Miscegenation and Missions, Part II

Cover of "Anthropological Reflections on ...
Cover via Amazon

Some questions as a follow-on to Part 1 of this post topic.

  1. Does interracial or intercultural marriage lessen the foreignness of the Christian faith? In Asia and Africa the “Sword and Taxation” method of Islamic conversion had begun to falter well before that religion reached Southeast Asia. And yet some of the greatest success of this religion occurred here (particularly in what is now known as Indonesia). One of the major methods involved Muslim traders who would marry into the local tribes. By being part of the tribe or clan, the trader’s faith entered the group and would, sometimes at least, become the dominant faith system. It is hard to say that a religion is foreign if it is linked to a cultural group through blood. The common Christian missionary method of maintaining separateness from the local culture (through ‘missions compounds’ and maintaining familial separation) helped maintain Christianity as a Western/foreign faith.
  2. Can interracial or intercultural marriage provide a cultural bridge? Paul Hiebert (in “Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues”) refers to the children of missionary parents as providing a “bicultural bridge”. Since they are raised by parents of one culture, while living in another culture, they end up having neither culture and both cultures. They are sometimes called 3rd Culture Kids (TCK). This bridge can be used to extend and contextualize faith to a new culture. However, a marriage that is already bicultural can potentially have the elements of a bicultural bridge as well.
  3. Can an interracial or intercultural marriage provide logistical benefits in missions? With the greater difficulty of getting missionary visas, and challenges of in-depth language acquisition, it is quite possible that in some cases marriage removes many of the challenges that many missionaries have to commonly address.
  4. But… can interracial or intercultural missionary couples really do missions? Some would argue that they can only if they serve in a third culture. This seems patently false. Paul and Barnabbas worked within their own cultures in much of their mission work. Barnabbas was a Hellenistic Diaspora Jew from Cyprus and Paul was a Hellenistic Diaspora Jew from Asia Minor. The first mission point on their first Mission journey was to Hellenistic Diaspora Jews in Cyprus, followed by Non-Jews of the same general culture in Cyprus. The next mission points were to Hellenistic Diaspora Jews in Asia Minor followed by Non-Jews of the same general culture in Asia Minor. Missions is about going outside the church rather than going outside of one’s culture.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some things I am clearly NOT saying.

  1. I am not suggesting interracial or intercultural marriages as some sort of Macchiavelian route to missions effectiveness. I am simply suggesting that these marriages should not be looked upon as negative or a hindrance to mission work.
  2. I am not assuming that people in single culture marriages cannot be effective. I am suggesting a both/and rather than either/or attitude.
  3. I am not suggesting that there aren’t unique problems related to these sort of marriages in missions. Marriage made up of partners from two different cultures can be a strain. However, this is equally (if not more) true of different social economic strata, educational attainment, or vocational level. Additionally, sometimes these marriages become unequal where both partners share a common attitude of superiority of one culture over the culture being ministered to. In this case, the spouse from the local culture can do more damage than help.

Anyway, these are some things to think about.

Miscegenation and Missions, Part I

Henry NottHenry Nott. Image via Wikipedia
Henry Nott. Image via Wikipedia

<I am part of a mixed race marriage, and our children are (not surprisingly) mixed race and mixed culture. As such, I have a particular interest in mission’s attitude to racially mixed marriage and the role of race in missions in general.>

For those who don’t know the term, miscegenation refers to marriage or sexual relations between a man and woman of different races.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)

Christian Missions has had a difficult relationship with race. While it is stylish today to talk about missionaries in the 19th century and early 20th century as racists or cultural imperialists, the truth is much more complicated. It is true that Missionaries tended to be monoculturalists. That is, they tended to see and judge the world around them through the lens of their home culture. They had difficulty (as most of us, frankly, do) in separating between “our culture” and “Christian culture.” It also seems to be true that they tended to view themselves as superior to the people in the cultures they worked in. Historically, people often relate technological superiority with cultural or even genetic superiority.

However, missionaries of this time also accepted other peoples as God’s creation and, therefore, brothers and sisters, rejecting the so called racial science theories of the time. Quoting from Ruth Tucker’s book “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” (Zondervan, 1983) pg 140,

It was the nineteenth-century intellectuals of high society who viewed black Africans (and other races as well) “as inherently inferior—many rungs below Caucasians on the ethnologists’ evolutionary ladder. Missionaries, on the other hand, were ridiculed in scholarly journals for their shallow thinking in regard to race, and most educated Englishmen would have agreed with Mary Kingsley (whose Africa travelogue was widely circulated) when she criticized missionaries for their ‘difficulty in regarding the Africans as anything but a Man and a Brother’ and their belief in ‘the spiritual equality of all colors of Christians.’

Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasurement of Man” gives a great deal of information on these 19th century ‘scholars’ who worked very hard to prove the inherent superiority (intellectually, physically, and morally) of Caucasians over other groups. Much of the work focused on utilizing the then new theory by Charles Darwin of Species Evolution. The theory appeared to give scientific basis for the concept of race. From there it was just a matter of trying to show one’s own race was higher up the evolutionary ladder. Missionaries, although certainly influenced by the culture and views of their upbringing, often fought these attitudes, and did much to protect local peoples from abuse from other Europeans and Americans.

However, missionaries showed much of their racism when it came to miscegenation. One of the biggest concerns was missionaries “going native”. While “going native” could demonstrate itself in many different forms, one of the most evident ways was through sexual relations. While this has often been an issue in many places, it was often seen in the South Pacific where the local cultures made marrying into the local tribe relatively easy. Many singles (particularly single men) had problems in missions due to sexual temptation. In some cases this included a rejection of the mission calling. The term “going native” would, in this case, not be very accurate. Rather, their behavior was more in line with European and American traders and sailors (rather than the behavior of natives)— living a hedonistic lifestyle on some islands, violating both home and local cultural norms.

Many, however, did not seek to leave their missionary calling, but sought to serve God while married into the people group of which they ministered. One story often mentioned was of Henry Nott. Nott served in Tahiti in the 1800s under the London Missionary Society (LMS). While in Tahiti, Nott, took a Tahitian woman as his wife. However, because of objections from European Christians, he and other missionaries with the LMS agreed to “annul” their local marriages to marry “Christian” women sent by the mission society for them. Henry Nott’s new wife did not prove to be a sound missionary and died a few months later of excessive drinking. (Reference: “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya”, pgs. 201-202)

Times have changed… but some problems linger. I have known missionaries who have been cut off by supporters for “marrying a foreigner.” Some mission agencies still believe that missionaries cannot serve in their home culture. One can see the challenge of working in a culture and marrying someone within that culture if doing so causes policy problems within the agency (as well as supporters). Part 2 looks at some questions regarding interracial or intercultural marriage within the context of missions.