Wati Longchar – « Power and powerlessness »

4. God’s Voice from the Margins

Mission from the margins requires listening to the testimonies, pains and sufferings of the people who are outside of the power structure. Their stories become God’s voice. There are many testimonies both in the Old and New Testaments, how people in the margins were used as God’s instrument for transformation and change. For example, 2 Kings 5.1-19 presents a story of how people in the margins became the agents of healing. Naaman suffered from leprosy, though he was also a successful commander of the army of the king of Syria and his skillful and dedicated work had won favour from the king and the people. And the nameless little girl – the prisoner and victim of war, displaced from her family, her people and land – was put to force labour, working for Naaman’s wife, but she became an agent of healing. We see the following contrasting positions of the two – Naaman and the Nameless little girl: 

Naaman is powerful – the Nameless girl is powerless and helpless.
Naaman is a ruler – the Nameless girl is ruled.
Naaman is a conqueror – the Nameless girl is conquered, abused & misused.
Naaman is an army commander – the Nameless girl is a victim of the army.
Naaman is a slave owner – the Nameless girl is a slave.
Naaman is a predator – the Nameless girl is a victim.
Naaman needed healing – the Nameless girl offered help/healing.
Naaman has a name – the girl does not have a name.[6]

In her pitiable and pathetic experience of war and dislocation, the Nameless girl knew what Naaman was going through in his life. She knew the pain and sorrow of Naaman. Instead of rejoicing over his misfortune and pain, the Nameless girl offered words of healing.

It was indeed difficult for the ruler to listen to the words of the ruled. The ruler wanted to get healed by maintaining the royal power and offering wealth. First, he obtained an official letter from the king of Aram thinking that the royal authority and power would be respected and obeyed by the subjects. Second, he took huge quantities of silver, gold and garments to impress and to appease the prophet Elisha. As was common protocol at that time, Naaman expected that the prophet would come out, bow down before him and perform rituals like calling on the name of God, wave his hand over his body and cure his leprosy miraculously.  The ruler thought that he would thus be healed.  But it happened in quite a different way.

Instead of going and meeting Naaman, Elisha sent a message through a messenger, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and you shall be clean” (v.9).  Naaman felt insulted and took this as disrespectful not only to him but also to the king. He became angry and decided to go away without obeying what Elisha asked him to do. But then another word of healing came from his servant, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleaned’” (v. 13). Only when he listened to the voice of his servant, did he finally get healed.

What is the meaning of washing in the Jordan River? The river didn’t have, of course, substances within it that could cure leprosy. There is a deeper meaning in the act of washing in the “dirty” river for seven times. It was the river where the poorest people lived, where they drank and where they bathed. To be healed from leprosy, Naaman needed to wash himself in the river where the poor washed their bodies, too. By washing his body seven times in the river Jordan, Naaman expressed solidarity with the people at the margins. To wash himself seven times in the river would compel Naaman, a General and a fighter, to be humble in front of the prophet, and in front of the Nameless girl and his servant, and become servant of the people he had conquered. In this dirty river that Naaman despised, he could get his holistic healing. It was in solidarity with the people in margins that he could find the power of healing. 

We can discern God’s voice in every day conversation, songs, stories of pain and joy of the poor. In Taiwan, people were punished by the rulers for speaking in their mother tongue. People were forced to speak and learn only colonizer’s language. The colonizers also instill an ideology that learning and speaking one’s mother tongue is inferior and uncivilized. Last year, a graduate student of Yushan Theological College & Seminary, Taiwan, peached a sermon in his mother tongue. At the end, he urged his fellow students, “Do not feel shy to preach in your mother tongue.” One professor commented, “I am very happy that you could preach very fuently in your mother tongue” while another professor said, “you are very courageous to preach in mother tongue.”  These are voices who have been denied of their basic rights due to cultural genocide for years. Are these voices not like the prophets Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel who challenged their people, “Let us return to the promised land,” “Be  coureagous, God is on our side,” “Let us rebuild the Wall, Temple.” Like in many countries, indigenous people in Argentina are treated like second-class citizens.  Indigenous people cry for justice saying, “We want to live as human beings. We don’t want to be considered as strangers in our own country, poor or useless. We want to live without discrimination. We don’t want bloodshed, we just want to reclaim our community.”[7]These marginalized voices represent the longing of the people to dream their future and be connected to each other in one’s mother tongue, sing and dance, and celebrate their cultural values and wisdom together.  

