by Richard L. Smith
How should missions proceed within the clash of civilizations? How should American missionaries operate within the context of anti-Western sentiment?
In his best-selling book, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking the World Order, Samuel P. Huntington writes:
The world is in some sense two, but the central distinction is between the West as the hitherto dominant civilization and all the others…The world, in short, is divided between a Western one and a non-Western many. (1996, 36)
Huntington predicted that the new century will be dominated by discord and instability as peoples and civilizations realign themselves according to "blood, language, religion, and way of life" (1996, 42). Huntington’s insights were unfortunately proven true by the horrific events of September 11, 2001. This incident underscores the deep-seated animosity against values and practices Westerners hold dear. America, as the preeminent ambassador of Western mores and chief architect of globalization, was singled out for retribution.
What do Huntington’s insights and recent world events tell the church about the Great Commission for this new era-for this new century? How should missions proceed within the clash of civilizations? How should American missionaries operate within the context of anti-Western sentiment?
A POSITIVE TESTIMONY
My wife and I recently met a missionary who has served in France for over fifty years. We were impressed by his longevity and wanted to know the secret of his successful missionary service. How would he advise my family and me as inexperienced missionaries serving in Central Europe, a region in cultural and political transition? He told us, "Fall in love with the local culture-learn the language, identify with its institutions and traditions, and most of all enjoy the people and their place."
Friends of ours, who are French citizens and know this man, claim he is simply in a class by himself. He understands, as much as is possible as an American, what it means to be French and he has mastered the ability to communicate cross-culturally. He has overcome the biases and stereotypes of the host nation toward Americans. He has also overcome his own biases and stereotypes, and has been accepted by the French people. Our friends remarked:
He genuinely loves our country and countrymen. He is here because he is deeply attached to our nation and what comes with it. He never tries to americanize anything and is quite unique. On the contrary, he has been French among French people. He has tried hard to be one of us and he has succeeded.
Sadly however, sometimes North American missionaries do not love their host cultures. Some merely tolerate or openly disdain or even condemn them. Sometimes Western missionaries exploit local peoples and even harm foreign cultures. (The legacy of colonialism and the civilizational realignments in our time, as described by Huntington, testify to the problematic coupling of the Gospel and Western culture, any culture in fact.) It would be a triumph, however, if the cultural biases on both sides, the American Christian worker and the host culture, were overcome in the service of Christ and for the good of the nations. It would certainly be fruitful to affirm with Paul, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (1 Cor. 9:22)
CLOSE TO HOME
These issues are especially important for Americans who aspire to cross-cultural ministry. As the one remaining superpower and the dominant economic force in the world, the US is often perceived as a destroyer of culture and US citizens as cultural imperialists. Oftentimes, expatriates from the US, both Christian and non-Christian, are seen as forceful exporters of a consumer-driven, pragmatic, high stress and fast-paced, achievement-oriented individualism throughout the world.
The anti-globalism crusade bears witness to a general contempt abroad for what is commonly referred to as the American Big Mac culture. In a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Italian Eat Slow movement (now with sixty-thousand members worldwide) and the Slow City initiative declare, "We understand that the penetration of the global market is huge. We know we can’t shut ourselves off to this…but we want to resist it as much as possible" (Fleishman 2000, Al). Many cultures simply do not esteem so highly the values Americans so eagerly export.
American attitudes toward money, material goods and our expectations of convenience often create barriers with people in host cultures. We can appear self-indulgent and intemperate, especially in areas of consumption, such as food, clothing, automobiles and homes. Sometimes, in fact, American Christians so tightly wrap the Bible with the US flag or dollar that it is hard to distinguish democracy or capitalism from the gospel. Does conversion necessarily imply economic prosperity? Should missions clone Westerners? Should converts look, behave, think and spend like Americans or Western Europeans?
