Thursday, December 8, 2011

Western Missions, Western Guilt

Hwa Yung, the bishop of the Methodist Church of Malaysia, is concerned about the waning of Western missions. He cites Western guilt and charges of “imperialism” as major culprits, and he wants to counteract these.

For one thing, intellectuals from the newly established countries,

• Long for their countries to become modern democracies with advanced economies. They do not buy into the secularization theory that suggests that the unique, finely balanced combination of democracy, political stability with checks and balances in government, civil society, human rights undergirded by a strong a just legal system, and an advanced economy with minimal corruption will emerge willy-nilly with modernization. They have looked at the 20th-century experiment called Marxism, perhaps the most secular of ideologies, and have found it utterly wanting for either the prosperity or the freedoms they seek. (Christianity Today, Nov. 2011, 44)

This conclusion should be a matter of common-sense, but it certainly isn’t common. Oddly, the secularists of the Western university credit secularism with Western successes. Meanwhile, they have substituted moral relativism for a commitment to moral absolutes and marvel speechlessly before the various moral-economic-social-political woes that are now afflicting the West. This is because they are unwilling to give credit where credit is due:

• These intellectuals have reached the same conclusions as those of the late American legal scholar Harold Berman and the sociologist Rodney Stark: The moral values, legal principles, and psychological basis of the best modern Western civilizations came from their Christian history. Thus, many, like Chinese cultural Christians, see the gospel alone as able to provide adequate moral foundations for rejuvenating their nations.

Oddly, we in the West have lost vision of this fact. In fact, it has even become politically incorrect to make such observations, which can imperil one’s livelihood.

Yung cites a 2008 article in The Times (UK) by Matthew Parris, a journalist and former British MP, reflecting on his visit to Malawi:

• Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOS, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good…Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and the machete.

Well, haven’t Christian missions undermined indigenous culture? Isn’t there a basis for Western guilt? Yung cites Yale professor Lamin Sanneh claims that “Christian missions actually helped to preserve cultures and languages” through the translation of the Bible into “vernacular languages”:

• As he put it, “Christian missions are better seen as a translation movement, with consequences for vernacular revitalization, religion change and social transformation, than as a vehicle for Western cultural domination.” I don’t know of any serious scholar refuting Sanneh’s thesis.

If we are concerned about the advancement of the Third World, then missions should be encouraged. 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).

All of this should give renewed emphasis to Jesus’ words:

• Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)

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