Missionary work no longer commands the cultural respect it once did. Indeed, missionary work is often grouped together with other forms of cultural and colonial imperialism, and derided as an insensitive imposition of foreign culture, one rooted in a lack of appreciation for the self-evident values of the indigenous peoples. In a word, who do missionaries think they are coming into another person’s home and telling them that everything there needs changing? The charges (at least in the Protestant West) retain some tinge of credibility, in that the missionaries’ proclamation of the Gospel was indeed often accompanied by their concurrent desire to “civilize the Natives”—i.e. to make them (for example) rather less African and rather more English. The eschatological nature of the Church and her Gospel were not well served by the fact that often missionaries flew a European flag over their mission station and were in fact funded by people in Europe who had more to their agenda than the simple saving of souls. In coming at length to reject the paternalism of the colonializing power, people in these nations often came to reject the missionaries which sent them, along with their Christian Faith.
We see such an understandable approach in the distinguished Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, pictured above. As interviewed first by the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 1994 and now re-released, the author spoke as follows: “Really, being a Christian, being educated in the things of the West…one really shouldn’t be any those things…the history of Africa is such that our business should be to restore what was lost…We betrayed [Africa]…my father, for instance, who became the first generation Christian, he abandoned the faith of his fathers…We were led into accepting that what our forefathers, our ancestors have done throughout the millennia was somehow misguided and that somebody else who had come from afar can straighten us out. That he has the way, the truth, and the life, and that we have been sunk in blindness. That’s an outrageous thing to accept.”
Mr. Achebe was no angry firebrand. In fact he said in the same interview that he found many good things in Christian culture. He spoke softly and with the gravitas acquired over a lifetime of suffering and experience. I mention him specifically because he gave articulate expression to what multitudes of others are saying rather less softly and articulately. What are we to make of his views? Is the very concept of missionary work outrageous, a form of ideological imperialism?
Any fair assessment must begin by agreeing with at least some of Achebe’s critique. Especially in the English missions to Africa, one must admit that missionaries, despite possibly the best of intentions, have often acted as the instruments of colonialism and foreign nationalism. In C.S. Lewis’ memorable phrase (from his essay, Religion and Rocketry), “‘Gun and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past.” Very often missionaries gave the impression, or even proclaimed boldly, that pretty much everything was wrong with the culture of the people they were trying to convert, and that all of the people from that culture who died before the coming of the missionaries were now in hell. This, I suggest, is not only poor theology, it is also stupid strategy. Telling a person that their grandpa and grandma are now burning in hell, but that they can avoid their company if they renounce everything their grandparents held dear is (not to put too fine a point on it) a hard sell, and would scarcely be characterized by its hearers as “good news”. The Great Commission cannot adequately be paraphrased, “Go into all the world and tell everyone that they are damned unless they become like you.” But it often formed the starting point for many missions. Fortunately, (as Fr. Michael Oleksa points out in his excellent book Orthodox Alaska), the East has at least sometimes taken a more nuanced and sensitive approach than the classical West, one that can show greater appreciation for at least some of the “pagan” practices. A better theology (and a better strategy) will stress primarily how the Gospel fulfills all that was good in the hosting culture. It will look for points in that pagan culture which can serve as a kind of praeparatio evangelica, just as the Law served such a praeparatio in a Jewish context.
But Mr. Achebe’s point concerned not just the ham-fisted methods of the missionaries, but rather the underlying assumptions of all mission work per se, and as such he might not have been much more sanguine about Orthodox missions than he was about Anglican ones. Is it really true that saying a culture had been misguided for millennia, and that a visitor can tell them in what ways it needs fixing is outrageous?
The first thing is to see that the original cultures from which the missionaries came were as at least misguided for millennia as the cultures to which they came. That is, unless one is a Jew, every person on earth came from an ancestral culture which was once misguided. Take the first Greek Christians for example: at one point, they also had to accept that what their ancestors had done throughout the millennia was somehow misguided and that somebody else who had come from afar (namely the Jewish apostles and their successors) could straighten them out. Mr. Achebe’s view is quite reasonable if all religions are equally valid, wonderful, saving, and if they all produced the same spiritual fruits and eternal results. Being a Western-educated man, he doubtless found this easy to believe, as well as nationally congenial. But this is a presupposition, not a fact—and a presupposition, one may add, with little real evidence to sustain it. But anyway, if polytheism is not legitimate diversity, but dangerous idolatry, then his reason for indignation falls away. The missionaries came offering what they said was a cure for a fatal disease. If the Nigerians to whom they came in fact had no such disease, then the missionary project was indeed outrageous. But what if they did have the disease?
The Christian worldview says that with the tiny exception of Israel all the world had the disease and was sunk in blindness, sin, labouring under the tyranny of death and the devil. God’s light came into that darkness like the point of a sword, striking the earth at once particular place—Jerusalem in the midst of the Holy Land—and radiating out from there. Certainly God had not left Himself without a witness (Acts 14:17), but left His fingerprints throughout the world, so that His eternal power and divine nature could be clearly seen (Romans 1:20). But despite this, the world mostly ignored Him and turned to idols, exchanging glory for corruption, and sinking further into death. The divine cure consisted of remaking the world, creating a new nature, a new humanity, one freed from sin, guilt, and mortality. God created this reality in His Son—in Him the world was renewed and recreated; in Him the powers of death had been pushed aside and banished; in Him eternal life and incorruption had entered the cosmos.
The nature of this cure dictated the nature of its diffusion and spread. Eternal life and joy were all found in Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, and these powers could flow into us if we united ourselves to Christ. Then His nature and life, His sonship and glory, would become ours as well. But how could people the world over become united with Christ apart from missionary endeavour? “How shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15) Missionary work, at his apostolic heart, is not about the ascendency of one culture over another (the Church’s refusal to require circumcision was proof enough of that); it is one starving beggar telling another starving beggar where to find bread. If, as Mr. Achebe’s contends, the world is not starving to death spiritually, then all missionary effort is indeed useless ecclesiastical tomfoolery. But the fact of spiritual starvation seems clear enough. In fact, the really outrageous thing would be to deny it.