Americans are often perceived as nice, but shallow, naive and arrogant. Compared to many nations, we are a young culture. We look adolescent compared to nations steeped in ancient traditions and rich cultural heritage. The Czech Protestant, John Amos Comenius [1592-1670], for example, was busy reforming European education, earning for himself the appellation, Father of Modern Education, while America was still in an embryonic stage of development. The US has never experienced world war on its own soil. It has not experienced the resulting devastating results of social anarchy or totalitarian oppression. Yet, we can appear smug in our supreme self-confidence and sense of divine destiny. In a Newsweek article, "Europe: The Un-America," secular Europe looks with disdain at America’s self-righteousness,
God’s chosen people, uniquely blessed, a self-image almost as deranged in its profound self-delusion as the old Soviet Union. (Elliot 2000, 18)
This anti-American sentiment was evident among some of my Czech university students. Some are disillusioned by the demise of communism and deeply apprehensive about the corrosive "jungle capitalism" invading their region. One stated poignantly:
Carl Marx was almost my Godfather. He looked over me for sixteen years. He did not let me read all these dangerous Western books. I could watch on TV only nice children’s stories, not like today when children watch the American rubbish (killing, fighting, making sex). When he was with us we did not have to be scared of AIDS and drugs. We knew who is the idol and what was the ideal. We felt happy. Where should I look for an ideal today? Definitely not in the West, neither in the East. Maybe I’ll look for it among the stars.
American missionaries thus face a challenge in reaching across cultural boundaries and across cultural prejudices. We carry social expectations and we encounter deeply entrenched biases. Jim Reapsome, missionary elder statesmen and columnist, wrote,
The unbelieving world, especially in places where oppression, poverty, hunger, and exploitation are at their worst, see the Christian missionary as part and parcel of the West’s overwhelming power. Why? Because missionaries come with power oozing from their pores like ketchup belching from a squeeze bottle.
Missionaries’ accouterments of power are awesome, beginning with the paycheck and extending to equipment and communications power, and the ability to grant relief, whether food, medicine or whatever. (1999, 13-14)
I know personally my children often spent more each week in allowance than most Central Europeans possess each month in disposable income. A trip to the local McDonalds overseas was easily affordable for most missionary kids, but a very rare treat for many nationals. As a result, we became more sensitive about the ways in which consumerism affected our testimony. Once we were outside the influences of our native culture, we learned how much our appearance is conditioned by advertising and US marketing. We discovered, happily, the freedom to wear the same clothes more than once a week and that we did not have to wear the latest styles to be considered acceptable. We also learned to be more thankful for our many blessings and to adjust our expectations of convenience. We acquired patience in long lines to purchase food and bus tickets or to obtain residency permits. We developed empathy for the sometimes surly clerks and for the taciturn public face of many Czechs.
HOW DO THEY VIEW US?
Charles and Carole Thaxton, former missionaries to the Czech Republic, co-authored a booklet called How to Respect a Czech. They describe how Americans are often viewed by citizens of the Czech Republic, a perspective that probably reflects the perceptions of many in the Central and Eastern European region. Americans, missionaries included, are perceived as rich. "Who else could afford to travel like we do? Or have cars like we do? And just look at the houses on "Dallas’?" Americans are wasteful, "We use too many plastic bags and take too many showers." The Thaxtons explain that for most Czechs Americans are pampered and lazy, "needing a car to go everywhere and to be comfortable all the time" (Thaxton, 27).
They observed that for many Czechs Americans seem friendly but superficial. "We seem a bit too cavalier, too off-hand, not careful enough about correctness or social protocol." We are also loud and boisterous. "Czechs don’t understand why Americans want to draw so much attention to themselves." Americans always seem to be in a hurry. "They see us as too pushy and impatient. We are always on the go, trying to get things accomplished, but not having enough time for family and friends." Lastly, Americans are too self-confident and arrogant. The Thaxtons noted that to the Czechs, "Americans seem assured, optimistic about finding solutions and changing things. We sometimes appear as if we have all the answers" (Thaxton, 28).
