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Cruciform Mission and Vocation in Australia

Friday, 10 July 2015  | Siu Fung Wu

I am a bi-cultural person who came to Australia from East Asia a long time ago. It is interesting to compare Christianity in Australia with that of my country of origin. Back home, it is not uncommon for new believers to pay a high price for their faith. They often, for example, experience severe rejection from their families and friends, which is very difficult in a communal society where familial relationship provides security and identity for the individual. The cost of discipleship and mission is also great for Christians in our part of the world, because persecution is commonplace. Indeed, I know Chin and Karen Christians from Myanmar who have suffered immensely because of their allegiance to Jesus.

Recently, I listened to a public lecture in Australia. Based on Jesus’ threefold emphasis of his suffering, death, and resurrection in Mark 8:27-34; 9:30-37; 10:32-45, the speaker eloquently presented an understanding of mission that is shaped by the cross of Christ. In many ways, his view of cruciform (that is, cross-shaped) mission resonates with me. But I wonder what cruciform mission means for Christians in Australia. Persecution is obviously less likely and less severe in Australia. What, then, does cross-shaped mission look like in practice? Here I would like to suggest that mission involves a life-long commitment to a cross-shaped embodiment of Christ in every aspect of life.


Humility in communicating the faith

The lecturer spoke of humility in the public square—humility that is shaped by Christ’s self-sacrificing love. I think he is right, for at times Christians do not display Christ’s humility when they engage in public debates. Mission, as many Christians would insist, also involves the proclamation of the good news. Again, it is vital for that to be done with humility. But I think it is fair to say that the verbal (and written) communication of the Christian faith in the Australian context is—in terms of the cost involved—somewhat different from the cruciform pattern in the Bible. Jesus’ proclamation of the good news to the poor and God’s upside-down kingdom, for example, met so much hostility that people wanted to kill him (Luke 4:16–30). The proclamation of Peter and Paul in Acts also faced opposition, especially from the religious leaders, and they endured imprisonments as a result.


Prayer vigils and subsequent arrests

Australia’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers prompted considerable number of Christians to hold prayer vigils at the offices of members of parliament. Many of them were arrested by police as they refused to leave the offices. There is a lot of debate about the validity and value of these actions. For some Christians, these acts are too radical, but for others they reflect the prophetic tradition in the Scripture. I will not enter into the debate here, except to mention the involvement of a friend of mine.

My friend participated in one of the prayer vigils. She had spent years assisting asylum seekers personally and advocating for them through peaceful means. She believed that she had exhausted all formal channels of policy debate on the issue. She made a conscious, thoughtful, and prayerful decision to take part in non-violent protest. Her decision deserves respect. Her willingness to stand in solidarity with those who suffer is commendable. 

Having said that, I think we should remember that mission in the New Testament is far more costly, and it, by definition, involves significant pain and suffering. The arrest of Jesus led to severe flogging and death, and Paul received the “forty lashes minus one” (Matt 27:26; 2 Cor 11:23, 24). In fact, the Roman prisons in which Paul was held were known to be filthy, crowded, and unhygienic. Also, multitudes of followers of Jesus have suffered immensely in church history because of the confession of their faith in Christ. Their suffering is the result of their long-term commitment to the lordship of Jesus.


Cruciform identification

So, what does cruciform mission look like? I will first give an example from the history of mission, and then explore what it means in Australia today.

It is sad that nineteenth century missions became intertwined with Western European colonisation. The Opium War, for example, ended with the capture of several coastal cities of China. The resulting Nanjing Treaty, among other things, made Hong Kong island a British colony. The son of the respected missionary Robert Morrison served as an interpreter for the text of the Treaty. As an Asian, I have high regard for Robert Morrison. But the Nanjing Treaty was an oppressive, unequal treaty against the Chinese.

