Cultural Landmines and “The Pineapple Story”

Otto Koning served in Irian Jaya back when it was part of the Dutch East Indies. He wrote the story, “The Pineapple Story.” It was a story we covered in our Intro to Missions class years ago. The story is all over the Web, so I will let you read it yourself. One could argue that the story addresses the issue of anger in missionaries. In many parts of the world, anger is seen as a sin. I was brought up in a church where anger (except for so-called “righteous anger”) was thought sinful. I don’t think anger is sinful in itself… but when one cannot control one’s temper, sin can result… and certainly undermining God’s work because one cannot control one’s temper is a sin. The story can also be seen as the problems of ownership. A lot of our problems as missionaries reduce if we can stop bringing our own sense of ownership with us. If all things are seen as God’s not our own… we are better prepared to deal with different understandings of material goods.

That latter part was where I had a bit of a problem with the story at first. The story emphasized that the local people were thieves. Koning had planted pineapples and the people kept stealing them. I had some concerns about this. After all, he planted tropical plants on tribal lands. Isn’t it possible that as such, the fruits were considered community property. In fact, it seems that the tribe’s attitude is “You plant it, you eat it.” Since the missionary owned the land BUT did not plant the pineapples, they were not seen as his to control. Sometimes different models of ownership can cause problems in the mission field. After all, Biblically speaking, stealing is a sin, and stealing is illegal taking of what is someone else’s. However, what is someone else’s is generally culturally defined. That is why stealing is not only deontological, it is also contextual. (There was an interesting episode on Gold Rush where Parker and friends are about to go after “gold thieves” only to discover that under Australian Law, what the people were doing was not theft, neither was it illegal. But if Parker and friends had harmed these “thieves,” Parker and friends would have been in trouble.)

However, as I looked into the story more, it was clear that the taking of stuff wasn’t just about community land. Koning talks considerably about the rampant thievery that went on pretty generally. I don’t know whether this was done by everyone against everyone else, or if the missionary family were especially targeted. I do have a friend who lived in foreign country who’s house was commonly broken into. It seemed to my friend that the people there were “just a bunch of thieves.” However, I am familiar with the people he worked with, and they do not generally have a culture of breaking into people’s houses. Thinking of “The Pineapple Story” there seemed to be a correlation. My friend had an anger problem and he lived in an area were emotional self-control was very much esteemed. So perhaps he was targeted because he was considered a bad person in that place.

Alternatively, some cultures have very different ethical rules regarding who are treated “Us” versus “Them.” Perhaps because my friend was a “Them” (and he was) it was considered okay to treat him poorly. Hardly surprising. I am from the US, and the US has a history of mistreating people based on their ethnic or racial background. Today, that is looked down on… but legal status still is held onto as a place for being an ethical “respecter of persons.” Some people in my home country think mistreating illegal aliens as a righteous thing. Weird, but hardly surprising. Jesus said that one must love one’s neighbors— both friends and enemies— because, people loved their friends but hated their enemies— Roman, Greeks, Pagans… whatever.

There are a lot of landmines in missions. I will add one more. If you click on the link above (okay, I will add it also HERE) there is talk that Koning gave on the pineapple story. It is very entertaining, but also rather “cringy.” You see, the talk was given some time ago… looks like late 80s or perhaps early 90s. He says some things that are a bit hard. He speaks “jungle folk,” talks about how bad the people there smell, and mentions how much they sterilized a can opener after it had been worn as a necklace by one of the local women. Terms like “thieves” and “rascals” were used. Of course, he was trying to be entertaining (and he was). It is also true that language that may be considered “normal” in one generation can be pretty offensive in another. Further, back then, I suppose there was an understanding that one could say whatever one wanted to when preaching in the US because the people in New Guinea would never hear it. I am sure that was true then… but not now. I have friends from tribal groups in New Guinea who can surf the Web as good as anyone else. It is awkward to talk about people when they are listening in.

There is no condemnation here. In fact, I like the fact that much of Koning’s talk is humor directed at himself. Humor is touchy when one crosses cultural lines. However, when one’s humor is self-depreciating, it is more likely, at least, to be accepted.

Is Jesus Allah?

Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola recently published a book, “Is Jesus Allah?” with the sub-title “Arab Christians Called God Allah Long Before Muhammed.” I find it to be a valuable book that addresses the issue from a historical path. The book looks at the term “Allah” as a term that well-predates Muhammed. It has been used by Christians, and others, to describe chief deity. However, more of the book looks at Islam as springing out of a centuries old tradition of Christians struggling with the question of “Who is Jesus?” I think the book is definitely worth a read… especially compared to the many books put out by people who don’t really know the subject well, but are good name-calling.

The author asked me to write the Foreward to the book. Here is is:

FOREWARD

David Tracy in his book Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (page 84) notes that a religion (an admittedly loaded term) is seen as having a vision of Ultimate Reality that has been passed on to its adherents in “religious classics” or sacred scriptures. These scriptures lead to two conflicts. One conflict occurs when the sacred writ demands its followers to break free from the status quo— the “as it always has been.” The other conflict is when adherents attempt to interpret these writings. This type of conflict springs from the fact that we must wrestle out meaning that often is clouded by centuries, language, and our own biases.

Christianity shares a common heritage with Islam in identifying God’s breaking into our world through Abraham and Moses, among others, to reveal a sliver of Ultimate Reality. The two faiths also see God revealing Himself to mankind through Jesus or Isa. With so much in common, it seems strange that enmity has defined much of the historical interaction between Christianity and Islam.