A few years after the fall of communism, Dan Drapal, a pastor in the Czech Republic, wrote a booklet entitled, Will We Survive Western Missionaries? After many encounters with missionaries before and after the demise of totalitarianism, he observed,
It seems to me that much of the Christian life in the West reflects the free-market economy… Everything is geared to increase productivity and efficiency. Quick solutions and instant products sell well. (1996, 31)
It was very common that people coming from the West wanted to perform some drama or hold a meeting. They turned to us to arrange it. They generously paid for it, performed their act, and went home. Then we received their newsletter about how they ‘did a mission campaign’ in Eastern Europe. They did not bother to ask if their activity was really worthwhile, what its real impact was, if it was really the thing we need, or if we would have been able to do the same thing better if we had the money. (1996, 24)
Drapal cited the pride he encountered from Western foreigners and suggested,
If your standard of living is higher, you might subconsciously conclude that your spiritual life is better, too. You might be condescending and paternalistic without being aware of it. (1996, 24)
To illustrate this point he cited a conversation with two Christians who were traveling in the area. One of the travelers asked, "How big is your church?" He replied, "Well, about five hundred adults." The visitor then asked, "And, how big is the largest church in the city?" The pastor answered, "I presume we are the largest." With curiosity piqued the visitor suggested, "So, would you be considered one of the leaders of your nation?" "I suppose I could," was the demurred response. "Oh, we are speaking to an important leader!" announced the clearly impressed visitor. The pastor, who had weathered communism and was persecuted for his faith, was dismayed by the superficial response of these American Christians, who thought talking to a leader was really "something to write home about" (1996, 24).
Pastor Drapal lamented, also, the "tremendous waste of money" by emissaries on "fact-finding" missions (1996, 21). In 1990 and 1991 he encountered about 750 people, most of them from North America. Given travel costs, housing and other expenditures, the total allocated exceeded $525,000. He complained that the money spent subsidizing foreign (mostly American) short-term missionaries and religious figures was enough to support over 330 national pastors for one year.
A former Yugoslavian youth pastor, Miroslav Zivkovic, who has worked with American missionaries, supplied this insight, "I think the main problem with the American missionaries is that they are more or less goal-oriented rather than people-oriented. In practice it means they believe more in method than in communication. Sometimes, missionaries are so frustrated with the failure of their methods that they simply forget to love locals."
He added, pointedly, "If you love somebody, time is not an obstacle."
Reapsome confirms these pastors’ concerns, noting a few years ago, that "Some Eastern European Christians fear they may be looking down the barrel of a huge US-financed and US-directed missionary cannon." He added, "What they fear is that we won’t do our homework, we won’t take the time to read our history books and we won’t appreciate the strengths of the existing churches that have been there for centuries.
He reported, further, that regional Christian leaders are "wary of our tactics, our individualism, our buying-out local people, and our penchant for public relations and fund-raising gimmicks." He concluded, "They fear being used, subverted and sidetracked by the American missionary avalanche" (Reapsome 1999, 165).
Missions occurs within a social context. Missionaries bring with them cultural trappings and assumptions. Peoples of host cultures encounter missionaries within their cultures, their expectations and their values. Given the tensions between civilizations today and the sensitivity to things Western, American missionaries especially should pay close heed. Missions expert Paul Hiebert writes:
Missionaries face many dilemmas, none more difficult than those that deal with the relationship of the Gospel to human cultures… the Gospel belongs to no culture. It is God’s revelation of himself and his acts to all people. (1985, 30)
The reality of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment forces us to consider the perceptions and expectations we have of one another. What biases must be overcome? How can we love nations and peoples? How can we glorify Christ through missions in this age of civilizational conflict, when words and ideas are deconstructed as power plays and imperialistic agendas?
Pavel Raus, a Christian leader in the Czech Republic, told me recently, "Somehow, I believe that Czech people do recognize if the missionary really loves them to the point of identifying with them or if he keeps his distance from them.
That observation is a simple but clear reminder of the challenge we face as Western missionaries. How can we better identify with and manifest love to those we seek to minister?
