Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Now there's a loaded word if I ever blogged about one! I think maybe this is one of the areas that the focus of "evangelical" and "liberal" Friends differs the most. Missions creates a problem because it's incredibly difficult to distinguish between essential elements of a religion, and traditions that have become so matter-of-fact that they take on almost sacramental overtones. On the other hand, I went to the World Gathering of Young Friends last summer in England, and it was so amazing to be joined by Friends from all over the world! I think there were two Friends there from unprogrammed backgrounds who weren't from Europe, the USA or Russian states. (The ones I'm thinking of were from Costa Rica and Colombia. Feel free to correct me if there were any others.) If EFI and FUM weren't doing missions work, would Quakerism have ever spread south of the equator? And now I think a majority of Friends worldwide live in the southern hemisphere.

We've been learning in my church history class the last few weeks (or really all semester) about colonization and Christendom, and how those often went together and were seen as pretty much the same thing by native peoples of the colonized (shall we say invaded?) countries. This is truly unfortunate, and frustrating. Our church history profs talk about "Christendom" as the culture of the West that includes Christianity, but that incorporates Western cultural traditions which have nothing to do with faith, although colonizers often act as if they do. For example, wearing Western-style clothes, eating with Western utensils, becoming "civilized."

Most of those who first colonized much of the "New World" and Africa weren't really concerned about the spiritual welfare of their new "citizens," but were more focused on subduing the population and getting them to conform to an orderly and managable system, and used Christianity as an excuse--almost a crusade--to get their country to back their government in its quest for wealth and power.

At the same time, I truly believe that a lot of the early missionaries themselves went with good intentions. Sure, they didn't use politically correct terms (calling the native people "heathens" and such), and they often acted in a superior manner, but I think they meant well. They truly felt that the Western way of life was better than the native ways, and wanted to share that with others. This seems more like a cultural evangelization rather than a religious one, however.

Now missionaries are generally being more empathetica, treating others as humans rather than numbers they've baptized and that sort of thing. Now most missionaries are focusing on learning a trade that they can do as they build relationships and from that basis of friendship they share what brings them hope and joy--namely their faith. I think a lot of missionaries are even attempting to be more open about paying attention to where God is already working in people's lives and religious practices, finding those places of commonality and working from there, rather than going in with the idea that "we Westerners have all the answers and everyone else is too ignorant to understand."

But the word "missions" still makes me pretty wary. The history of Christian missions has been so bound up with war, crusades, colonialism, imperialism, racism and the destruction of so many cultures that it's hard to want to support its continuance.

And yet, if we truly we believe we have "good news," if we truly believe everyone has this Light within them that is yearning for [I'll let you fill in the blank with your favorite word but I'll use God], then why wouldn't we want to share this with people? To me the good news is a message of freedom, that we don't have to fear death or suffering, that we're not alone, that there is a meaning to life and that we have a part in that, that we are saved from our stumbling around in the darkness, that we can love and follow this amazingly loving God who wants to work with us to establish a kingdom of peace. Wow, that's so cool! We don't have to worry or be afraid. We don't have to succumb to unjust systems and let ourselves be oppressed. There's another way, a way through finding the wholeness of ourselves in God. And I want others to know that, too!

But I don't want to destroy who they are in order to make them see it. That's the beauty of God's Light in us--it looks different through every person. A lot of you are probably not evangelical enough to have heard of Keith Green, but he was a Christian singer/songwriter in the 70s and early 80s. He has a song about how God's Light shines through us like stained glass windows. Even though Quakers aren't really into stained glass windows, I still think it's a great image. If we're doing what we're meant to do (be a window to God), we'll let God's Light shine through us, and it will look different through each of us. But as we come together in community, we make a beautiful pattern of various hues.

But if we sit inside our own communities and don't let the world see us, the Light doesn't shine through us and we're purposeless, and although we still have those colors and the potential for the Light to shine through us, it can't unless we put ourselves in positions to be lit up by it.

This doesn't mean we have to go to other countries, and it doesn't mean we have to preach on every streetcorner and hit people over the head with the Bible. But what DOES it mean for us as Quakers? Is "missions" a good thing, or not?

