Who are the Strangers? Identity, Discourse, and Orlando Costas’ holistic missionary understanding.
Orlando E. and Rose Costas Lecture
Rev. Dr. Doris Garcia Rivera
The following is a full transcript of the presentation offered by Rev. Dr. Doris Garcia Rivera during the Orlando E. and Rose Costas Lecture held at Andover Newton Seminary in New Haven, CT. A full manuscript, complete with end notes and references is also available for download by clicking the attachment.
As I keep my eyes on the news regarding the pilgrimage of migrants from Honduras into Mexico to reach the border of the United States, I am hit with the news of violent shootings and bomb threats in the nation. It is a complex situation. In this setting, Orlando Costas’ vision and understanding of missions becomes relevant by giving us three keys to work with. In order to define who the strangers are, the first border to cross is the one defining our identity, our humanity. Apalabrar (giving word/sense to a certain reality) is always mediated by language and is deeply personalized. A second border to cross is to understand the power in re-naming reality and our call to re-create new theological narratives. Finally, we might as well cross back or return to the Missio Dei concept in an effort to understand who accompanies the church, how we do that, and where God’s relentless presence is located in this historical moment. This was Orlando Costas’ holistic understanding of the Gospel.
I start by giving thanks for this invitation. I am humbled and honored to be here at a time when my alma mater, Andover Newton, gets settled in its new home at Yale Divinity School. It is a sign of hope and a decision that opens new paths into the future of the Kingdom. I am also honored to have here Rose Costas and Danette, who came to share this moment and, finally, to the members of Jamaica Plain Baptist church, my home church while at Boston. My friends Rev Paul Hayes and Wendy also honor me. Thank you all for being here; it means a lot to me.
When we talk about theology we need to realize that the work of theological education is done by recreating narratives – nurturing discourses of the biblical world within a framework intersected with the ideological, historical, cultural, and deeply personal understanding of that world.
I want you to take a step back and look at the horizon of theological discourses in the last 5 to 10 years, or so, and what it has meant for the Christian church at large, for the Body of Christ. These theological discourses have challenged the previous minimal shared traditional construction of the biblical world we had as Christians (if we ever had any). Today, we face theological recreations nurturing a complete “Otherness” for all the Christian groups whether be these conservative or liberal as we hear about the flat earth model, or queer theology, or the return to premodern theological sources, or white supremacist theology, etc.
If we add to these discourses the crisis in religion and faith, in general, we are at the center of a perfect storm. From the clergy sexual abuse scandals, to hearing that the younger generation are less inclined to religion, yet still seeking different paths for their spirituality; from the white evangelical Protestants in decline, to the growth of Non-Christian religious groups, from the growing suspicion of institutional religion versus growing concepts of spirituality and so forth… This reality for many ordinary Christians results in a very confusing world right now.
Christians are fragmented. We are deeply divided and nurtured with so much hatred and suspicion that finding a common ground to witness Jesus to the world seems unreachable. That brings me to the first border we need to cross – the one defining our identity.
The first obstacle to cross is the one defining our identity, our humanity.
I met Orlando Costas in 1986 when he went to the Evangelical Seminary of PR for a meeting with late President Rev. Fidel Mercado. With my former spouse, we were looking to fulfill our call to missions. In the conversation with Orlando we said, “We know that Fuller trains people for missions and it seems good.” He answered, “Yes, but Andover Newton is better. Plus, I will be there to get you settled.” And he delivered! That said, with the strength of his voice and the affirmation of our call, our decision was made and off we went to Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS), where I completed my Master in Arts and Religion in Cross Cultural Evangelism. Sharing that space of theological education with Max Stackhouse, William Holladay, Mark Heim, Robert Pazmiño, Carole Fontaine, Jane Cary Peck, and others, challenged and transformed my previous perception of ministry, society, God and my theological insights.
At Andover Newton we met Orlando’s family and a group of Hispanics that became family. They guided us to understand the reality faced by immigrants and second-class citizens in the U.S.A. Orlando was an extraordinary theologian and mentor . He had an interpretation of reality as a Puerto Rican before arriving to the U.S.A. when he was 12 years old that changed to become enriched by American culture. This environment – strange, hostile, and racist – alongside his own percolation as American, and his deep call to serve, carved a new self-vision on being - not one of a stranger, spic, dirty Porto Rican, but that of a human being and a Christian.