This book, by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, addresses the two conflicts expressed by Tracy. First, how do we overcome centuries of conflict in history, language change, and biases to draw out meaning from Scripture particularly as it pertains to that most important question— Who is God? Second, in understanding Scripture, what must we do to pull away from the status quo, following God’s self-revelation not our own traditions?

This book asks the questions of Who is God? Who is Allah? Who is Jesus? Who is Isa? These questions have often been obscured by politics (secular and religious) and factions, and by the challenges of understanding what is revealed in Scripture. If, however, we are able to answer these questions based on God’s revelation, we are left with the next challenge: How should that truth affect our lives and our relationships?

In emphasizing these two conflicts, the author is avoiding the more common path of devolving the conflict into historical wrongs and injustices. As important as they may seem from our perspectives, they must fall away to near meaninglessness compared to the nature of and revelation of our Creator.

Robert H. Munson

Missionaries as Colonizers

The following is an extended quote from the new book by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, “PERSPECTIVES OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH ON AFRICAN MISSIONS: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions In Africa.”  Missionaries during the colonial era struggled with their role of utilizing the advantages of having colonial powers in charge in their mission field without becoming pawns of the colonizers. Some missionaries, however, did not struggle with this as they embraced both roles. There is a lot of disagreement in this area. However, Olayiwola expresses a common African perspective– and perspective is important.

According to Lamin Sanneh, “At its most self-conscious stage, mission coincided with western colonialism, and with that juncture students of the subject have gone on to make all kinds of judgments about the intrinsic bond between the two forces.”i He claimed further that, “In the nineteenth century this idea persisted under the slogan of “Christianity and 6percent,” by which it was understood that mundane interests prospered under a religious guise. Thus mission came to acquire the unsavory odor of collusion with the colonial power.”ii Michael Crowder believed that, “the functional relationship and unity, which existed between missionaries, traders and administrators in colonial Africa, was not accidental. Early missionaries in West Africa had a dual purpose to promote legitimate trade between African and Europeans and to convert Africans to their own religion.”iii

Since missionaries, the traders and even the colonial governors and administrators knew they were British, Spanish, and Portuguese residents in various part of Africa with a common interest to protect. Okon claimed that, “they cooperated and united as vital element in the attainment of their set goals. Missionaries in critical times of need, depended on traders for funds, and relied completely on administrators for physical security and protection.”iv Mbiti even claimed that, “A Gikuyu proverb says that, there is no Roman priest and a European- both are the same!”v Although, there is a no scholarly consensus on the role of the missionaries in the colonization of Africa, Okon insisted that, “the argument seems to favor the view that some missionaries cooperated essentially with colonial authorities in the exploitation and cultural subjugation of Africa.”vi

Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa contended that missionaries were agents of imperialism. He claimed that, “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light.”vii Okon claimed that, “Rodney accused missionaries of preaching humility and submission in the face of gross injustice, inhumanity and dehumanization. While British traders were exploiting their African customers, the missionaries preached peace, forgiveness and good neighborliness, which actually prevented genuine rebellion, self-preservation and determination. Missionaries worked towards the preservation of the status quo and upholding of the master-servant relationship between Africans and Europeans.”viii

Rodney lamented that, “The church’s role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism… the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrine of equality before God.”ix Okon claimed that, “If it is correct that missionary sermons suppressed genuine rebellion that could have ushered in freedom for the oppressed, and then the linkage of the missionaries with all the visible evils of colonialism may be justifiable.”x

i Lamin Sanneh, Translating The Message: The Missionary Impact On Culture. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

ii Sanneh, (1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

iii Michael Crowder, The Story Of Nigeria. (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 111. In Okon, 198-199.

iv Okon, 199.

v Mbiti, 231. In Okon, 199.

vi Okon, 199.

vii Rodney, 277. In Okon, 199.

viii Okon, 199.

ix Rodney, 278. In Okon, 199.

x Okon, 200.

Missions Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

Here are a few books that I am planning to read. They are written by people I know who are involved in missions, and are not as well-known as they should be:

Barry Phillips is a friend of mine and fellow missionary serving here in the Philippines. He enjoys controversy more than I do, but that may be a good thing. Case in point is his newest book, “Church Doctor: Prescriptions for a Healthy Church.” Talking to Barry it is pretty clear that he did not pull punches as to his concerns about “church as usual.” I am looking forward to reading it soon. (Yes, I am aware that “Church Doctor” is not a Missions book in the classic sense, but still looking forward to it.

 

Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola is a former student of mine. He is a dedicated student and researcher of missions. He has finished four books in the last two years. Three of them are now available. (One more I have read, but he hasn’t shared it online yet.) “Perspectives of African Church on African Missions: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions in Africa.” It is presently going through final editing for English, but even as is worth reading because Adesegun has a unique perspective that most of us in the “West” have little exposure to. I am looking forward to reading it soon (and hopefully clean up the language just a bit.)

 

T. Aaron Smith is a missionary in Manila whose parents are actually members of our sending church. He and his wife serve with the urban poor in one of the Great Urban Centers of the world. Since I believe that missions is being drawn (kicking and screaming) from the UPG model of missions to GUC model, I think of Aaron’s work as quite forward-thinking in missions.  Also, while I have ministerial friends who complain that Christian missions has spent too many centuries focused on the poor and ignoring the rich or professional, I still think that if missions looks to Christ as the chief example, then prioritizing the poor is good. I am looking forward to reading his book, “Thriving in the City: A Guide for Sustainable Incarnational Ministry Among the Urban Poor.”

Of course, you are welcome to visit my Amazon Page as well, by CLICKING HERE.