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.


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.

A Defense of Naivety: Creativity in Political Debate

Bits and pieces of cheap food and drinks lie scattered over the surface of the kitchen table. Monday morning classes are comfortably far away and someone pulls out a quarter and empty bottles to begin playing a simple game called spinners. We, students and roommates, relax amid friendly banter and joking taunts about the relative talent of each player. Then, as usual, the discussion turns to politics. Sooner or later things begin to get heated, and a word surfaces that I’d heard many times before: “you’re so naïve…”

Young, naive idealist in "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

Young, naive idealist in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)

I spent countless nights of undergrad this way, sitting around a table with roommates and friends, laughing and chatting exactly like this. That period of my life is forever associated with the political debates I had with my fellow students during those years. But marring these experiences is a particular insult which was often directed my way during those discussions. On more than one occasion and in several different contexts I was labelled by my peers as “naïve.” Whether the topic was gun registries, LGBTQ rights, military interventions or the merits of capitalism the word seemed to dog my every step. The merits of the arguments made were always registered along the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, I found myself somewhere on the left and, in the eyes of my interlocutors, teetering on its extremity.

Since this word tended to dry up otherwise rich discussions, and always found its way into the conversation after I had laid out some idea in considerable depth and detail I began to resent it. I began to grow wary of its usage and prepare for its slinking movements through the conversation, always headed in my direction. Being called this word stung. I knew I was no professor of political science but I saw no reason why my opinions were less valid or valuable than my peers.

My response at the time was to combat this word, head on. I endeavoured to read more, see more, think harder, and insulate myself from the possibility of ever being called naïve again. But I have come to realize that I should be complimented the next time someone with whom I am debating politics calls me naïve.

The truth is that “naivety” is relative; it is dependent on time and place. Who gets to use it is also dependent on whose point of view most closely resembles the ideas of those in power. Labelling someone naïve conveys a non-threatening, easily dismissible point of view. What it really means is that your thinking is so far outside the bounds of their narrow scope of possibility that they have no other choice than to use this label for you in order to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.

Eventually I realized that this accusation should never deter you from thinking about politics creatively. Accepting your own supposed naivety actually works in favour of the political status quo. For this reason, if you are serious at all about disrupting the status quo, it is essential that you not take this accusation to heart (But don’t for a second think that I am advocating a lapse in doing the hard, dirty work of critically examining your own beliefs – that is another matter entirely).

I realized that the people who called me naïve in my politics did it simply because to them, I did appear naïve. I was formulating political stances outside of the realm of the political status quo. I was not advocating replacing the current ‘old white guy’ with a new ‘old white guy.’ I was advocating something else entirely – a different system, a different way of thought.

The trouble with accepting this accusation as a reliable representation of reality is that it discounts the fact that you have your own unique experience of the world. Just because those are not necessarily shared with the people you’re debating, doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid. Just because the people you may be debating are unimaginative and narrow in their thinking, thoroughly stuck in the morass that is the current political reality, doesn’t mean that you need to impose the same limits on yourself. Your experiences are valid, and so is your opinion.

After thinking about it, I began to see that the accusation against me as naïve mirrored accusations against the study of humanities in general. My conversations on politics with fellow students mirrored the wider debate (heavily influenced by neoliberal doctrine) going on within wider society on education, jobs, and what kinds of fields are considered “useful” and which are not. Fields like economics, engineering and business are not unimportant, of course. They open up ways of thinking which enable us to solve certain problems. But if we limit ourselves to these fields exclusively, and insist on their valuation above all other ways of thinking, then we (as a society) are going to run into some serious problems.

It seems to me that the real target in all of this is creativity itself. The humanities and arts provide training in a certain kind of creative thought. I propose that creativity is by definition the enemy of the status quo, because it enables us to think outside of our current political limitations. It makes perfect sense that instruments of the status quo, or people who are benefitted by the current system would want to squelch your political creativity. Creativity implies change, it implies coming up with alternative ways of thinking, and living, and acting politically. More of that is exactly what we need.

The real sting comes when we realize that the accusation of naivety is often hurled at youth. As people who fall into this category, we need to realize that this is part of the game. If we are demoralized, unsure of ourselves, lacking confidence in our ability to observe the world around us, think critically about it and then formulate political opinions on it, we will never change anything. And that’s exactly what they want.

I would like to humbly suggest that we embrace this word, naivety – it means we’re doing something right. The old ways of thinking about politics can be (and will be) pushed aside. Just because we are young does not mean that we are wrong. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on a problem can be the turning point in solving it. Just because we have enthusiasm and energy does not mean that it is misguided. The fact that we have not yet been tired out and beaten down by the monotony and hopelessness of the current system is something we should be proud of, not shamed by. The word naivety should not shut down the conversation, and it should not deter you from speaking your mind. Let those who are “tired” step aside. We’re more than ready to take the torch.

And lastly, go ahead – call me naïve. I dare you.