Who are the strangers? What does it mean to be human? We are a unique species with a unique talent to shape our environment to suit us. “This claim to our species’ originality, with or without its philosophical or religious basis (and certainly without a geological or evolutionary scientific one) still underlies common presuppositions about what it means to be human.” The question is tied up with the story of creation and the image of God in us. What defines the image of God in us? Is it defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, education, disability, political affiliation, or character? When do you cease to be human for the others?
The debate about humanness, has been not just physical or philosophical, but theological and spiritual as the history of Christianity shows, especially during the conquest of our nations. Today we face a postmodern anthropology based on the idea that humans are “social constructs,” or socially determined beings. As Jim Leffel pin-points, “We cannot have objective access to reality, because there is no neutral context from which to think. We have no individual personhood, because we are the product of culture.” On the other hand, scientific breakthroughs in genetics and biochemistry strengthen the notion of the human being as just a biological or chemical construct. Andrew Kimbrell in The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life, cautions that the scientific thrust to map the human genome was driven (besides the profit gain from it) by an understanding that all human behavior is of genetic origin. Things that in previous times were attributed to environment or moral choice are now being attributed to genetics. Thus, we are experiencing a “sweeping ideological shift that strip humanity of all intrinsic value and leave postmodern culture with no meaningful frame of reference to address the pressing bioethical,” political and social issues of our day.
I believe the question of what it means to be human is central to the present day socio-political engagement of the government with migrants, women, transgender, poor, and even democrats! But also, it is central to the rhetoric of hate used from the state’s officials down to the white supremacist groups, conservatives, but also liberals. The question is tied deep down in the failure to recognize the input and influence of ideology in our theological discourses and the fact that we are in the midst of a paradigmatic change we are just not able to keep up with. This context is also loaded with the fast advancement of technology, which is recreating our relationships, perceptions, functionality, culture, ethics, and self-perceptions.
How to work this? Orlando gives us a hint when he talks about who the adversary might be or where the adversarial space is in Liberating News: A theology of Contextual Evangelization. He signals caution with the use of the hermeneutics of prophetic proclamation, voicing the need to balance both the announcement and the denunciation. In short, do not personalize the struggles.
The individualizing focus of the neoliberal system alongside the loss of community bonding are key to provide the perfect context for the tacit acceptance of millions of ordinary, law-abiding Americans to the late shootings, attacks, and violence. Some sociological studies, show that these situations aren’t based on logic, but on emotions – fear, anger, hate, lack of knowledge, of relationship. Other studies show that, racial extremism may well be about belonging.
Discovering where the real space in the struggle for justice is, also means discovering the best approaches to reach out to those in the other side of the fence, because our fight, “…is not against flesh or blood.” It is easy to focus in certain groups with certain characteristics and lose sight that these are also human beings. In Liberating News, Orlando points out that ““the great theophanic space is the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the humiliated.” This model questions the base of our evangelistic work, our audience (or interlocutor) and the scope of our action.”” Doing theology as part of our evangelistic function was key within the struggles for liberation and the development of contextual theologies and theologies of liberation to understand the imperative of the Gospel.
In the last 18 months we heard that part of those “poor and oppressed” were different from the traditionally marginalized groups – Hispanics, African American, immigrants, or women, i.e.: those of Orlando’s time. But, today these are the white working class poor voters who rose up in opposition because they were left behind economically.
How do we respond to these millions of people that are concerned about the demographic changes that could leave them without a place in the world? How do we respond to those who see in us – the strangers, the oppressors, and the evil, who hinder the advancement of making America Great again? How do we bring unity when we have all become so polarized? How do we respond to the daily assaults with a minimum of spiritual balance, when the sole mention of certain names provokes rejection, repulsion, hate, and disdain? We have indeed become strangers within our own families, communities, religious associations, and nation. And with this boundary of otherness, fear and false information has become the tool for manipulating the minds and hearts of the people that we as pastors or as theological educators have a call to serve by the same God of us all.
In Missional God, Missional Church, Ross Hastings mentioned how Orlando reaffirms the notion that “fallen human beings still reflect the image of God in their intellect, affections, community life and culture. “All humans… irrespective of religion, race, color, or gender, as made in the image of God and as one with the true man (verus Homo) Jesus, are to be accorded full human rights and treated with dignity.” For Orlando, “the ontological aspects of the imago remain, albeit tarnished.”
