The 19th and 20th centuries saw a great expansion in Protestant missionary activity. With the growth of European colonialism often came missionaries, spreading the gospel to new lands as well as covering some old ground. However, mixed with the good news were cultural values and commercial interests that produced mixed effects among indigenous populations. While the meta-narrative of progress tells us that the modernization and development of the non-Western world was generally a good thing, it is often difficult to distinguish the oppressive side of missionary activity from the empowering side.
In many cases missionaries brought to their work a sense of superiority and condescension. Even as he sounded the call to mobilize, William Carey, the famous Baptist missionary who founded the Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel amongst the Heathen (González 306), referred to those he sought to convert as "the most barbarous clans" and "uncultivated tribes" (paragraph 5), and missionaries to Africa talked of "child-races" that would be civilized by missions (Walls 98). While it is true that the missionaries came from nations with far greater technological advancement, their attitudes toward those they sought to evangelize are difficult to characterize as empowering.
Other activities appear to have been more helpful. For example, with missionaries came education, technology, and medical care that saved many lives. At the same time, missionaries to Africa fought against the slave trade and promoted an interventionist policy to raise awareness of violence against indigenous peoples (Walls 96). And in India, both women and those born into lower castes found good news in the missionaries’ proclamations of salvation for all, regardless of social rank, sex, and position within traditional family hierarchies (Ramabai 325-326). Through Carey’s efforts in India, the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres along with their deceased husbands was also brought to an end (González 310).
Some activities, while appearing to be helpful at the time, are more ambiguous now. Missionaries such as Carey dreamed of importing European values as a part of their work, introducing civil government, agriculture, and husbandry (paragraphs 6, 13). Preaching in Africa was focused on both conversion and social change as missionaries made it their goal not only to save lost souls, but also to create a trading partner that would produce cotton and cocoa for the Western world (Walls 96). While providing a way to engage in a growing global economy, such changes also brought about the disenfranchisement of large groups of people as land was consolidated for agriculture. Unquestioning introduction of industrialization, capitalism, and democratic governance were also Western values that came along with the worldviews of merchants and missionaries alike. Though we are surrounded by these phenomena in our own day, the jury is still out regarding the actual long-term merits of these systems.
While reading these assignments I was struck by the sheer number of languages spoken within the African continent. While nation-states now fall into Anglophile and Francophile groups as determined by their colonization, I wondered how many indigenous languages have been preserved and what steps, if any, are being taken today to recognize and foster their continued use. Questions like these are important even today as the Church continues to foster missions work around the world in an increasingly globalized economy that favors certain languages and cultural values over others. As we suffer a world-wide economic meltdown in our capitalist system, one wonders whether it might be possible to separate our cultural values from the message of Christ. But in our own world where, if we are to believe what we hear, modernity is crumbling only to be replaced by the ambiguities of a post-modern ethos, another difficult question arises: How are we to distinguish between the empowering and the oppressive effects of missions? For this there appear to be no easy answers. What at various times has appeared to be the introduction of freedom – freedom from social hierarchy, from patriarchy, from poverty and disease – has carried with it the seemingly inescapable realities of a worldwide economic system that enslaves rich and poor alike. Women and men, former untouchables and aristocrats, all share in the necessities of a monetized economy and the fragility of long chains of supply whose disruption causes large-scale hardship. The roots of these systems were introduced with missions that set out to educate and empower local ethnic groups as they spread the good news of eternal life through Jesus Christ. I do not believe that it is possible to separate the proclamation of Christian missions from the cultural values and assumptions of the messengers that carry it. At most we can train up missionaries with an appreciation of indigenous cultures and a consciousness of their own cultural heritage and biases. However, a systematic training program that seeks to curb the negative effects of introducing a new set of flawed, human, cultural norms can only go so far. Indeed, the only true way of separating the good from the bad is for missionaries and those who finance and send them to be open themselves to the message that they proclaim of salvation for all, regardless of cultural heritage. By living a life open to the gospel that we declare, our own internalized systems of oppression are also brought to light and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through this process, we too are presented with the chance to practice what we preach.
Carey, William. "An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens." GraceNet UK. 26 April 2009 <http://www.grace.org.uk/mission/enquiry0.html>.
González, Justo L. The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985.
Ramabai, Pandita. "A Testimony." In Her Own Words: women’s writings in the history of Christian thought. Ed. Amy Oden. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994. 321-327.
Walls, Andrew F. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: studies in the transmission and appropriation of faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.