Damaging detachment (by Jay Matenga)

By Jay Mātenga |
Pexels / Maria Turkmani

Nga mihi ki te hunga e whai ana i to rātou whainga… (Greetings to everyone who is pursuing their purpose),

The text for this month is Galatians 6:15b-16 (NLT), “What counts is whether we have been transformed into (a) new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God.” 

Here the Apostle Paul is defending new believers who were being forced into compliance with a doctrinal practice that was a cultural expression of faith but not essential for faith in Jesus. That practice was circumcision.

Galatians is widely accepted as Paul’s first epistle. It emerged in response to a radical disruption of the Jewish faith following the resurrection of Jesus. Almost 2,000 years on, we can too easily gloss over the shocking nature of this shift, which became a schism, and then an entirely independent religion with unbroken spiritual roots in the history of Israel and Judaism. I love Paul’s letter to the Galatians because it sets out the basis for what we now understand to be ‘contextualisation’, or what I prefer to call the indigenisation of the faith, where essential meaning is retained while outward forms differ according to the local social environment. Here, Paul effectively applies what was discussed by the Apostles in Acts 15.

The gospel speaks uniquely from within every context.

It is too easy for missionaries to conflate their social and moral assumptions and theological dogmas—such as circumcision was to the Jews—as gospel imperatives and seek to impose them upon a society different from that of their upbringing. The gospel speaks uniquely from within every context. It needs to be incarnated into new contexts like seeds sown into different environments, which shape the resulting plants in different ways. Missions thinking over the past generation has made much of an incarnational theology, referring to God becoming flesh in Jesus as a model of missions. But we neglect to understand that God’s incarnation was very specifically embodied with the genetics and cosmovision of a first century Jew. Humans cannot just transfer from their home culture to another and expect to become indigenous to the culture. Ever.

It is not possible for imported ministries, models, methods, or people to incarnate. They lack the genetic heritage. They can adapt, acculturate, identify, and sacrificially serve but they cannot incarnate. This is very important for missionaries and other outsiders to grasp so that the indigenous church can flourish in their contexts. While ministries external to a context can support the wellbeing of local expressions of our faith, we must allow room for the gospel to put down its roots, absorb local nutrients, and grow up from within the context for it to thrive. That is not to say the gospel shouldn’t be a corrective to that culture, but it does so from within not without. Outsiders do not get to determine what is or is not theologically correct within another cultural context.

There are limits of course. To be of the same species, authentic faith in Christ must retain the core DNA of the biblical narrative and the historic Church and share crucial genetic markers of belief with the rest of the global Church. But myriad cultivars can emerge depending on the context in which the seed of gospel faith develops. This is to our advantage as members of the Kingdom of God. The rich diversity expands our understanding of who God is and together we mature each other by sharing our lived experiences as part of one big global family (cf. Ephesians 4:13-14).

New Creation is not solely a new state for each believer.

After Galatians, Paul continues to develop his theology of what the gospel writers called the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God by way of his preferred term, New Creation. But even in the Galatians sample above we can see that the concept emerged early in his ministry—in many ways marking Christ’s resurrection as a reboot of Genesis. It is easy for individualists to interpret New Creation as a personal transformation. That is an error to which 2 Corinthians 5:17 is also prone. But there is much more of a cosmic and communal intention to Paul’s thinking about New Creation—hence my parenthesis of (a) in the text above. New Creation is not solely a new state for each believer, it is a now/not-yet renewal of all things—a (process of) transformation of the cosmos from one state to another. How that transformation manifests with the “new people of God” in any given context is largely dependent on the context.

As we seek God concerning problems and questions that arise within our own context, so the Holy Spirit reveals themes in Scripture that address those issues in ways that are deeply meaningful for that time and place. For example, there is nothing more meaningful in times of crisis than to realise afresh in the promise of the gospel that God is with us and Jesus is in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). Emmanuel. “And, lo, I will be with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:20 KJV). But what Jesus’ intimate presence looks like is manifest in culturally meaningful forms. In times of great crisis and trauma we reach out with what we know, and God meets us there, bringing comfort and reassurance. The Spirit reminds us that this is not the end—there is a better world coming in power and glory. That is not an empty promise or mere platitude. It is also not to excuse injustice or ignore abuse. It is reassurance that there is a coming judgement and the Lord who is just will make all things right.

Where is the Jesus of Matthew 28:20 more likely to be? In our sanitized fairy tale recall or in the midst of believers meeting in a war-torn land…

In the midst of ignorance and criticism from outside opinions heaped on top of great cultural pain, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac preached an unapologetic 2023 Christmas sermon from Bethlehem titled, “Christ In The Rubble”. It was a lament powerfully illustrated by a baby wrapped in a Palestinian keffiyeh (black and white head scarf) placed in the rubble of buildings like Jesus in a manger. The art installation was shocking. It was meant to be shocking. It was simultaneously designed to express both the lament and the hope of Palestinian Christians as well as being a clarion call to those of us in more peaceful contexts as we celebrated the baby Jesus meek and mild, safe and sound in the manager hay protected by the watchful gaze of the most powerful angels. Where is the Jesus of Matthew 28:20 more likely to be? In our sanitized fairy tale recall or in the midst of believers meeting in a war-torn land losing fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, friends, and lovers?