In Liberating News, Orlando wrote, “Evangelization implies living in obedience to God’s kingdom in such a way that one becomes a herald of good news and an agent of transformation in any human situation, but particularly in those situations in which there is a threat against life, and injustice and oppression are suffered.” Evangelizing is a dynamic task that given the present realities becomes an imperative for the kingdom of God. It is not only crucial to understand that God has a mission, it is equally important to understand that God’s mission is larger than the church. In this setting “mission’s wider aim is the recovery of the humanness of humanity… humanization is the goal of mission, not merely the saving of ‘souls.’” This is intimately related “to the One who is the incarnated one – the One human in whom humanity was recapitulated – Christ.” In Jesus both natures became one, thus humanness becomes not just “divine image or likeness” but sacred and unique in all.
The divine image is not conditioned “if you…then…” rather was made an integral part of our being. There is a sense of “unconditionality” in our humanness essential for the basic mutual respect required in interfaith dialogues, in struggles within political sphere, and in the evangelistic efforts of our denominations that today are required to deal with our adversaries.
Separating away from, destroying, or manipulating that image and divine likeness opens the door to dehumanizing processes – the fundamental violence against one another and, therefore, fundamental violence against God. When we dehumanize somebody, we lift up a border, a limit, a wall, a frontier between human and non-human and, thus, that reflection of the One Within Me, becomes the other stranger! Then it is easy to exploit, criminalize, discriminate, abuse, ignore, minimize, mistreat, incarcerate, rob, lie, hate, objectivize, and murder the other. Costas perceived this basic consequence of stepping away from the root of the Gospel when he wrote about Sin and its consequences: “sin is a problem of relationships - human and divine. You cannot talk about sin without talking about its consequences. Sin is a destructive force - it deforms life - it can not be understood and explained - but it is possible to register its presence and its consequences.”
Crossing borders has always been difficult, risky, and diverse. It covers space that is geographic, cultural, political, psychological, theological, spiritual, and familial. The text of the man from Gadara in Lk 8:26-39 shows Jesus crossing over many frontiers to reach out a possessed one, a stranger, a non-human indeed. And yet, the identity of this possessed man, as well as those who followed, challenged, or betrayed Jesus (Pharisees, Romans, publicans, disciples, etc.), never ceased to be human - however fragmented and damaged that image was.
If we acknowledge that uniqueness within all of us - that which makes us human - we could find a common ground to confront and defeat the pain and anger we face today. The Zapatista movement talked about la Digna rabia – Dignified rage, seeking not revenge but rather justice. In May 2014, when the Mexican government attacked the school and clinic of one Zapatista unarmed town La Realidad (the reality), a well-known soldier called Galeano was assassinated. “He did not fall in the ambush. He was surrounded by 15 or 20 paramilitaries (yes, they are paramilitaries; their tactics are those of paramilitaries); our compa Galeano challenged the aggressors to hand-to-hand combat, without guns. They would swing at him and he would jump from one place to another avoiding their blows and disarming his opponents. When these aggressors saw that they could not beat him like that, they shot him in the leg and he fell. Then came the barbarism: they descended upon him, beat him, and cut him with a machete. Another shot to the chest brought him to the edge of death, and they kept beating him. When they saw that he was still breathing, one of those cowards shot him in the head. They shot him three times at point blank range. And all three shots came while he was surrounded and unarmed, though had not given up. His body was then dragged by his assassins for some 80 meters and then tossed aside.”
Paramilitary groups used a negative religious definition, which was theologically founded, that dehumanized the adversary to radicalize the Protestant peasants against the Catholic rebels. To keep a vision of these assassins as humans, requires great faith, divine grace, and it requires the Spirit to move us beyond the hatred to a Dignified rage capable of creatively organizing our resources and working intensely with our bases to respond with a different strategy.
The Second obstacle to cross is that of discourses – Apalabrar.
As much as it is true that the material world drives the production of words and ideas (profit strongly motivates the wealthy to make use of any means, including theology to justify, slavery, manipulation, unjust laws, etc.), it is also true that language & communication are powerful because they “express & create an interpretation of reality” capable of transforming the actions of those on the receiving end. That is why it is so important to apalabrar.
I have been called many things, many names. Jezebel, brute, b***, swine, whore, lazy, bad mother, lesbian, freeloader, Hispanic, ghettoer, incompetent, and lately: accomplice of aggression. Every one of these names stole a bit of the image of God from me, a bit of my humanity. On the other hand, I have also been named; nena, preciosa, extraordinary woman, intelligent, capable, stronghold, bundle of creativity, visionary, lovely person. And every one of these names strengthened the image of God in me, and my value as a human being.
