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Politics of Scripture

A Case Against “Mission”

John the Baptist paves the way for a new ecclesiological model that pushes the church beyond a reproductive model of mission insistent on its own futurity. Embracing an ecclesiological ‘death drive’ can open doors to see the unexpected God-over-there within the present.

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Chosen One.”

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

John 1:29-42

John the Baptist paves the way for a new ecclesiological model that pushes the church beyond a reproductive model of mission insistent on its own future. Embracing an ecclesiological ‘death drive’ can open doors to see the unexpected God-over-there within the present.

In his 2004 polemic, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman argued that society’s heteronormative political structure violently suppresses all dissidents from its reproductive form. By offering an imagined figure of ‘The Child’ whose innocence must be protected at all costs, heteronormative society denies queer life access to public space. Drawing from literature, films, political discourse, and church doctrinal statements, Edelman rightfully problematizes the organization of society bound to heteronormative scripts and rhetoric. Taken as a whole, he sees society pointed towards a horizon of reproductive futurity. This heteronormative current drowns any and all conceptions of flourishing in the present, especially for gender and sexual minorities who do not seek to define themselves in terms of this single vision for the future.

Though Edelman is not without his critics, his central argument issues a challenge across all disciplines to examine the ways in which reproductive futurity holds back fields, institutions, and political imaginaries. Linn Marie Tonstad takes up this task in her work to develop an “‘apocalyptic ecclesiology’—an understanding of the church that is not dependent on reproduction, faithfulness, or patriarchal inheritance, but instead derives a theology of the church from the consequences of the loss of Christ’s ascended body” (Queer Theology 124). In other words, Tonstad argues that the church as an institution is often so busy policing boundaries of doctrinal and moral purity that it often overlooks the God-over-there, revealing God’s self to all who dare to look beyond the ecclesial containers fashioned to showcase the expected-God. 

In the story of John the Baptist, this lens of non-reproductive futurity opens doors to exploring new ways of understanding the task of the Christian church. It’s easy to skip over the wilderness prophet and jump straight to Jesus. But the baptizer plays a vital role not just in the literary unfolding of the gospel, he also offers a theological counterexample to a church bound to reproductive futurity. If Jesus is the unexpected messiah that refuses to be contained within human projections, John offers an unexpected ecclesiology that refuses the mission of self-replication and reproduction.

After the well-known prologue, the fourth gospel narrates the story of John the Baptizer pointing beyond himself. The reader or hearer is told, Jesus is walking by, and John exclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Immediately, two of John’s disciples leave him and go on to follow Jesus. Instead of holding tightly to the ministry that is, the prophet in the wilderness points to something over there. He embraces his own ministry’s decline—so we are told a couple of chapters later—in order that something else might thrive. In this way, this story gives a glimpse of what non-reproductive futurity might look like in religious institutions.

What might this mean for the Christian church today? From its earliest days, the institution of the church has been bound to a futurity marked by reproduction and conversion, what some call mission. Fueled by the soteriological principle of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation), the church barreled down a path paved of good intentions looking to convert every mind and body they encountered to a way of life or belief system that reproduced a recognizable form of Christianity. 

As Lauren Winner notes in her book The Dangers of Christian Practice, an inherent tension exists in Christianity between the particular and local that is superinscribed and incorporated into the body of Christ (97). A danger thus within Christian expansion and mission is the collapse of the former (the particular) into the latter (the transcendent and totalizing body of Christ). This is perhaps most evident in the complicity of missionaries within settler colonialism, as many missionaries confused European modalities of life with the gospel itself. This faithfulness to an unadulterated commitment to things-as-they-were licenses replications of heteronormative patriarchy as an intrinsic part of church and its mission. These anti-liberatory structures constrain where the church can see God. In the name of faithful reproduction, God cannot be ‘over there.’ 

Yet that is precisely the pattern John the Baptist sets out. John points to the God-over-there. Perhaps the future of salvation is always ‘over there.’ Perhaps the mission of the church ought to be untethered from a concern for doctrinal and moral purity. Perhaps the mission of the church is to maintain a state of waiting for transcendent otherness to appear beyond any and all existing borders and categories. Here, one might turn to Jacques Derrida’s  Messianicity without a fixed Messiah for an alternative vision of futurity. Derrida, building on the work of Walter Benjamin, argues for a Messianicity that empties the concept of Messiah of any known or expected properties. That which will come will be wholly other.

I want to add a caveat that I am not arguing that Christianity be vacated of its history, doctrine, and tradition in favor of a bricolage individually assembled from a buffet of spiritual resources. Nor am I arguing for a theological colonialism like that of Justin Martyr (or even Karl Rahner) that absorbs any glimpses of transcendence or truth under the banner of Christendom. Rather, I am arguing that the church’s mission is not to achieve stability through growth and reproduction but to act out a continual mode of excavation within the human experience, creation, and the threads of sociality in search of a God-over-there.

The Christian tradition points to Andrew and another of John the Baptizer’s disciples, the ones who follow Jesus, as the exemplars in the text. But what if the one to imitate in the text is not Andrew or even Jesus, but John—the one pointing beyond himself and how own ministry to the God-over-there? The divine incarnation in the particularity of Jesus reveals God is always a God-over-there, operating on the margins, in unexpected places, with unexpected people. What would a church look like that recognizes the Jesus-over-there: that Messiah who only ever appears in the unexpected form? The Messiah might look like the excluded sex worker’s spiritual devotion through prayer beads and prayer cards. The Messiah might look like the leiti performers in Tonga’s Miss Galaxy Pageant. The Messiah might look like the Buddhist monks performing unsanctioned same-sex marriages in Japan. 

In this ecclesiological vision, the church thus becomes not an answer to any and all inquiries but a community that nurtures the questioning and the seeking for the God-over-there. The church, like John, points beyond known boundaries, even encouraging its own members to follow the Jesus-over-there that defies all expectations of what the divine may look like. The church would thus become a community that rejoices in these glimpses of transcendent goodness, existential pleasure, and radical inclusion wherever they might be. The church must admit it does not have a monopoly on the divine. Only then can it embrace a non-reproductive future that opens space for new dimensions of transcendence, becoming, and transformation.

2 thoughts on “A Case Against “Mission”

  1. Interesting discussion indeed however, the premise of your thought rests upon the belief that John the Baptist and for that matter the followers of Jesus knew something of the church. We know from Scripture that the birth of the church was not a part of the theological picture until Acts chapter 2 with the coming of The Holy Spirit. Even the apostle Paul says that the church was a “mystery” to those in the first century. I agree with you that the role of the church as it relates to mission should be re-examined however, to base one’s missiology on the life and ministry of one who is considered to be the last of the “Old Testament” prophets is I think a premature theological jump.

    1. Hi Dan, Thanks for the comment! I appreciate you taking time to read this reflection. I’d agree that a full picture is of course bigger than the one I painted in this short blogpost, the point of which was to expand our perception of what mission, Christ-in-the-world, and the transcendent divine might be.

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