A posture of humility: _Mission as Penance_, new faculty book
The Rev. Dr. Charles Fensham, Knox College Professor of Systematic Theology, has published a new book, Mission as Penance: Essays on the Theology of Mission from a Canadian Context. Vocations interviewed Dr. Fensham to learn more.
Why this title, Mission as Penance?
Let’s begin with what I mean by “mission.” Throughout my time as a minister and missionary, and later as a professor, my focus has always been on what it means that God sends us into the world to be witnesses.
Many people, when they think of mission, immediately think of Matthew 28, Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples. But the text that has always really touched me is John 20, when Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” That is a beautiful summary of what it means to talk about the concept of mission – and what it means for the church and for us today. Are we going as Jesus came to us, in the same spirit, in the same attitude, in the same posture? This is what my book is all about.
Now, what do I mean by “penance”? Dutch theologian Johan Bavinck wrote in 1954 (after the First and Second World Wars, and after the colonial era), that as the church goes into the world now, it can only do so in a spirit of penance for all of the harm it has done and is implicated in. The church needs to take on very different posture – not going triumphantly with, “We have the best message, and you have to listen to us.” Instead, we must first acknowledge our penitence before God and before the world as we go. The spirit of humility is key.
We seek to follow God rightly, to constantly go as Jesus came to us, to look at his example and teaching; that’s our ideal. But because we do fail, we also always need to come at the world in a penitent way – not haughtily forcing ourselves on others, but in humility and kindness.
Penance, as I am using it, is a corporate and systemic concept that recognizes harms done in the past and harm still being done. Penance, conceived in this way, is not so much a goal of mission as an individual and corporate posture. It requires a posture of humble listening to the other in respectful relational encounter.
What, then, does mission look like?
One thing I see as the heart of this idea of mission today is that we must first begin with self-examination. The idea that we are to judge the world gets mission completely wrong. Jesus was scathingly critical at some moments of his ministry; when he was, it was because the religious authorities have overstepped their power and were hypocritical, judging others and not examining themselves. As David Bosch writes, judgment must always begin with the house of God (Witness to the World).
We must resist arrogance, find our rightful place in the wonder that is God’s creation, and trust in the love and grace of the Creator. We are relationally accountable to our neighbors, all creatures, and the world. As we come to terms with the plight of the planet in the grip of human greed, we must also, each day, personally resist indifference and cynical hopelessness.
What themes do you include in the book, and why?
This book brings together my work over the decades. First I introduce mission and what it means today. I outline some of the many reasons we have for penance, including the way we’ve treated Indigenous people and LGBTQ people. How we treat other people is a huge piece of our mission and witness.
In my second section, I explore what mission means as to us as theologians, including Douglas Hall’s theology of the cross – which prompted a spirited email conversation with Dr. Hall himself. This section also highlights themes from my book, Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead, and I outline a process for doing missional theology today that looks at Scripture and mission history in conversation with the social sciences.
Then the third section discusses the public side of missiology: How does church positively witness in the public? At present the image of the church in public is very negative and actually harmful, so I engage with church history to see where we’ve gone wrong.
Finally we come to eco-missiology. My pieces on public missiology and public witness go together with this focus on eco-missiology. Our witness as Christians includes working for the good of God’s earth and living in ways that sustain the earth. Too often we vote for people with short-term plans that don’t consider the long-term impact on our world. I know this can be a challenging subject – especially when livelihoods depend on fossil fuels. But we need to actually be penitent.
We have known since the 1950s that this ecological crisis was coming. As Christians, as people responsible to care for God’s earth, we must see this as a key issue. I therefore explore how social movements come about, and how they bring change to the way we act and live in the world. The ecological disaster happened in part because we have not stood up and acted. We have power and need to exercise it. We must stand up and act for justice on behalf of humankind and the whole creation.
What is the most important thing for readers of this book to take away?
First, we need to continually seek a posture of penitent humility in the world. This is where it all begins. Then, we must act upon our calling – to witness to God’s love of creation, to the incarnate God.
Penitence does not mean holding onto feelings of guilt; Christianity has focused on guilt and has failed. The point is repentance, turning around and doing something different. You remove guilt by acting with integrity, in large and small ways. It may mean caring for a plant in your condo, or buying a fuel-efficient vehicle. As Christians, these kinds of decisions should happen not just because they make economic sense (now that gas is getting more expensive), but because we are trying to live with integrity. We need to ask our politicians about their plans to address climate change. And in our personal lives, we may have small rituals and commitments like taking transit and cultivating hope. At the heart of it all is integrity, the daily seeking of integrity.
Although there is an individual element to every penitential journey, mission as penance is ultimately an act of communal responsibility before God and the watching world around us. My aim is to imagine the church and all Christian communities in Canada on a corporate journey of penance in concerted action for change. I see this as a never-ceasing commitment to ongoing daily repentance, a daily turning to the way of healing and love, a daily turning to our neighbor, and a commitment to care for God’s earth.