerships may be liberated by the gospel to speak more truthfully and lovingly to one another while living in this emerging reality of a borderless world.

Lutheran writer Brigitte Kahl vividly describes what it is like to live as vanquished people through the eyes of those defeated by Roman imperial power, and so brings fresh light to Paul’s letter to the Galatians.[4]She selects two issues widely neglected in Galatian studies.  ‘First is the power of Rome and the representation of that power in images, most notably the images of vanquished Galatians. …Second: (she) seeks to re-imagine the historical context in which Paul and the Galatians met.’[5]  From these two issues, Kahl arrives at a number of impressively documented conclusions that illuminate our study today:

  1. She suggests that rather than the context of Galatians being a dispute between Jewish Christians and ‘Gentile’ Christians, Paul was targeting Greco-Roman imperial law rather than Jewish Torah. ‘It was Roman law that ultimately defined and enforced what was licit or illicit’.[6]
  2. Kahl argues that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith and grace justified an anti-Judaism that entrenched an ancient dualism of“Us versus Them”. This doctrine became ‘a powerful ideological weapon in subsequent warfares conducted by the Christian occident (west) against its “Others”.[7]Kahl argues that Luther absorbed or inherited his binary (that is, dualistic) view of the world from the Hellenistic and Roman dualisms, where the Self was always defined as ‘good’ against the barbarian Other.  Through this binary or dualism, the Romans’ belief in their righteous Self was sustained by their need to have a perpetual enemy.  The ‘Galatians’ was an umbrella name given to all those who the Romans considered as barbarian hostile foes or “outsiders”/Otherswho needed to be conquered.  Thus, Luther’s theology carried within it the same conviction of the Roman Empire, thatpeace could only be won through war and violent conquest by the power of Empire.
  3. But Paul’s gospel of a ‘new creation’ challenged the prevailing worldview of Roman religion, law and orderthat the cosmos consisted of opposing (or binary) forces that were irreconcilable. ‘The “slavery” involved in these binary opposites is both spiritual and physical, since it results from a systemic politics of conquest and is based precisely on the bonds between Roman religion, Roman law, and the Roman construction of Self and Other.’[8]  Embedded in Paul’s new creation was a gospel of love that collapsed the Self and Other into a new humanity that under-cut and transformed the need for violence and war.

We may better grasp the significance of Brigitte Kahl’s work for our theme by following her exegesis of Galatians 1:1-9.  These first nine verses frame the key concerns of Paul’s letter and his awareness of the profound conflict with unnamed enemies in his missionary field. Against recalcitrant Galatians and false teachers are ‘all God’s family’ (1:2) who are with Paul.  Their family status is affirmed three times in four verses as gifted by ‘God our Father’, authoritatively describing both sender(s) and receivers of the letter as being part of this family.

For the alienated family members it is vital that they recognise one another again as belonging to one family: ‘Paul, the brothers/sisters, and the Galatians alike, comprising both Jews and Gentiles/nations.’[9]  This is Paul’s powerful reading, that across all their differences of race and nation, the community of Jesus’ followers are together as one human family out of Abraham’s and the Messiah’s seed.

How blessed we are to be united in grace and peace as the family of ‘God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (13).  But we receive this unity as Christ’s gift ‘to set us free from the present evil age’ (14).  This wonderful gift is not the result of our personal mission or effort.  It is God’s gift, and it comes with a calling and an ethical imperative – a call to freedom from this increasingly borderless world dominated by the economic imperative for growth and progress.

Paul reveals there is a cosmic dimension to the conflict Christ has joined for the sake of our freedom from the evils of our age.  In 18, an angel from heaven is mentioned as a potential messenger with a contradicting gospel.Paul responds to this threat to the gospel of Christ from a ‘different gospel’ (v.6) or ‘another gospel’ (v.7) witha double curse on the false messengers in verses eight and nine.  Kahl hears in Paul’s double curse the powerful curse formula of Deuteronomy27-30 and 13 against ‘those who succumbed to the treacherous and illusory attraction of the “idols”, the other gods.’[10]  Paul places a curse on those enmeshed in idolatry, not Judaism as has been traditionally read, for Torah is the foundation for Paul’s own curses.

