Friday, November 16, 2007

"Mission" as Neo-Colonialism?

I spent the last two and-a-half weeks in Europe, meeting most of my staff and co-workers and beginning to become acquainted with some of the local lay leaders of our church across Europe. It was a tremendous tour, and a lot could be said about it. But there's one thing in particular... (of course).

My denomination is just starting to talk about "mission" - and has even re-named regional administrative units "Mission Centers." But the "Europe Mission Center" has consistently declined using that term in reference to itself, preferring simply "the Europe church." You see, Europe has had enough of "mission-talk."

Europe is made of of former-Empires: the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Russia, and so on. To their credit, when they look at their histories, even discussion of their respective "Golden Ages" (when they were at the peak of their imperial expanse) is trimmed with shame at the arrogance of imperialism and colonialism, embarrassment for their exploitation and oppression of other peoples, and a self-consciousness about even historical talk of military, racial or ideological superiority. To the European Christians in our church, "mission" sounds too much like a re-birth of this ancient vice.

Mission and missionaries are language that harkens to a period in Christianity (specifically European and American Christianity) where "civilization" and "European-style Christianity" were considered the same - and the spread of "our culture" went hand in hand with the gospel and the sword. Religious conversion (or corraling) was most often the first step in economic expansion, likely in the form of exploitation of labor and resources, if not outright slavery. Mission was the destruction of native sensibilities and structures, and the imposition (forced, if not voluntary) of North-Atlantic norms.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's something powerful about contemporary "missional" Christians attempting a redemption of that term - actually turning it on its head, meaning to serve those disadvantaged and oppressed, and taking place largely outside of official organizational structures. There is something powerful about converting the tools of the oppressor into ones that serve liberation. But there is also danger there that, in our eagerness, we might overlook.

Remember that even those most colonial of missionaries likely thought of themselves as serving the people they met. Civilization and the gospel, after all, were in the best interests of everyone - from the perspective of the missionary. The question we are now able to ask about that time period is did those missionaries (and armies and businesses that followed) have the right to determine what was in the best interest of another people? And is it any surprise that they determined that their own way of thinking and acting, their own values, were the superior ones that needed to be brought to those poor heathens, by carrot or stick or lash? It is easy for us to point to those years and those motives and eye them with suspicion. But are we so able to look at ourselves with the same critical eye?

Consider this. "Mission" talk has taken hold first and foremost in the United States in the last five years or so. This is at the same time that the United States has been talking about itself as an empire, even considering itself (favorably in some cases, unfavorably in others) the new Roman Empire. Is there something in imperial politics that draws the church along? Or is it simply a matter of people talking who hold both discipleship and citizenship?

Have we North American Christians unwittingly embraced a revised ("kinder, gentler") imperial theology? Are we assuming that our values are the values that should be universalized and normative? (Don't we think that, surely, the world would be better if it adopted our way of thinking?) We may not be as culturally imperialistic as our forebears, but that is something to watch out for. And could it serve as a distraction from prophetic discipleship to focus on patchwork social justice without working toward a larger, revolutionary system?

I'm just throwing these ideas out there. Honestly, I'm a missional Christian. I'm just starting this discussion in my head. So I'm less prepared than many to identify the imperialistic qualities of my theology. Perhaps in this way I actually do need Christians and people of other faith persuasions to push back against me. Perhaps, for my own sake, those whom I would convert must first convert me.

That seems to me the only way out. But again, I may be narrow-minded here.

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  • Welcome to the reason why I am needing to take a break from school! I have been banging my head against this 'mission' question so much that I have realized that I need to just stop. One can only read so much Fanon and Sugirtharajah and Jacobs and Soja before one realizes that the institution one holds dear has certainly not taken the time to be critically reflective about what it means to do "mission". I am glad to hear that this is on the radar screen of Europeans more than most of us North Americans.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 8:09 AM  

  • PS - one hopeful piece for me has been a book by Cheri DiNovo Que(e)rying Evangelism: Growing a Community from the Outside In

    Basic thesis: the Other is the one who evangelizes us. Communities are changed because of what they bring, they shouldn't be required to change in order to become a part of the community.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 8:12 AM  

  • Europe and the world has had enough of religion. What we need is divine revelation of the Creator and a relationship with Him.

    Paul F Davis - author of God vs. Religion and United States of Arrogance

    Orlando, Florida

    By Blogger Paul Davis, at 5:18 AM  

  • Very good post, with lots to consider. I didn't have a problem with renaming everything "Mission Center" and whatnot, but now you gave me something to reconsider.

    It's like the use of the term "Crusade" to describe the war on terror. It's unfortunate that words often carry connotations that are either positive or negative, and when it gets negative, it's time to drop from common usage. Seems like perhaps Europeans now view "mission" as such a word...which may be due in part to Bush's sense of "messiac mission" to "rid the world of evil." It's cringeworthy, of course, but what can we do?

    By Blogger Sansego, at 1:05 AM  

  • In college I remember studying missions from men who earnestly believed in making the Gospel relevant to culture without either stripping the Gospel of its meaning and power or imposing Western ideals on the new churches in other lands. They succeeded, though, on the first point while failing in the second. It is not easy to preach the Christian faith without implementing the forms with which we are accustomed. In Brazil, Western though it is, I found myself stumbling at times over cultural differences that have nothing to do with true discipleship.

    By Blogger Adam Gonnerman, at 10:51 AM  

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