by Ralph Covell
What are the consequences of asking governments to save us?
I’ve read that the day of imperialism in world missions is over. Experiences of the past 50 years, beginning with the missionary exodus from China, have supposedly taught us that God’s kingdom cannot be advanced by the use of worldly power. Good theory, maybe, but when push comes to shove it is all too easy to revert to old patterns. The structures of imperialism, including Western colonies scattered around the globe, may be gone, but attitudes do not die as easily. We prefer secular power to the weakness of the cross.
This was brought home to me early last summer. I attended an evening meeting at a missionary institution where testimonies were given by a missionary who had just been released from prison in a limited access country. He and his wife were two members of a larger team which also included several local Christians. As a result of engaging in questionable Christian activities at the height of a religious festival, several of the expatriates and one local leader had been apprehended and put in prison. Had they done anything unlawful? Possibly not, but they had offended local religious sensitivities. They also had acted in a way that disturbed other missionaries who had lived longer in the same country.
The wife’s testimony was a very moving one. She recounted her mental agony and spiritual struggle during the 10 weeks that her husband and the others were in prison. She emphasized repeatedly that service for Jesus will lead to a life of suffering, and that no cost—even death—is too great a price to pay. She stated that missionaries can have no preconditions of safety or success in their ministries. Rather, they must count the cost carefully and hold nothing back.
Again, good theory. After the husband had given a more detailed account of life in prison — a period that he feared might extend to five years — the meeting was opened for questions. One perceptive listener among the 300 present asked the bottom-line question, “Why do you think you were released?” He might have answered simply, with some truth, “Because of the prayers of God’s people.”
But, commendably, he gave a full, candid answer. Before he and other team members had left America, they had contacted several Christian Congressmen and alerted them to the fact that they were going to a particular country and might need their help. Once the men were in prison, their Washington political colleagues shifted into high gear. They had bailed out detained missionaries in other countries before and had their modus operandi down pat.
Their first move was low pressure. When the president of this country visited President Clinton in Washington, they gave him a letter signed by 20 senators. In it they urged him as a compassionate measure to release the missionaries. So far so good. But, when this approach proved ineffective, they used their ace card. One of their members was on the U.S. Senate Committee for Foreign Aid. He led the committee to threaten the loss of American aid to this country unless the missionaries were released immediately.
As a result, the country’s president ordered that the missionaries be freed. They were escorted to the airport in handcuffs, and they and their families were deported. Their local colleague was detained in prison, and later was transferred to a local psychiatric hospital.
This missionary brother and his wife were prepared theoretically to bet their all on serving Jesus, but it was good to have an emergency Plan B. As I listened to this account, I was astounded. Was this 1993? Was the evangelistic countdown to A.D. 2000, with all of its urgency, going to see more of these Washington D.C. power plays? Had we learned nothing from the past? Had I had the time and opportunity I would have noted a few implications of such an action. Let me list several:
1. We were on our own
I thought back to my own time in China when our entire time of service was besmirched by the claim that we were imperialists and lived by “gunboat diplomacy.” The tendency, whenever we got in a pickle in the pre-Communist period, was an appeal to our dependence upon U.S. government help. After liberation in this restricted access area, we learned that this was no longer proper. The U.S. government left China and warned us that if we stayed—and most missionaries did—we were on our own. I was under house arrest for three months and one of my colleagues was imprisoned for five years. Had we done anything unlawful? No. Were our human rights violated? Probably. But that was the risk we had chosen—to depend on Jesus rather than our government. Now here, 50 years later, a new crop of missionaries is reinventing power ploys. And they seem to see it as God’s will.
2. We must be prepared to pay the penalty
If our idealism, our naiveté, our lack of cultural sensitivity in limited or restricted access countries, and our compulsive zeal lead us to dubious or questionable practices, we must truly be prepared to pay the penalty. We cannot merely mouth pious platitudes about our readiness for sacrifice. Mission societies seem agreed that they will not pay a ransom if one of their missionaries is kidnapped. Our government has said that it will not rescue American hostages abducted in the Middle East.
Quite a few years ago the U.S. Congress took action preventing CIA agents from seeking information from missionaries who had lived in sensitive areas. Why, then, has a group of Washington politicians, with little understanding apparently of Christian missions and its past, taken upon itself the burden of freeing missionaries in trouble? The Christian world mission, particularly in the so-called “10/40 Window,” cannot be entrusted to neophytes who still wish to go forth under any other banner and authority than that of Jesus. Our colleagues may appeal to human rights, but we have given up that choice. We must take full responsibility for our actions. We must not hedge our bets.
3. The consequences for God’s kingdom
We may save our necks by an appeal to our government. But what are the consequences for God’s kingdom in that country? In China it clouded the atmosphere for 100 years. And, what about the local leaders with whom we work? The missionaries were deported, but their brother remained in prison. What must he have thought? In a country where politics and religion are of one piece, he had assumed that he and his missionary colleagues were engaged in a spiritual task. Now, by this unwise appeal to the U.S. government, they had used political power. He was left with no leg to stand on and is at the mercy of any accusation his captors will throw at him.
At the very least, if at some future time we fear we will be tempted to appeal to our own government, then let’s be up front with our local co-laborers. In this case, the appeal was not a spur-of-the moment decision—it had been premeditated. Imperialism has many faces. We may have a problem avoiding the criticism that we engage in religious or cultural imperialism. But let us never yield to military or political imperialism.
4. What about their training?
The missionary brother and sister at the meeting had worked with a Christian organization in America for several years before going abroad. Those to whom they ministered in America were from the same people group as those they hoped to reach in the overseas country.
Why had the training they had received over several years not given them a conscience on such matters? In fact, their time in the country where they were working was to prepare them for an even more sensitive mission in another country. Did they give no thought to the reality of the world in which they live? Did their theology convince them that God would never let them get into such a mess? Did they adopt the policy that the end justifies the means? Working in limited access countries will demand far more than a few facts and an idealistic, romantic zeal. Who is really trying to give this kind of training? Is it effective? Is it impossible to learn from the way in which imperialistic attitudes plagued us in the past? Or don’t we really care about the past?
5. Does it matter how we do the job?
Finally, I wondered why, in this audience of 300, many of whom were missiologists, teachers, and mission students, no one raised a question about this appeal to government power. Maybe they were all too polite. Or maybe they were not concerned to test missionary methods and attitudes by the supreme litmus test—the character of the God they proclaim. After all, does it matter how we do the job? Just do it!
Fortunately, we serve a God who is gracious and forgiving and who can somehow overrule our mistakes for his glory and the good of his kingdom. Moses found that out after he jumped the gun in his efforts to rescue his people from bondage. But then Moses did not continue to make the same mistake. God sent him off to the desert where he learned to do things in God’s way and by God’s timetable. So let this sad episode be a warning to all of us. May God teach us to wait on him, to follow his directions, and maybe to go a bit slower, even if we do not get through our own agenda by A.D. 2000.
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