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Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.

Introduction: Change of Context, Change of Paradigm

Changes which have happened in the world since 1990 inevitably cause us to reflect on changes in the conduct of Christian mission. In his epic book, Transforming Mission, the late David Bosch already had a sense that major shifts were afoot. He concluded his survey of the history of Christian mission with what he termed “an emerging ecumenical paradigm.” What he gathered together in that paradigm was a list of what many of us would call desiderata for any future theology of mission. But it was in many ways a list without a clear inner coherence.

More than a decade later, we are in a different position to perhaps be able to speak more effectively to what shape a paradigm of mission might take. In the period immediately after Bosch finished his manuscript, a number of events pointed us in a somewhat different direction for the immediate future. Let me try to enumerate some of them here:

1. The national security states and civil wars in Central and Latin America countries nearly all came to an end or some kind of resolution. This was, of course, something to be welcomed by all of the world. But it left many countries in that part of the world exhausted and traumatized by recent events. The reconstruction of societies after a long period of war or totalitarian rule challenged those who would lead the societies to a new place. Often overt conflict had ended, but powerful military regimes were still in place. The impoverishment which most nations faced did not portend well for the future. The theologies of liberation, which had been honed so well to resistance of oppression, had found oppressive conditions still to be present among the poor and marginalized, but the conditions under which they were to be addressed had shifted dramatically.

2. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the end of the Soviet bloc of influence shortly thereafter led to a widespread ideological realignment of the world. Marxist states still existed, but Marxism as a prescription for a better society was fundamentally discredited. How these formerly Communist societies were to be reimagined became a major challenge. Two other events were at least partially constituted by the end of the bipolar ideological and political status of the world. First of all, economic and social globalization quickly rushed in to fill the ideological void caused by the end of the bipolar political and economic order. It presented itself, through neoliberal forms of capitalism and the power of social media, as having no alternative to itself. One was either included or excluded. The sweep of globalization led to further dislocation in already challenged societies. Second, the end of the bipolar grip on the political order allowed both for the emergence of many new states and for the (re)assertion of ethnic identities. The number of armed conflicts in the world surged in the early 1990s. However, most of these conflicts were now within national boundaries rather than across political borders. The number of conflicts has abated somewhat in the first decade of the new century, but there are still many “hot” situations in the world today. Picking up the pieces in those societies were consume energies for decades to come.

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