Incarnational Theology and Intercultural Mutuality

In a Masters class that I taught recently, one of the students asked me a question that I found tricky: “can missional incarnation happen upwards?” Knowing the student, it was clear to me that I was faced with a good trap. On the one hand, I would have to process this question in the light of my own discomfort with the homogenous unit principle in missions and church planting. On the other hand, I also had to be aware of the trap of the prosperity gospel, because, as the student added, “we need rich people to be able to evangelize other rich people.” (Of course, I have seen pastors demanding huge increases in their pays just so that they can roll with and evangelize the rich).

This highlighted a problem that I had not seriously thought about yet: incarnational theology and the problem of race and class divisions in missions. Generally speaking, we think of missionaries “incarnating downwards” from a higher and more powerful state into a less powerful and, of course, less affluent context, usually to serve among the poor. We talk about incarnation in the slums, or on the ghettos, etc.

Could a less affluent person incarnate himself among the rich? What would this look like? What will it take?

In the context of African missionary work in the West, one begins to wonder cross-racial incarnation will work. Will it even work? Mission, as we have come to know, has too much colonial paternalistic baggage. How will 21st century postcolonial world (at least in the political sense of the world) understand mission in ways that makes incarnation possible across races and classes. I told my student I had not immediate answer … my experience makes me believe this will be a very important but hard road to travel … but I thanked him for making me think about this.

Intentional intercultural mutuality is the way forward for mission … but how far are we from the starting point?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I wonder if the example of Patrick, in Ireland, might prove be an instructive place to begin exploring this question.

    In the meantime, thinking out loud, from a theoretical perspective I would think that divestiture of wealth (and power) is equally, if not more critical when reaching the wealthy, as compared to the poorest The point of divestiture (of wealth, power and privilege, as a step towards incarnation) is not to become “like the other”, per se, but to become practically and observably dependent upon divine power and strength, not human power and strength.

    Thus, when reaching the rich and wealthy, it is especially critical to be demonstrably dependent upon a different power source to that which sustains wealth, power and privilege: i.e. mammon.

    In short, incarnationsal theology cannot be allowed to trump the simplicity of following Jesus into an appropriate form of dependence upon God, which is a challenge to the wealthy, not necessarily to abandon their wealth, but to use it vocationally to serve God’s purposes.

    Does this perspective uphold a sense in which, the Evangel is not Good News to the wealthy if they will not abandon their dependence on wealth? Evangelism of the wealthy then becomes a challenge to wealth, power and privilege. Incarnating the gospel amongst the rich is, then, done most powerfully by those who are poor yet rich in faith.

  2. RG says:

    At the risk of sounding simplistic: In which direction did Jesus incarnate?

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