Insults as a Missiological Strategy??? Part 2

Luigi Basco (J. Carrol Naish) and Pasquale (Al...

Luigi Basco (J. Carrol Naish) and Pasquale (Alan Reed) in the CBS-TV series Life With Luigi (1952) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I feel that Part 1 of this post was a bit unclear. I pointed out that, although I strongly disagree with the ethics of the method, insults have been successfully used as a means of reducing other minority (or marginalized) groups. I realize that this sounds really strange, but in fact is quite common. Violence has commonly been used by a majority group to ensure that a minority group is “kept in its place.” Legislation has also been used to place limits on minority groups (ghettoization, political power limitations, special taxes/fees, etc.).  However, stereotyping, humor, caricatures, and so forth have been used not only to make the majority group feel good about itself, but also to encourage members of the minority group to “main-stream.”

Let me give a simple example. One of my few hobbies is collecting and listening to Old Time Radio. I used to have several thousand episodes on CDs. Some of them have failed due to breakdown of CDs. Maybe they are old, or maybe the high humidity of the Philippines doesn’t work well with cheap media. Anyway, one of the Radio Series I have is “Life With Luigi.” It was on in the US from 1948-1953. Luigi is an Italian immigrant newly in the United States trying to adapt to the culture and become a “real American.” Many of his friends are fellow students in what we might call today an “English as a Second Language” class. Much of the comedy is built around the challenge of Luigi and his friends to adapt to the culture.

One episode was, I believe, Episode 70, where Luigi gets a cold. The episode has Luigi trying all sorts of “old country” cures for the cold, while his wise (?) teacher keeps telling him that he needs a shot (vaccination). Luigi doesn’t listen to his teacher and does all sorts of different things to try to get better. Finally, in the end, he does the American/scientific thing and gets a vaccination. Happy ending… Luigi is just a bit more like a real American.

Some would take the view that “Life With Luigi” is a racist comedy because it pokes fun at some racial stereotypes. On a certain level that is true… however, it finds humor with a lot of different cultural groups, not just one. The best argument for the racism is not that it pokes fun at certain groups, but that it tends to have the Americans (born and bred Americans) as smart and capable, compared to the others. I would argue that the radio program is not classically racist. Rather it is monocultural… promoting a certain culture while poking fun at those who haven’t fully adapted to that culture.

I chose episode 70 of this series for a specific reason, however.  The story has big problems. It promotes a certain activity, vaccination that, in fact, had no value in treating a cold. One of the old-timey “cures” for the cold was chicken soup… something that, while not being a cure, is better at dealing with symptoms than a vaccination. This is the problem when a minority group is swallowed up by a majority group. The majority culture tends to promote certain answers and denigrates minority group answers. In so doing, there is an underlying message that one should throw away culturally distinctive characteristics and embrace the dominant culture’s characteristics.

This does not always happen fast… in fact it can be very slow. When my ancestors came to the US from Sweden, they continued to speak Swedish among family members but struggled to use English with the larger culture. They changed their names to American sounding names to fit in. The next generation was raised bilingually but were encouraged to use English as much as possible. In the next generation, my dad knew how to read Swedish but could not speak it. My generation, I chose to learn to read Swedish when I was young (a skill I soon lost), but was not encouraged to do so. Now that we live in the Philippines, my children do not know any Swedish, but can speak Tagalog. If my kids stay here, their children will probably be comfortably bilingual (English/Tagalog). And so it continues.

Religiously, the same thing happens. Certain answers given by the majority culture seem to “just make sense.” They just make sense because of majority opinion, not because they objectively prevail over other possible answers. The weight of majority opinion creates a pressure to conform. This pressure is exacerbated by not too subtle insults (either humorously or maliciously) dealt towards those who are strangely traditional or quaint or out of touch with the way things “really are.”

It is tempting for a religion that is dominant in a region to use this form of pressure to conform. When Emperor Constantine I became a Christian (or at least Christianish), Christianity became in vogue. Christian apologists commonly (going back to the 2nd century AD) used insults to show that paganism was old-fashioned with silly ideas about the gods and silly practices. In subsequent decades after Constantine I, Christianity became the in-thing, and many drifted into it from societal pressure not personal conviction.

Obviously, Christianity is not alone in this. It would be difficult (impossible?) to find a major religion that doesn’t do this. All dominant ideologies and non-theistic “religions” do this as well. Cultures (religious or otherwise) tend seek to grow and function without constraints of opposing cultures.

We as Christians really were not tasked to witness through insult. We are to proclaim the truth effectively, demonstrating God’s love. Such proclamation can point out errors. However, it should be built on a foundation of respect. A missiological strategy that is founded on WHATEVER SEEMS TO WORK, is not well grounded. This I see as a major problem in Christian missions. It tends to be poorly founded. Much of Christian missions is justified by proof-texting. One could proof-text insults as a missiological method by referencing Pauls remarks to the Galatian legalists. But that would be a poor justification. We need a better foundation that Pragmatism and Proof-texts.


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