Sin 4 Exploitation by Missionaries

The missionaries arrive uninvited. Despite noble intentions, they are ignorant of the place where they set up shop and indifferent to the hearts and values of the people they have come to help. They meddle in things which are none of their business. They assume that the natives' traditional spirituality is defective, even devilish. They bribe or coerce the people to abandon their traditional ways until, in the process of trying to 'save' the people, the missionaries wind up destroying them.21

I read that accusation to Woodbridge, following it with these questions: "Haven't missionaries through history contributed to the demise of native cultures? Haven't they ended up exploiting the very people they claimed they wanted to help? On balance, haven't missionaries done more harm than good?"

This issue struck close to home for Woodbridge, whose family has a long tradition of serving on the mission field. But he didn't seem to take the challenge personally, responding instead with his characteristic evenhandedness and balance.

"Let me start with the Spanish incursion into Latin America as an example, because it illustrates how complicated this issue can become," he said.

When I nodded my assent, he continued. "Was there exploitation and abuse of native people there? Yes, unfortunately, there was. But was this the result of the missionaries? Well, history tells us that the missionary movement was often associated with an economic policy of the colonial powers known as mercantilism."

"Could you define that?"

"Mercantilism was the belief that the country with the most gold would be the most powerful. The political balance of power in Europe was thought to be in part determined by which country successfully explored Latin America and elsewhere. As a result, mercantilist motivations became, unfortunately, mixed with missionary enterprises. It is, indeed, true that the Spanish did horrible things in Latin America, but much of it was instigated by adventurers and mercantilist types while many missionaries did praiseworthy things."

Woodbridge opened a book that was sitting nearby. "In fact, historian Anthony Grafton of Princeton University talks about the valuable things that the missionaries did," he said, reading from the book New Worlds, Ancient Text:

The Roman church insisted on the humanity of the Indians, and large numbers of missionaries especially idealistic mendicant friars bent on bringing what they saw as the simple, incorrupt people of the New World to Christ-arrived. They built churches and religious communities.22

"Now, Grafton is not an evangelical," Woodbridge continued, "but he has carefully studied the missionary movement and acknowledges the enormous amount of good that the missionaries did. Unfortunately, missionaries as a group get discussed as agents of mercantilism, and so they often get blamed for some of the horrible things the Spanish did in Latin America.

"And as I noted earlier, in the sixteenth century there were debates in Spain about whether what was going on in Latin America was Christian. There were major defenders of the Indians who insisted they shouldn't be exploited. One key figure, Bartolome de Las Casas, was driven to his reforming attitude after reading a passage in Ecclesiasticus in the Roman Catholic Bible, which says: 'The bread of the needy is their life. He that defraudeth him thereof is a man of blood."' Having read this, he and other Roman Catholics opposed the malevolent things that were taking place in Latin America."

His comments triggered my memory of seeing a statue outside the United Nations building in New York City a number of years earlier. Now I understood the background: Francesco de Vitoria, the founder of international law, had been one of the theologians who had argued for the full dignity of the New World Indians and who had fearlessly opposed their exploitation at the Spanish Court.

"So while it is indeed true that sometimes 'Christian civilization' has done some of the things you pointed out earlier, there have also been thousands of acts of charity that have been God-honoring. The Catholic Church has an impressive record of taking care of the poor during the Middle Ages. In California, their missions all up the coast took care of people. When you read the journals of a number of Protestant missionaries who went to other lands, it's very difficult to come to the conclusion that they were self-consciously determined to oppress or destroy all aspects of native cultures."

While Woodbridge's answer was providing some context, I wanted to press him further for a more personal response. "Your family has included missionaries," I said. "What were their experiences?"

"Well, I've read the diary of my grandfather, who was one of the earliest Protestant missionaries to China. I certainly didn't get the sense that he was doing what you said earlier. Instead, he had a burning desire that the Chinese people come to know Christ, and he was very concerned about the poverty of the Chinese people and about some of their practices that were very detrimental to the humanity of individuals. He respected aspects of their culture and wore a pigtail on occasion so that he would be accepted by them.

"It has to be pointed out that sometimes the critics of missionaries have almost a Rousseauist idealism that native peoples were always happy and living perfect lives and that there was none of the demonic or negative spiritism going on in their cultures. But when you read the accounts of people going into certain regions, you see that some of these native people were in dire physical and spiritual circumstances and that the missionaries greatly helped them.

"I've also read letters written by my mother, who worked as a missionary in Africa when she was single. She would ride a motorcycle deep into the jungles, going from village to village. She worked in a leper colony taking care of the sick. She desired to show them the love of Christ and to serve them and to see them healed. She served even at great personal risk due to malaria and other dangers associated with living in a jungle.

"So, yes, sometimes there can be a transformation of a culture, but often that transformation brought about some good. When native people became Christians, they experienced the love and joy of Christ. That's a wonderful thing. It's when other motivations creep into the minds of those seeking to change a culture, like a quest for economic gain or a twisted sense of racial superiority, that very bad things result."

"Perhaps," I observed, "some critics of missionaries see no value in the Christian message and therefore no benefit to the people who become followers of Jesus."

"Right!" he declared. "Often that's the underlying presupposition. But if a person has the presupposition that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, then the gain to the various cultures of the world that hear the gospel is incalculable.

"I have a colleague who is a leading African theologian. He's had to battle the literature that says Christianity is a western imperialist ideology bent on destroying African religions. His perspective is quite different. He sees the wonderful contributions that Christianity has made to African societies. It's brought hope, it's brought redemption, and countless Africans are very grateful for the gospel. At the same time, he does not deny that the bearers of the Christian message sometimes did not live up to the teachings of Christ in their dealings with Africans."

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