And ‘as we have seen, in Paul’s time the most overbearing and all-encompassing form of idolatry was the Roman imperial religion with its claim to integrate and dominate all other religion.’[11]  The other ‘good news’ referred to no fewer than five times in 1:6-9 is more likely to be the gospel of imperial salvation, peace through the violence of war and conquest, and imperial salvation and patronage through military and economic might.  Paul’s curses therefore must apply to the violence of enslavement and coercion, exile and death that in biblical faith is the consequence of idolatry.  Paul is pointing to the deadly destructiveness inherent in Roman imperial law and order itself, and the Empire’s ambition to be the dominant power of its borderless world.

From the first verse, Paul subtly mocks the cursed system of oppression and colonisation that requires the conquered to worship the god-Emperor as their ‘saviour’ and ‘Lord’. His gospel is profoundly counter-cultural in proclaiming to the despised Galatians thatGod’s messiah, a despised Other from the ranks of conquered Jews, has been raised fromthe dead (11).After all, crucifixion was the mode of choice for the Empire to maintain the absolute power of Roman law.  The proclamation that God the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead is a total repudiation of Roman imperial might.  And the gospel for the Galatians is by God’s saving grace, they also can be ‘free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father’ (14).

Can the freedom Christ has won for CSI and global partners from this present evil age provide a space for disclosing the harm either party may have experienced in our partnerships?  Soon after my consecration as Bishop, a group who supported another candidate created a schism with CSI and attempted to establish their own church.  In the violence that ensued, people on both sides were demonised, enmity flourished, mirroring our nation’s war and leading to our own despair.  This schism then poisoned our relationship with several global partners, including withdrawingof funding.  In none of these situations when a relationship was harmed, did the global partners speak to me in confidence or visit Jaffna to try to understand our experience.  So recently, I asked the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka to mediate a conversation with the schismatic group around a set of proposals to resolve their dispute with our Diocese.  With this initiative we are attempting to withdraw our perception of the schismatics as ‘the unrighteous … and undeserving other.’[12]  I understand we are called by Christ to give ourselves in love to those who have harmed our Diocese if we are to counteract the logic of a borderless world that pursues its own self-aggrandisement, law, victory and righteousness.  But we stand in need of Christ’s sisters and brothers and the support of God’s family to take this foundational step which may announce a new exodus and a new creation.  This is a great challenge for our NCC-SL, but the reality is that our Diocese is powerless to speak into this painful space without the grace and peace of sister churches holding our efforts in their prayers and actions.

The powerlessness of the Church is God’s gift to open our hearts and minds to Christ’s saving purposes.  This is the point to which I believe Paul is inviting us, to trust one another as members of God’s family to be in solidarity through our deep listening to one another’s pain.  There is much I sense in the world of our global partners that may cause you pain: the decline of congregations, the war trauma of your servicemen and women, the frightening rates of suicide and violent deaths, and the threats of terrorist attack to name a few.  None of these are outside our experience in Sri Lanka, and to the extent that we are able to share our pain, we will enter a borderless space made open for us in the death and resurrection of our Lord.

I believe we can truly be Christ’s church and proclaim ‘good news’ to our worldwhen the humanity of warring parties is ‘restored from the likeness of Caesar’s image into the image of God.’[13]  So I do not find that describing the conversation I yearn for as the “mission of a borderless church” adds anything of substance to what I believe the church today needs to become more truly church.

I trust that in our conversation as CSI-global partners we may reflect prayerfully on what St. Paul is teaching us about the need to transform our relationships of Self and Other into the inclusive (borderless?) embrace of Christ’s new creation.  While I have suggested the story of the tower of Babel and the reimagining of Paul’s Galatian letter warn against the potential for a borderless church to become captive to the idolatry of a borderless world, the exciting biblical scholarship that continues to enliven Pauline studies recalls us to the promise of Christ’s new creation as Paul’s great good news for a church seeking to find our identity in an increasingly borderless world.

Bishop Daniel S. Thiagarajah PhD

CSI Jaffna Diocese

[1] W. Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: the Canon and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. 2003. p. 33.

[2] W. Brueggemann, A Social Reading of the Old Testament: prophetic approaches to Israel’s communal life. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1994, p. 113

[3] B. Kahl, Galatians Reimagined: reading with the eyes of the vanquished.  Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2014, p.5.

[4] B. Kahl, Galatians Reimagined: reading with the eyes of the vanquished.  Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2014.

[5] Kahl, pp. 3-4

[6] Kahl, p.7.

[7] Kahl, p.11

[8] Kahl. P.20.

[9] Kahl, p.248.

[10] Kahl, p.253.

[11]Kah, p.254.

[12] Kahl, p.262.

[13] Kahl, p.262.

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