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...]