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.
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.
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.