In a Strange Land

Emmanuel Ndikumana 02 Apr 2010

A Response to Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke’s ‘The Beautiful Question of the Incarnational Gospel

In the mid 1960’s and early 70’s the church was thriving in Burundi. One denomination in particular, the Burundi Pentecostal Church, experienced a tremendous move of the Holy Spirit in the southern part of the country. Many times, it is said, the Holy Spirit urged them to take the gospel across the border to Tanzania but they paid no attention. They lived in very fertile territory, where they enjoyed prosperity and had very little interest in taking the gospel to foreign lands.

In 1972 an ethnic war broke out in the whole of Burundi and the southern region was the most affected. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed while other hundreds of thousands, including many Christians, fled to Tanzania. Three decades later, the exiled Christians had learned the local language (Swahili), spread the gospel in many parts of Tanzania, built magnificent churches and produced wonderful gospel songs that are still influencing the whole region today.

Why is it that we Christians are so inclined to disobey our master’s command to go and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19)? Why is it that once we accept the gospel and begin to enjoy its fruit we tend to believe that it was meant for us alone? We ought to keep in mind that our land was a strange land too before it was transformed by the Lord’s song (sung by some foreigners). For that very reason, we owe the Lord’s song to those in today’s ‘strange land,’ which need not be necessarily geographical.

For God so loved the world …

Someone has rightly observed that love is a personal reality only possible in reciprocal relations. In creating the universe out of nothing, the Creator, whose self-giving is an expression of his own being, was inviting his creation to share in the fullness of his divine communion. In endowing human beings with godlike capacities and in stamping them with his own image, he was particularly inviting them to have a personal relationship with the eternal Trinitarian personal God who conferred on them the dominion over the rest of creation. God’s creation act thus established a relationship of interdependency between himself, human beings and the rest of creation. Besides, since human beings reflect God’s glorious image regardless of race, religion, color, culture, class, sex, age, etc., they all have an intrinsic dignity, an inalienable and inherent worth that calls for respect, service and love to every person (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 6:27,35).

The stewardship of God’s creation therefore, far from being an absolute dominion, rested on human dependency on God the Creator. Inspired by the devil, Adam and Eve doubted the trustworthiness of God’s character. Their desire for independence resulted in disobedience, which was a deliberate attack on the divine order established at creation. The consequences were disastrous as human beings lost dominion over nature through the loss of their relationship with the Creator. Pain and frustration characterized their relation to the rest of creation as sin became universal. Any re-ordering of the chaos caused by the fall now depended on the Creator’s unconditional love, the one he had demonstrated in the very act of creation in the beginning. Such renewed mercy to humankind was demonstrated in God’s personal and direct intervention to save Noah, his family, a representative group of animals and the covenant he made with them after the flood. The call and the blessing of Abraham in particular signaled a new phase in history, God’s response to the calamities that had befallen humankind.

God summoned Abraham’s descendants, in the desert of Sinai, to enter the covenant he had made with him. This, he explained, was because the whole world is his (Exodus 19:5-6)! The redemption and election of Israel thus fitted into God’s universal and inclusive redemptive purpose. In calling them to be a kingdom of priests, God expected Israel’s social, economic, political and cultic structures to reflect his loving character and to serve his salvific plans for the whole world. To mediate God’s redemptive purposes to the whole universe, Israel had to be the light to the nations not only in her message but also in the social message she embodied. According to Israel’s prophets, it was the violation of the Sinai covenant, particularly in its requirements related to social justice, that explained the exile.

2. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange world?

Israelites thus found themselves in the Babylonian exile not because they desired to be there but because they failed to understand the reason why they had been redeemed and elected. Not only had they failed to understand their raison d’être, but they had failed to understand how they should respond to it. That is why, it seems, even after they were forced to live among the nations as a result of God’s judgement, they still found the world too strange to hear the Lord’s song. And yet, their captors and their tormentors were asking them to sing them the joyful songs of Zion (Psalm 137:3-4).

God’s initial purpose in creation has not changed: to bring about a world that can share in the fullness of the divine communion according to his loving and self-giving nature. After the fall, however, his purpose, always flowing from his loving nature, is inextricably linked to humanity’s sinfulness and need for redemption. As the history of salvation unfolds, God’s act of salvation incorporates his people within a network of politics, economics and social structures. It is within these networks that God’s song of redemption must be sung, in order that the gospel flow from them to every strange land.

Jesus’ earthly ministry was consistent with the flow of that history of redemption. He engineered a company of believers of whom Abraham is the father (Romans 4:16-17), a prophetic nation with the very mission Israel received in the Sinai desert (1 Peter 2:9). During his earthly ministry, Jesus made sure that lepers, tax collectors, sinners, the poor, women and children were no longer victims of society or prisoners of an omnipotent fate. He empowered them to resist manipulation and exploitation. The church is challenged to walk in Jesus’ steps as God’s agent in the world and co-workers with Christ through whom ‘God was pleased … to reconcile to himself all things’ (Colossians 1:20).

Unfortunately, like the Israelites in Babylon, many Christians today live in lands of their exile, places afflicted by war, poverty, HIV-AIDS, and social, political, and economic exploitation. While in the ‘Promised Land’ they thought they had nothing to do with the inhabitants of this land. When the latter ask them to sing them the joyful songs of Zion, they feel tormented. For them the hope for salvation does not apply to such a land and such people. They fail to realize that if the Lord gave in the past a song to the inhabitants of Zion his intention was that inhabitants of Babylon hear the song as well. They too are objects of the Lord’s salvation. Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke have done the wonderful job of showing us that when the inhabitants of Babylon hear the song of Zion, not only are they capable of dancing to its tune but even of revealing its meaning in ways we have not understood so far.

3. A call to repentance

For Israel unfaithfulness and disobedience to the Sinai covenant led to the loss of the Promised Land and the subsequent end of Israel as a nation. Similarly, the church that is unfaithful to the call to follow in her master’s self-emptying involvement in the muddy water and polluted atmosphere of human life loses her raison d’être and may end up not being the church at all. In the same way that repentance and return to the Sinai covenant were the only hope for Israel’s restoration, so only repentance and return to the religion of the cross will bring the church to its full stature. That religion allows today’s lepers, tax collectors, sinners, poor, women, children – all those our society has excluded – to hear the Lord’s song in their own land.

In 1993 Burundi experienced another outbreak of ethnic violence. This also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, sending many more into exile. Unlike the 1972 events, however, this outbreak brought about hundred of thousands of internally displaced people. In each displaced camp Christians shared the same fate with non Christians. If ever people needed hope, these people did. Who else could have offered such hope except those who had learned to trust the Lord whatever the circumstances of life? While some found it almost impossible to live out their Christian faith in camps of the displaced, others courageously and creatively decided to openly live out their Christian values. They chose to forgive and reconcile with those who caused them to suffer, sharing the little they had with those who were more destitute than them regardless of their ethnic differences. Some paid for their determination with death, killed by those who felt betrayed by them. Interestingly, however, many more joined in their song after finding meaning for life in the quality of the life these faithful Christians lived.

Today Burundi is emerging from 15 years of civil war. People are learning to live together once again, not in refugee and displaced camps but in villages. The church is once again thriving. My hope is that we have learned the lesson and will no longer wait until we are sent into exile (be it political, economic, or social) before we are willing to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

Emmanuel Ndikumana is the Founder and Executive Director of Partners Trust International, which seeks to empower local churches in Burundi through theological and leadership training. A member of the Lausanne Theological Working Group, he has served as the Burundi General Secretary and later as Francophone Africa Training Secretary with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES).

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)