Christian Missions: Destroyer of Cultures?

Cover of "Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)...
Cover of Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)

It has often been charged that Christian missions destroys culture. In my view, the response to this is clear…SOMETIMES.  To consider this further, we need to recognize some truths.

1.  Cultures are not static. They are constantly in flux… changing. Only dead cultures do not change. Living cultures change. Such change is normal and healthy.

2. There is no such thing as good or bad cultures. Cultures have good and bad characteristics. Each culture provides a structure for its people to survive, thrive, and interact. No culture does this perfectly. In other words, every culture can use some improving.

3.  Just as no culture is entirely good or bad… it is likely that no change is completely good or bad. Every change will have its winners and losers. Unintended consequences are always a possibility.

4.  The interaction of God’s revelation with a culture will engender change. Only that with no power will engender no change. There exists a lot of disagreement as to how God’s revelation should affect culture (refer to “Christ and Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr for several viewpoints). However, no interaction/effect is simply not an option.

5.  Interaction with people of other cultures will engender change. Cultures in contact place  stresses on each other… resulting in change. We learn from each other.

6.  In this era of mass media and easy transportation, every culture will be affected and changed by other messages and people from other cultures. I remember when I was in Brazil, the Brazilian government was seeking to protect the indigenous tribes from outside influences. Part of this was the prevention of Christian mission work there. The problem with this, according to Brazilian Christians was that other people were still reaching these indigenous tribes. These were exploiters: drug dealers, illegal loggers, and other criminals. While the 19th century missionary David Livingston was exploring central Africa, he ran into his fair share of foreigners. These were commonly Portuguese and Arab slave traders. Christian missionaries are never the only outside influences of a culture.

7.  Change is good when it is based on what is true, and effectively discerns between what is good in a culture and what is bad. William Carey, early Baptist missionary to the Bengali people of India fought against suti (widow-burning) and against keeping girls uneducated. However, he also promoted the best of the local culture… even publishing and translating Indian and Hindu classic literature. Simply replacing one culture with another culture is not critically discerning. It is never a good idea.

8. Christian missions is always best in translation rather than diffusion. Lamin Sanneh describes translation as taking the message and translating and contextualizing it to a new culture and language. Diffusion is the replacing of a culture with the new culture. He uses Christianity and Islam as the examples. Christianity has recognized the message as above the language, so the Bible can and should be translated into the heart language of the people. The Quran is seen as eternally existing in 7th century Arabic. Therefore, the Quran does not exist in its true form except in 7th century Arabic. A translation of the Quran makes it something different and less than the original. Christian missions (based on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) recognizes that a good Christian in one culture may act noticeably different from a good Christian in a different culture. That is because one does not need to reject the local culture but transform it. Islamic understanding traditionally recognizes Arab culture (particularly as portrayed by its founder and the first four imams) as the ideal culture, and so other cultures should be replaced by it.  <Islamic missionaries sometimes practice a form of translation, and Christian missionaries all too often slide into a diffusion mentality, but the above stereotype is normative.>

So do Christian missionaries destroy cultures?  They can, and have certainly helped others do it at times. However, they have commonly done more to preserve cultures than the various economic exploiters who inevitably come.

Critical Contextualization Model (Hiebert)

Paul Hiebert speaks of “Critical Contextualization”. “Uncritical Contextualization” leads to syncretism (not really acceptable from a Christian perspective). However “Non-contextualization” can lead to Christianity being foreign or in being a veneer over the base cultural belief system. Additionally… noncontextualization can lead to cultural decay… which is also a bad thing.

In the Philippines, it is pretty clear that many of the missionaries who came here felt that Christians must live and act as they themselves live. Therefore, Christian churches in the Philippines tend to clearly mimic the churches of the missionaries’ home countries. It is not surprising therefore, the huge number and popularity of syncretistic cultic groups here (a common result of non-contextualization of faith). Admittedly, Islamic missions is worse. The local mosque essentially sequesters its 200 trainees and focuses on teaching Arabic and the Tawhid. In both cases, however, when one sees the other people that come to the Philippines, such as the economic opportunists and sexual tourists, I still realize that the missionaries have (generally and I hope usually) done more good.

