Editor's comment: For those dedicated to interreligious dialogue and respect for the faith traditions of others, there is a new missionary challenge--to incarnate the simple realization that "We Christians believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God. We believe that Muslims must be good Muslims, Hindus must be good Hindus, Buddhists must be good Buddhists, and Christians must be good Christians. We believe that all persons can be saved by doing good according to the teachings of their own religions." Bob MacCahill is such a missioner.Dear Leonard,
Greetings to you from Islampur, a section of Netrakona town in north central Bangladesh. It is raining here as I begin this letter with the illuminating help of a hurricane lamp.
Some weeks ago you sent an invitation my way requesting that I read and comment on Cardinal Tomko's thought-provoking discourse at the International Congress of Missiology, entitled "Missionary Challenges To The Theory Of Salvation." When I received your invitation, a Bangladeshi major seminarian had just begun living with me in Netrakona for a period of exposure to mission among Muslims. It was not possible to find time to comply with your request during the six weeks of Prashanto's stay because we were busy with mission, service, reflection, prayer, and the chores of daily survival, e.g., shopping in the bazaar, drawing water at the well, going to the river to bathe, repairing our bamboo hut. Prashanto returned to the seminary this morning, and I am turning to the Cardinal's discourse.
At the end of his presentation, the Cardinal asks, "Does the fact that God operates with His grace also on non-Christians releases the Church from the obligation of announcing the Gospel?" Briefly stated, I believe the obligation remains with as much urgency as it ever had, but that the interpretation we give to "announcing the Gospel" needs to be broadened.
That question is related in my mind to another question raised by missioners in another part of the world, namely: "If God saves non-Christians, if it is not necessary for one's eternal salvation that one enters the Church, then what is the future of mission? What are missioners to do?"
I cannot speak for all mission areas of the world because I have lived in only two of them during these past twenty-five years. However, based on that experience, and especially upon these past fourteen years in mission among Bangladeshi Muslims, I believe there is no diminishment of the need for missioners. But, their task does have a new focus, at least in this area of the world.
Why a new missionary focus? For one reason, because of the history of these people. The people of this Indian subcontinent were colonized by Englishmen during two hundred years, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century. The English were Christians. Until now, these terms are nearly synonymous in the Bangladeshi mind: Englishman, white man, colonist, foreigner, Christian. At present, Bangladesh has 110 million people, 85% Muslim, 14% Hindu, 7/10 of 1% Buddhist, and 3/10 of 1% Christian. Most of the adult population perceives, either through stories, dramatic presentations, education or literature, that the white Christian colonists abused their forefathers and their motherland. They perceive that colonist subjected their ancestors, ruined the local economy, and treated this beautiful, rich, fertile Bengal area in a purely selfish way. They suspect that white folks are still colonists at heart, that they are abusive (e.g., liquor and sex), and that they despite the poor. They suspect that missioners come here to change the Islamic faith they love and convert them to a religion which main benefit is material assistance.
How does a missioner announce the Gospel in such circumstances? One way is by simply trying to live according to the Good News he or she believes in. As the letter of assignment I have from my Bishop states it, there are five priorities for me to attend to in Netrakona. I am encouraged to: live among the poor as a brother to them; serve the sick so that they may live; show the respect which our Christian religion has for Islam and Hinduism; explain to those who inquire about the reason for my lifestyle and good works; contact the Christians in the area (a scattered few) and encourage them to lead good lives.
A missioner's task of announcing the Gospel should vary from place to place, i.e., what the missioner does and says. Here, for example, it won't do to proclaim to Muslims "Jesus Christ is God. Repent and believe in Him." Nobody is listening to that. (And if they are, I am told by those who have preached to them, it is in view of their expectation of material benefits. More on that, later.) After all, Muslims already have a clear idea of who Jesus is for them. Jesus is one of the very greatest of their prophets. They are not asking to hear who we Christians think Jesus is. However, they are indeed asking, insistently and intensely: "Who are you? What are you doing here? Why?" I reply: "I am your Christian brother. I am here as a servant of the sick-poor because Jesus came to serve and to heal. The answer to all your ways is simply: Jesus. That is, because Jesus went about and healing, so do I. Because Jesus was celibate for the love of God, so am I. Jesus is the reason for the lifestyle you are wondering about, and for the good works you observe. God inspires me to follow Jesus. Jesus is my model."
