I have been reading a bit of a book by J. Herbert Kane (1910-1988), “Understanding Christian Missions.” Originally published in the 1970s, the book is woefully out-of-date. And yet, it is that quality that makes it valuable in some ways. For example, it has a very interesting chapter on political involvement. A major part of that is on the issues of colonialism and nationalism. Nowadays, we may talk about semi-autonomous regions, national territories, or spheres of hegemony— but we rarely think in terms of colonial powers and colonies. However, in the 1970s, this was very much a still current issue. At that time, the colonial powers were rapidly disintegrating as national independence movements were moving towards final victory. It was also the time of the Cold War, so much of this process is also seen occurring linked to the geopolitical chess match between the NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact countries.
Much of the discussion is out of date because many of the questions have shifted… and yet the broader questions remain. Today, many look on with disdain at missionaries in history as being supporters of colonization, and also waging a war of cultural imperialism. As vigorously as some have argued these points, others have challenged these views. Some have portrayed missionaries as empowering nationalistic movements.
Kane does a good job of avoiding the extremes here (the extremes are almost always being wrong, as most people over the age of 22 typically learn). He notes several things (drawing from pages 252-255, of the 4th edition, 1986) that relate to missionaries who served in colonies.
#1. During the colonial age, imperialism was a way of international life. Perhaps I would say, it was the worldview. It was the world they were born into, and thus the system that makes sense. It is hard to picture a new reality, and so many missionaries supported colonialism simply because it is what everyone they were brought up with supported. Relatedly, even if they thought some colonialism is bad, it is likely that their brand of it (their own nations colonies) is better than other brands.
#2. Those missionaries who had concerns about colonialism often saw it as the ‘lesser of two evils.’ They saw suffering of various groups and believed that through colonialism, some of those evils could be addressed. Some believe that colonies brought CHRISTIANITY, COMMERCE, and CIVILIZATION. These were commonly seen as all inherently good. Even countries that eschewed colonialism could fall for that logic. The United States, a country that supposedly supported freedom from imperialists (at least from those lands that were not affected by the American belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’) still did embrace colonialism in certain places— specifically those lands they gained from the Spanish American War. While the US did not use the term “colony,” in practice that is what they were. However, the acquisition of these lands was couched in non-economic terms. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ argued that it was American responsibility to ‘help’ the Filipino by ruling over them— and President William McKinley also described the take-over in terms of benevolence. Frankly, I tend to see the “Lesser Evil” principle as an ethical weak position. I prefer the “Greater Good” principle, while acknowledging that good can be hard to find… especially in the political arena.
#3. Many accepted colonialism as part of the “Sovereignty of God.” Sadly, this is truly horrible theology. Kane himself did seem to find it hard to imagine that previous generation missionaries truly believed this. It is essentially states, “’What is’ is what is meant to be.” That seems to be way out of line from the Bible, where prophets and apostles pretty consistently state, “’What is’ needs to change.” Often God’s sovereignty becomes little more than a call for laissez-faire politics— for maintaining the ‘status quo.’ Yet, if a missionary felt called to stand against the status quo and seek to cause change, it certainly seems reasonable that he or she could claim to be acting according to the Sovereignty of God as well— especially if they succeed.
#4. Missionaries were commonly among the first to identify evils in the colonial system in which they resided. While missionaries sometimes flourished within the colonial system (at least when the colonial power was supportive of what they were doing and where they were doing it), they commonly stood against the many evils and exploitative practices carried out by colonialists. This is difficult. If one is asked to serve God within an evil and despicable system, should one focus on especially egregious abuses while ignoring the overall bad system, or attack the system itself?
#5. Missionaries have always (or at least mostly) saw themselves as ambassadors of Christ, not of the colonial government. I don’t think this viewpoint answers the question of what response is appropriate. Still, clearly, the charge that missionaries were pawns of the colonizers had more basis when their relationship with colonial powers were too chummy and when they embraced a sort of “Christendom” with church and state getting mixed up too much. As one who likes to minimize my relationship with all governments (a very healthy attitude I am prone to believe), I can see how focusing on one’s role as an ambassador of Christ may mean not dealing with problems that come from a tyrannical and/or corrupt government.
#6. Missionaries have stayed at their posts. With the transition to independent governments in countries that had been under colonial rule… missionaries have typically stayed to work, while other people from the colonial powers have generally left. That does, in some way, point out that their connection and commitment was to the people not the colonizers.
#7. Few missionaries have mourned the passing of the colonial era. Serving in the Philippines, I am thrilled that this nation achieved its full freedom in 1946. Would it have been better if they had gotten their full freedom in 1898? Perhaps, but that is something that cannot be changed. I have actually met a few Filipinos who wish that their country was never separated from the United States, but I can’t share that. I doubt things would have been better.
Part Two we will explore a similar but slightly different issue from Kane’s b