Paul Fairfield reminds us that the dialectical process of cognition and discourse is a living reality that settles our mind in hard to move perceptions. It “lives and moves and has its being in this back-and-forth, in a logic of the both/and the neither/nor. When the dialectic exhausts our energies, thought settles into one pole or the other, and relate become fixed positions – difficulties ensue.” Once fixed, that relate, that narrative, that discourse - especially those dehumanizing the other - gains a life of its own and it becomes hard to transform.
Violence reaches us all. Sometimes we are at the receiving end, other times we are at the emitting end. Dominant representations of culture, race, and gender allow the creation of narratives whose discourse and meanings erode the “imago Dei” and prepare the ground for violence to grow. Discourses reflect the values of the ones who communicate. When we name something or someone, this “naming” is guided by our culture of origin, our family, community and national/historical experiences and the discourses and codes defined by the groups we belong to, to interpret reality. Naming reality, “apalabrar la realidad” is a powerful tool used to recreate things on behalf of humanity, but also a powerful tool used to destroy. Thus, the importance to understand the effective power in the construction of our narratives, discourses, and naming, in such a time as this present moment.
A holistic missionary understanding of our call.
In The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique From the Third World, Orlando revealed a comprehensive and holistic missiology. His own theological journey enriched by his many intercultural and lived experiences, and deep thought reflections, showed him that salvation is for both the personal and the structural reality, for all of life - individually and in society. For Orlando, the mission – Missio Dei - is the foundational space of life and work for the church. Discipleship takes precedent for a continuing transformation of the self in the image of Christ and for the real-world implications of witnessing Jesus. Faith must become incarnated in the church’s worship and missionary efforts in order to inform change in the unjust situations of this world.
Recreating the reality of God in relationship with humanity is what we all do in theological education, whether from a conservative or liberal ideology. We might have been shy in exposing or even unaware of the ideological foundations behind our theological reasoning. And yet, part of our common task is to expose the ideologies behind the discourses of the antagonists, and to become aware of our own. This will not be an easy task, nor a transient one.
Rereading Orlando’s words today brings an echo of his voice calling us from the past to “… proclaim, teach, and witness to, without reduction or apologies, the whole gospel of the kingdom to the whole man, in the whole world.” He calls us to return or in-turn to the Missio Dei, which embraces all and everything. The denunciation needs to be folded into a keen awareness of our common humanity and the common place these “others” occupy within the living narratives of our time. The holistic missionary understanding of Orlando reminds us that as we engage in finding the will of God, alas, we struggle with our own human/divine image. We all do. Yet, this is also our privilege, opportunity, and gift!
Today, the full proclamation of the gospel entails not only the traditional tools we have taught for decades, but a renewed toolbox to accompany those called to serve in this time and context the reality of the living God. I deeply believe that doing this from God’s mission as the organizing principle could change the result of our work. Theological education alongside technology, social networking, community work, marches, protests, guided intentional obedience to the Gospel (instead of civil disobedience), intentional challenges to unjust laws, the use of arts, music, and alliances with unique (and sometimes unlikely) partners, i.e., every possible creative proclamation and concrete demonstration of the good news is needed to have a small possibility to provoke spaces for salvation in a holistic way to the lives of people. It is a time for radical change in how we do theology, how we share the knowledge, and how we do our praxis.
Orlando believed that liberation is “evangelical” when it tears down the structures that “perpetuate divisions among peoples, among men, women, and children, and between the human family and nature –divisions that promote hate, hostility and resentment, instead of love, well-being, and freedom.” Thus, it may be that we need to look for God’s activity in our local setting as the place to begin our missional engagement with a transformed vision of the “others,” not as strangers, but as our own stranded kind.
Mission must be expanded in our theological curriculums to discern humanity’s doing in relationship to God’s activity in a local and global context. We must begin by listening and learning what God is already doing, discerning the deep-seated ideologies within ourselves and others, either to affirm those attuned with the Gospel, or to reject or transform those which are not. We might be called to perform public theological discourse – not as an act of defiance, but as an act of salvation.
I will finish today, saying that the Spirit seeks the transformation of our nation. We must not miss the fact that the Spirit keeps moving over the chaos, darkness and void of our context… just remember that the Spirit is still moving.