"How much will you give me if I become a Christian?" is the blatant way Muslims ask me about joining the church. The question has a basis in fact. Some Christian denominations have and do use material benefits to entice Muslims and Hindus into the fold. Also, it sometimes happens that a Christian sect "raids" a village where another Christian denomination is already established in order to change their affliction. For example, the Seventh Day Adventists recently introduced themselves into a village 20 miles away from here where a Baptist community had lived unitedly for several decades. That village is now split. The Christians are inimical to one another. Non-Christians in the area view those Christians' disharmony with mild contempt. It is a source of mirth for them. Countless Muslims of this country could relate stories similar or even more unfortunate than this example.
That example describes a mission effort made by some non-Catholic Christians. What has it got to do with the activity of Catholic missioners? A great deal. In the minds of most Bangladeshi Muslims and Hindus, Christians of all sects and denominations are one. In their minds, Catholics, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and others are one in their purpose. By association Catholics share a reputation. The reputation is that Christians buy followers. In that circumstance, a sensible mission method for a missioner to pursue towards persons who approach and inquire "What will I receive if I become a Christian?" is to treat it as a joke, chuckle with the inquirer, and then explain to him what Catholic Christians believe about other religions. That is, we respect them.
The Church since Vatican Council II projects a new attitude about non-Christians. One of the key statements reflecting that attitude is quoted in the Cardinal's paper: "Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience." (LG 16) Who will demonstrate this new Catholic Christian attitude towards Muslims, Hindus and others? In Bangladesh, missioners are the first persons who must exemplify this teaching of the Church towards people of other faiths. Why depend on missioners, and not on the faithful in general, to incarnate the new attitude? Because Muslims regard missioners as the official representatives of the Christian religion. They conclude that as the missioners behave, so their faith teaches. Thus, if missioners are primarily concerned with efforts to convert Muslims, it means that the Christian faith devalues Islam, has little respect for Islam, and is by dialogue merely trying to catch and transform believing Muslims into the foreign religion. But if the alleged new openness of Christians towards Muslims is sincere, then Muslims will be able to judge the truth of that by observing the missioners' lives and dealing with Muslims.
Cardinal Tomko's final question asks: "Does dialogue replace the announcement proclamation? Does the announcement eliminate dialogue? Or do both belong to the complex and rich reality of evangelization?" Both approaches, it seems to me, are authentic forms of evangelization. I believe that if in a certain place at a given time for example in Netrakona during this year dialogue is needed, then dialogue constitutes a proclamation. Dialogue in that instance proclaims concretely, by witness and example: I appreciate your faith. I am with you as a fellow-pilgrim on earth. I value your life, your culture, your religion. However, in another place, the other approach could be more fitting. from what I've heard others say, Korea comes to mind.
The several Biblical quotations in the Cardinal's discourse are apt encouragement for mission. Nevertheless, I believe that one text that is deeply relevant for mission today as it is relevant to the whole of Christian living has not been mentioned. God is grater than our hearts (1 John 3:20).
Missioners and other Christians who strive to pray, reflect, and live as Jesus lived can, in consultation with the Local Church, decide on the form of evangelization that is needed in a particular place and time. We believe that God is at work among Christians and among our neighbors of other faiths. The divine plan is being fulfilled. Souls are not pelting into hell like monsoon raindrops because these people do not and probably never will profess the beliefs we hold dear. But God is greater than our hearts. We can rest assured that God's wonderful and surprising will is being accomplished. "Fear not" is another apropos reminder.
Most people, I've found, are pretty good. It has never made sense to me to speak of the condemnation of these good, non-Christian folks, especially those among them who are suffering so much, now. I am reminded of a meeting. Some months ago a letter was sent out to numerous Christians inviting them to a meeting which theme would be "The Suffering Servant." Those invited were requested to submit the names of other persons sympathetic to the theme so that they, also, could be invited. One person submitted numerous names, names like Fatima, Ayesha, Hashina, Iasmin, Johura, Khaleda, etc. This missioner reasoned that there are no persons in Bangladesh who are more closely conformed to The Suffering Servant than are Muslim women. The 68,000 villages of this country are teeming with suffering servants. Is our Christian vision broad enough to encompass that fact?
