Mission Among the Peoples:
A Lesson from the Church in Asia

By Jonathan Yun-ka Tan

William Burrows, the editor of Orbis Books, first introduced the term missio inter gentes (mission among the peoples). He used it in a response to an address by Fr. Michael Amaladoss (MDU) at the 2001 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America (Proceedings, CTSA, 2001). At that time, he contended that “Christian mission in Asia is already primarily in the hands of Asians, and is better termed missio inter gentes than missio ad gentes.”

Once a missionary, Burrows suggested five dimensions for this paradigm shift. First, Asian Catholics are already translating the Gospel or incarnating Christ in Asia in the gentle, loving, persuasive power of the Spirit. Second, most Asian Christians, including Catholics, understand the religious traditions of Asia not as demonic or evil but as vehicles of God’s salvific encounter with their followers. Third, the single most critical item on the Christian agenda is countering the perception that Christianity is imported and not properly “Asian.” Failing to overcome this misperception, Christianity will have a doubtful future in Asia.

Fourth, the task of Christian mission in a plural religious context is to proclaim and make the world ready for God’s Kingdom. Thus, reconciliation involves not a unity among religions but a unity among believing persons. Religious unity of all peoples will be an eschatological accomplishment, one in which the Spirit is active in other religious ways. Finally, the missio inter gentes paradigm proposes a new kind of missionary activity that sees other religions not as rivals or enemies but as potential allies, collaborating and working together against all forms of evil, attachment to wealth and power, selfishness and exploitation, as well as the social, cultural and political structures they support.

While the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) has not used the phrase missio inter gentes to describe its strategy, the paradigm best exemplifies what the FABC hopes to achieve in plurireligious Asia. In official pronouncements, FABC recognizes that religious diversity and pluralism lie at the heart of what it means to be truly Asian. At its First Plenary Assembly in 1974, the FABC declared this about the task facing the Church in Asia:
To preach the Gospel in Asia today we must make the message and life of Christ truly incarnate in the minds and lives of our people. … In Asia especially this involves a dialogue with the great religious traditions of our people. In this dialogue we accept them as significant and positive elements in the economy of God’s design of salvation. In them we recognize and respect profound spiritual and ethical meanings and values. Over many centuries they have been the treasury of the religious experiences of our ancestors, from which our contemporaries do not cease to draw light and strength. They have been (and continue to be) the authentic expression of noblest longings of their hearts, and the home of their contemplation and prayer. They have helped give shape to the histories and cultures of our nations. How then can we not give them reverence and honor? And how can we not acknowledge that God has drawn our peoples to Himself through them?
At its Fifth Plenary Assembly, in 1990, the FABC defined mission in Asia as “being with the people, responding to their needs, with sensitiveness to the presence of God in cultures and other religious traditions, and witnessing to the values of God’s Kingdom through presence, solidarity, sharing and word,” and therefore, “[m]ission will mean a dialogue with Asia’s poor, with its local cultures, and with other religious traditions.” Simply put, the task of mission in Asia is a mission among the Asian peoples with their ancient cultures and deep religiosity on the one hand, and marginalizing life experiences on the other. While the FABC affirms that “the proclamation of Jesus Christ is the center and primary element of evangelization,” it explains that this proclamation means to live like Christ, in the midst of our neighbors of other faiths and to do Christ-like deeds by the power of grace.

At the Seventh FABC Plenary Assembly (2000), FABC reiterated the commitment to the “emergence of the Asianness of the Church in Asia,” asserting that “the Church has to be an embodiment of the Asian vision and values of life, especially interiority, harmony, a holistic and inclusive approach to every area of life.” For the FABC, “the whole world is in need of a holistic paradigm for meeting the challenges of life,” and “together with all Asians, the Church, a tiny minority in this vast continent, has a singular contribution to make, and this contribution is the task of the whole Church in Asia.” For Asian bishops, “the witness of life” is the most effective means of evangelization. They urge Christians in Asia to lives embodying the message of Jesus and to be inspiring and healing men and women immersed in God. With an increasing religious pluralism in the United States, there are lessons from the Asian experience that would be helpful to us.

Tan is assistant professor of Minorities’ Studies and World Religions at Xavier University in Cincinnati.



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