Well, look what Mr Dictionary.com has to say…
The concept of colonialism is often coupled (rightly or wrongly) with the historical Christian ideas of mission or being a missionary. I think it is fair to say that colonialism is an unwanted and unhelpful concept in the realm of christian missions.
The other week I watched a Facebook discussion unfold on the concept of mission and those who carry out Christian mission. At one point in the discussion one person made the comment that a person who works a secular job has greater possibilities for evangelism than missionaries because they were surrounded by non-believers in the workplace. In fact he used the analogy that a worker in a secular environment could be a light in a dark place – as opposed to, I assume, a missionary who cannot or has a limited capacity to be a light in a dark place because of their lack of contact with non-believers.
It was also interesting to me that the emphasis of the observation and subsequent inference was based on a missionary’s capacity to evangelise.
What might we make of this comment?
Perhaps, his experience has been that missionaries work in churches doing church stuff.
Or… in his experience, missionaries do humanitarian stuff and so are not involved with either believers or non-believers at any length which inhibits the development of any real relationships and therefore any capacity for evangelism.
Or…he doesn’t have a clue what missionaries do.
Or…missionaries are working more with believers than non-believers because they are living up to the modern missiological trend of training nationals to do the work. If they are not seen to be in the secular market place it is because they have trained or are training nationals to be there instead – to do the work for themselves.
While thinking about these possibilities, which I’m sure are not exhausted here, I started to delve a little deeper into the last one. Could it be true that many missionaries cannot be seen engaging with non-believers because they are busy training locals to go out and do it alone? In many ways this idea appears to be a keeper. It is culturally appropriate. With this missiological trend the missionary is not imposing foreign ideas and methods on any given culture. It’s all about empowering locals. It’s all about raising up leaders. It’s all about developing a national heart for evangelism. Hard to disagree with, really.
Some might argue that Christianity is a western construct that has been used to establish a power base to control the masses. We could, for example, begin with Constantine and trace the abuse of Christianity as a power tool through to the present. So, any idea that someone today would go to any context to perpetuate Christian ideology could fall into the colonial basket as they seek to extend the literal rule of Christianity. Well, if this is how one views Christianity then a ‘missionary’ is a colonialist.
But let’s be honest. If one were to dig a little deeper into a context where this missiological trend is effectively being put to work, that is, the training of leaders, helping nationals to engage with the content of Christianity, etc, then how can we say that this is not in some sense colonial. The same is being perpetuated but by different people – nationals! What is happening is this: nationals are being trained to not only take on certain ideas, concepts, structures, and methods, but also being trained to perpetuate them. To put it crudely, the nationals are doing what those with colonial motives cannot do without being colonial. They are developing the colonial rule for the colonialists. The Gospel and the methods of perpetuating it are going with the intent that others will take it on too.
It reminds me of documentaries that I’ve seen when the CIA, for example, goes into a given country to effect change through training and equipping according to the US agenda. It is sneaky sneaky. Governments support national leaders in foreign countries to get them into power so that they will serve their own political interests. We call these countries puppet states. The puppeteer manages to extend their own reign without taking them over.
It is high time that cross-cultural mission had a discussion about the ethical merits of such a method.
But let’s be really honest and this is where it really hits the road. The Gospel is unapologetically colonial. The Gospel is about a kingdom that is in the business of extending its own rule throughout the world. It does not care about national boundaries, language or culture. The implications of the Gospel not only look colonial but are colonial. It expects lifestyle change where it does not align appropriately. Furthermore, it expects that those who submit to this rule will go on to proclaim the Gospel.
In what sense is the Gospel of Jesus not colonial?
I’m gonna say that we haven’t answered this question well enough. In an attempt to rub out our colonial past modern mission efforts have tried to de-colonialise by opting for a covert CIA style operation, but this, as I showed very briefly, is at best dubious and at worst deceptive. An honest portrayal of the Gospel proclaims the reign of Jesus over every part of everyone’s life including every aspect of any given culture that one finds themself in.
Why is it that we are happy to run this line of argument in our own cultures but when it comes to others we hesitate and create elaborate schemes to infiltrate them so as to propagate that same message?
More discussion and honesty is needed.