Convivenz – Living in Community as a Mission Strategy
I have personally experienced these conflicts numerous times as I lived and traveled around the world. Tensions among religious groups now seem almost normal. Or too big to tackle. In fact, they are rarely addressed as they surprise us daily. A German Christian won’t reach out to create community with an Islamic guest-worker down the street knowing that these neighbors are culturally “weird”? Politicians in Ghana and Tanzania intentionally divide their constituencies into competing Christian and Islamic groups to gain votes and position. Local congregational leaders in the Congo preach against shamans by day and visit them for blessings at night. A rabbi in Chicago accuses a Christian pastor of “religious genocidal behavior” by encouraging mix marriages between Christians and Jewish couples in the neighborhood. A media juggernaut hosts a conversation over several evenings discussing why “Muslims are so violent,” with no invitation from Muslim leaders to respond. Local congregations in the Twin Cities do nothing publically – not even a prayer for peace in my local congregation – when two religious houses of worship were attacked in their neighborhood on the same evening. One site was Buddhist and one was Sikh.
The list goes on and on. The experiences of conflict seem to be growing as we increasingly become – especially in the U.S. – “one world.” We aren’t a Christian nation any longer; more like a religiously cultural mutt, an amazingly complex mixture of all the great religions in the world. The US represents one of the most religiously diverse nations of the world. This context of plurality creates, therefore, tensions and challenges. This is normal. What isn’t normal is that most people don’t feel they have the theological and/or practical tools to work on these tensions and challenges on the ground level, in their personal lives.
To address the challenge of religious plurality, therefore, at least two issues are essential. First, religious plurality mustn’t be addressed in a vacuum. Context matters. Especially local context. How we describe the world around us matters. Our present context, however else it is described, includes many religious traditions living together in one community, and sometimes even in one family. Whether one lives in a rural or urban community, or someplace in between, this reality is undeniably present. Local neighborhoods, congregations and families are where lessons must be taught and learned.
Second, dialogue matters, especially the kind that is rooted in local communities as they live together. Numerous attempts to construct universal norms for inter-religious dialogue have been proposed by experts from all religious traditions, like my own Lutheran community. These dialogues, however, have rarely reached beyond “universal theologies or principles” within academic communities. Dialogues, to be relevant today, must be rooted in the local public square. What happens when different people live together under one tent? In other words, whatever kind of dialogue emerges in the coming decade, it must be “glocal” in nature; that is, it should respond to the local and global dimensions of religious plurality – first being contextually relevant within the local tent, and only then universal application or meaning (i.e. catholic).
Given the present situation in North America, this author suggests that the missiological way to address “the religious neighbor” is one proposed by the German missiologist, Theo Sundermeier. He calls it “Convivenz.” Convivenz involves finding religious meaning and mission in living together with others, especially religious others, under the banner of being a blessing (shalom) for the life of that community. The reasons for his argument are many, but to summarize, they are: 1. The art of Convivenz takes serious community in context, both local and global; 2. It is rooted in the praxis of mission within community (both salvation and shalom) and, 3. It provides a sense of mission grounded in the biblical testimony.
The concept of Convivenz underscores the deepest biblical experiences and traditions of the Old and New Testaments. The two main texts are the Abrahamic tradition (Gen. 12) and the incarnation of the “Word made flesh (John 1, 14). First, the Abrahamic tradition which, within the mission tradition, offers a counter model to the Exodus account. The Exodus model has many strengths, of course, but it does suffer from its persistent need to define the enemy. Our salvation is from an enemy. Thus the enemy must be identified (e.g. Egypt, Pharaoh) and/or cast out of the land (Canaanite tribes). Abraham, in contrast, settles in a new land among new neighbors to become a blessing to the nations.
Second, the Exodus model cannot fully carry the weight of God’s salvation advocated, for example, in Luke 4 drawing on the tradition of the “year of Jubilee (Lev. 25). We learn consequently, that when we talk of salvation, we need more than one biblical story. Thus, Convivenz lifts up the Abrahamic tradition and adds the christological base of Emmanuel, “God with us,” from John 1, 14. If God wished to “tent among humanity,” then Christian mission also needs to focus on the formation of communities. Salvation happens within established communities, where Emmanuel is “with us.” Service and mission for the neighbor (Bonhoeffer’s “pro” existence”) cannot happen without community with (“con-existence) the neighbor. In fact, this notion emphasizes that the Triune God is a relational God, desiring to bring all humanity into the dance and fellowship of the Trinity. Community and relationships are at the heart of any concept or practice of mission. Hospitality offered, hospitality received. Christian mission happens best within the establishment of communities.
Sundermeirer thus writes (“Convivenz. The Concept and Origin,” in Scriptura, p. 71):
“Abraham, in contrast [to the Exodus account] does not only go from his father’s house. He also comes to a land where other people and tribes are living and he settles at a strange shrine. There he builds an altar. Community and difference become clear. He does not fell the holy Oak ss the missionaries in Germany did in old times; he does not condemn the shrine of the others, but he does not worship the other deities either. . . . Here he meets his God, and learns that God accompanies him unconditionally wherever he goes. Abraham lives with the people . . . He lives with the others and in doing so gets to know his God more deeply.”
Convivenz moves the church beyond partnership strategies, development models, models of conquest or resource dependency to a communal strategy of the common life based upon the conviction that God’s desire is to live with all of God’s creation, offering salvation and shalom within community. In the view of our present global context, where fragmentation and polarization are always a threat, a call toward the common life presents a vision of hope, reconciliation and peace. It is hospitality offered; it is based on hospitality accepted (Luke 10).
Convivenz is, in the end, the call of living together with God’s purposes in mind, not as an ideological dream, but a missionalical call grounded in the stories of Abraham and Jesus’ own incarnation. Does Convivenz lead toward some ideological harmony between the religions? The simple answer is “no.” In fact, suffering is a key dimension of the common life, a suffering for the Christian well grounded in the cross of Christ.
For North Americans, visions of “manifest destiny” and “the promised land” are images well rooted in the Exodus story. They were borrowed wholesale by the forces of civil religion in our past. This approach to mission left no room at the banquet table or in the public square where everyone was invited. Convivenz creates community for a purpose, God’s mission in the world, and in the neighborhood..
Dr. Richard Bliese
Leader, Teacher, Innovator and Visionary
An accomplished leader, teacher, innovator and visionary with extensive ministerial experience on three continents, 30 years of leadership, non-profit and entrepreneurial experience in over 15 different organizations, and deep teaching and consulting expertise nationally and internationally in theological education and congregational ministry. Skilled in executive leadership, strategic planning within complex environments, creative programs and fundraising. Presently working as a consultant for the Kern Family Foundation.