Here are a few suggestions for the aspiring missionary and missionary strategist:
1. Assume a "humble posture. Reapsome declared,
Knowing we are perceived as imperialists, ought to squelch our triumphalism, our offensive ‘we’re No. 1’ attitude, that often propels us overseas. (1999, 14)
2. Examine yourself. What are your motives for going or why are you there? What do you offer that local Christians need? Do they really need your help as you conceive it? Reapsome suggests we ask, ‘"How can we help you do your thing?’ Rather than ‘We are here. Help us to do our thing’" (1999, 166).
3. Determine your personal expectations. What standard of living do you assume? How much inconvenience can you tolerate? How will your consumer habits affect your witness?
4. Exegete your culture. What baggage do you carry? How do you view the strengths and weaknesses of your nation? Do your patriotism or your political views or your attitudes towards money affect your values about theology, the Bible or missions? How do American cultural myths and symbols affect your thinking and behavior? How does the Bible critique our culture?
5. Exegete their culture. How has God’s common grace been manifested in their culture? How has sin institutionalized itself? What are their cultural strengths and weaknesses? How are they likely to view you as an American or Westerner? How might you undermine and counter their biases and stereotypes? How does the Bible critique their culture?
6. Do your homework. Study their language. Learn their history. Discover their traditions, cherished values and cultural myths. How do their myths and symbols affect their thinking and behavior?
7. Look for ways to demonstrate the gospel. What institutions need to be established? What facilities should be built? What services provided? What already exists that merits your support? In today’s environment, especially, the gospel plus deeds, or the gospel expressed through deeds, is a strategic necessity, as well as an expression of sincerity and commitment.
THE MESSAGE OF PAUL
Paul declared that the "present evil age," (Gal. 1:4) with its institutions and agendas, will one day yield to another, the "age to come," (Eph. 1:21) populated with persons culled from every earthly nation and ethnic group. He appealed to everyone with the gospel, regardless of their cultural dispositions and prejudices. "Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all" (Col. 3:11). Paul was proud to be a Jew, but in his evangelism he served as an ambassador of Christ. He made no attempt to export Hebrew culture to the Roman world. Should we as Christ’s emissaries today seek to americanize those to whom we minister, particularly peoples of the non-Western world?
As Huntington explains, the world is indeed divided into two parts, "a Western one and a non-Western many." As never before in history, however, American Christians have an unprecedented opportunity to be agents of reconciliation between these two worlds for the gospel’s sake. Through the love of God for nationals, through a servant’s heart and learning attitude, missionaries from the West can help bring a measure of healing and peace in the world. Most importantly, they can demonstrate in word and deed the universality of the gospel-regardless of "blood, language, religion and way of life."
Can we ask with Bruce Olson, missionary to South American Indians, "How can I introduce them to Jesus for what he really is, independent of my own personality and culture" (1995, 130)?
Christians understand that the Gospel is offensive (Rom. 9:23). Indeed, it is scandalous. And no doubt, world evangelization is doubly difficult in an age of civilizational conflict. Missionaries themselves, however, insofar as it is possible, ought not to bring offense simply because of their own cultural prejudice or personal behavior. What will be our testimony: respect or rejection?
Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order. New York: Touchstone Books.
Fleishman, Jeffrey. 2000. "A Plea Grows in Italy: Cities Ask All to Slow Down." Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 July, A1.
Elliot, Michael. 2000. "Europe: The Un-America." Newsweek, December 18.
Reapsome, Jim. 1999. Final Analysis: A Decade of Commentary on the Church and World Missions. Wheaton, Ill.: EMIS.
Thaxton, Carole and Charles. How to Respect a Czech. Fayetteville, Ga.: Konos Connection.
Drapal, Dan. 1996. Will We Survive Western Missionaries? Prague: sborov_dopis.
Hiebert, Paul. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Olson, Bruce. 1995. Bruchko. Lake Mary, Fla.: Charisma House.
Richard Smith is affiliated with the International Institute for Christian Studies. He taught courses and served as the interim president for a private college in Prague and has a Ph.D. from Westminister Theological Seminary.
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