Marginalisation in Europe

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Mission in Europe cannot be properly understood – or responsibly carried out – without reference to the margins of European societies and those who find themselves there. Just as Jesus’ mission was “at, with and from the margins… the church’s mission cannot be otherwise.” 1

For Jesus this meant spending time with women, children, gentiles, lepers, the poor and others who were excluded by his contemporaries. We are duty-bound to ask questions about equivalent groups in Europe today: who is marginalised, from what, and how? And what should be our response to such marginalisation? But we also need to ask searching questions about our own locatedness (centre or margin?) – and what those on the margins may be teaching us.

Some European Christians complain that secularisation has seen the church itself being marginalised but loss of power and – which are not to be understood primarily as geographical or physical but social.

The English language abounds with forceful words for those who have been described as “from the underside of history, from the outskirts of society, from among the oppressed masses”2: these are the downtrodden, the ostracized, the dehumanized, the subjugated, the alienated, the stigmatized and the disenfranchised. The common thread being a denial of the right to participate fully or equally in society; being “far removed from decision-making processes.”3

There are those who are marginalised on the basis of their ethnicity, race or religion, whether Roma or evangelical Christians in some countries, or victims of centuries-old prejudices and discrimination. Such marginalisation may be institutionalised, legalised or legitimized by state approval (or tacitly endorsed by, for example, state churches).

Secondly, there are those who are marginalised because of their social and economic status: the homeless, unemployed, lower social classes, prisoners and others who face limited opportunities as impersonal but powerful forces work to exclude them from fully participating in society. Refugees and asylum seekers and those who are trafficked also fall into this category: often socially marginalised and, sometimes barred altogether from ‘Fortress Europe’.

A third type of marginalised people are those who are rejected, dominated or
‘dis-privileged’ because of their identity: women, young people, the elderly, the disabled, those not conforming to heterosexual ‘norms’. Across Europe, different states have made different levels of progress in terms of social inclusivity and acceptance, with some lagging behind considerably.

All three forms of marginalisation describe situations where those with power and influence use it (whether intentionally or not) to control, impair or harm those with less (or no) power and influence. That is to say, marginalisation has its roots in human selfishness, power lust and, ultimately, sinfulness. It is a complex phenomenon and varies from context to context; a person who is marginalised in one setting may be someone who excludes or marginalises others in a different context.

Our response

How can European churches and Christians respond? There are at least four necessary responses.

Firstly, oppressive powers – and that includes those of marginalisation – must be identified and denounced. This is part of the church’s prophetic role in society, and such denunciation may bring us into conflict with elites and those benefiting from the status quo. In some countries such as the UK there are many precedents for such condemnation; in others countries, churches may need to take bolder steps to confront injustice and inequality.

Secondly, the church itself must practise a “radical inclusiveness”4 that simply refuses to perpetuate us/other divisions, fundamentally challenging the concept of core/margin thinking: all are to be welcomed, all are to be invited, and the need for genuine Christian hospitality has never been greater in European churches.

Thirdly, those who have been marginalised “should not be seen as only recipients… but as actors in mission.”5 The marginalised are to be equal participants not only in society but in terms of participating in God’s mission too. Some would go further and argue that marginalised people are the “main partners” in God’s mission.6 What could we learn from such sisters and brothers? As the World Council of Church statement Together Towards Life reminds us, on the margins it is often possible to see what is out of view from the centre.7

And finally, some hard questions need to be faced by European Christians, especially given our continent’s long history of imperialism and colonialism: how have our lives, our churches, our theology, even our missiology, served our own interests and excluded or marginalised others? To what extent are we complicit in others being marginalised? Have our actions (or inaction) led to other groups or individuals being kept out – of our countries, our parliaments, our universities, our workforce, our churches.

When we marginalise

It is important for churches in Europe to be alert to the possibility of marginalisation wherever there may be imbalances of power. Three examples will illustrate the point.
Firstly, Harvey Kwiyani has sensitively raised the question of whether non-Western missionaries are being marginalised in the West, including Europe.8 The danger being that Western attitudes, assumptions and unacknowledged prejudices may lead to non-Western missionaries being seen as inferior to Westerners; or seen as equal but lacking equivalent resources and influence and being disregarded as a result.

Secondly, at missions conferences, training colleges and so on, are minority European voices being heard? Do Eastern Europeans have as much influence as Western Europeans in these circumstances? We need to reconsider who is setting the agenda for European mission.

And thirdly, are some missiologies or missiological approaches themselves being marginalized within Europe – whether liberationist, feminist, Pentecostal (or non-Pentecostals) or other? So even within missionary and missiological circles, we may find marginalisation occurring.

Where does this leave us? Ironically, there has been talk in recent years of Europe itself being marginalised, as other countries, including China and India, develop economically and assert themselves politically.
But whatever the international status of Europe, its churches and its Christians would do well to simply follow the example of Jesus Christ and his approach to power and to those isolated or excluded by it: the Jesus who ministered to the poor, the sick, the maligned and the oppressed, and challenged his disciples to do likewise; the Jesus who died among the despised, rejected and forsaken; the risen Lord who sent – and continues to send – his followers “to the margins (ends) of the earth” that all might be invited in.

Chris Ducker is Lecturer in Mission at Redcliffe College, Gloucester.

Endnotes
1. Joseph Prabhakar Dayam, “Postscript: Mission at, with and from the margins – A missiology of the cross” in Jesudason et al (eds., 2014) Mission At and From the Margins: Patterns, Protagonists and Perspectives (Oxford: Regnum Books), p.262.
2. Miguel de la Torre (2014) Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, 2nd edition (Maryknoll: Orbis).
3. Genevieve Mwayuli and Misia Kadenyi (2009) “Environmental Justice for Peace and Development: A Biblical Perspective”, African Ecclesial Review 51:4, p.533.
4. Matthias Wenk (2009) “Reconciliation and Renunciation of Status as God’s final aim for Humanity: New Testament Thoughts on the Church’s Mission and Unity”, p.5. Wenk notes that this radical inclusiveness “also prompted conflict and schism with those that did not share his vision.”
5. Emma Wild-Wood and Peniel Rajkumar (eds., 2013) Foundations for Mission (Oxford: Regnum Books), p.240.
6. WCC (2012) Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, p.107.
7. Ibid, p38.
8. Harvey Kwiyani (2012) “Power in Mission,” Journal of Mission Practice No.2, Autumn 2012.

 

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