Thursday, April 28, 2022

Lies, Myths and Misinformation: Missionaries Are Destructive

The modern, secularist, Leftist legend goes like this: missionaries are evil.

And why?

Because they were really nothing more than shock troops for colonialism. Being the first into remote areas, they led the way for merchants and the military to exploit vulnerable native cultures. And so, they conclude, we Christians should all be ashamed of the work done by missionaries in the past; and today, we definitely should not sponsor missionary efforts abroad.

Part of the force of this argument depends on Western naivety about indigenous cultures. Echoing the old 18th century mythologizing of “noble savages” living peacefully and in close harmony with Mother Nature, modern secularists assume that missionaries interfered in the normal evolution of peaceful, aboriginal societies into some wondrous modern equivalent that they actually never got to attain because of the incursions made by Western society. The legend concludes that these incursions were led, and thus really made possible, by the (at best) well-intended evangelical folly of missionaries, or (at worst) their venal collusion with Western merchants, colonists and soldiers.

The Anti-Missionary Rhetoric

Believe it or not, these modern, secularist ranters succeed in making a few poorly-informed Christians actually feel bad for doing the right thing. Why? Well, because Christians have a conscience, and because modern secularists are not only puffed up by their own sense of liberationist virtue, but having for the most part little or no contact with indigenous people, they tend to be completely credulous about the glories of aboriginal life. Being secularist ideologues, they love any excuse to dump on Christians, and have zero interest in considering any good a Christian has ever done. So they stoke up the narrative that says that the reason so many indigenous peoples experience difficult material conditions today (such as poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, cultural decline and so on) is that the missionaries messed up.

And could we find a few cases they could use to justify such a claim? Maybe. I would not be surprised if a few could be produced. I have, in fact, heard of several cases in which missionaries behaved in ways that were culturally insensitive, overbearing and ill-advised. But I also grew up in the developing world among missionaries, and saw far more instances of selfless and caring service than of the other sort.

Here’s the truth: a few misguided outliers would be nothing particular to missions; they happen in all areas of life. Their real impact is not very great. The crucial thing is the general effect of our missions on indigenous cultures. We should ask ourselves, on the whole, were the locals worse, or significantly better for having met missionaries?

Terms of Engagement

Now, let us admit that the material conditions of people are important. The respect for and preservation of their cultures is also important. Their independence and freedom to choose their own commitments is important. But of course, more important than all these put together is that men and women of every culture should come into a right relationship with God.

We have to consider that there’s no value in cultural preservation if it sends people to a lost eternity. Still, we can grant that it would be a significant blow against the integrity of missions if it were to turn out that they impaired the material conditions and personal freedoms of the very people they proposed to serve.

However, is that what happened? Is it the case that the missionaries harmed the prospects of the people they had come to serve? To find out, we should start by considering this: do we regard it as inevitable that these cultures would encounter modern Western civilization, or could they simply have avoided all that?

The answer is that it seems pretty clear that they could not have avoided an eventual encounter with modernity. Today there is no corner of the world that has escaped the touch of globalization. It seems fair to say that all cultures were destined to have to find some way to survive their engagement with Westerners, with their technology, their languages, their hunger for resources, their strange economic and social ways and their colonial aspirations, to say nothing of their inept and sometimes racist ways of dispensing with aboriginal people.

That changes the question, doesn’t it. If contact with Western civilization was inevitable at one point or another, we need to ask “What are the best conditions under which an indigenous culture could come into contact with modernity?” rather than “How could we have arranged it so that no natives would ever meet modern people” (which seems both patronizing and absurdly unrealistic, given the way the world has actually gone).

Light In Africa

In answering that question, let us not use a Western answer. Instead, let us turn to non-Western missiology.

Dr. Lamin Sanneh, a Harvard and Yale professor, is himself a native Gambian. His 1993 book Encountering the West provides an answer. According to Sanneh, not only did Western missionaries NOT undermine indigenous cultures, but provided them with the means to survive secular colonialism.

Now, it wasn’t just that the missionaries brought Western medicine and education. It wasn’t only that they undermined certain self-destructive indigenous practices (such as bride-burning, inter-tribal killing, twin burial or female circumcision) but most importantly that they became the chief means by which the locals achieved the ability to resist colonial oppression.

This happened because evangelical missionaries strongly believed that a) the native people were loved by God, b) it was his desire to save them, but c) salvation could not be achieved for them by forcible conversion but must be the result of their free decision, and thus d) the means must be found to make the gospel comprehensible in the native languages.

For these reasons, evangelical missionaries routinely followed a predictable pattern of outreach:

  • discovering the oral language of the native population;
  • creating a written language out of the oral;
  • recording their traditions, myths, idioms and knowledge in written form, so as to have a set of references for …
  • translating scripture, using local language, idioms and stories, thus showing native people that their language was capable of conveying even the words of God; at the same time
  • creating a durable, written record of the language, traditions, stories and history of the tribe in question; thus
  • increasing native consciousness of their own tribal or national significance; and
  • providing the language, capability and disposition for resistance to Western colonialism by the native population.

