Missionaries as nation makers


Missionaries as nation makers

We have become used to thinking of our time through the lens of “post”.  We are simultaneously post industrial, post colonial, post Christian, post modern and even post secular.  In the view of a few strident secularists, some of these “posts” are inextricably linked.  

The idea of a post colonial and a post Christian world are connected in the minds of some as if the expansion of Christianity somehow depended on Empire for its success.  We might consider this a reactionary and to some extent a revisionist view of history, nevertheless it is an accusation that has gone deep into the collective guilt of the European mind and it needs to be answered.

Those with a fairly rudimentary knowledge of colonial history, will be aware that most western governments were hardly the friends of the missionary enterprise.  They had a variety of reasons for wanting to keep missions out of their new-found colonial territories.  The desire for the exploitation of empire did not sit well with the scruples of protestant Christian missions.  Organizations such as the British East India company, which effectively ran India on behalf of the British government for many decades, were particularly opposed to the arrival of Christian missions. 

There were many other good reasons for western governments to be deeply suspicious of the missionary movement.  The very fact that missionaries saw these colonial subjects as fellow participants in the church of Christ, part of the communion of saints, suggested an intrinsic equality between Europeans and those who were being ruled which did not always suit the organizers of Empires.

Moreover, in addition to caring for the welfare of the subjected peoples and taking up their causes, especially in cases in injustice, missionaries were also involved to two other pernicious activities.  They were involved in educating “the natives”, so enhancing their capacity to work towards national independence. Worse still, having taught people to read, they also taught and distributed the Bible in national languages.  The Bible contained disturbing narratives about exodus, freedom, justice, goodness, and the power of God to change the future horizon.  Could there be a more seditious document than the Bible?

Lamin Sanneh, amongst others has noted the impact that Bible translation had on preserving local languages, giving them dignity and a framework of formal preservation that allowed them to withstand the onslaught of other languages spoken by larger ethnic groups.  Far from harming local cultures, the missionaries were often their only friend in the hostile world of trade and empire. 

It is undoubtedly true that in the last days of empire it was all too easy to allow the polemic against European rule to become attached to all things European and Christianity suffered to a degree in that association.  That final account has often been the single part of the story that has been remembered to the exclusion of all else. 

The whole story has needed to be told and finally, someone has made it their life’s work to do so.  The sociologist Robert Woodberry has devoted his life to documenting the remarkable work of missionaries in enhancing the lives of those they came to share the gospel with.  His remarkable findings can be summed up in this single thought, the work of missionaries often turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.  That can now be claimed as documented fact.  To read more see the following link http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html





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