Do Missionaries Destroy Cultures?

In the popular culture, influenced in large part by segments of the secular media and the educational establishment, the idea has been set forth that missionaries are simple minded insensitive people who are motivated in reality by self-serving motives. When they come into contact with other cultures they simply cannot understand the values of others so they cause indigenous peoples to accept their “superior” Western cultural norms and sometimes in misguided zeal destroy libraries, totem poles, and other expressions of culture. All missionaries are and were interested in was colonialism and lining their pockets with what they exploited from native peoples.

In certain oft read fictional accounts missionaries came to be cariacatured as lustful (e.g. W. Someset Maugham’s Rain or Seven Women) or as those who messed up the peaceful idyllic life of natives (e.g. James Michner’s Hawaii). In Hawaii the odious bigoted Abner Hale becomes the prototype for understanding missionaries’ contempt and disregard for native culture. Alan Tippet, an anthropologist, however researched hundreds of early missionary sermons from Hawaii and found that none had the ranting style Michener suggested was typical.

It is, therefore, the conclusion of many today that these peoples could do very well without Christianity. They had their religions and ways of life. It is better that they should have been left alone. However, what is overlooked is that these peoples had already been exploited and abused. David Livingstone was preceded by Arab slave traders. But Livingstone did what he could for the slaves by treating them and burying their dead. Before Any Carmichael there had been those who dragged boys and girls away from Indian temples to child prostitution. Livingstone and Carmichael, however, opposed these practices and made a difference. William Carey spent 56 years in India and rescued more than a thousand children from neglect of abuse as Hindu temple prostitutes. Missionary Jeremy Evarts opposed the removal of the Cherokees from their land when the U.S. government wished to do so.

It is true that there have been missionaries who have been insensitive to the culture of those they have tried to reach. In some cases they have been destructive and self-serving. On the other hand there are secularists who do not always have a good record.  They introduced things such as alcohol, drugs, and fire arms to those who were not responsible in using them. Land hungry settlers pushed some native American tribes into extinction. This leads us to an important observation. Missionaries are not to be necessarily associated with imperialistic exploitation. A recent well-researched book entitled The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880-1914 states, “most missionaries were no conscious imperialists in either a political or denominational sense.”

Are missionaries routinely money grubbing? Hardly. Many go on the basis of faith missions pledges with no parent organization guaranteeing that their needs will be met. Many serve when they do not have their full support. Take William Carey who is credited with being the father of modern missions. As a young preacher he wanted to go to India. He had a pledge of $250 from a group of his Christian friends to launch his ministry. The British government offered to pay him $7,500 a year if he would teach English in an Indian University. He decided to live on the $250 and then gave the $7,050 to missions. It is estimated that he gave over $400,000 to world missions. Livingstone had to deal with dysentery, malaria, insects, lions, thieves, hunger, unfriendly villagers, slavers, rain, drought. Yet he persevered to bring the gospel to and to live unselfishly before those he met.

Missionaries often work where it is dangerous to live. Many have lost their lives as a result. Critics have in effect said, “You Christians are nuts! You go to other countries and get kidnapped, shot and killed by people who don’t want you. Get out of these countries and this won’t happen.” But these critics are oblivious to the danger of something much worse happening if the missionaries do not go with the gospel message. The removal of guilt (a universal need), motivation to live a better life, and bringing hope for eternal life are three rich spiritual legacies that missionaries leave behind. Besides the spiritual liberation that is accomplished, very often expanded human rights, hospitals, orphanages, treatment of AIDS, prison reform, and halting of practices such as slavery, forced prostitution, and ritual widow burning have followed. Multitudes were taught to read and write. In fact, such caught the attention of Nicholas Kristoff writing in the NY Times a few years ago in which he expressed admiration for Christian concern for the world’s poor and oppressed.

Today’s missionaries, more than ever, are taught to respect other cultures where they can and are trained in cross-cultural communication. Where practices clearly violate biblical ideals they are challenged. The story is told of a traveler whose self-confidence exceeded his humility and perception. He went to a tribal village and found a native seated on the ground reading a Bible. “What has that book done for you?” he skeptically asked. The man looked up from his reading. “We might better ask what the Bible has done for you?” “For me?” the traveler asked in surprise. “Yes, if I had not read this book you would be in that pot over there.” Fortunate indeed for the traveler that a missionary stopped by and introduced the Bible to these people!

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment