Israel Oluwole Olofinjana and Steve Bell – Review of Two Books on Mission. # 60. 18/01/2022
Out of Many , One People
Israel Oluwole Olofinjana and Steve Bell – Two Books on Mission Reviewed
‘Discipleship, Suffering and Racial Justice: Mission in a Pandemic World’ by Israel Oluwole Olofinjana (Regnum)
This is a stimulating and original short book, riding the two major waves of the Covid-19 epidemic and the surge of concern over racial justice, with behind them the long term swell of the growth of majority world Christianity. Since its publisher, the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, is not well known, it will be good for it to be widely commended.
Israel Olofinjana is originally from Nigeria, and has recently become the Director of the One People Commission of the Evangelical Alliance, having both worked as, co-ordinated with, and written about the ministry of Majority World missionaries based in the UK.
He sees the pandemic as creating a new ‘paradigm’ for mission (reflecting David Bosch’s historical framework of successive paradigms). It is ‘ushering in a new way of interpreting our existence. . . . a new understanding of humanity’s existential reality’ (p 48), rather than an inconvenient interruption to our lives before normal service is resumed. Thus the patina of confidence and well-being that tends to package western expressions of Christianity needs to be replaced both by a greater emphasis on lament, and by bringing issues of suffering, injustice, and consequently racism into greater focus as integral concerns of the gospel that we are called to communicate. ‘One area in which African Political Theology and Black Theology offer the UK church a critical tool to engage is the use of lament as an essential ingredient for justice’ (p 36). In doing this, of course, there is an immediate resource in the gospel narrative of the suffering of Jesus being central to the faith, but which can be occluded by western Christians who too eagerly seek to move on to the resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit in presenting our faith to ourselves and to the world. Instead, he concludes: ‘It is becoming clear that the Church cannot minister effectively post Covid-19 if it does not understand suffering and loss’ (p 118).
Of course whether or not we are entering a new paradigm we don’t really know, but in setting out the possibility of a new pandemic-infused scenario, Olofinjana is alert and original in pointing us to the sort of theological and pastoral responses that need to come to the fore. The longest chapter spells out the nature of this new context, highlighting as it does on the one hand the unanticipated vulnerability of the western dominated globalised world order, and on the other hand its impact on undermining the church’s financial and organisational strength. The consequence, therefore, is to bring to the fore the experience of Majority World Christianity as generally poor, marginalised, suffering churches. Here he lists the categories of Existence and Being; Human Identity, Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter; Sabbath; Climate Justice and Racial Justice; the Church and the Pandemic; Mission and the Pandemic; Church Planting and the Pandemic; God with us (Emmanuel) and the Theology of Suffering; and Last Days and Theology of Hope as all being shaped by a pandemic environment (pp 51-89).
If his account has a weakness it is that (as with Robert Beckford’s ‘Duppy Conqueror, see blog 58) he is too eager to find clear water between ‘western’ and African Christianity. My impression is that in reality ‘prosperity’ theology is stronger in African churches than in traditional western churches, and indeed has African roots: ‘Igbo religion is directed towards success, status improvement, the pursuit of the best good in terms of contemporary social factors . . . therefore the possession of this power is of vital importance to the people’ (Cyril Okorocha in ‘The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa’, p 196). The posters and hand-outs for African churches in Tottenham which speak of victory, winners, champions and miracles point to a religious culture where people shop around (as westerners do with somewhat different goals) for churches which promise to meet their individual needs.
However this is a consequence of the greater ‘embodiment’ and materiality of African Christianity which he rightly celebrates. Consequences are a greater commitment to belonging, and he affirms the importance of a robust understanding of covenant as we enter a time when churches’ formal contact with members is reduced. He stresses too, via Desmond Tutu, the significance of ubuntu, of finding hope and meaning in a newly disjointed world through our belonging together.
A quibble: he follows the inaccurate dismissals of the Sewell Report – thus p 39 he both quotes the Report’s acceptance of the phrase ‘institutional racism’ (when deployed responsibly), and yet goes on to wrongly accuse it of saying such racism does not exist. But he does support Sewell in kicking ‘BAME’ into touch.
