Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Contempt for the Missionary

Christian missions have gotten a bad rap. If you doubt this, just watch a PBS or a BBC history special on the subject. In “6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization,” Research fellow, Philip J. Sampson attacks the myth that the missionaries were oppressors. The missionaries who followed in the wake of the Conquistadores have received special condemnation. A BBC TV series of The Missionaries claims that,

“Under the guise of evangelism came harsh exploitation and eventually the enslavement of the Indians.”

Sampson counters that many of the missionaries had taken a strong stance against these colonial powers. He cites a sermon by Dominican Antonio de Montesinos (1511), preached against the sins of the white colonists:

“Tell me, by what right and with what justice do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you made such detestable wars against these people…you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day…Are these not men…Are you not obliged to live them as you love yourselves?”

Contrary to the philosophy of Aristotle who regarded the slave as a “live tool,” the Bible grants dignity to all humanity as “created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Sampson points out the consequence of this:

“Many 19th century missionaries were appalled at the slave trade and did their best to try to change it. William Burns opposed the ‘coolie’ trade in China and protested to British government representatives…Missionaries in East Africa were horrified at the local slave trade and were at a loss as to what to do about it.” (100)

In her discussion of the missionaries to Africa, historian Ruth Tucker acknowledges that, while there were missionaries who also understood their role as one of westernizing the natives,

• “They, more than any other outside influence, fought against the evils colonialism and imperialism brought. They waged long and bitter battles…the heinous traffic in human cargo. And after the demise of the slave trade they raised their voice against other crimes, including the bloody tactics King Leopold used to extract rubber from the Congo. The vast majority of missionaries were pro-African, and their stand for racial justice often made them despised by their European brothers. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that without the conscience of Christian missions, many of the crimes of colonialism would have gone entirely unchecked.”
(“From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya,” 140).

Sampson explodes the myth that the missionaries were in collusion with the imperialists and colonists. In fact, the missionaries were often expelled by the colonial powers to prevent them from “publicizing atrocities or intervening to help the native people.” (101) He agrees with Tucker that the,

“Missionaries in Africa were opposed to slavery from an early period, and they used a variety of means to oppose it, including buying slaves and establishing plantations for them to work on.” (102)

According to Sampson, rather than collusion, conflict characterized missionary-colonialist relations:

“The missionaries insisted on treating native people as human beings who are entitled to the protection of the law, and this rubbed salt into the wound. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that colonists and traders often opposed missions.” (103)

“Traders and colonists resisted the evangelism of native people, seeing conversion as the first step to indigenous people gaining access to the resources of Western culture and hence to the power that colonists wished to keep for themselves…Native people who wished to break free of the settler’s stranglehold and worship God were immediately persecuted by the white traders.” (103-104)

Stephen Neill’s “History of Christian Missions” gives an example of this:

“The missionaries [to New Guinea] from the start found themselves in bitter opposition to the white traders and exploiters, whose attitude was expressed by one of them to John G. Patton in the words ‘our watchword is ‘Sweep these creatures away, and let the white men occupy the soil,’’ and who, in pursuance of their aim, placed men sick of the measles on various islands in order to destroy the population through disease.” (355)

In contrast to the concerns of the missionaries, the educated, disdaining the idea of the “spiritual equality of all colors of Christians,” aligned themselves with the exploiters:

“Missionaries, on the other hand, were ridiculed in scholarly journals for their shallow thinking in regard to race.” (Tucker, 140)

Darwinism had made racism intellectually respectable. Evolutionist Karl Giberson, in “Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution,” acknowledges the prevailing racism:

• “How shocking it is today to acknowledge that virtually every educated person in the Western culture at the time …shared [evolutionist] Haeckel’s [racist] ideas. Countless atrocities around the globe were rationalized by the belief that superior races were improving the planet by exterminating defective elements…there can be little doubt that such viewpoints muted voices that would otherwise have been raised in protest.”

Consequently, evolutionists presented no rationale to oppose the abuses of colonialism. In contrast to this, Tucker cites A.F. Walls,

“But one thing is clear. If missions are associated with the rise of imperialism, they are equally associated with the factors which brought about its destruction.” (111)

She also cites Ralph Winter:

• “Protestant missionary efforts in this period led the way to establishing all around the world the democratic apparatus of government, the schools, the hospitals, the universities and the political foundations for the new nations.”

What greater testimony could there have been to the missionary dedication to those among whom they worked! Nevertheless, they have often been charged with the destruction of native culture. This is ironic because missions have done more to “codify and preserve [indigenous] languages” than has any other group:

• “The anthropologist Mary Haas estimates that ‘ninety per cent of the material available on American Indian languages, is missionary in origin.”
(Sampson, 109-110)

Indeed, the missionaries did campaign against certain native practices like female circumcision. Charles Darwin confesses,

• “Human sacrifice…infanticide…bloody wars, where the conquerors spared neither women nor children—all these have been abolished…by the introduction of Christianity.”
(Sampson, 110)

Why then all the bad press against the missionary? Darwin proposes that,

• “Disappointed in not finding the field of licentiousness quite so open as formerly, they [the Western traders] will not give credit to a morality which they do not wish to practice or to a religion which they undervalue, if not despise.”
(Sampson, 111)

Consequently, the historian Stephen Neill concludes that the,

• “Weight of the evidence tells heavily against” the accusation that missionaries have been responsible for the destruction of native cultures.”
(Sampson, 111)

The Christian missionaries bravely opposed the prevailing worldview. Representative of the Darwinian thinking of his day, Richard F. Burton complained that the Christian willingness to treat Africans as “men and brethren” was “a dangerous error at odds with the evolutionary facts.” (Sampson, 98) Instead, faith in the Gospel…

• “encouraged Dr. John Philip of the London Missionary Society to support native rights in South Africa in the early nineteenth century…Lancelot Threlkeld to demand equal protection under the law for the Awabakal people of Australia and also inspired John Eliot to persuade the Massachusetts courts to find in favor of native people against settler claims. Even so unsympathetic an author as David Stoll concedes that the contemporary missions in Latin America ‘tended to treat native people with more respect than did national governments and fellow citizens.’” (98)

This should be no surprise. It has been the faithfulness to their beliefs that has motivated Christians from the start. Regarding this, Philip Yancey provides some insights that he gleaned from the historian Rodney Stark:

• “In the midst of a hostile environment, the Christians simply acted on their beliefs. Going against the majority culture, they treated slaves as human beings, often liberating them…When an epidemic hit their towns, they stayed behind to nurse the sick. They refused to participate in such common practices as abortion and infanticide. They responded to persecution as martyrs, not as terrorists. And when Roman social networks disintegrated, the church stepped in. Even one of their pagan critics had to acknowledge that early Christians loved their neighbors ‘as if they were our own family.’
” (CT, Nov 2010, 32-33)

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