by Jonathan Bonk
Colin Andrews makes a good case for a moratorium on the word “mission” and its cognates. After all, it has picked up a lot of baggage along the way, thanks to its close ties to five hundred years of European exploration, migration, and conquest that swept up the Western Hemisphere, large chunks of Macronesia, Southern Africa, and most recently Israel, into what we know as the modern or “developed” world. The realization of this global military, economic, and cultural hegemony—“globalization,” we call it—entailed the acute suffering, massive dislocation, and frequent extermination of entire populations.
The modern missionary movement cannot be separated from the prolonged and violent migratory phenomenon that:
• partitioned and parceled out the entire continent of Africa
• prevailed in the deeply unjust opium wars with China, obliging the nation to import vast quantities of an addictive drug whose sale financed foreign rule in India, and whose treaties exempted Western missionaries from Chinese law
• ensnared “Christian” nations and soldiers in two “world” wars, between them generating more than seventy million—mostly civilian—casualties, including six million Jews. Similarly, neo-Christendom—the “almost chosen nation” that sends out more missionaries than all others combined—evokes deeply disturbing memories for millions around the world, the inevitable result of a century of global military meddling that sustains and justifies a hugely profitable military industrial complex larger than the rest of the world’s combined.
We know, of course, that this is not the way of Jesus, but it has been and continues to be the way of those countries that define us socially and politically, and we cannot avoid the taint. Like being a non-smoker in a room full of smokers, we smell of smoldering tobacco.
The “Christian” West is also in the forefront of inculcating—through its globally ubiquitous and varied media—values that are antithetical to moral societies. Licentiousness, pornography, gross vulgarity, and greed are conspicuous mainstays of what we offer the world for our own profit. It is as though America had discovered in Paul’s paraphrased warning below a never-fail formula for commercial success, rather than—as he intended—a harbinger of doom: “[Celebrate and aggressively promote] whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire and greed, which is idolatry [for such things generate profits, against which there is no law]” (Col. 3:5).
Needless to say, Western missions and missionaries have not been directly complicit in the excesses of their functionally godless countrymen, and have often been among their sharpest critics. Nevertheless, given all this, what person of integrity would wish to identify with the category “Christian”? And how could missionaries from such cultures possibly have anything to say about the righteousness without which no one can please God? This is the burden Western missionaries carry—one that echoes the experiences of Habakkuk and Jeremiah. So yes, Andrews is right, up to a point.
One problem with his thesis lies in the fact that the Western, evangelical establishment does not have a monopoly on either “mission” or “missionary.” Christianity is no longer a predominantly Western phenomenon. A majority of Christians now resides south and east of Europe and the United States. And these Christians—true to their Holy Spirit DNA—are missionary. They come from nations and cultures fraught with problems, yes; but without the legacies or the self-righteous pretenses which mark the “Christian” West.
If we westerners were to drop “mission” from our religious vocabularies, then tens of thousands of missionaries sent from Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and from across and throughout Africa and India would continue to use it. We do not own the word.
Perhaps, in the end, the best we can do is confess that even our language is a part of the clay jar in which we carry the priceless treasure—the glory of God in the face of Christ—wherever we go (2 Cor. 4:7). Whether we call our witness to Christ “mission” or something else, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Jonathan Bonk is executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 236-237. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.