[By the way, the picture is of one of the windows in the Lancaster Priory, right next to Lancaster Castle where many early Quakers were imprisoned, including GFox and MFell. No wonder they hated stained glass! But it's pretty anyway...]


kathz said...

I think you're right when you link the problem of mission with imperialism - I've been thinking lately what a very dreadful history it is. That also points to a wider problem - it's often about the powerful speaking to the powerless (or those with less power). Is there a possibility for a mission of the powerless to the powerful any more? There's enough teaching on this - about becoming the servant of all - and sufficient precedents to suggest that this as a possible way forward. But it would mean a frame of mind with which we in the west are unfamiliar - and accepting the risk of achieving nothing and being totally forgotten. It doesn't sit easily beside all the urgings to live out our dreams and the increasingly common belief that if you really want to do something, you can (not true for the vast majority of people).

And perhaps such a way of living wouldn't even see or describe itself as mission at all.

(I may be going round circles here - if so, sorry.)

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

Hey friend, just a quibble - Since Kenya is in the northern hemisphere I think you would have trouble backing up that most are in the south-claim, Check the frapper map if you doubt me.

Anna Dunford said...

Aotearoa New Zealand YM, Australia YM and General Friends Conference in India are all unprogrammed, Japan is sort of a mish mash!

That counts for about a dozen folk who were WGYF at least =)

(nice to know the database in my head still works even tho' the laptop hard drive died on me!)

Lovin' Life Liz said...

You wrote:
"the destruction of so many cultures that it's hard to want to support its continuance."

That is my problem with missions as well. I believe in preserving cultures and religion is a HUGE part of one's culture. In my undergrad work I took a cultural anthropology course and one thing that I will always remember saying, upon discussing religion and culture and missionaries were 2 things, "What is right for you, may not be right for another person" and "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe in something."

If Islam is someone's personal truth who I am to take that away from them?

cherice said...

Kathz, I've been thinking about that power dynamic as well--didn't have time to write about it yesterday, but I agree. That's a huge problem with imperialism. Usually when it's politically advantageous for a country to become Christian (because their ties will be greater to some current world powers), it suddenly becomes easier to "convert" people...

And I think a lot of Africans and others felt the pressure of living up to a civilization that seemed more "advanced" than theirs and so became Christians mostly because it was the thing to do to be accepted into that culture.

Peggy--thanks for that reminder! I heard that statistic from a Quaker missionary but apparently they didn't check their map any better than I did... =)

Anna--I knew I was forgetting something! OK, so Australia and NZ aren't really "Western" exactly, not even in mindset perhaps, but they've been completely colonized by Europeans so I don't think that counts as "missions" although definitely is colonization (but the same could be said about the USA). But sorry for leaving them out! I figured I'd be putting my foot in my mouth with that one. I didn't know we had Indian Friends at the WGYF who were unprogrammed.

Liz--I don't think I'd go as far as saying that "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe in something." I know this isn't what you meant, but even Nazis believed in something...they believed in the superiority of their race over Jews, handicapped, homosexuals, etc. And I believe there is truth out there, and maybe someone who's a Muslim knows the same God I do, but that doesn't mean we both couldn't come to a fuller understanding of that God through talking to each other about our beliefs.

But it is incredibly difficult to change a culture's religion without changing its whole culture. So it's hard to know how to deal with that when thinking about missions. Some parts of cultures may need to change--parts that aren't fair to certain individuals and groups and that sort of thing--but the same could definitely be said about "Christian" cultures.

Lovin' Life Liz said...

Perhaps I should have added "As long as you are doing no harm to others"

But thats just my personal truth :)

Besides, who are we to judge another's religion, when only God can do that?

john said...

Kenya is in both hemispheres. The Equator cuts it in half. There may be some truth to the claim earlier refuted. I don't know how the population is distributed.

Christianity is growing fastest in China, Africa, and South America, and this growth is not presently linked to colonialism. The "New Christendom" is not primarily a white, Europe-dominated or Europe-descended piety. The concerns of the New Christendom are virtually anathema to the concerns of Anglo-European Christian culture; it is far more Charismatic and catholic (as in all-inclusive), with the practice of prophecy, healing, house-churches, and ongoing worship (meetings for worship all the time) as a social norm, and with a much greater concern for the care of the poor. It is also more socially conservative concerning "traditional values": the treatment of women, homosexuals, and the the roles of people in society being prescribed by heritage rather than seeking or discovering.