We often hear oppressive slogans while promoting development. The dominant power in decision making says–

Minority should sacrifice for the sake of the majority benefits;
Development is good for people;
Industries are good for people and nation; 
Governments are doing development for the future generation of the people;
People need industries to enhance their economy and living standard;  
Development alone can alleviate poverty;
People are poor because of the lack of industry;
Industry will generate more employment, bring more money and comfort;
Development is a sign of progress and civilization.

The marginalized people cry out saying–

The land is our mother; how can we sell our land?
The mother earth provides us with crops and food;
If we have land, the land will feed us more than 3000-5000 years;
When the mountain disappears, what will be our identity?
If we leave our ancestral village, what will be our culture and spiritual identity?
When all the trees have been cut down, where will the animals and birds find a home?
When all the waters are polluted, what will we drink? Do we have to buy water?
When all the air is unsafe to breathe, can we buy air?

An indigenous activist narrates his experience of modern development activities as follows:

Many unfortunate tribes have already taken farewell from the world. Civilization has squeezed them out of this world. The rest are facing a serious threat of extinction or a life of slavery. Our big brothers want us to be their coolies (bonded labourers); when we refused, they plan to finish us. Ruthless exploitation, deprivation from human rights, alienation from land, suppression of our ethnic identity and derogation of our culture and traditions has been almost paralyzing us.[8]

In whose voice do we discern God’s voice? The dominant voice in the decision making power represents the voice of mammon; it is cruel and cold-hearted. The people in the margin are being forced to sacrifice for the sake of the so-called “majority”. The dominant voices reflect absolute dominant power of the hegemonic intellect in society. They simply regard marginal communities as non-beings and non-existent and God’s gift of the land and its resources as mere objects to be exploited. The voices of the people in the margins expose evils of the oppressive structural violence and envision their future life which affirms: 

  • the life of self-sufficiency and eco-friendliness has to be the vision of life; there is no human security without water, air, animals, plants and all ecologically suffering beings;
  • the people are the true subjects of the nation; a nation cannot progress without participation of people;
  • the land should not be reduced to a mere commodity, it is the foundation of all living beings;
  • promote people’s oriented development and management of resources.

God’s voice from the margins is distinct. They need to be heard and their vision of life should form the basis of mission. Even if marginalized people do not have much material and financial resources in the way many churches are accustomed to, marginalized people, through their lives and everyday resistance, practice of solidarity, they have immense potential to revitalize the mission of the church. They powerfully testify to the sinfulness of the world. God opts for the marginalized people, neither because they are weak by choice, nor because of paternalistic compassion, but primarily because they are created in God’s image and they have the right to celebrate fullness of life offered by God to all. Their lives under the oppressive structure have testified towards the urgent need for repentance and transformation.[9] Marginalized people thus should not be seen always as those in need of help and support. They have resisted injustice and oppression in their own ways and through their struggles for life, justice, dignity and rights for themselves and for all, unveil the presence and power of God in their lives amidst struggle and pain. For example, people with disabilities are promoting the values of sensitivity and partnership; the Dalits and other discriminated communities are challenging the churches to resist cultures and practices that discriminate and dehumanize millions of people; the indigenous peoples continue to advocate the spirituality of interconnectedness of life, particularly, in the context of a threatened earth and climate justice; young people in disadvantaged situations are resisting policies that deprive them of opportunities for education and employment; and  vulnerable migrant workers, through their  struggles for human rights, dignity and justice, are challenging political systems that deny them basic human rights in the name of national interests and market expansion.[10] In all such expressions, in their actions and allegiances towards liberation and transformation, the ecumenical movement today have new possibilities of ecumenical action as well as new ecclesial self-discovery.[11]Marginalized people, through their yearnings for life with dignity and justice offer alternative visions of a world free of forces that abuse and deny life for all. They challenge us to work towards new patterns of inclusiveness, sharing, and transformative action.  In a world where people are treated as commodities and are also mistreated on account of their identities such as gender, ethnicity, colour, caste, age, disability, sexual orientation, and economic and cultural locations, we are challenged to build up persons and communities in ways that help them to experience God’s gift of life.[12]

