… Not Inspire Them with a Passion for Political Change.

There has been an enduring belief that Christian missionaries, during the colonial era, often served as de facto operatives of the colonial powers. It is understandable why this belief would exist and persist. British missionaries, for example, would commonly serve in lands that were under the British flag. Commonly, but not always, being a British citizen in British colonial lands would be easier than being a British missionary serving in Spanish colonies, or regions that were not colonized. As such, missionaries may be rather pleased if their nation expands its colonial holdings since it provides potential new places to work.

But that is not the whole story. Often missionaries were seen as being a bit treasonous. That is, they were seen as undermining their home country. Again, this view is understandable. Missionaries were doing things for the benefit of the local people that, to the eyes of colonial powers could undermine their control over the people. Colonial nations and companies wanted the colonized to be compliant. That meant they sought to avoid education, or sociological stressors that could lead to angering traditionalists, or development revolutionaries.

Max Warren, in his book “Social History and Christian Mission” (SCM Press, 1967) speaks of some of this. He uses the example of the Serampore Trio (Careys, Wards, and Marshmans) in the Bengal region of India. For those familiar with the story. William Carey, a British citizen, was harassed by the East India Company during the early years of his stay. His desire to convert the natives to Christianity was seen as bad for business, and therefore bad for England. For a time he ministered in the Danish colony of Serampore to avoid arrest and deportation by his own country.  Years later there was a change of heart and he was seen as an asset to British colonial leadership. Generally, however, this was a change in colonial leadership rather than change in Carey.

It wasn’t, however, just the colonial leaders who were concerned. Warren uses the case of Sydney Smith, the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Smith who wrote considerably to the Edinburgh Review, an influential journal, in the early 19th century. The following is quotes from Warren’s book (Chapter 3, excerpts  from pages 60-63), who in turn quotes several times Smith’s writings:

After a number of caustic references, he (Smith) dismissed as folly the idea of sending missions to India because of

‘the danger of insurrection from the prosection of the scheme, the utter unfitness of the persons employed in it, and the complete hopelessness of the attempt while pursued under such circumstances as now exist.’

It is interesting to note his concern with the ‘danger of insurrection.’ This concern, widely shared as we shall see throughout the century, needs for its full  understanding an awareness of the almost romantic attachment of the nineteenth century Englishman to the idea of ‘our Indian Empire.’     ….   The passionate anger engendered by the Indian Mutiny showed our jealous fear of losing that empire. The ethical idealism of the Indian Civil Service showed our responsibility at its best. At all times India was felt to be vital to British interests.   ….  Sydney Smith, in this respect at any rate, gave expression to a suspicion which led countless political officers in Asia and Africa to view the missionary with a slightly jaundiced eye, and when (as most frequently happened) the missionary had got there first, to view him as a potential security risk. …

At least we may be very certain that down until 1947 and the subsequent celebrations of Independence, virtually every such political officer would fervently have endorsed Sydney Smith’s statement that

If we wish to teach the natives a better religion, we must take care to do it in a manner which will not inspire them with a passion for political change.

But he dropped to a rather lower level when he went on to say that missionaries

would deliberately, piously, and conscientiously expose our whole Eastern empire to destruction for the sake of converting half-a-dozen Brahmins, who after stuffing themselves with rum and rice, and borrowing money from the missionaries would run away and cover the Gospel and its professors with every species of impious ridicule and abuse.’

We see there a continuing preoccupation with the empire. …

There we may leave Sydney Smith simply observing that in two respects he did, albeit with some unnecessary malice, help to form an image of the missionary as being, somewhat paradoxically, a stupid and presumptuous person, and at the same time a threat to the security of the Empire. These elements in the stereotype endured. In passing it may be noticed how very closely they coincide with the portrait of Christians painted by Celsus and other antagonists in the early centuries.

Again, this is simply a case study of a broader view that missionaries undermined the colonial power’s hold on colonial lands.

… And in some ways they may have been correct. The Serampore Trio did, arguably, have a role in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. They did take seriously the education of the Bengali, both men and women, and the case could be made that this work did breed new ideas that ultimately led to revolution.