Having said that, I think there were signs of genuine cruciform mission in the nineteenth century. A good example of cruciform mission is the work of Hudson Taylor. Taylor was well known for shaving the hair on the front of his head, growing a “pig-tail,” and wearing Chinese clothes. Many fellow missionaries disliked such practice, probably because it upset the imperial power associated with European clothing. But Taylor’s Chinese outfit was no mere adoption of local culture. From the perspective of the Chinese, it probably represented his identification of suffering and oppression. For hundreds of years, the Manchu people ruled over the Han Chinese. The hairstyle was imposed on the Chinese as a daily reminder of Manchurian rule. It was a symbol of shame on Han Chinese, who traditionally would not shave their hair. Thousands of Chinese died when they resisted the Manchurian order. In light of this, Hudson Taylor’s hairstyle was a symbol of his identification with the oppression faced by the Chinese and his disassociation with British imperial cruelty.

We know that the Roman cross was a symbol of shame and humiliation. It was an instrument used by the Roman Empire to show their subjects who was in charge. To preach “Christ crucified” was indeed, according to Paul, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor 1:22–24), for it was absurd to think that the anointed king would die on a shameful Roman cross. When Hudson Taylor preached Christ crucified to the Chinese, his hairstyle would symbolise his solidarity with an oppressed people. Very importantly, the personal sacrifice of Hudson Taylor—such as the loss of his wife and children in China, as well as a lifetime of intense physical hardship—would have been a solid demonstration of his cross-bearing life. His identification with Christ’s suffering and with the Chinese people was a good example of cruciform mission.


Cruciform mission in Australia

But the context of twenty-first century Australia is dramatically different from that of nineteenth century China. In the Australian context today, I do not suggest that mission has to lead to great physical suffering or death. Nor do I think that cruciform mission should be measured by the degree of suffering a person endures, as if we are in a competition. Neither do I suggest that Christians should be judged by the extent of their sacrifice. Rather, I simply want to propose that mission has to involve a life-long embodiment of Christ’s cruciform love and solidarity with those who suffer. Such self-giving mission speaks loudly to people in a world hijacked by materialism, consumerism, and individualism.

I would like to suggest what cruciform mission in Australia might look like by way of some real examples (with details altered for privacy reasons). I know a couple who were professional people with well-paid jobs. They took their young children to Asia with the intention to serve God there long-term. But they encountered health issues beyond their control and had to return to Australia. Although they were devastated by the experience, they decided to fulfil their calling by inspiring and equipping churches in Australia for mission. I know a former teacher who chose to work in a school located in a low socio-economic multi-cultural suburb. Vandalism was not uncommon at the school. The children were not easy to teach because often their first language was not English. But my friend taught at that school because many of the kids there came from dysfunctional families and experienced little love and affection. She wanted to offer them friendship and the love of Christ.

I know a pastor in an inner-city church. His weekly activities include talking with the mentally ill, running programs for asylum seekers, and engaging in community development projects, in addition to preaching and providing the much-needed pastoral care for the church members. Many have come to faith in Christ in his church. Needless to say, the emotional demand of his job is enormous. Since his church membership consists of many low-income people, he only receives a part-time wage for a demanding pastoral position.

A friend of mine is a pastor in a middle-class suburb. She visits female sex-workers in her “spare” time. She considers it a privilege to listen to their stories and be their friend, knowing the stigma and health risks they have to overcome. I know a middle-age adjunct lecturer at a theological college who has a passion for the Bible, mission, and poverty issues. But he has to supplement his income with a cleaning job in order to try to make ends meet. I used to visit a facility run by a friend for homeless people. Knowing his love and sacrifice for them, I would say that his life bore the mark of costly mission.

Many of the people above have experienced periods of burnout or depression. But in the process they have learned to allow God’s Spirit to bring healing and restoration. There are indeed many heartaches and pains in what they do; and in some cases, they suffer from some long-term health consequences. They could have made a lot of money with their skills and abilities. But they are not interested in material possessions and socio-economic privileges. They are ordinary people with no intention to do something “great.” They will not be invited to appear on TV to talk about what they do. They do not speak to thousands of people at Christian conferences. They do not have many followers in social media. In fact, they do not consider themselves to be doing cruciform mission, for they know that the suffering of Christ was much greater. 

But they are committed to long-term cross-shaped engagement with the world in their own vocations in the Australian context. I would venture to say that Australia would be a different, better place if the church was mobilised to engage in this type of mission.

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