Christian missions should not destroy cultures. It should affirm the good and help people in the local culture discover their true potential within their own unique cultural setting, serving God faithfully in their own language and style.

Christianity as a Subversive Entity

What role should Christianity have in the world today. Based on the title, obviously, I think the Christianity should, in part, have a strong subversive element.  Consider some options.

1.  Kingdom on Earth. Christendom. Europe and much of the Americas (obviously some other places as well) have had a history of Christianity being the dominant religion. There have been good things. A large percentage of what could be looked at technologically and sociologically as “progress” has come from these regions. However, where Christianity has become a dominant religion, people have chosen to take on the designation of Christian without actually seeking to take on the burden and calling of Christ. This problem was first witnessed back to the time of Emperor Constantine. The result is “Christians Behaving Badly.” Often we see it in moral failure, as well as abuse or disenfranchisement of minorities.

Not that Christianity is alone in this… the news in the last few weeks has been full of “Muslims Behaving Badly” in places where they have political superiority.  But Christians should never be comfortable with the knowledge that other groups are just as bad as us. If we have a higher truth and a higher example, being no worse than another group means we fail that much more.

2.  Kingdom in Heaven. Separation. Many groups deal with the world in an escapist form. Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, regardless of whether one should consider them a Christian group, are an example of this as they moved from San Francisco to Guyana and later killed themselves. Fundamentalist set up barriers to the mainstream faith around them.  Many churches in religiously hostile environments turn in on themselves. They set up walls literal and figurative to protect themselves from those on the outside. Sometimes this hostile environment is non-Christian religion, or ti can be the dominant Christian expression within the culture.  Harmavoidance certainly has its place, but that is not the center of our calling.

3.  Kingdom of God. The term Kingdom of God, to me at least, forces me back to Jesus, as He spoke much of the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven… not Kingdom in Heaven). Among the descriptions of the Kingdom of God is of yeast or a small seed. The Kingdom of God is here now, but it coexists with a hostile kingdom. We as Christians are part of one Kingdom while living in another, and are like yeast or a small seed that seems insignificant but should gradually grow and transform the environment around.

Going back to Lamin Sanneh (Yeah, I’m quoting him a lot lately)… he describes three general Christian responses to culture.

A.  Quarantine.  Maintain purity and high ethical standards isolated from the world around.

B.  Accomodation. Compromise of faith standards… showing modest intermittent  religious behavior.

C.  Prophetic Reform. Act as a small vocal call to truth and change in a hostile environment.

Obviously, these two lists line up.

-Kingdom on earth… Christendom leads to Accommodation. Christianity becomes a pale influence because the regional culture is deemed “Christian.”

-Kingdom in heaven… This leads to Quarantine. If we don’t really belong here… we seek to separate ourselves from the culture around us.

-Kingdom of God…. This leads to Prophetic Reform. If the Kingdom of God is not a place but a rulership by God… we become subversive agents within the culture around us. This subversive calling is with us regardless of the culture we are in… regardless of whether the culture is viewed as “Christian”, “Secular”, “Muslim”, “Buddhist” or any other label.

Christians should never be too comfortable with the culture they are in… nor comfortable with rejecting or damning that culture. Christians are at their best when they are neither ruling nor cowering. Christians are at their best as Elijahs, Josephs, Mordecais, Peters, and Pauls. Or to be more to the point, Christians are at their best when they are little Christs.

Quote from William Tyndale (1494-1536)

“I had perceived by experience, how it was impossible to establish the lay-people in any truth except the scriptures were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text… I wish that even the weakest woman should read the Gospel— should read the Epistles of Paul. And I wish that these were translated into all languages so that they might be read and understood, not only the Scots and Irishmen, but also the Turks and Saracens… I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle.”  

(Quoted by Lamin Sanneh in “Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture”, 2009 edition, page 105)