Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Faith of girls and the mission of men

I write a column for Zadok, an Australian print publication, every quarter. It is a print based publication which they let me share on my blog, to resource more widely and generally. Here is my column for Autumn 2019, on gender and mission.

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Faith of girls and the mission of men

When I hear talk of gender and faith, I think of Tarore, an indigenous Maori girl, born around 1826 in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Her father Ngakuku, came into contact with pioneer missionary couple, Rev Alfred and Charlotte Brown. Ngakuku’s daughter, Tarore, aged ten, showed an interest in learning to read and write, using a Maori language translation of Luke’s Gospel. She was a gifted student and quickly became an oral storyteller. Crowds, sometimes 200-300 people, would gather to hear Tarore share in Maori the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son. Ten years old and a woman, she became known recognised in her Maori community as an evangelist.

This moment in the life of Tarore reminds me of Lo-ruhamah in Hosea 1 and Namaan’s wife’s slave girl in 2 Kings 5. All three are pre-pubescent girls and all three are agents of a new theology. God is made more real, more understandable, more present, through the faith of girls (For more, see The Faith of Girls, Routledge, 2017).

Tarore’s story is consistent with the history of mission. Time and again, the Gospel has spread not through missionary preaching but through indigenous proclamation. It begins with the Spirit at Pentecost as those from diverse cultures hear “in our own tongues” (Acts 2:11). The missionary is essential, Peter will preach but the Gospel spreads as people giving voice in their own language.

As 1836 ended, Tarore’s world grew increasingly tense, with increased conflict between local Maori tribes. On 18 October, Tarore was killed by a raiding party. At her funeral, her father, Ngakuku, proclaimed the need for forgiveness: “Do not you rise to seek a payment for her, God will do that. Let this be the finishing of the war. Now let peace be made.”

Meanwhile, Paora Te Uita, the man who killed Tarore, took her belongings, which included her beloved Gospel of Luke in Maori. Paora Te Uita couldn’t read. But he had a slave, Ripahau. Like Tarore, Ripahau had learnt to read through contact with missionaries. Ripahau read Luke (in Maori) to Paora Te Uita, who was deeply moved. He sought out Tarore’s family to seek forgiveness. Once again, we have a hearing in their own language and once again, we have an indigenous person, radically embodying the radical Gospel.

Meanwhile, Ripahau, upon release, returned to his home with Tarore’s copy of Luke. Those who listened included Katu Te Raauparaha, a local chief, who set out to make peace and halt a spiralling cycle of violence. Again, in the lives of Ripahua and Katu, we glimpse how faith is transmitted, carried by indigenous people who hear in their own language. (For more, see For more, see Nga Kai-Rui i Te Rongopai: Seven Early Maori Christians, Te Hui Amorangi ki te Manawa o Te Wheke, 2013).

I thought of Tarore when the news of the death of John Chau broke. John Chau was a twenty-six year old American, who made an illegal—and tragically fatal—voyage to visit a remote tribe in the Indian Ocean. The media sifted through John’s social media profile and suggested a range of motives: an adventuring spirit, Western optimism and a passion to reach the unreached.

Clearly there are differences between Tarore and John. One was indigenous and female, the other Western and male. One was a reciever of initial mission, the other wanted to be an initator of initial mission.

Yet there were also similarities. Both died early, with many years of life ahead. Both died at the hands of another. Both died in the context of missionary zeal and cross-cultural tension.

In the history of Christian mission, those who initiate mission have rarely been effective as proclaimers. Missiologist Lamin Sanneh examined the contradiction: Christianity has spread, yet rarely by missionary preaching. Sanneh, an adult convert from Gambia, became a Professor of Mission at Yale Divinity School. Sanneh argues that mission spreads as missionaries focus on translation. In Jesus, the Word becomes flesh and through the Spirit, the Word is heard in their own language. Sanneh calls this the “translatability” of the gospel (Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Orbis, 2009).

This has four benefits. First, it turns the missionary from initiator into a receiver of indigenous knowledge. Second, it makes local culture a carrier of grace, as God moves into the neighbourhood ( John 1:14), accessible through local language. Third, Bible translations tend to use popular language, a liberating move in hierarchical cultures. It results in a pre-teenage girl like Tarore being recognised as an evangelist. Fourth, no one culture is ever above critique. In Africa, among the Zulu people, translation resulted in the missionaries being told to read the Bible. Surely Genesis 27:16 affirm not the colonial safari suit, but indigenous practices of dressing in skins. Fifth, as people hear in their own language, they become agents of change. The cyles of violence in New Zealand cease as indigenous people embody the Good Samaritan and Luke’s radical call to forgiveness.

Tarore and Chau are very different, yet side by side, they teach us much about faith. There is great potential when missionaries are not initiators but learners and indigenous people are the primary Gospel heralds. That even in the unbearable pain of losing a child, peace can be made.

Posted by steve at 05:06 PM

3 Comments

  1. May my neighbourhood become a ‘carrier of grace’

    Comment by Diane — July 16, 2019 @ 5:30 pm

  2. Excellent article Steve,

    “Missiologist Lamin Sanneh examined the contradiction: Christianity has spread, yet rarely by missionary preaching… Sanneh argues that mission spreads as missionaries focus on translation. In Jesus, the Word becomes flesh and through the Spirit, the Word is heard in their own language. Sanneh calls this the “translatability” of the gospel”

    I wonder if this can be applied to evangelism also? I like the idea of the local culture as a carrier of grace. This seems to reinforce God already at work, but people don’t hear until God is speaking in their own language (culture/context). What then is the role of the missionary preacher? To help listen rather than tell?

    Comment by Lisa Wells — July 16, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

  3. Gosh that’s helpful Diane and Lisa. I’d not thought about neighbourhood as local cultures in that way – but yes, it makes total sense of the work I do on micro-, meso-, macro- cultures (http://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz/archive/tiny-text-of-church-in-mission-theology-in-changing-cultures/).

    So yes Lisa, if listening is the first act of mission, then it does apply to evangelism. When Mark Johnstone and I taught evangelism at Winter19 blockcourse, we first visited Taneatua. Then we introduced gospel as good news in context. Then we asked what was the good news at Taneatua. And all these lights came on, as listening to context was linked with evangelism and God speaking in own language.

    We have 2 ears and 1 tongue for a reason :)

    thanks

    Comment by steve — July 16, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

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