Friday, February 26, 2010

The Missionary Impulse?

This op-ed by Timothy Egan in the NY Times raises legitimate and important questions about the ill-fated plans of the so-called "Kidnapping for Jesus" case of Laura Silsby. At best, her plans to facilitate adoptions from the beleaguered country of Haiti were naive and unrealistic, given her resources. At worst, they were manipulative and opportunistic.

Yet painting with the broad brush of "cultural imperialism" the author succumbs to tired romantic liberal sentiment. The "noble savage" and his pristine untouched culture and religion should not be disturbed, in this ideology. Yet this ignores many indigenous practices most would consider not so pristine--like "sati"--the burning of widows in Hinduism, or "FGM" (female genital mutilation) in tribal cultures of Asia and Africa. Does Mr. Egan claim "cultural imperialism" when the World Health organization and the UN bans FGM in their work?

As I take a team of students to New York City to express care and concern for those in less fortunate circumstances, this story takes on new meaning. What gives us the right to impose our beliefs on others? Is the "missionary impulse" inherently culturally violent?
Some suggest that the "mini-messiahs" who descend upon poorer areas would do better to stay home and send their money to help the truly informed make a real difference. Are we on a fool's errand?

First, one cannot ignore the historic context of Western Christianity and the "Crusades." One's faith should be expressed through the heart, not the point of a spear. Christians should remember that their religion spread originally through generosity, service to the poor, and the death of its founders in persecution. Humility is the prerequisite for any missionary. On the flip side, however, it is naive to imagine that any area's "indigenous" culture is in itself pure or undiluted. Rather, they are the result of millennia of interaction and intellectual trade. Mohammed himself was influenced by both Jewish and Christian ideals,while Buddhism was built on a foundation supplied by Hinduism. Is this necessarily imperialism? New York City doesn't need any mini-messiahs... but humble servants, willing to be changed as they share love and practice understanding? That may not be so bad...

1 comment:

Gary Sweeten said...

I love it when we Christians are accused of imperialism. As we share the love of God and show His love we shall be vindicated by the Spirit. My friends who were missionaries in Africa for many years returned to Columbia U in New York. Their Profs often attacked them as Imperialists but African students always corrected them by saying,"Not one of us would be here if it were not for the missionary schools. We would have no doctors, no hospitals, no modern clinics if it were not for the Christian Missionaries.