Missionaries and World Christianity

To continue with themes found in my “southern moment” post, I would like to look at a recent sermon delivered at Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge by the distinguished historian of Christian missions, Brian Stanley. Dr Stanley asks an important question – “Why does our culture, along with many others today, react with such hostility to the idea of Christian mission, and is such hostility justified?” He offers two answers, both of which are based on perceptions of the history of missions. First, there is the conviction that mission has inevitably been tied to domination, specifically the domination of the West. To this, Dr Stanley, preaching on Pentecost, responds in a way that should now be familiar to us:

The significance of the gift of tongues at Pentecost is that each of these cultural and ethnic groups who heard the apostles’ message about God’s mighty deeds in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus heard that message simultaneously in their own language. From the very beginning, therefore, Christian mission has been about the simultaneous translation of the one word about Jesus Christ into the plural accents, cadences, and intellectual categories of indigenous cultures. Even if we believe that the Gospels are an authentic record of the words of Jesus, they are, of course, a translation into Greek from the Aramaic which he spoke. In Christianity, in contrast to Islam, there is no holy language: the eternal word of God can take flesh in every language, and hence in principle in every culture, in every world-view.

That is why the charge of the inseparability of Christian mission and domination ultimately fails. It is not accidental that historians of the encounters between indigenous peoples and Christian missionaries have in recent years become fascinated with the cultural implications of the vernacularization of the Christian message. As Old and New Testaments were translated into the indigenous languages of the non-European world, those languages acquired new cultural and even political significance. Frequently missionaries were the first to render them in written form, and to compile grammars and dictionaries. Local indigenous terms and religious concepts had to be employed to convey universal Christian truth. Hearers and readers of the biblical narratives began to interpret their own communal stories in the light of the biblical stories, particularly the Old Testament story of God’s election of a small and despised people and their redemption by his grace from captivity in Egypt or Babylon. The Bible has far more often been a vehicle of liberation than one of domination.

The second answer is epistemological – “it derives from the bare-faced Christian claim to be in receipt of revealed truth about God,” which seems to many to lead to intolerance and repression. Dr Stanley acknowledge this this sometimes has been the case. But he responds that Christians do believe in truth, but this truth relates to the Cross, and it can be then said that Christian truth claims “derive from a condition of divine powerlessness.” This means that Christians should be concerned about truth enough to proclaim their beliefs and speak against injustice and seriously listen to the wisdom of others, but without believing that the truth will emerge from the exercise of power. And, so, Dr Stanley continues, we actually have the grounds for a principled global civil society that might still respect diversity:

Walter Mead, an historian of American foreign policy, has said this about the role of Christian missions in shaping the ideas of internationalism that became influential after the First World War: ‘The very concept of a global civil society comes to us out of the missionary movement; apart from a handful of isolated intellectuals, no one before the missionaries ever thought that the world’s cultures and societies had or could have enough in common to make a common global society feasible or desirable. Certainly before the missionaries no large group of people set out to build such a world.’

The Christian internationalism that was rooted in the missionary enterprise and came to full flower in the ecumenical movement was not exempt from starry-eyed unrealism. But at its best it was fuelled by a conviction that the Church is called to be a sign of God’s redemptive purpose for a divided humanity. Today’s world exhibits the ugly paradox of growing interconnectedness through processes of economic and technological globalization, yet at the same time dangerously sharpening polarizations between rich and poor, liberal and fundamentalist. Christians believe that the hope of a humanity at peace with itself does not lie simply in the endless repetition of calls for greater tolerance and mutual respect, important though these attitudes are. The multicultural assembly that responded to the preaching of the apostles on the Day of Pentecost is seen by the New Testament as the first fruits of a new and richly variegated humanity united in common submission to the gracious lordship of Christ. It is a microcosm of what God created all humankind to be, and a foreshadowing of the perfect justice and harmony that will characterize the new cosmic order which he will inaugurate at the end of time. The task of bearing humble witness to this ultimate of all realities is entrusted to all who have received the Spirit given at Pentecost. It is a commission, not to dominate the world, but to serve it, not to divide the world, but to unite it, not to extinguish human freedom but to invite all women and men to find in Christ that fullness of life for which they were created.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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