Consequently, by the time the forces of colonialism and mercantile exploitation reached many of the remote tribes, they discovered a people equipped with the means to raise meaningful resistance to colonial exploitation. The early missionaries provided a sort of inoculation against the corrosive effects of the West on colonial peoples. As Sanneh puts it:

“If missions had adopted a deliberate policy of advancing Africa’s native aspirations, then they could not have chosen a more effective instrument than the mother tongue, mainly because mother tongues represent the African advantage … the fact of Western colonial suppression of Africans would undoubtedly have been far harsher, more comprehensive and longer enduring without the mitigating effects of missionary projects of mother tongue literacy and the narrative flash they kindled in people’s hearts, whatever motives the missionaries shared or did not share with the colonialists.”

In other words, the missionaries provided just the inoculation that native cultures needed in order to survive the flood of less benign Western influence that would soon descend upon them in the form of soldiers, merchants and colonists.

Light in India

It did not just happen in Africa. In his recent book, The Book That Made Your World, Vishal Mangalwadi has made a similar case in respect to his native India:

“Bible translators and missionaries did not just give me my mother tongue, Hindi. Every living language in India is a testimony to their labor … Bible translators, using the dialects of mostly illiterate Indians, created seventy-three modern literary languages. These include the national languages of India (Hindi), Pakistan (Urdu), and Bangladesh (Bengali).”

Contrary to the idea that missionaries were simply shock-troops for colonialist aggressors, Mangalwadi lauds them for their resistance to colonialism. He writes:

“The missionaries had not dedicated their lives to producing good English-speaking servants of the British Raj. They wanted Indians to come to their college[s] to begin cultivating their minds and spirits, to question the socioeconomic darkness around them, to inquire and find the truth that liberates individuals and builds great nations … India’s religious culture produced neither nationalism nor internationalism. It had no sense of global mission. In contrast, the Bible taught monotheism, that idea that there is one God for the whole universe and He loves the whole world … [India’s great leaders] Gandhi and Nehru would have had no ‘nation’ to lead without the Biblical idea of nation that came to us through the linguistic revolution initiated by Bible translation and English literature introduced by Christian education.”

He even goes so far as to declare that though, “Colonialism itself was evil … British evangelicals succeeded in turning the evil of colonialism into a blessing for my country.”

So much for the depiction as missionaries as “interferers” and destroyers of local culture. The case is even starker when we consider the plight of women under pre-missionary conditions, for women have historically been an extremely vulnerable class, and the legacy of neglect, denigration, enslavement, rape and homicide against them in India is well-established. Concerning India’s women, Mangalwadi points out:

“[Hindus] claim that Islam brought the veil and the enslavement of women to India. Even if that were true, the fact remains that during the eight hundred years of Islamic influence, Tantra, Yoga, and goddess worship did nothing to liberate Indian women. The emancipation of Asian women began in the nineteenth century when the Western missionary movement brought to us the biblical worldview, spirituality and morality …”

Uncomprehending Darkness

Did missionaries change local cultures? Sure. But have we reason to lament that? Perhaps not. Mangalwadi asks us to consider whether it would it be better if Islam, Hinduism or some sort of tribal polytheism were left in charge of India or Africa. He asks, “Is a tribe really better off if it retains its isolation, beliefs and values that keep it poor and vulnerable to preventable and curable diseases, at the mercy of uneducated witch-doctors and warrior-chiefs?” He then adds, “Not enough is said against selfish indifference, against choosing not to help people who are victims of their own cultures.”

This should make us wonder: could all the liberal, post-colonialist cant against missions be no more than an excuse for not helping those who are in dire need? Could the modern “noble savage” myths be nothing better than a rationale for neglect and even racist contempt? At the least, it’s a smug, self-serving product of complete ignorance of realities of native life.

Missions Today

Today, missions are different. The days of the pioneer missionary seeking a lost tribe in the outer reaches are largely over. Now countries like Korea and Nigeria, former outposts of missions, are sending missionaries, not just to their own people but around the globe. Indigenous missions are more important than cross-cultural ones in many settings.

The mandate of missions has changed as well: from basic translation, education and medicine into things like microfinance aid, water-projects and war-relief work. But the gospel remains as necessary for all peoples as it ever was: the only message of truth, life, hope and joy to every nation.

The Light of the World

There’s all the difference in the world between a colonialist cleric preening himself in a comfortable vicarage or bishopric overseas and a self-sacrificing medical or evangelizing missionary dying alone for alien peoples in a malarial swamp. Only an observer possessed of the most extreme sort of moral perversity would fail to make such a meaningful distinction.

In general, then, we need not apologize for missions. If anything, we might apologize for not sending earlier, for sending fewer, and for sacrificing less for the lost peoples of the world than our own Savior did when he made the greatest and farthest mission trip of all.

1 comment :

  1. Very informative and well researched article. It should serve as an encouragement to those in the missions. Forwarded the link to a friend who serves as an executive and field mission Nun of the Cabrini Missionary Sisters.