Back in 2001, after the “9-11” incident, US President George W. Bush described the zealots (or terrorists) who flew the airplanes into the world trade center towers as “cowards.” This led to some interesting conversations. After all, people who fought off fear and self-preservation could hardly be called cowardly, right?
Part of the problem lay in the inadequacy of the English language in this area. The term “courage” implies two characteristics. One of these is a lack of cowardliness or harmavoidance. The other characteristic inherent in the term courage or courageous is morality. What term does one use for a person who overcomes his own fears to do what is morally repugnant?
In English, many characteristics have a greater degree of subtlety. For example, the term “wisdom” or “prudence” also has a moral component. But for someone who is able to think clearly and “wisely” but without morality, could be described as wily or shrewd. But courage is different. We rightly reject evil behavior as being courageous. In this sense, the President Bush was correct.
The Martial Virtues, courage, duty, and honor, have moral components. I have always liked the follow descriptions of these virtues:
COURAGE. I DO WHAT IS RIGHT… EVEN WHEN I AM AFRAID.
DUTY. I DO WHAT IS RIGHT… EVEN WHEN I DON’T WANT TO.
HONOR. I DO WHAT IS RIGHT… EVEN WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING.
The morality of the behavior is foundational to these virtues. Within the Christian context, Jesus is thus the foundation of these virtues. We cannot describe courage (as well as duty and honor) outside of the context of Christ.
But what does this have to do with missions? Well… consider the initial story, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York. The people who did it, left their own people to do something that they believe their god desired them to do, to/for those who are outside of their faith. This, pretty much by definition, is mission work. Obviously, their mission work would only make sense within a very narrow branch of Islam.
But it does add a cautionary story for us. Within Christian missions, we have had Crusades (missions as warfare), gunboat evangelism (missions as armed threat), and Inquisition (missions through enforced conformity). Such work may be described as missions, but those who do this should not be described as courageous, dutiful, and honorable in their “service to God.”
Missions is not inherently good. A missionary that does dangerous, scary things is not necessarily courageous. A missionary who lives a public life conformed to his private life is not necessarily honorable. A missionary who follows orders and “does his job” is not necessarily dutiful.
Missions that is not grounded in the moral, ethical life of Jesus Christ is not really missions at all. Perhaps there is not even a name for it. But I think we need a name for it. So we can better avoid it.