This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series: Modern Myths (Sampson)
For many, the story of Christian missions is a story of oppression of other people and their cultures.
The activities of missionaries are often linked with those of colonists and criminals. As one 1990 children’s book has it, “The Europeans regarded the Aborigines as a heathen people who needed to be converted to Christianity, and put to work for the benefit of Europeans…Aboriginal lands were confiscated, their children taken away and put in Christian mission stations, their water holes poisoned, and many of their people massacred.”
Missionary influence is said to spread through fear or by gaining rice-bowl converts. Missionaries are implicated in commercial exploitation, theft of land, forced removal of children from their parents, destruction of habitats, torture, murder, and the decline of whole populations into destitution, alcoholism and prostitution. All this feeds the ‘secular disparagement of mission’ (Philip Goldring).
The missionaries themselves are portrayed as flint-faced Protestants or repressed nuns, imposing rigid, joyless rules, implementing ‘all the usual bans on pleasure’. Native people, on the other hand, are portrayed as vulnerable people living in an idyllic land.
‘When the white man came we had the land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed and when we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible’ (Jomo Kenyatta).
Of course, missionaries have not been entirely innocent. We know from Acts 10 & 15 that the Council at Jerusalem ruled that Gentile converts had been unnecessarily burdened with the cultural customs of Judaism.
The failure of critics to distinguish between mission and colonialism naturally results in the identification of mission with oppression. But oppression has frequently come from other sources: commercial interests such as the conquistadors and their search for gold and the British South Africa Company; Enlightenment ideas of ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’; evolutionary ideas such as eugenics which classified ‘natives’ as an inferior species.
A fundamental error is the identification of Western civilisation with Christianity. But the gospel is not inherently Western. No biblical authors were from Western Europe, and most biblical events took place in Asia and Africa. The assumed culture in the Bible is pre-industrial, largely nomadic. For 200 years the strongest churches were in North Africa and modern Turkey. Early missionary journeys were to, not from, Western Europe.
The language of oppression (‘savage’, ‘barbarian’, ‘civilisation’) owes little to Christianity. Bertrand Russell – eager enough to explain why he was not a Christian – thought that it was a Western duty to civilise ‘primitive’ people. Most missionaries have been more concerned with the light of the gospel than with the ‘benefits’ of civilisation.
The distinction between ‘civilised’ people and ‘savages’ owes much to Aristotelian teaching that barbarians are inherently inferior and are suited to slavery. Post-Enlightenment anthropologists attempted to divide peoples into separate species, some of which were inferior to others. Evolutionary theory, too, provided ready arguments for ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races. Richard Burton regarded the Christian willingness to treat black people as ‘men and brothers’ as a dangerous error at odds with the ‘facts’ of evolution.
Missionary Opposition to Slavery
The missionary, on the other hand, believed that all people are made in God’s image, and have a common descent (Adam and Eve). This belief inspired the Dominican Bishop Bartolome de Las Casaas in his opposition to slavery in the C16. It encouraged Dr John Philip of the London Missionary Society to support native rights in South Africa in the early C19. It led Lancelot Threlkeld to demand equal protection under the law for the Awabakal people of Australia. It inspired John Eliot to persuade the Massachusetts courts to find in favour of native people against settler claims.
Bertrand Russell’s allegation has often been repeated: ‘The churches, as everyone knows, opposed the abolition of slavery as long as they dared.’ But the enslavement of the New World, begun in the late C15, was soon being opposed by the Church.
In 1511 the Dominican Antonio de Motesinos preached, ‘Tell, me, by what right and with what justice do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you made such detestable wars against these people who lived peacefully and gently on their own lands? Why do you keep them so oppressed and weary…you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day…Are these not men? Do they not have natural souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves? Be certain that in such a state as this, you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks.’
The colonists attempted to have Monesinos punished, but the cause was taken up by Bishop Las Casas, and later by Acosta.
Slavery was justified, not from the Bible, but from Aristotle, for whom a slave is a ‘living tool’.
The first states in America to abolish slavery were Quaker Pennsylvania and Puritan Massachusetts.
The evangelical William Wilberforce formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. Missionaries themselves often opposed the slave trade.
Missionary Independence from Colonial Powers
Missionaries are often assumed to have colluded with colonial powers. However, missionaries owed their immediate loyalty to Rome or to their missionary society.
Charles Boxer remarked that the behaviour of most European pioneers in the tropics was based on the theory that there were no Ten Commandments south of the equator. Although examples of collusion between missionaries and colonial interests can be found, these are often over-emphasised. David Livingstone famously stated in his address at the Senate House in Cambridge in 1857, ‘I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work which I have begun.’ But part of Livingstone’s enthusiasm for legitimate commerce was due to his horror at the cruelties of the slave trade.
