Interview: Diaconia in China

The interview was conducted between Amity staff and Professor Dr. Kjell during the Summer Academy on Diakonia in Nanjing during 26 October to 7 September 2018.

How did you become involved in diaconal theology?

I was working as a missionary in Brazil, and we experienced as a church the social challenges. The church has been involved in some charity work, and I was giving the responsibility, that in the city we were living, for taking care of the social work of the church. We said we have to look at the root causes. We have to reflect much more on the methodology and at the same time also learned from the theology of liberation. We had to reflect it to the theological understanding being church and the biblical message about human dignity. So it started with my experiences in Brazil. When I came back to Norway I was engaged in development education and also in teaching for the education of Deacons. So that is how I was brought into a broader understanding, a deeper understanding on Diakonia as practice of the church.

How was this Diakonia theology applied in Norway?

In the past it has very often been modeled by German Diakonia, but with the emphasis of institutional work but also sometimes as charity work. Caring for people yes, but pitying them and organizing homes for them and finding problems for them. Now with my experience from Latin America, we changed the perspective, we would not say we do it for them, but with them and also allowing them to be the agents of transformation. So with this also came a stronger emphasis on the justice issue and the rights based Diakonia. Because they could describe their own situation, and they felt they were not given the rights and the space, neither in church nor in society.

Was it a shift in terms of agency?

Well, it is a shift in the sense that instead of saying we and they, we tried to realize that we are all vulnerable. We should much more care about each other and search for mutuality in vulnerable relationships than to say that you are always the helper and you are always the one to be helped. This also meant a shift from the institutional framework where the professional deals with the patients to a more communitarian or congregational Diakonia. We all share resources, experiences and weaknesses, as we also try to assist each other.

Here in China, do you see any elements of Diakonia theology that can relate to the tradition of Chinese culture or religion in China?

Of course, I do not know very well the Chinese society and tradition but I have the impression that communitarian values are very important. The responsibility for those that are related to you. Maybe that would be in the first place your family or maybe your neighbor. But I think that the church could also have the ambition of being a space that is inclusive and that if we belong to each other, we should also take care of each other. The challenge is of course also to care about and be responsible for those that are at distance and marginal in society. Which of course is the story of the good Samaritan in words. They value and say: It is not the question who is my neighbor, but who am I ready to be a neighbor for?

After you experienced the training with the Chinese pastors, what is your impression of Chinese pastors and the Amity Foundation?

Participants presented a painting to Dr. Kjell

In the first place, I am impressed by a very strong engagement and commitment. I have the impression, that they see the opportunity for innovation for assuming public responsibility. Being a church that promotes public good not with a hidden agenda for the sake of the churches. I think that is extremely important and I think that we western churches can learn from their commitment and engagement.

This leads to the next question. Can you identify some areas of future cooperation as you mentioned? You just pointed out some areas where European churches can learn from the Chinese way of doing things.

Well, here is first a very important requirement. The churches and diaconal agents in China should document what they are doing. They can collect and systematize their diaconal practise and insight, because if not, we will just have ideas and not real facts about Diakonia in China. But then I think, the way Chinese relate to cultural and sociological conditions is something where we can learn from. The relational way of being committed to each other, not as an ethical obligation but as an expression of belonging. It is a gift and a potential and security, much more than it is an obligation to care about the other. I think that is important. And I am perhaps just feeling this, but the resource of this kind of spirituality, which would be very interesting to get to know more about. Some kind of diaconal spirituality, which expresses itself in active discipleship, in readiness to really be at the service of the Lord. There is a sign of social engineering, which is remarkable and I think it is very promising.

This commitment and emotional passion is something I have experienced, too, here in the Chinese Church. I haven't experienced it in this way in Germany before. Maybe it is because diaconal work is already too professionalized in parts of Europe?

That is quite possible and as you remember by when I referred to the Good Samaritan, it exactly combines this attitude of seeing. It would be to analyze a reality of emotional commitment, of what he sees and then the readiness to approach a situation and see it with the eyes from the others and act accordingly.

Sometimes there is a tension between providing secular social service and bringing back the faith in social work.

The first thing I want to say is that tension is normal. If there is no tension, as I see it, there is no real life. And especially Diakonia has to challenge and has to be challenged because it seeks to pass borders of social and religious comfort. Diakonia always means readiness to go where we didn't go before, socially and so on. That is one part of it. The other thing is that Diakonia also has to be challenged to be innovative. If Diakonia is relaxed and happy, well, then we are sleeping according to old mothers. So that is normal. So I think the important thing for Diakonia is to find practice and then to find good reflection on practice. Diakonia will never work when it starts with a good theory or a good understanding. We have to ask for answers as we are doing and be self-critical. We have to adjust what we are doing according to new challenges. But always we should be open for risking going where we perhaps didn't go in the past. And you see in the ministry of Jesus, it is always the risk to go, when nobody would expect to go.

Broadly speaking, in western countries or at least in Germany, people often have a theory or make a plan, and then we stick to it. It doesn't matter what happens, we stick to the plan. In Chinese culture I often experience, you don't have an elaborated plan. You are just doing it...

And both is of course very risky, you can do many stupid things because you don't listen to the experience of others or you waste too much energy and resources by doing things you could have done otherwise. But nevertheless, practice is the best space for reflection. And you cannot wait to reflect until you were acting for ten years. You always have to secure for yourself space and time for reflection. And as a constant reflection for your practice you have to adapt accordingly. And that is why the Amity Foundation, in my opinion, has a very important and critical role in facilitating exchange and experience of allowing people who are strongly engaged in practice to reflect together. So they can be the agents, not only of diaconal practice, but also the agents of diaconal innovation.

After this very practical training workshop, where do you see opportunities of future cooperation among western churches, the WCC and Amity and Chinese Churches?

I think to provide spaces for mutual learning and mutual inspiration would be very important. My experience with working connections among the so called Global North and Global South is that you have much more expressions of hope in diaconal work in the Global South. In the Global North we are much more concerned about repairing or maintaining social disorder. While in the Global South and this goes Latin America, Africa and Asia and what I see here, hope is linked to the dream to construct something we have never seen before. We have to believe that this is according to Gods will and that God asks us to be Gods co-workers for realization for what we hope for!