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Christian Missionaries in the Developing World

August 10, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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I’ve been thinking a lot about missionaries and their works around the world, especially since my last trip to Peru in 2010.  The recent tragedy in Afghanistan, with the deaths of ten members of a Christian medical group, have led me to ponder the issue some more.  I am inclined to think that the group returning from Nooristan were not preachers; their leader had spent thirty years in-country and likely knew better than to talk religion to conservative Muslims.

But I wonder if they should have better understood the possible consequences of their mission.  Bringing eye care to desperately poor peasants was a noble undertaking but deep within themselves were they secretly hoping to win a convert or two to the cult of Jesus?

1) The Grand Illusion: Catholic nun with “grateful” orphans, Kenya: photo by Ken and Peg Herring

We like to think of missionaries in Africa and other underdeveloped regions of the world as religious-based charities working in the planet’s remote corners.   And some individuals are undoubtedly motivated by selflessness and a desire to improve the lot of those less fortunate than themselves.

But taken as a whole, Christian missionaries have aided and abetted the worst genocides, both physical and cultural, of modern history.  Intellectually we know this and we also understand the destruction of the societies in North and South America during the Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English/American conquests.  Not to mention various religious atrocities over the centuries in Africa, Oceania, and elsewhere.

Yet missionaries continue to carry out their “duties” in the modern world.  Protestant sects in Central America set communities against one another with their different versions of proselytizing.  Mormons consider missionary work to be a sacred endeavor, and send their youth to untold numbers of countries with their stories of golden tablets and lost tribes of Israel in America, along with other arcane and pointless beliefs.  All the while sweltering in white shirts and thin black ties (or at least they used to wear such clothing; perhaps they no longer do).

My daughter, looking to pad her resume for medical school, participated in a medical mission to a Native American community in Panama, headed by a Seattle doctor who was reputed to be a very nice man.

The eye clinic in Chichica, Panama: photo by Vanessa Herring

She wisely ignored the religious aspect of the trip but was nonetheless a party to it.  She did eventually get into medical school, however.  Just goes to show how we all compromise from time to time.

Meanwhile, recent revelations about pedophilia in the Catholic Church have shocked the world.  But not we Canadians, who have known for generations about the Native American residential schools in remote areas of the country, where Catholic priests and brothers snatched children from their families and cultures to indoctrinate them into the ways of modern white-man life, all the while using the kids as their personal sex slaves.  By the hundreds and thousands.

These practices went on into the 1960s at least, and perhaps even more recently.  The thought of such widespread abuse turns the stomach and causes intestinal somersaults.

We’re never going to get rid of missionaries as far as I can tell.  They and their leaders are too powerful politically throughout the world.  But here are a few modest suggestions for future of their work. First, they ought to lose the bibles, crucifixes, garlic wreaths, or whatever talismans they feel the need to carry.  Second, once in another country they shouldn’t breathe a word about the cult with which they are associated.

And lastly, I’d advise them to get over the overwhelming sense of moral and personal superiority.  Maybe toss it in one of those garbage bins the TSA so thoughtfully provides at airport security checkpoints, before they board the plane to head overseas.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. unidentifiedwalkingobject permalink
    August 17, 2010 6:18 am

    I like this post. By far, one of the most accurate description of religion I read.

    Religion, since time immemorial, would only translate to a backward institution. Ever since, they used the name of God for them to accumulate wealth and extend the boundary of their political control.

  2. August 11, 2010 9:29 pm

    Oh yeah, that pic of the nun is classic ‘me big white man show you native how to live’ (to be pronounced with a North Amerivcan Indian accent). I wonder if we can ever get over that superior notion we carry to other continents. I don’t mean you or me personally. I do have an answer, call me.

  3. August 11, 2010 9:15 pm

    Kit, what happens when one gets rid of the overwhelming need for accountability for doing wrong?

    Who defines what is right and what is wrong?

    Do the current batch of ‘Islamic’ terrorists turn your stomach as much as the horrible things you mentioned?

    Do you agree they, like others in the past, have usurped a religion for their own ends? That is what I believe.

    Finally, is that what Jesus did, and recommended we do?

    • August 12, 2010 12:14 am

      My brother (who has traveled widely himself, for one memorable six month period with me) posed some interesting questions in response to my essay about missionaries. Here are some answers to his questions; my analytical abilities are modest at best.

      1) The loss of personal accountability often leads to the rise of horrendous ideologies: Nazism, Maoism, the Spanish Requerimento and its attendant European Inquisition to name a few examples… the list is depressingly long.

      2) The human race, I believe, is collectively able to define right and wrong. “International morality,” as Haile Selassie put it.

      3) The current Islamic terrorists are only that: the current terrorists of the world. Their ilk has always been with us. And yes, I think their actions are repugnant although their many of their grievances are real. This answer leads to 4) which is yes, of course, they have usurped their religion. (The Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula cares for a document hand-written by Mohammed the Prophet, promising protection for Christians and Jews.)

      And “finally” I have no opinion on what Jesus may or may not have done. That he was a great man is a certainty, but the exact details of his life are lost to the distortions of history.

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