Monday, February 13, 2012

Christian Missions: Cultural Imperialism?

Back in December, one of my frequent e-mail correspondents sent me a link to a post on the Via Meadia blog, “The Missionaries Win: Christianity Becomes Global Religious Superpower”, in which Walter Russell Mead comments on a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which looks at the growth of the world’s Christian population over the past century. I forwarded the link to a few friends with a special interest in Christian missions, including Brad, a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators. A lively discussion was sparked by one reader, Micha, who posted a comment equating proselytism with cultural imperialism. I liked Brad’s response so much that I asked if I could re-post it here.

Micha: I’d like to make a couple of points in reply to your post:

1. You seem to hold the view, like a lot of people, that no one “religion” is better than another, but they are just a personal choice, influenced largely by culture. Under that view it is “rude” to try to get someone to change their religion. It’s like fans of one sports team trying to get fans of other teams to switch to their team. That can be okay if done politely, but it can also get bothersome, sometimes even rude or violent. But most people, even avid sports fans, would agree that it ultimately just doesn’t matter. Cardinals fans are not going to convert Cubs fans, Yankees fans are not going to convert Red Sox fans, and it doesn’t really matter. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is how you view religion.

The reason you are not understanding posters coming from a Christian perspective is that we see religion differently. We see it as a statement or set of beliefs about reality, not just an opinion. So to us, there really is one right answer. The statement “Christians don’t believe that non-Christian religion has as much value to people as Christianity does.” is offensive to you in the same way that the statement “Being a Cubs fan does not have as much value as being a Cardinals fan” would be to a Cubs fan. The bottom line is that there is no underlying reality, it is just a matter of opinion.

But what if someone were to say “Cancer treatment X has more value than cancer treatment Y”? That would be a question of immense importance to cancer sufferers. This is the way Christians, Muslims, and other religious people see the question of religion. It is crucial to get it right. It’s okay to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.” We do it all the time about medicine (and lots of other subjects, of course). But if we do it about religion we are labeled “intolerant.”

2. At worst, your low opinion of missionary efforts has some basis in reality. You see it as “cultural imperialism.” Sadly, it has been that in some cases. But the vast majority of Christian mission organizations today (I can’t speak for Islam or others) are much more aware of cross-cultural issues than they were in the past. Specifically, they strive to separate the religious reality from its cultural baggage. This is known as the “contextualization of theology” and will make no sense to you if I have correctly described the way you view religion in pt 1 above (sports fan analogy). You will see religion as inseparable from culture. But for the Christian the two are separable. Of course, there is no simple formula for separating the theological “non-negotiables” from the cultural trappings. That’s why mission organizations today send not only evangelists (as well as doctors, teachers, etc), but also anthropologists, linguists, sociolinguists, ethnomusicologists, ethnographers, etc. We don’t always get it right, but we are trying to bring our message in a way that values the local culture. Our view is that all cultures, including our own, have aspects that are good and aspects that are bad. All cultures need to be examined in light of our religious beliefs. Again, this will make no sense if religion is just an opinion that doesn’t really matter. I think the global success of Christianity in the past 100 years, as noted by Mead’s article, is at least in part a result of this new wave of missionaries trying to get it right.

3. On cultural imperialism, you need to read Spirit of the Rainforest by Ritchie. It is a mind-blowing account told by the Yanomamo people of Brazil/Venezuala. This is the group that anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon wrote about. The traditional Yanomamo culture is heavily steeped in revenge killing, rape, and slavery, encouraged by the spirit world of their religious system. The book documents the coming of secular anthropologists as well as missionaries. The missionaries came to teach love and forgiveness, and also brought modern medical techniques, literacy, etc. The anthropologists just came to study the people. One village wanted a “white person” to come because they had heard of the good things that missionaries brought. But to their eventual disappointment, they got a (non-religious) athropologist. They took a sick child to this anthropologist, and he told them to treat the child their traditional way. He took notes. The child got worse. He took notes. The child died. He took notes.

Eventually, when a number of Yanomamo had become Christians, they founded a village. This village refused to participate in revenge killings. Other villages fought against them in one of their traditional ways – two by two with clubs. The Christian village was able to defend itself in this, well not “non-violent,” but at least “non-deadly” way. Eventually, due to good medical care and the absence of revenge killing, this villge grew strong enough that no other villages dared attack it. It became a place of refuge, healing and forgiveness for those seeking safety. Yet, the secular anthropologists were enraged by the “cultural imperialism” of Christians. They wanted people to hang on to their killings, rape, wife-beating and inadequate medical care so they could be studied. This is the point at which anthropology becomes imperialistic, wanting to keep people in a sort of “cultural zoo” so they can be studied.

Note that the cancer treatment analogy I made above is actually not totally metaphorical. It is a metaphor for how we see religion, but it also has literal examples in how some people have been denied life-saving treatment in the name of “cultural sensitivity.” What if a culture had a cure for cancer, but didn’t give it to us because the way we treat cancer was so fascinating that they wanted to study it? Would we thank them for their cultural sensitivity?

The other fascinating thing about this book is how the Yanomamo spiritual beliefs dovetailed with the teachings of Christianity. They discovered that the spirits they were following were evil and leading them into more and more suffering. Nothing conflicted with their traditional belief system, but they switched their allegiance to a different set of spirits, and ultimately the “greatest spirit” whom they formerly called the “enemy spirit.” I obviously can’t do the book justice here. You’ll just have to read it.

4. You may be wanting to say “Lots of conflicts would be avoided if only nobody held religion as a statement about reality.” That is undoubtedly true, but does not bear on the question. Religion is either a statement about reality or it isn’t. Either/Or. If something is true, we should not disbelieve it just because we don’t like the consequences of believing it. All religious people need to interact in love and respect with adherents of other religions.

I hope some of this resonates with you. I probably haven’t changed your mind, but I hope you can understand a bit better why we feel religion is worth spreading. Sorry for such a long post. Thanks for reading, and have a happy new year.

1 comment:

Mari said...

Thank you for putting this up. I passed it along to my husband the newbie Christian.