The Past Never Dies: An Anthropologist’s Reflections on Modern Evangelical Missionary Literature

I grew up attending a church where a large world map was displayed in the lobby. Brightly coloured push pins with strings marked the locations where missionary families from the church were currently stationed. We sang songs in Sunday school with lyrics like “I’m in the Lord’s army” and “Onwards Christian soldiers.” We spoke about “conquering souls.” Embedded within this ideology are unabashed echoes of colonialism, which I believe need to be called into question.

Onwards Christian Soldier Map

I came across a perfect example of the material manifestation of this ideology just a few days ago. I was reading a newsletter from a family member of mine who lives and works as an evangelical missionary in Sub-Saharan Africa (because I have not asked permission, and I highly doubt they would grant it, given the tone of this piece, I have neglected to link to the newsletter or mention the specific country this relative operates in). For those who don’t have missionary relatives or friends, it is common practice for missionary families to write regular newsletters detailing their exploits, with reports on their successes/struggles, requests for prayers on specific issues, and updates on how each member of the family is doing, often including photographs. More recently, missionaries have taken to creating these newsletters electronically and distributing them online through emails or social media networks. The newsletter I read was perfectly representative of this trend and was scattered with photographs of the African people with whom my relatives work.

However, it was the captions on these photos which raised some questions for me. Strangely vague captions such as “Vadoma lady & baby in clinic” and “Bemba people” (group names have been changed to preserve anonymity) immediately brought to mind photos from old Evans-Pritchard ethnographies (a colonial anthropologist who worked in British controlled Sudan). When my missionary relatives appeared in these photos, they were identified by name. This style of description is a direct descendant of earlier anthropological and colonial literature. I wonder if the people photographed were asked for permission to use their images? Surely the authors are aware of the people’s names – why not include them in an effort to portray the subjects in a more humanizing light? The effect of this type of captioning is to dehumanize the subjects of the photography, and to portray them as part of an anonymous mass of poor, racialized people, neatly opening up the line of logic which leads to a racist, colonial, and imperialistic ‘White Man’s Burden’ style philosophy.

whitemansburden

If my criticisms sound strongly worded, I should mention that I speak from the perspective of someone who has intimate, personal experiences with evangelical missionaries. I have many relatives who conduct missionary work in foreign countries, an “MK” (slang for missionary kid) parent who was raised in the “mission field,” and grandparents and great-grandparents that devoted their life’s work to evangelical missionary activities. Several of my great-grandparents’ children died of tropical diseases while in the mission field. But not only are the effects on the people with whom these missionaries work dubious, I have personally seen the negative effects the decision to participate in these activities can have on the missionaries’ lives themselves. I’m not the only one.

With that said, the colonial mentality behind these photographs and the accompanying newsletter is clear. The idea that one belief system, nay – one interpretation of one belief system, is superior to all others and must be propagated “for other peoples’ own good” is inherently arrogant. The concomitant goal of the obliteration of all other forms of spirituality only serves to emphasize the damaging implications of this ideology. In not allowing for the validity of other spiritual paths, and in actively seeking to destroy other ways of being spiritual (including indigenous modes of spirituality) evangelical missionary work reveals its underlying bigotry, not to mention a twisted form of intellectual and spiritual tyranny.

As a Canadian, I cannot help but think of the devastating consequences of missionary activity among indigenous peoples in my home country. The horrors of residential schools including the rape, physical, sexual, cultural and psychological abuse of indigenous children by priests and other religious figures cannot be dissociated from these practices. Anthropologists have long been critical of our own historical complicity in the colonial endeavour. As someone who occupies both positions (as an anthropologist and member of an evangelical missionary family) I would like to suggest that we do some soul searching pertaining to these ideological roots in evangelical missions as well. Aren’t these historical records an indication that we should examine current missionary work with a critical eye? That perhaps the past should give us pause?

The truly unfortunate (and heart-breaking) aspect of all this is that often people who participate in evangelical missionary work are genuine and well-meaning. (And please don’t misinterpret me – I am in full support of religious freedom; that is the very reason why I oppose these types of colonizing mentalities in which privileged foreigners set up shop in someone else’s country with the explicit goal of convincing people there that their cultural practices are ‘wrong’). I write about these issues from personal experience which has led me to believe that these missionaries and their supporters truly, whole-heartedly believe the merit of these endeavours, and endure great personal sacrifices to enact them.

Unfortunately, voices like mine are often drowned out in the evangelical missionary collective conversation, through in-built devices within the ideology that view any form of criticism as a sure sign that they are on the right path. If you bring these issues up, you are often met with a response along the lines of “Christ warned that his followers would be persecuted.” Rather than taking an honest look at the history and effects of their work, they cover up these arguments in a shroud of upside down logic, often citing 2 Timothy 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Jesus Christ will be persecuted” (ESV).

To be fair, there is a huge difference in the actions of a person who is motivated by their personal faith to help others and those with the explicit goal of converting others to that faith while using apparent “helping” activities as a prop/cover. I want to make clear that in voicing these criticisms I am attacking an ideology, not the people who subscribe to it. I implore evangelical missionaries to take a good, hard look at some of the underlying tenets of this ideology as it pertains to missionary activity. Instead of brushing aside criticism through ideological sleight of hand, let’s identify shared values. Let’s critically and honestly look at our histories. Let’s look at the root causes of underdevelopment in formerly colonized countries and seek to acknowledge those injustices. Let’s advocate reparations and redistribution, not condescending “help” laced with religious intolerance, bigotry, and arrogance.

