Missionaries and Nationalism. Part Two

Continuing thoughts on the 1970s era book by J. Herbert Kane (1910-1988), “Understanding Christian Missions.” Written in the time of the many independence movements around the world as well as the height of the Cold War, it has much more to say on the relationship between missionaries and nationalism than more recent works. For Part Two, I am looking at what Kane said regarding the fact that national churches in colonies (I assume he is speaking of Evangelical churches… some other churches definitionally embraced Liberation Theology and independence) have often been little involved in independence movements. He gives a number of reasons.

A. Mission churches were the products of missionaries, who were typically Westerners. Mission churches were essentially a product of colonization.

B. Mission churches were founded by missionaries, and missionaries commonly have little interest in politics. I can relate to this. I have little interest in politics and so if people I supervise are highly political (and a few have been) they are that way in spite of me rather than because of me. I recall Billy Graham saying that if one wants social change in a country… then focus on evangelism. Social change will happen naturally as more are saved. I don’t know if he truly believed that or was being self-serving… but that is simply not how it is. If missionaries and churches focus on evangelism and ignore social injustice, they will create new Christians and churches with little interest in social injustice or political change. The fruit you get depends on the seeds you plant.

C. In many countries, Christians were a small, and sometimes persecuted group. Many believe (often correctly) that independence movements are not likely to benefit Christians. Often the opposite could be expected.

D. Many nationalistic movements were linked to non-Christian groups… and sometimes anti-Christian groups. I am from the United States and among Evangelicals if one wants to crush a social justice initiative, all one has to do is suggest that those seeking justice are Communists. Of course, the result of this sort of fearmongering is that Evangelical Christians are identified as rejecting social justice, and Communists supporting the same. Of course, if a nation becomes independent, it is no benefit for the Christian churches to be seen as collaborators with the colonial powers.

E. In many mission churches, the majority of the people are poor and illiterate or semi-literate. This sounds a bit insulting. At the same time, in many places this could be true. Generally, changing which rich and powerful people are in charge has more of an effect on rich and powerful people. The destitute and working poor, often are little affected by such changes.

F. Perhaps most importantly, many mission churches, and even more missionaries were beholding churches, mission agencies and individual supporters from the colonizing countries. These supporters were often very much not in support of independence movements. And even if there were those who did support independence, it had to have been scary to risk loss of financial and other forms of tangible support

Although many of the exact situations have changed, the basic issue remain. We would do well to learn from the ambiguous lessons and examples of the past.

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