In a recent meeting of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary Board, César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, talked about theological education as a form of sharing gifts in the Global Church. He drew on Philippians 2 to make the case that a beginning way to deal with the risk of perpetuating colonialism is to have the right attitude.
This doesn’t just mean having good intentions: it means having the attitude of Christ. This attitude is rooted in doing “nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Having the mind or attitude of Christ also has to do with self-emptying, as Jesus emptied himself. Rather than exploiting his position of “being in the form of God,” Jesus humbled himself, becoming like human beings (v. 7). Those who live into the mind of Christ, those who take on Christ’s attitude, will find it impossible to act in a colonialist way or support colonial systems.
We (Henok and Rachel) work at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, a place where we are living with the reality of the ongoing effects of colonialism and also trying not to be controlled by them. When we heard César’s comments, we wondered several things: What does it take for global relationships and partnerships to be both relational and examples of actual partnership? And what gets in the way of genuine relationships and actual partnerships?
Gift sharing could be used as a Trojan horse for the postcolonial project if we are not working on our mindset, as César has noted. So we must acknowledge the harm that European colonizers did and continue to do. But we must not stop there.
We think people from the global North have (at least) two challenges in participating in genuine gift sharing: being willing to share, and knowing that there are things they actually need from their partners in the global South.
We hate to see people not sharing what they have out of the so-called postcolonial project and white guilt. Of course, those from the global North must be careful not to present themselves as saviors by devaluing other communities’ cultures and ways of doing things. But that shouldn’t make them hold back sharing information that could help others.
When people from the North decide to withhold information and knowledge from brothers and sisters in the global South, we are simply replacing one form of colonialism for another. When we do this, whether we mean to or not, we position ourselves as gatekeepers, preventing others from accessing quality education and information, which can limit their opportunities for social and economic advancement.
Withholding knowledge also shows that we don’t trust people from the global South to be able to sort out what is useful in their context and discard what isn’t. People from the global North also need to release the idea that the only resources that matter are money and education. Yes, these are relatively plentiful in the global North. Yet the church is struggling: money and education aren’t enough to keep the church in the North vibrant and growing.
We think people from the global South also have (at least) two challenges in participating in genuine gift sharing: recognizing that they have something valuable to give and trusting that not every interaction with people from the global North is an effort at colonization.
We hate to see people not sharing because they don’t think they have anything to give. The collective wisdom of the church in the global South on how to run the church, how the church can be growing and missional, how to love and obey God’s rule, how to learn different languages, how to rely upon the Holy Spirit’s guidance, how to build and nurture peaceful relations with Muslim communities and many other things are desperately needed by the church in the global North.
To our brothers and sisters in the global South, we would say: The wealth of what you have to offer doesn’t mean you have nothing to receive. Of course, there are good reasons why you may be suspicious of things coming from outside, including from your brothers and sisters in the global North. Through the mechanisms of colonialism, you have been tricked, and resources have been stolen from you. Foreigners overwhelmed you with their many financial resources and high education, and they asked you to speak a language that was foreign to you. So you have good reason to take pride in what you have and what you know. This doesn’t have to mean, however, that you do not need anything from others, or that others are intent on perpetuating colonial structures and mindsets.
Global gift sharing requires people from both the global South and the global North to continue working on our minds and evaluating how we’re doing. For example, when leaders from Meserete Kristos Seminary in Bishoftu/Debre Zeit, Ethiopia and leaders at AMBS in Elkhart, IN envisioned a partnership to train church leaders, they knew that there was much to learn about how to do this well. Leaders from both seminaries began to see how a cohort approach could strengthen the student experience of the new fully online Master of Arts: Theology and Global Anabaptism (MATGA) program for the Ethiopian context.
There were some basic understandings of and structures for what was hoped for, but there were also many questions to work through. As our planning continued, it took all of us — leaders and faculty from both seminaries — to keep negotiating what to improve and how to let things go when they didn’t work out. Goals can change, or the situation on the ground can change: who saw the pandemic coming?
What we find especially important in this work is having a particular type of character and attitude. We need people who are committed to a project and its process no matter how much time and energy it takes, and who are open to the fact that we don’t know everything and that we’re going to have to keep learning.
This kind of mutual gift sharing means staying committed to the process, continuing to learn, adapting as needed, finding things that work and raising questions about things that don’t. Perhaps most important has been being able to say, “This is how we’re going to operate for this period of time. And if we need to change, we will,” rather than, “Okay, we figured it out now, and we’re going to run on this for the next 45 years.”
Being willing to learn and adapt, being able to stay in continually evolving situations and to thrive in them without becoming overwhelmed, are all key. This cycle has been the MK Seminary/AMBS journey: by trusting the small steps and decisions we take and observing where those actions lead us, what challenges and opportunities arise, and what appropriate responses we should make, we see that capable people are engaged on both sides of the partnership.
Genuinely sharing gifts as global partners has a learning curve. But the gifts of becoming global partners are many: genuinely and mutually sharing our knowledge, wisdom, experience and resources with a pure and marvelous heart; and seeing God’s reconciling work in the church spread worldwide.
Have a comment on this story? Write to the editors. Include your full name, city and state. Selected comments will be edited for publication in print or online.