05/07/2018 in: Educationalon
Christian missions can be done well… and not well. But does this mean that we should abandon missions? Is it really that bad? Read this adapted article from the CSB Apologetics Study Bible to think deeper on the question, “Do Christian missionaries impose their culture?”
DO CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES IMPOSE THEIR CULTURE?
Many people believe Christian missionaries impose their culture on others. Missionaries allegedly soften up native peoples by weakening their cultural resistance, leaving the field open for colonists and Western capitalism. Mission has been described as enslavement or even as genocide, and the gospel has been called the “everlasting story of the West against the Indians.”
ADDRESSING THE STEREOTYPES
Such extreme accusations signal that we are entering a world of stereotype and caricature. We first find them in the nineteenth century but stereotypes of missionaries became widespread in the mid-twentieth century, with the recognition that some cultures can oppress others. This insight was applied to “Christian” cultures of the West, especially as supposedly spread by missionaries.
Most caricatures have a basis in fact, however flimsy, and some missionaries have fit aspects of the stereotype. The early church faced similar issues (Ac 15; Gl 2) when the apostles rejected the imposition of traditions upon new converts. The fact that Scripture records such disagreements is strong witness to its historical reliability. It’s also a warning to churches to be vigilant against imposing local customs on other people groups. The stereotypes assert that missionaries have consistently ignored this warning. Have they?
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Missionaries cannot avoid taking their own culture with them, but they can avoid imposing it on others. As Henry Venn remarked in 1868, long before the twentieth-century secular discovery of pluralism, that the “marked national characteristics” of the church will be its “perfection and glory.” Indeed, at a time when the study of native cultures was almost racist in its focus on the evolution of culture from primitive to sophisticated, some missionary scholars—such as James Legge, Robert Morrison, and John Farquhar—insisted on the value of native cultures.
Examples abound of missionaries recognizing cultural diversity and pioneering its study and preservation. This isn’t surprising, as missionaries often lived alongside native people and learned their language in order to translate the Bible. From José de Acosta in Latin America to William Carey in India, from Jacob Grigg in Africa to John Smith in Jamaica, missionaries have helped preserve cultures and native languages. Linguist Mary Haas has estimated that ninety percent of the material available on Native American languages is missionary in origin. Some missionaries courageously identified with native peoples. For example, Samuel Worcester went to prison for his defense of Cherokee rights.
Stereotypes of missionaries aren’t only factually inaccurate; they can also be unjust toward African, Hispanic, and Asian peoples. The stereotype of Christianity as white and Western misrepresents the church’s origin and has long been out of date. The period of Western dominance came full circle many years ago when the church’s centers of gravity moved to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Moreover, we do no favors to native cultures in saying a few missionaries easily overpowered them. This presumes native cultures fell easily to Western influence and obscures the violent oppression of native people.
Stereotypes that treat Christianity as Western, and native cultures as weak, are culturally biased at best and unintentionally racist at worst.
All cultures, developed and developing, fall short of biblical standards and need the gospel. We shouldn’t fear or ignore all criticism of missionary methods. But to be helpful, such criticism should be informed and fair. Stereotypes of missionaries are neither.
CSB APOLOGETICS STUDY BIBLE
This blog post is adapted from the CSB Apologetics Study Bible.
Want help to better understand, defend, and proclaim your beliefs in an age of increasing relativism? Then you should check out this revised and updated edition. It includes new articles and extensive apologetics study material. Additionally, everything written comes from today’s leading apologists! You will gain a deeper understanding of the relevant apologetics issues and questions being discussed today.