His alertness also comes to the fore in prescribing the responses that churches, colleges and mission organisations need to make to the present situation. His three recommendations (pp 105-107) are superbly apt and essential pointers to how the church should be moving: the intentionality and hard work required to ‘become places where God’s multi-ethnic kingdom is expressed’; ‘safe spaces . . to have conversations about race and racism’; and ‘our journey requires understanding white hegemony (supremacy), and one way of doing that is to learn about black history’. He concludes that all this requires ‘intercultural translators who can oscillate between different communities to usher in God’s kingdom purposes’ (p 119). Even if nothing else were to come out of the book, the vigorous and assiduous implementation of these three recommendations by the different expressions of the church during the time of Covid-19 would see a transformative renewal of the church.
Finally, perhaps it is an indication of Israel Olofinjana’s wise perception of our present context that the questions at the end of each chapter (which in many books I find to be bland and obvious) time and again point up serious and provocative questions that really are worth discussing. It is a book which deserves serious attention.
‘Mountains Move: Achieving Social Cohesion in a Multi-cultural Society’ by Steve Bell (Paternoster).
Steve Bell is Interserve’s National Director in the United Kingdom having worked mainly amongst Moslems in the Middle East, and then overseeing Interserve’s work amongst ethnic/religious minorities in the UK. His parents come from the Caribbean and he describes himself as a ‘person of colour’ (p 63), yet curiously he is omitted from Israel Olofinjana’s listing of minority ethnic office-holders in British Christian organisations (p 101, note 77). Does this reflect that over the past two years there has been quite a marked shift of attention in both society and the churches away from anxieties about Islam and onto issues of ‘race’?
The sub-title indicates the main focus of the book – how can we who take issues of Christian commitment seriously yet also be not just observers but wholly committed to social cohesion (rather than division) across the religious, cultural and social barriers of our society. It is these territory-dividing mountainous barriers that the book aims at moving. The first three ‘mountains’ (Imperial, Hegemony and Ethnos) survey the national scene, with the backdrop of Britain’s colonial ascendancy shaping, and distorting, cross-cultural relationships. The following two, ‘Mount Correct’ and ‘Mount Strident’, look at the confusing and often conflicted contemporary situation in which debates about social cohesion, and especially the role of religious faith plays out. The final two mountains, Occlusion and Mission, look more specifically at what is happening in the Islamic world, and appropriate Christian responses.
Overall, my sense is that the last two chapters are from an experienced mountaineer, able to describe with both precision and personal experience the landscape he is describing and wise ways of traversing it. They are a valuable primer for Christian encounter with Islam which is humble, eirenical commitment both to the gospel and the wide range of Muslim experiences and attitudes.
By contrast the earlier chapters read more like a survey shaped partly by personal experience (for his example of racism, or being publicly misrepresented by secularists) but also by wide though not necessarily systematic reading. Discussion of contemporary issues around ‘political correctness’ and stridency inevitably reflect the unstable scree of controversy over identity and freedom of expression without ever really finding a place to give us a clear overview of the situation we are in.
Similarly with the first three mountains, which spread across wide vistas of recent world history, we have a mixture of illuminating glimpses and rather hazy generalisations. Compared with the last two mountains in the chain his coverage seems rather patchy and disjointed, leaving a sense that too much territory is being explored. However there are important landmarks: he is well aware of all the injustices created by western hegemony and neo-colonialism, and the need to recognise the damage done by racism (p 63). He is clear that it can still be found in Christian organisations. But a discussion of ‘How Real is Institutional Racism’ in two pages is bound to be as inconclusive as asking how long is a piece of string (pp 64-66). At times his grasp of history is poor – the Battle of Tours (732) which was so decisive in halting Muslim incursion into western Europe is dated three centuries too late.
The final chapter on ‘Grace Pass’ is a call to re-embody Jesus’ ministry of ‘work’ (practical service), ‘wonder’ (supernatural encounter) and ‘word’ (explaining the truth of encounter with Jesus).There is a wholesome mixture of confidence and humility in Steve Bell’s call to mission in a complex, multi-religious and multi-cultural society as we seek both loving engagement with Muslim neighbours, and to seek the well-being of all whilst refusing to let an increasingly intolerant secular society marginalise faith convictions.