So suppose Sydney Smith and others were correct and that Christian missionaries did promote attitudes and beliefs that would lead to insurrection, does that mean they were doing wrong? I believe not. Their call is to serve God, not empire. As British citizens, in the case of the Serampore Trio, it would be quite inappropriate, legally speaking, to lead a revolution against the British Empire. It would, however, be equally inappropriate to instill a passive acquiescence to the status quo (much like some of the Christian education of slaves in the US in the early 19th century that sought to ensure and justifyu the maintaining of the economic system of Black slavery. Christianity was expressed in terms of maintaining the status quo.

This is the challenge. A Christian is a citizen of heaven and of one’s nation. A Christian missionary has those citizenships, but also is a guest of a different government.

It is very tempting to confuse roles. And the confusion is often in the extremes. A missionary may try to avoid all politics and focus on the word of God. But doing so, can in fact be teaching people to disconnect from the world they are in. It is not surprising that many missionary receiving countries have Evangelical populations that have little involvement with social ills and provide no common voice against corruption. On the other hand, it is also not the calling of a missionary to be a revolutionary leader seeking to overthrow. It is further not the role of missionary to push his or her own political agenda on the people he serves. (This last point I see a fair bit as the weird and curious politics of popular American Evangelicalism often gets brought with the missionary to the mission field where it doesn’t really belong. Of course, the answer is not necessarily to be politically neutral either.)

I would still say that if one has to be unfaithful, be unfaithful to one’s country. One’s country is one’s place of birth, but God’s work is one’s calling.









Inclusive Uniqueness

In my research for the student textbook on Inter-Religious Dialogue I am writing, I came upon a nice article that included a disagreement between two leaders in the field of IRD in the 1970s— John Hick and Max Warren. (“Evangelicalism without Hyphens: Max Warren, the Tradition and Theology of Mission” by Tim Yates. Anvil: Journal of Theology and Mission. Vol 2, No. 3, 1985. p. 231 – 245)

John Hick suggested that IRD should be drawn from a radically new view of the relationship of Christianity to other faiths. He considered the transition as a sort of “Copernican Revolution.” theologically-speaking. Image result for ptolemaic model

The traditional view could be likened to the Terracentric (Ptolemaic) Model in Astronomy. In this case, instead of the earth being the center, the center is Christianity. One would then see Christianity as the center, and other religions would circle the Christian faith from various distances depending on how closely they aligned with the doctrines of Christianity. In essence, Christinity is “the truth” and other religions are in essence “false,” although with perhaps various degrees of falseness.

The view proposed by Hick could be likened to the Heliocentric (Copernican) Model. Here, however, the center is God. God is the center of faith, and various faith groups revolve around this center. On first glance, this seems quite reasonable. God should be the center not our own religion, correct? But there was a problem. That problem had to do with the issue of religious uniqueness. If God is the center and different religious groups revolve around that center, than Christianity is just one of many— maybe the closest, or maybe the “best” but no more— just one faith construct to know or have access to God. If that is true, than to understand God in our Inter-Religious Dialogue, we should open our minds to other truths about God from other groups, and question our own presumptive beliefs. In essence, one must relativize one’s own beliefs if one is to gain insight from others. And, arguably, to relativize one’s beliefs about one’s own faith, one must also doubt the uniqueness of Christ as revelation of God.

This is quite consistent if one accepts a Theocentric system for IRD. But Warren suggested a different possibility that I am calling the “Unclusive Uniqueness” of Christ. A way I might suggest it is to think of a Christocentric Model. However, perhaps instead of saying that Christ is the center, I may be more specific and say the “Revelatory Christ.” After, all there are many religious views of Christ from the panoply of faiths out there. These views tend to give a discription with an implicit “among many” They may say that Jesus is

  • a prophet (among many)
  • a god (among many)
  • an angel (among many)
  • a holy man (among many)

Jesus Christ however, is expressed in Scripture as unique in revealing God. As such, “among many” doesn’t really apply.