While far from homogenous or monolithic, the New Christendom may be closer in character to the orginal Yeshua-faith movement than anything we know in the West. It is difficult to imagining how stoic Quaker meetings (or other Anglo-Protestants and -Catholics) would respond to the eruption of spontaneous songs of worship, prayer, and prophecy in their midst (which was certainly a feature of worship for the earliest Friends). Few would voice direct scorn, but I wonder how many would secretly be looking down on such a person and congratulating themselves for being more civilized in worship.

While I don't think much of "believe whatever you want," and "my personal truth," I do think that God has given each faithful community its own vocation – a unique testimony, a unique cross to endure. When interacting with another community of faith, it is vital to discern our own vocation and enact it faithfully, while not making claims about the vocation of others. We need to get the log out of our own eye and be faithful to our own testimony. The rest is God's work.

Sebastian said...

I think Patricia from Colombia and myself(Sebastian from Costa Rica) were the only unprogrammed LATIN AMERICAN Quakers that were present in the gathering, however I know there's an unprogrammed meeting Mexico city and I think there's even one unprogrammed meeting in Africa.

Peter the Anderson said...

oyzkfrggI understand anxieties about unfairness, but imperialism was generally tied to the economic side of european expansion, i.e. garnering slaves for the fields. The church's mission is always for social peace and fairness. Sure there must have been some corrupt ministers in the missions, but the point is that they were corrupt. If, when it came from uncorrupted ministers, the message of peace, love and sharing in Christianity was rejected, then the only thing that the euros had at their disposal to achieve their own goals was imperialist force. In the absence of any belief in judgement day and heaven and hell, what is there to say that an imperialist was wrong back then, any more than the atheistic, materialist company which gets people overseas to make shoes and shirts is wrong these days? Wouldn't it be best to also try to convince people to have faith in Christ while they make shoes and shirts, so at least they can be confident that our businesses will be condemned in a Christian context if they do the wrong thing?

cherice said...


I agree that the main problem was the economic issues of imperialism, but that's kind of the point--Christians got so mixed up as to what parts of their faith were/are cultural and what parts are the essential, life-giving faith. As they went abroad they (usually inadvertently, not intentionally corruptly) acted in ways that furthered their country's economic interests and they used the protection and the prestige that came with being a foreigner in such a way that the acceptance or rejection of the message of Christ usually had more to do with that person's desire to be more/less Western rather than a deep spiritual change. (This of course is overgeneralization and exaggeration to some extent, but also unfortunately close to the truth often.)

And you're right--I shouldn't condemn missionary movements that got mixed up with imperialism and more than I should condemn those who use unfair labor practices overseas, but I don't condone that, either. Missions is worse to some extent because it says it's Christian, but you're right--the least we can do is tell people about our faith while we exploit them...but I'm not sure how effective that is...or how effective I'd want it to be.

Peter the Anderson said...

Thanks Cherice,
I wouldn't want a Christian message attached to any form of exploitation at all! I see what you're saying about inadvertant corruption though. I like to give my cultural ancestors a little bit of credibility - this generation isn't perfect yet either, but the intentions seem to be good in places. Perhaps the same applies to them. Of course, materialistic greed is utterly rejected by the New Testament.
Perhaps it got lost in translation but the gist of what I was saying is that if there is exploitation, there ought to be some kind of message going to those companies that at least in the beliefs of Christians in the West there will be a Judgement Day before the Almighty - then people in exploitative companies might believe and reconsider their corporate behaviour. I believe there has to be a Judgement Day. The world is too skewed for there not to be.
I hope that's clearer. I like the challenges in your posts as much as the informative parts, by the way.

Anonymous said...

I love Keith Green!
He has been so infuential on me as a Christian and as a musician. He has challenged me to be more honest with my lyrics. Actually, I would honored if you would check out my music on my site. Its bery “Keithish.”

“All my music is available free for download.”