Review of: theory to practice in vulnerable mission

Review of Harries, Jim. 2012. From Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: an academic appraisal. Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

By Tim Reeves

Book is available here:

I have always been interested in the unusual and the mysterious, partly because the anomalous so often points to new vistas of understanding. In contrast I was never really interested in Christian mission although I did my best to pretend I was. You see, the trouble with vanilla missionary work was that it was so boringly non-contentious and so obviously correct – or so I thought. I had watched numerous videos of Christian development work that were billed as the Gospel in action. Through the haze of a lazy torpor my mind rubber stamped such efforts as clearly mandated; surely packaging together both physical and spiritual aid was such a good idea it must be morally obliged? So I donated, yawned and got back to the business of my life.

But then one day I stumbled across Jim Harries’ journals written from the depths of rural Africa. As I read them deep within my mind an anomaly alert sounded; this wasn’t vanilla missionary work; here was something completely different and it challenged so much; it challenged our view of language, it challenged our view of mankind, it even challenged our world view, but above all it challenged Christians with a fundamental question: Had they really succeeded in implementing the mind of Christ a la Philippians 2:4-7 in their missions? According to Harries, no, because Western Man, even Western Missionary Man, has become “god” to many rural Africans in as much as these Africans have responded to overwhelming resources and money with a cargo-cult style spirituality.

In “Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission” Harries tells us how both missionaries and development workers have become too enamoured by historical materialism – that is, the view that looking after the economics means everything else will look after itself. Moreover, unlike the demigods of the cargo cults of the South West Pacific, the Western bearers of cargo to Africa have kept on returning impelled by moral imperatives of equality and belief in the primacy of economics. The effect has been to reinforce the cult of cargo dependency in the indigenous population. In short Western donors and African beneficiaries are locked into an asymmetrical cycle of mutual reinforcement of their respective mythologies.

According to Harries this situation of mutual misunderstanding persists because conventional missionary work in Africa is failing to form authentic relationships with the locals. Missionaries have not imbibed the culture and language of their hosts, and therefore they are compelled to work at a social distance by acting through indigenous African agents. These agents have become very adept at obscuring the fact that they interpret Western involvement very much in terms of a holistic African world view that binds together religion and material gain. Exclusive use of English in communication has obscured the huge cultural gap between Westerner and African because this language fails to reveal how commonplaces like money, death, wealth, disease, ancestor, anger, jealousy, God etc have wholly different halos of association in the African mind. Harries tells us that the full meaning of a language is only understood in its context and therefore as long as Westerners continue to undervalue and neglect African languages they will never fathom the secret of Africa.

Harries remedy for this situation is that at least some missionaries become Vulnerable Missionaries; that is missionaries who in their ministry firstly surrender the overwhelming power that Western economic resources have to bring a persuasive duress and a consequent instability in African life, and secondly who use the language of their hosts, a language without which their understanding of the African context is severely compromised. Vulnerable Mission short cuts the impediments that Western wealth and language have become to both mission and development in Africa. Vulnerable Mission paves the way for symmetric and authentic relationships with locals by requiring the missionary to sacrifice his demigod status. But in sacrifice the Christian Missionary has no better leader and exemplar than Christ himself.