The planting of the first cross on Philippine soil is depicted in a painting by Vicente Manansala. Here the artist clearly shows the link between “mission” and “imperialism.” A priest blesses a large cross which has just been planted by indigenous laborers while Spanish soldiers carrying spears bark orders at them.
We are forced to ask whether, then as well as later, the message of Jesus and therefore his image was not thus turned into its opposite: the cross as a sign of the execution of an innocent victim having been turned around to function as a sword that could be used against Jews (culminating in the Holocaust, Muslims (the Crusades) redskinned Indians (Indian wars), and blacks (slave trade and slavery).Anton Wessels, Images of Jesus: How Jesus is Perceived in Non-European Cultures. English translation by John Vriend
Manansala’s painting “The Planting of the First Cross” doesn’t seem to fit the description in the quote. The one’s planting the cross are clearly not indigenous laborers. Perhaps there is a different version of this painting done by Manansala. However overall, the analysis is spot on. The symbols of Christianity (priest and cross) are clearly supported by symbols of war (soldiers, armor, and halberds).
I think this subversion is pretty easy to do. Missionaries were often seen as supporting colonial imperialism because they utilized the might of the colonizers (guns, soldiers, ships, etc.) to be able to work. The fact that many missionaries were highly discomforted by what the colonial governments and colonizing populations were doing does not negate the fact that they would be seen as part of the problem by many. After all, in the painting described above, the priest utilized the spears and the soldiers used against the Cebuanos (local people) regardless of whether they approved of the behavior.
When evangelical short-term mission teams headed to Iraq after the (latest) Iraq War was over, were they seen positively (sharing their love and concern for the people there), neutrally (another voice in the dialogue of faith), or negatively (an invasion supported by the first invasion from the West)? I recognize that all ministry work takes advantage of the political landscape. St. Paul used his Roman citizenship to allow him to minister at times. But there also seems to have been some reticence in this. Most of the places that Paul traveled were conquered lands. His citizenship opened some doors, but it could shut others as well since his legal protection came through the sword and great bloodshed.
I am able to minister in the Philippines because it is a nation whose government supports a high level of religious freedom. I am grateful for the freedom. We have even done some ministry projects in partnership with local government or government agencies. That is a blessing, but we have to be careful not to be pawns of the government (US or Philippines) or seen as too closely linked to them.