Further, mission from the margins demands not only binding the wounds of the victims or offering actions of compassion, but also calls upon the churches to confront and transform the forces which cause suffering and deprivation. It demands a radical spirituality of continual struggle and commitment for transformation of those sinful social structures and for liberation of their victims. Without transformative action, churches would be a mere expression of service, subtly serving the interests of the oppressive and exploitative powers by covering up their complicity.[13] Therefore, it is imperative that we challenge the oppressive system listening to the cries of the people in the margin. Let us 

  • Advocate and launch campaigns for the causes of justice, dignity and peace for the victims of aggression, displacement and dispossession. 
  • Journey, encourage, support and accompany local congregation as they respond to their own issues by developing and implementing diakonial work. 
  • Advocate expressions of solidarity and mutual responsibility among congregations, especially by bridging the divide between urban and rural, and rich and poor communities. 
  • Address issues of social, gender, caste and racial discrimination and exclusion within the church and our institutions.
  • Implement policies and programs of HIV and AIDS, disability, LGBTIQ and environmental stewardship adopted by churches and governments.
  • Support, facilitate and accompany prophetic voices and initiatives that strive to uphold the causes of human rights and justice, particularly of the marginalized communities.  
  • Build networks and partnerships with regional and national level churches and organizations to encourage grassroots, people-based initiatives.  
  • Encourage and support theological institutions to address the issues of social exclusion for building inclusive community for all. 
  • Encourage and help churches to engage in prophetic actions for justice with people from different faith communities.  
  • Produce and prepare biblical resources to enable, encourage and nurture laity for transformative actions.

[6] Naveen RAO, “Centred on the ‘Margin,’” Clark Journal of Theology, vol. v, no. 2 (2015), p. 8-10. 

[7] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2013/08/indigenous-peoples-argentina-we-are-strangers-our-own-country/January 3, 2018

[8] R.J. Kr. KOOTOOM, “Tribal Voice is Your Voice,” Tribal Voice of the Persecuted Tribals, 15 Nov. premier issue, 1995, p. 1.

[9]A draft WCC document on “Mission from the margins,” a process initiated by Just and Inclusive Community, October, 2012.p 5

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] “Communiqué” of the Conference on “Theological Perspectives on Diakonia in the Twenty First Century,” jointly organized by Justice and Diakonia, Just and Inclusive Communities, and Mission and Evangelism programs of the World Council of Churches in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 2-6, 2012, p. 3.

[12] Ibid., p. 4.

[13] A Draft Document of WCC on Mission from the Margin’s Perspective, p. 9.


Wati Longchar is Professor of Theology and Culture, and Director of Asia-Pacific Theological Research Centre at Yushan Theological College & Seminary, Hualien, Taiwan. He belongs to Ao tribe of Nagaland, India. Professor Longchar taught fifteen years at Eastern Theological College, Jorhat, Assam. From 2001 to 2007, he served as Consultant of Ecumenical Theological Education for Asia and Pacific – A Joint Programme of World Council of Churches and Christian Conference of Asia. From 2008-2015, he served as Dean of the Extension Department of the Serampore University during which he took additional responsibility as Director-incharge of South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI) for two years.  Professor Longchar has authored five books in English and edited and co-edited thirty one books. Currently, he is the Dean of Programme for Theology and Cultures in Asia (PTCA), a theological movement in doing theology with Asian resources.