Note, however, that placing the revealed Christ at the center, does risk again taking away the uniqueness of Christianity. And to an extent that is a valid concern. Our foundation, however, is in Christ, not the church. To the extent that Christianity aligns itself with the revealed Christ, it is on a unique and firm foundation. To the extent that we drift, we fall more into an orbit around Christ like other faiths.

Consider a bit from Tim Yate’s article:

<Warren> quoted J. M Creed, the Cambridge theologian of an earlier generation, to the effect that, whereas Christian theology did not need to claim that it contained all truth of religious value, it was committed to the view that ‘in Christ it had found the deepest truth of God’. Not to do so was for the Church to lose itse1f. From this point Max argued that the uniqueness to which he was committed was essentially inclusive. Jesus’ relationship to God as ‘Abba’, father, is distinctive but in this relationship he is Man, inclusive Man, relating to God. Max is prepared to accept the Copernican revolution where this means displacing the religion, Christianity (vide Hick above) from the centre. For such a religion can easily degenerate into idolatry, and so invite God’s judgement, as any other religion, a view familar to readers of Barth or Hendrik Kraemer. Max then made a move which was characteristic but vulnerable to Hick’s response: I want to argue that Christianity being removed from the centre the new centre is not a theological term -God- but an historical person, Jesus, in whom God is to be recognized as uniquely revealed.” (Yates, 239)

Where does this leave us as Christians in terms of IRD. If Christ is the center, and not the Christian faith, one should be open to the reasonable and humble belief that “we don’t know it all.” As such, Christians have the opportunity to learn and grow through dialogue, not just teach others. That being said, that inclusiveness is not to lead to a relativization of faith, since our center is the revelatory Christ. Dialogue tht leads us away from Christ as God’s unique revelation, is has led us astray.

Among Them and Overwhelmed

Quote from PGJ Meiring’s article, “Max Warren and His Seven Rules for a Dialogue Between Christians and Non-Christians. “Actually, the article was originally written in Afrikaaner (Max Warren en sy sewe reëls vir ’n dialoog tussen Christene en nie-Christene” DEEL 47 # 3 & 4 SEPTEMBER & DECEMBER 2006, P. 588-599.)

The fourth rule/principle is “Identification.” Here is a rough translation of an excerpt of Meiring’s article regarding Identification:

Preparation of the Prophet Ezekiel

The fourth principle probably asks the most of the conversation partners: the willingness to identify as far as possible with the other person’s life and conditions he lives in. It asks you to understand “the language of his heart”. It does not come naturally of itself: it requires imagination, endurance, humility and much love. Warren loved to refer to the example of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet to the exiles in Babylon, sent with an all-important message from the Lord. Even though Ezekiel cannot be in the modern sense a “missionary” – after all, he is a prophet sent to his own people – he provides a model for all to consider as the Lord prepared him for his preaching task. Before the prophet was sent to speak, he had to first experience and learn to listen – and this is a lesson that every missionary in our day needs to seriously consider.

In the Authorized Version, Ezekiel 3:15 is translated as: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat where they sat, and remained astonished among them for seven days “. The Revised Standard Version translates this slightly differently: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat there overwhelmed among them for seven days”. The emphasis is different, says Warren: the first-mentioned translation emphasizes Ezekiel’s “entering into the experience of the exiles” while the latter “the ‘Overwhelming’ character of what the prophet experienced by joining these exiles where they were ” is emphasized (Warren, 1960: 60vv).

Both emphases are important: first of all, we must meet people where they are, we must “Sit where they sit”. We must understand their situation – their joy and their pain and how these experiences influence their views and beliefs (Warren, 1960: 17). “You and I can not bring men to Christ by whistling to them at a distance. We have to go and meet them, as God does, and psychologically speaking, this means coming to them imaginatively where they imagine themselves to be “(Warren, 1955: 31). The second emphasis, however, is just as important: that we become “Stunned.” We find ourselves speechless because we find it so difficult to really understand the other because their need is so great, and we are struggling to make clear the salvation of Christ because our vocabulary is too inadequate. But also speechless because we experience God already there, that He has already made his voice heard in the situation (Warren,1960: 17).