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‘A Just Mission’ Is Only Dangerous When You Don’t Know How to Listen

I was inspired to read Mekdes Haddis’ debut book A Just Mission: Laying Down Power and Embracing Mutuality after learning that a White blogger/author in the mission community, Brad Vaughn (previously published under the pseudonym Jackson Wu), called it “the most dangerous mission book in a generation.” I was left wondering how anyone could read A Just Mission and not hear the Spirit-filled challenge to repent of past trespasses in missions and pursue a more just and unifying path.

As an Ethiopian American missiologist, Haddis argues that Western missions have often been characterized by a paternalistic attitude that views people in the Global South as inferior. Instead of imposing Western values on others, missions should be about building relationships and mutuality. A more just approach, she rightly argues, recognizes the dignity and equality of all people. Haddis also calls on missionaries to be aware of their own biases and open to learning from others. We learn from others by listening, but some White Evangelicals need to think harder about what we are listening for.

As White Christians from Evangelical backgrounds we have a tendency to approach sources of new information with the primary goal of identifying areas of agreement and disagreement — as opposed to simply listening. The problem is compounded by the assumption of White male gatekeepers that their views and experiences are the litmus test for discerning “valuable” or “dangerous” contributions to these conversations. Instead of being a conversation partner, we step into the role of conversation judge, as reflected in Vaughn’s critique of Haddis’ testimony.

Haddis shares many personal experiences in A Just Mission that illustrate the need for a more just approach to missions. For example, she describes the pain she felt as an Ethiopian international student attending Liberty University, a predominantly White, conservative Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia. In this White American space, she was racialized as a Black woman and seen as an “other” in a way she never experienced in Ethiopia among fellow Christians. She tells how perplexing she found all the heady theological debates about fine points of doctrinal differences and how discrete areas of theological disagreement or Christian practice were used to draw boundaries between people embraced as “with us” and people rejected as “against us.” In her Ethiopian context, it is a person’s testimony and the demonstrated power of the Holy Spirit working in their lives that identifies someone as one of “us.” As she tried to meaningfully join in the ministries and community of her new White Evangelical context, she lamented, “I was invisible and my story irrelevant.”

Sadly, that lament remains relevant with Vaughn’s dismissal of A Just Mission as “the most dangerous mission book in a generation.” Vaughn, an author and seminary professor who has specialized in contextualizing the gospel for cross-cultural ministry, takes the posture of correcting what Haddis concludes about her own experiences. He argues that, contrary to critics of his book review, a White man expressing disagreement with a Black woman’s personal testimony should not be seen as an example of systemic racism or sexism. However, this assertion of his right to disagree is a rejection of Haddis’ invitation to listen, and a rejection of mutuality.

When we White partners see ourselves instead as managers in these conversations, it is easy to assume we have a duty to silence or diminish unfamiliar testimonies. But this undermines efforts at decolonization, localization, and equitable power-sharing in cross-cultural partnerships. A testimony is an invitation to see the personhood of a fellow member of the Body of Christ, an invitation to recognize God’s power working in their life, and an invitation to learn from what they have learned through their sanctification and service.

Haddis’ contextualized testimony and knowledgeable suggestions can inform our efforts to engage more fruitfully with non-White churches, recruit more diverse ministry teams, and send people equipped to function in equitable partnerships with leaders in other countries. But if we only listen for areas of agreement and disagreement instead of testimonies of God’s power at work, it is easy to be sidelined by debates over whose narrative is “correct” and deserves priority. We must improve our posture of listening to move forward to costly action, as Haddis challenges us.

The epigraph on the introduction to A Just Mission displays the proverb: “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Haddis is one lion who has set out “to tell our stories as they are and to find a path to truly heal and unify.” My prayer is that we, as White brothers and sisters, do a better job of listening to the lion’s testimony and examining our own biases so that we can be better partners in the pursuit of justice and unity in missions.

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Christy Hemphill
Christy Hemphill
Christy Hemphill is an educator and linguist who supports minority language Bible translation in Indigenous communities in Mexico. She has been learning to listen to stories for over 20 years, serving in various capacities on teams committed to racial justice, healing, and unity.

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