Colonists and traders often opposed mission, because of the missionaries’ insistence of treating native people as human beings who are entitled to the protection of the law. As at Ephesus, conversion often results in changed behaviour which can threaten some kinds of trade, whether of alcohol, idols, or slaves. Traders and colonists opposed the evangelism of native people, seeing conversion as the first step towards empowerment. In North America, David Brainerd complained that the traders opposed mission, because they wished to keep the natives exactly as they were so that exploitation through drink sales and land theft could continue.
Exploitation of Vulnerable Peoples?
Part of the stereotype is that native people were passive and readily abandoned their traditional beliefs and practices in favour of Christianity. The evidence for this is weak. James Miller, an Aboriginal writer, criticises thinking that ‘depicts the Kooris to be the helpless victims of brain-washing who abandoned everything that they ever believed n as soon as someone stood up and preached from an open Bible. This was not the case and such thinking degrades Koori society. Kooris were not helpless and Koori culture was not destroyed.’
Miller’s view is repeatedly supported in missionary diaries. John Eliot, for example, who in 1646 became the first European to preach in Algonquin. He preached a 75-minute sermon, after the Algonquin questioned him closely for a further 75 minutes. Compared with today’s’ church congregation, who hear a 20-minute sermon which is immediately forgotten, the Algonquin come out rather well.
Traditional Cultures Ruined?
The myth perpetuates the idea of native peoples as innocently living in harmony with nature, and of missionaries bringing with them Western culture which destroyed the idyl. The reality, however, is more complex. Some native cultures demonstrate remarkable respect towards the elderly, and hospitality towards guests. Some hold the view of land as held in trust, which is closer to the biblical norm than it is to Western ideas of absolute possession. But traditional societies, no less than Western ones, also have their own patterns of cruelty. Communities along the Amazon, for example, collected enemy heads as trophies, roasted their prisoners of war alive, and consumed human flesh in ritual feasts. Human sacrifice was, in fact, common from Brazil to the great plains, and the possession and ill-treatment of slaves has been widespread throughout the world and long pre-dates the arrival of white colonists.
The story tells of missionaries imposing Western culture upon native people. Examples include the use of Western hymnody, dress, and consumer culture. Indeed, acording to Norman Lewis, missionaries sought to undermine native cultures and thereby demoralise the people, ‘knowing that demoralised people are easier to convert.’
Of course, missionaries inevitably take their home culture with them; but to claim that they indiscriminately impose it on others is an oversimplification. The interaction is more complex. For example, in Brazil the early missionaries did not attempt to impose a change from an aboriginal culture to the Western culture of the time, although mutual change did take place.
It is supposed that native people were forced to wear European dress or hairstyle on their conversion. ‘The African’s clothing, or rather lack of it, concerned the missionaries to an obsessive degree…The battle to clothe Africa was highly symbolic [of the attempt to civilise it].’ (Pettifer & Bradley) To be sure, examples of this can be found. But many misisonaries chose to identify with native cultures: C16 Jesuit missionaries to China and Japan wore local dress and followed local customs. In the 1850s, both Hudson Taylor and William Burns did likewise.
It is also supposed that missionaries imposed their own language. However, whereas as colonists used European names, missionaries realised the importance of learning the native language. The first written forms of many languages were the result of attempts the translate the Bible. This work helped to codify and preserve languages.
Sometimes allegations of missionary oppression followed a hidden agenda of preserving ‘primitive’ lifestyles for the purposes of tourism.
Beneficial Effects of Christianisation
As might be expected from the gospel’s concern for the poor, missionaries have been active in opposing oppression of the vulnerable. Darwin observed at first hand that ‘human sacrifices…infanticide…bloody wars, where the conquerors spared neither women nor children – all these have been abolished…by the introduction of Christianity.’
In early C20th Kenya, missonaries were vocal opponents of clitoredectomy.
Stephen Neill wrote that the ‘weight of evidence tells heavily against the accusation that missionaries have been responsible for the destruction of native cultures.’
Darwin argued that missionary endeavour was opposed by whites because it undermined their desire to exploit native women. ‘I believe that, disappointed in not finding the field of licentiousness quite so open as formerly, they will not give credit to a morality which they do not wish to practice or to a religion which they undervalue, if not despise.’
‘As we have seen, the story of missionary oppression has had several effects. It has stereotyped native people and their cultures; it has hidden the historical conflicts between missionaries and Western colonial interests; and it has suppressed the role of Enlightenment and evolutionary ideologies in exploitation and oppression.’
Based on Sampson, Six Modern Myths Challenging Christian Faith, 91-112