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Mission and Human Identity in the Light of Edinburgh 1910

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Christian theology makes two bold claims relevant to the theme of reconciliation and human identity: first, that the propagation of the gospel of Christ offers the best prospect for reconciliation between human persons; and second, that human beings find their identity most completely by being "in Christ". These two claims are, however, hotly disputed. Both non-Christian writers (such as Jonathan Sacks) and Christian ones (such as S.J. Samartha) regard the Christian missionary project of conversion as a denial of the "dignity of difference", and hence as a serious obstacle to human reconciliation. The second claim is also subject to challenge, not least because of historical evidence from European encounters with the successive New Worlds of the Americas and the South Pacific that Christians have used it to deny that indigenous peoples beyond Christendom deserve to be treated as fully human. Nevertheless, both claims may still be defended by Christians. The Christian idea of reconciliation is distinctive, based on the idea of exchange and the prior initiative of unmerited forgiveness which is at the heart of the doctrine of the atonement. As with the atonement itself, it does not ignore the demands of justice. The experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa offers one example of how a distinctively Christian approach to reconciliation can work politically. Equally, the second claim that humanity finds its true identity in Christ is rightly understood as an affirmation that the several (and developing) identities of different cultures all have a crucial contribution to make to the catholicity of the Christian faith: this perception was expounded at the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 by Bishop Charles Gore.

Affiliations: 1: Professor of World Christianity, Director of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh


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