In July, ten young people joined a group of theologians and strategic thinkers from 18 different countries at a global forum in Kigali, Rwanda. They gathered to reflect on the successes and failures of Tearfund's first 50 years and look at how the global church can be more effective in overcoming poverty in the future.
It was an enriching time of talks, debates and prayer, based around the biblical idea of Jubilee. In this mini-series we hear from three of the young theologians on wrestling with faith, seeking God in genocide and finding inspiration for practical action in Nigeria.
'We call black theology and Latino theology "contextual theology" as if white Western theology isn't contextual at all.' We were over halfway through the conference, and this passing comment by a Latino pastor in my table discussion put into words the discomfort I had been feeling for the past few days.
He was right. Previously, I had subconsciously considered my contextual theology*, my white British theology, as the starting point for everyone – because it had been my starting point. And therefore I had assumed that other theology was the theology that had been changed for new contexts. How wrong I was. Such thinking came from my pride and ignorance, not the truth. I was having my preconceptions challenged, and I was uncomfortable.
That is not to say I hadn’t been enjoying myself. I could feel myself learning and growing and being formed and shaped every minute of every day, as I lived alongside and talked with and asked questions of those around me… but I was also uncomfortable.
From day one – as we discussed the initial and ongoing causes of poverty and went to visit the Genocide Memorial Museum – I had a gnawing feeling: a need to repent and lament. I was continually struck by my own limited theological understanding. Although there was the depth offered by an undergraduate theology degree, I was acutely aware of the lack of breadth.
Where was my understanding of colonialism, apartheid, genocide, land grabbing, and the bad theology that had formed and spurred them on? Why did I know so little of South American or Asian theology? Why had I never considered or engaged with the theological perspectives of those from different backgrounds and cultures?
So much of the thinking that had formed my fellow young theologians was completely alien to me, and my pride took a beating. How could I claim to be a theologian, and yet have no true understanding – or even knowledge – of the theology of my brothers and sisters around the world?
Added to that, of course, was the realisation that it was this kind of ignorance, coupled with pride and an inability to listen, that had led to the oppression and suffering of so many. Another reason to lament and repent.
‘I was challenged to share. To renounce the bondage of comfortable Christianity, and instead seek Jubilee and justice for all.’
Hope in God’s grace
And yet, amid that wrestling, that humbling, I found hope. It came from those around me, graciously engaging with me, responding to my questions, respecting my input and never, ever talking down to me. And I found hope in God’s grace – because with him, there is always hope. As we acknowledge our sin – our failings, our oversights, our ignorance – we experience the overwhelming grace of God, and we find redemption.
And so it was here, sat around a table with people older, wiser and far more humble than I was, that I began to grow, to listen, to learn. That spark of desire for justice was fanned once again into a flame. It was a desire for a deeper and broader understanding of theology – good, deep, wide theology – for it forms and shapes who we are and what we do.
I, along with many others, was challenged to share. To renounce the bondage of comfortable Christianity, and instead seek Jubilee and justice for all. To pray, pray, and then pray some more. To listen to and wrestle with theology that is different from and challenging to my own. To engage in prophetic acts of resistance, and to model a better way of doing things.
*Contextual theology is a phrase used to describe theology that has evolved or been developed within a particular context. It is important because, as we think about our lives as Christians, we do so as people who live in specific contexts.