One man's view of the Church's mission, cited in the Cardinal's paper, is that "The purpose of mission is not to make Christians, but to help people to become men." Similar to that is a statement I've heard here in Bangladesh: "The purpose of mission is to make Muslims better Muslims." I cannot agree with either statement. It would make better sense to me to say that the aim of mission in this country is simply to build trust and friendship between followers of Jesus and followers of Mohammed. (When I say "simply" I do not mean to imply that it is easy. Building trust in an environment of suspicion is not easy.) In fact, I did not come to Bangladesh to make others better people or better Muslims. The principal reason, rather, was that Christian faith moved me to come, to show love for the poor, to offer service to Muslims and Hindus, to be useful to them in their needs. In short, I was and still am inspired to live as a Christian among the Muslim poor in order to help my neighbor.
A missioner, having inserted him or herself into the environment of another faith, attempts to grow with the followers of that faith in mutual respect and love. The missioner is a sign of the unity of humankind.
Does the fact that Muslims suspect Christian missioners of having the intention to convert them affect the way missioners announce the Gospel? Yes, and rightly so. I believe it may be grace that inspires Muslims to question missioners about their motives for coming to them. I believe, further, that it is Good News when I tell Muslims: "We Christians believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God. We believe that Muslims must be good Muslims, Hindus must be good Hindus, Buddhists must be good Buddhists, and Christians must be good Christians. We believe that all persons can be saved by doing good according to the teachings of their own religions." However, as important as it is to declare those truths openly, it is even more important for missioners and for all Christians to be and behave as Christians, that is, to live the Good News. Living the Gospel in a Muslim milieu is every bit as difficult as preaching it. Besides, an oral presentation can easily be misconstrued, e.g., "The missioner is just saying those things to attract you. Watch out; he wants to snare you." On the other hand, compassionate behavior, fraternal treatment, and selfless service are surer paths into the Bengali Muslim's heart. Such Christ-like behavior can also be misconstrued, but not as easily as things merely spoken. The impact of disinterested Christian love for the poor is, for Muslims, the most powerful statement of Christian faith imaginable.
In a critical context the Cardinal mentions the "programme of a missionary institute: ‘We go to the missions not so much to plant the Church or to bring the faith, but rather to discover a faith and a goodness that already exists there.'" I think this is a good example of the misunderstanding that can easily arise when a missioner tries to say something significant about mission in just a few words. I can well imagine that the missioner-author of the quoted remark was not attempting to outline a program for missionary action, but rather to inspire a broader vision among Christians. The point he makes is important for anyone concerned about the Catholic Church in developed countries. His observation beckons Christians to an awareness of the spiritual riches present among persons of other faiths and places. It is a service to the Church whenever a missioner from the developed world attempts to impress upon his or her fellow Christians the enlightening fact that grace is found among peoples of all faiths, in the technologically backward and problem-beset developing countries as much as in the developed ones. One of the roles of this reverse mission is to expand the hearts and minds of the Christians who send missioners, so that the senders will appreciate truth, goodness, and spiritual beauty that is readily discoverable by their missioners in countries where good communications, sanitary toilets, and a host of other standard conveniences are scarce. Our fellow Christians, our sponsors, deserve to hear that. It can broaden their horizons. It can free their hearts to hear first hand evidence from the mission field that non-Christians are also good folks. You can trust them. You need not approach them defensively. We are all brothers and sisters.
Nowadays it is more urgent than ever to speak up about the goodness missioners find among followers of other faiths. Why? To use a current example, because of the recently departed Ayatollah Khomeini. In the view of some Christians, all Muslims are guilty of fanaticism by association with him. These Christians do not distinguish between the excessive Shiite Muslim leader and the huge majority of the world's immanently tolerant Sunni Muslims. (Why then should we Christians expect Muslims to differentiate between Christians belonging to various sects and denominations?) It is one of the duties of missioners to reach out to members of their own faith community, to help them resist negativism and to think well of other faith communities.
The rain has stopped. Someone just called at the door. I pushed it aside. The neighbor lady mother of five children, she is the second of two living wives of Abdul Ali presented me a plate of freshly prepared cakes. Gladly I received the unexpected sign of hospitality. Her husband watched approvingly from their doorway. It was a small thing, but more than enough to make me conscious of God's presence in others. Trust and friendship are growing. The increase of friendship and trust gives evidence that we are all growing in knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4) The truth of human oneness, long obscured by our pettiness and exclusivity, shines forth through persons of diverse faiths who are reaching out to one another.
Bob McCahill 25 Feb., ‘90
This is a circular letter from Bob McCahill to Leonard Swidler. Posted on the Web with permission.
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Posted 5 November 1999
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