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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 62, 2014

MITZI J. SMITH AND JAYACHITRA LALITHA (eds), Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014). Pp. xiv + 318. Paperback. ISBN 9781451470499. $US49.00 RRP.

It is a curious fact of the history of mission and of biblical interpretation that colonial practices have been promoted by adducing Matt 28:16–20 as the Magna Carta of mission, not least by labelling it the Great Commission. Two main problems of the so-called ‘Great Commission’ are that Matthew does not call it that, and it has not always been used holistically. Focusing, as it does, on teaching, readers who have selected it above other mission commissions have by implication elevated teaching over mercy ministry, and proclamation over service. Moreover, the teaching it seems to have encouraged subordinated dialogue and conversation with the other to the more dominant genre of one-directional instruction. During the time of European colonisation and American imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Matt 28:16–20 has been the dominant passage of missionary motivation. This has brought liberation as well as oppression, but its dual (and dualistic) influence is only recently being critiqued by writers such as R. S. Sugirtharajah and Muse Dube. This volume brings a range of other writers into the necessary conversation.

The editors are Mitzi J. Smith, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary, USA, and Jayachitra Lalitha, Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, India. They have assembled fourteen academics and activists from Africa, Asia, United States and the Caribbean who draw on biblical studies, womanist and feminist criticism, history and art history, postcolonial and missiological perspectives.

Beatrice Okyere-Manu, David Gosse and Mitzi Smith in Part 1 examine the historical nexus of colonialism and mission in chapters on Africa, the Caribbean and African slaves. Missionaries taught liberation from sin, but colonial mission practice propagated race and class stratification, let alone slavery and other sinful inequalities.

Part 2 offers womanist, feminist and postcolonial critiques. Jayachitra Lalitha offers a postcolonial dalit feminist inquiry about why women were absent in the later part of Matthew 28, and challenges the Indian vernacular translation of nations as jaathigal, ‘caste groups.’ Lynne St Clair Darden examines the role of African American women missionaries, and how they inadvertently propagated racism and classism. Mitzi Smith challenges the exaltation of teaching over social justice in Matthew. Her refocusing away from Jesus as teacher of the nations to Jesus as God with us (which integrates social justice and teaching) is a highlight of the book.

In Part 3, themed around art and theology, Sheila F. Winborne illustrates how art can exercise power and control, especially with renderings of a white Christ. Michelle Sungshin Lim appeals for an awareness of “white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy” and uses Minjung theology to appeal for listening to and empowering the poor in the global South. Rohan Gideon advocates for listening to the voices and agency of children, as affirmed by the Child Theology Movement.

Christian education is the focus of Part 4, especially considering the psychological and moral damage on black peoples. Karen Crozier reclaims the implications of the Kingdom of God for fully-orbed emancipation. Anthony Reddie adopts a human development framework for fostering identity and self-esteem. Lord Elorm-Donkor discusses the absurd discrepancy of mission growth alongside sociopolitical degeneration in Africa, and reframes Matthew’s commission to include love of neighbour.

Part 5 introduces some voices from beyond the academy. MarShondra Scott Lawrence calls Christians to love and promote social justice for our urban “glocal ghettos.” June Rivers draws on short-term mission experience to elevate the importance of several texts that embody Christ’s love as mandates for missionary engagement.

Teaching All Nations is an important volume, firstly because it is a multi-voiced interrogation of Matthew 28:16–20. To understand its use and influence we need to hear from those whom it has motivated as well as those it has influenced. Second, although different writers bring differing perspectives, a common call is to pay attention to the social justice and service elements of mission that resonate with other aspects of Jesus’ ministry and other passages of commissioning, but are also implicit in Matthew 28. Third, the Matthean Great Commission and its history of interpretation deserve postcolonial critique, but interpreted in the larger context of the Gospels it has its own postcolonial contribution to the message of liberation, not least in its call to cooperation with Jesus who is with us in his kingdom and holistic ministry. As such, Teaching All Nations is worthwhile reading for students and teachers of postcolonial criticism, biblical and Matthean studies, missions and mission history, and global theology.

Review by
Baptist Union of Victoria