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2 thoughts on “The Past Never Dies: An Anthropologist’s Reflections on Modern Evangelical Missionary Literature

  1. Hey Eden, Ramez here. It seems that our conversations are destined to carry on for a very long time haha. First off, very good post. It really made me think, and I think it was well written and not as mean-spirited as the posts I often come across. I commend you for that. Perhaps the only part I take issue with regarding this is calling out the evangelical work and its belief in its truthfulness as bigotry. I agree its exclusive, but mind you that much of it has been deeply and carefully thought out (not by everyone of course). The vast majority of belief systems when it comes to spirituality are exclusive claims, and the ones that aren’t end up being self-contradictory. In addition, your own views regarding feminism and this post even, are inherently exclusive, are they not? I don’t necessarily take issue with exclusivity. I think the observer ought to examine the evidence and determine what they believe. Inevitably this belief will end up being exclusive if it is to be coherent.
    Regarding the military imagery in hymns and songs, this is not new or exclusively North American/ European, but rather Christian symbolism. Other symbolic genres of the culture at the time were used. Consider what the apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:3-6: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” In John 18:36 Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” and earlier rebuked Peter for wielding the sword. Furthermore, Jesus did not have a political agenda or else He would not have commanded to pay taxes to Caesar. All this is to say that this imagery is not necessarily colonial. Sure, it was probably used and misinterpreted in this way, especially by European nations (which I think is heinous, and my country suffered directly as a result of it), but I don’t have a problem with the symbolism itself.
    It’s interesting what you said about the names (or lack thereof) in the pictures of the people in Africa. I certainly would think that if you love someone whom you are serving as a missionary you would want to personalize them. I personally get names in the emails I receive – either that or a pseudonym if it’s in a country where missionary work is banned and the Christians there are persecuted, for the protection of the persons themselves.
    “The idea that one belief system, nay – one interpretation of one belief system, is superior to all others and must be propagated “for other peoples’ own good” is inherently arrogant. The concomitant goal of the obliteration of all other forms of spirituality only serves to emphasize the damaging implications of this ideology. In not allowing for the validity of other spiritual paths, and in actively seeking to destroy other ways of being spiritual (including indigenous modes of spirituality) evangelical missionary work reveals its underlying bigotry, not to mention a twisted form of intellectual and spiritual tyranny.”
    Yeah, if the goal were to obliterate people’s belief systems that would be horrible. However, missionary work is not to obliterate others’ belief system, but to tell them the good news of Christ: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20). Of course the inevitable conclusion of people believing in Jesus is forsaking their old belief systems, which if they desire to do so is within their full rights. Forcing Christianity on someone is unacceptable; preaching the good news of salvation in Christ, however, is acceptable. When you believe fully in Christianity and the life found in Jesus, the loving thing to do is to spread it everywhere. That’s what the Jews who received this first command has done, which allowed the gospel to spread to many areas of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe, as Jesus declared that some people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, with their various cultural representations, belong to Him.
    While I’m sure there are several examples of missionaries not loving the people to whom they are sent, I think it’s only fair to mention a couple of examples of missionaries doing what they are supposed to do. The first example that comes to mind is of the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador. This was a viciously violent tribe which the Ecuadorian government was ready to wipe out, so five American Evangelical missionaries risked their lives in order to reach these people with the gospel. Indeed, all five were speared to death by this tribe, a price they were ready to pay. The wives of these missionaries later joined this tribe with medical aid and the gospel, and the entire tribe eventually accepted Christ. The son of one of the killed missionaries (Nate Saint) was later adopted by the very man who killed his father.
    The second example that immediately comes to mind is a personal example. My generation and that of my parents cannot speak Coptic because of the systemic elimination of our language and ethnic identity by the Arab invaders in the seventh century. A task that was unsuccessful until very recently. Missionaries who came to Egypt in the 1800s and 1900s translated the Bible into Arabic, which allowed me and countless others to grow up reading the Bible. Furthermore, these Evangelical missionaries preached the gospel and my parents and grandparents responded to it after it had been buried in tradition and religiosity. Furthermore, they built my home church in Egypt which we have until today. I will forever be indebted to these missionaries.
    “As a Canadian, I cannot help but think of the devastating consequences of missionary activity among indigenous peoples in my home country. The horrors of residential schools including the rape, physical, sexual, cultural and psychological abuse of indigenous children by priests and other religious figures cannot be dissociated from these practices. Anthropologists have long been critical of our own historical complicity in the colonial endeavour. As someone who occupies both positions (as an anthropologist and member of an evangelical missionary family) I would like to suggest that we do some soul searching pertaining to these ideological roots in evangelical missions as well. Aren’t these historical records an indication that we should examine current missionary work with a critical eye? That perhaps the past should give us pause?”
    Absolutely! What happened to the aboriginal peoples in Canada is entirely unacceptable and horrendous. It goes completely against the teachings of Christianity. And yes to your second point. We should always take a step back and examine why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

  2. Pingback: In the Crosshairs of Conversion: Encounters with an Evangelical Driscollite | This Time, This Place

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