In the wintertime I often wear a Palestinian keffiyeh. It reminds me of friends in the Middle East and keeps me warm from the wind chill at home. It is a piece of attire that is common throughout the Arab world with different colours representing different tribes, worn in different ways. It is a very functional square of chequered cloth offering protection from the blistering sun and a shield from the sand blasted by the desert winds among many other uses. It has long and deep cultural meaning for Arab people. Not unlike Māori kākahu cloaks now only worn ceremoniously or pounamu (nephrite jade) artefacts used now as fashion accessories but previously as multi-functional tools, utensils, and items for trade. My father gifted me a tūī themed kākahu for formal use and I wear a dark green pounamu hei toki (jade adze pendant) that otherwise could be sharpened and used for carving. One of the meanings of the hei toki as a gift is recognition that the recipient has acquired some skill at crafting relationships. But it could also be sharpened and used as a lethal weapon—the complete opposite of relationship building! Artefacts that endure over time come to represent the cultures from which they emerge. They are indigenous to that culture. Most people who proudly wear a pounamu accessory associate its meaning with Māori culture… and its struggle.

Jesus… death and resurrection makes Him available as a Messiah for all people.

It is against this appreciation of theology from within cultural contexts that I was aggrieved by Mike Cosper of Christianity Today’s treatment of the Palestinian Christian response to the conflict incited by Hamas on 7 October 2023. In his 19 February 2024 essay, Mike flattened centuries of history and meaning surrounding the keffiyeh to associate it solely as a symbol of terrorism. The Jewish Jesus swaddled in a Palestinian keffiyeh offended him. He intimated that the Bethlehem church was sending an antisemitic message. This interpretation had little appreciation for Jesus as Emmanuel or that His death and resurrection makes Him available as a Messiah for all people. That is why male followers of Jesus no longer need to get circumcised. Hallelujah! An indigenous gospel places Jesus in the rubble shrouded in a cultural artefact because He is with and in believers suffering in Palestine just as he can be wrapped in a Tallit (prayer shawl) in Israel or a kākahu cloak in Aotearoa New Zealand—symbols of the people. If it were the flag of a nation, that would be a different story. Jesus and the state are never compatible.

It is too easy for outsiders, especially those who live safely behind the borders of first world powers, to criticise the actions of those who are suffocating under a foreign regime.

By situating his commentary about Rev. Dr. Isaac’s call for justice and the nativity installation within an exposé of Muslim ideologies, Mike Cosper implicated our Palestinian brothers and sisters with terrorism. In spite of a brief, “not everyone who wears a keffiyeh (or wraps the baby Jesus in one) does so with [terrorist] intent”, the strongly implied association by Christianity Today was a travesty. It is too easy for outsiders, especially those who live safely behind the borders of first world powers, to criticise the actions of those who are suffocating under a foreign regime. Followers of Christ should know better. We need to BE better. Our primary solidarity should be with fellow believers who are suffering, seeking to understand their pain and appreciate their lament, not clinically undermine them from a detached distance with woeful cultural intelligence.

Collectively, from every tribe, language, nation and people, followers of Jesus are the new people of God. This does not discount Jews. Quite the contrary. Paul actually assumes that followers of Jesus from Judah (Jews) and the other tribes of Israel are spiritually indigenous to our faith. The rest of us Gentiles are migrants, grafted in. The new people of God are a blended solution brought together by the New Covenant written with the blood of Christ. Though we are a vast field of gospel cultivars with many differences, questions, perspectives on Scripture and experiences of God, we are one body (to switch metaphors), each part worthy of great honour. There is no place for damaging detachment.

May God’s peace and mercy be upon us all as we co-create New Creation, and #stayonmission.

Arohanui ki a koutou e haere ana ki te ao (love to you all as you go into the world).

Dr Jay Matenga is a Maori theologian of missions practice. He leads Missions Interlink NZ, the missionary alliance of Aotearoa New Zealand, from which he is seconded for half his time to lead the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission. Prior to his 2015 appointment with Missions Interlink, Jay served for 15 years as the Director of Pioneers and 5 years before that with WEC International, sending and caring for missionaries from New Zealand. His MA studies (All Nations Christian College) investigated relationships of power within missions structures and his doctoral research (Fuller Seminary) led to his development of an Industrial and Indigenous values spectrum as a way of understanding intercultural interactions, which can provide a pathway to maturity through transformative tensions.

The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.