by Stan May
Missionaries are ambassadors representing Christ. They either present the ugly face of the home culture as a mask for the gospel or present the glorious gospel of the King.
Rarely does a work of fiction have such a profound cultural impact as did the novel The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Written at the end of the 1950s, the novel chronicled the American fear of the spread of communism, and Washington’s attempt to gain the upper hand in the Cold War by sending ambassadors and foreign aid to strategic countries. The novel demonstrates how wrong attitudes and actions overshadowed the noble intentions of the American government. The term “ugly American” became a catchphrase for the brash American tourist, the bumptious American ambassador and the American businessman who tended to bully his way through delicate situations.
The novel follows the ambassadorial relations in the fictional Southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan. It juxtaposes the American ambassador’s efforts to introduce democracy in the country with his Russian counterpart’s attempts to introduce communism. Sad to say, the Russian was a far more effective and compelling individual. The Americans entered Sarkhan convinced that their money and their ideas alone would make a difference. They assumed that they needed no training nor special skills to communicate their message to the Sarkhanese people.
On the other hand, Lederer and Burdick record the rigorous preparation of the Russian Ambassador:
At the Moscow School for Asian Areas, both Ambassador-designate and Madame Krupitzyn went through two years of rigorous studies to prepare them for their new job. They learned to read and write Sarkhanese. They learned that the ideal man in Sarkhan is slender, graceful, and soft-spoken; that he has physical control and outward tranquility; that he is religious (Buddhism is the prevalent religion); and that he has an appreciation of the ancient classical music.
The Ambassador-designate molded himself into the pattern. He dieted and lost forty pounds; he took ballet lessons. He read Sarkhanese literature and drama, and became a fairly skillful player on the nose-flute. And he regularly attended lectures in Buddhist religion and practices. (32)
The Ambassador’s careful preparation did not go unnoticed. His arrival in Sarkhan reflected not Russian pomp but Asian grace. No driver received him, and no fanfare announced him.
Further, he won a hearing by observing the proper procedures of respect:
In the afternoon he traveled to the great monastery on the outskirts of the capital, where he called to pay his respects to the Chief Abbot, who was the leader of all Buddhists in the area. Krupitzyn’s arrival caused confusion because it was unusual for white men to come to the monastery. (32)
Before he was ushered into the leader’s presence, Krupitzyn was informed that he would need an interpreter since the Abbot spoke no foreign languages. His guide assumed he spoke in English because of his calling card:
When they were in front of the monk, Louis Krupitzyn bowed very low and said in classical Sarkhanese, “It is very gracious of Your Reverence to accord me this privilege.” “You did not tell my secretary that you spoke our language.” Krupitzyn, still bowing low, replied, “It is traditional, Your Reverence, that one saves his best words for the master.” (33)
So Krupitzyn and the Grand Leader of all the Buddhists in Sarkhan began to talk. Their conversation began with courteous chit-chat but then turned to matters of philosophy. Afternoon soon turned to evening. Krupitzyn’s actions endeared him to his host country. His identification with the people was obvious; he won the right to a hearing and doors opened for him to complete his ultimate goals (from which he never deviated).
The American ambassador, by contrast, was pompously overbearing, convinced of his own rightness and unwilling to understand the ways of his host culture. Such unwillingness to identify with the culture created not a bridge of goodwill but rather a barrier to communication.
By describing the ambassadorial system upon which the American government based its relationship with other countries, the novel affords a striking parallel to the passage on which Paul builds a great missionary motif. The familiar text of 2 Corinthians 5:20 says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Two major questions arise from an understanding of the ambassadorial motif as a missiological paradigm. First, what is the significance and function of the ambassador in Scripture? Second, does the ambassadorial motif help us come to a clearer understanding of the contextualizing process?
The concept of an ambassador regularly appears in the literature of the ancient world. Inscriptions demonstrate that both the verbal and nominal forms of the concept “were the proper terms in the Greek east for envoys or the Emperor’s Legate” (Deissmann 374). Everett Ferguson recounts perhaps the most memorable ancient occurrence. The Syrian general Antiochus IV was attempting to invade Egypt, but “the envoy of the Senate, C[aius] Popilius Laenas, drew a circle on the ground [Polybius noted that he actually drew it ‘round Antiochus’ (Polybius 29:27)] and told Antiochus IV not to step out of it until he had given his pledge to withdraw” (Ferguson 22). He withdrew, recognizing that the ambassador represented all the power of Rome.
Margaret M. Mitchell asserts that the concept of the envoy “is one of the most pervasive concepts in all of New Testament literature” (Mitchell 644), demonstrating that New Testament usage parallels that of contemporaneous secular literature. Mitchell identifies several key figures who were sent by Paul to act as envoys and occasionally even to mediate for him during tense times (Mitchell 643). The concept of ambassador is rooted both in Paul’s understanding of himself as sent by Christ and his appreciation of the role of the envoy in the society at large.
THE FUNTION OF THE TERM
The basic function of the ambassador was to act as an envoy, representing one government to another. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states, “The ambassador legally represents the political authority which sends him; his competence is according to its constitution.” This word, however, carried both political and religious nuances; Jewish authors such as Philo and the writers of the deutero-canonical literature also used it (681). Paul’s choice of this word reflected both his joy in his calling and his understanding of his office. He was an ambassador of Christ, speaking his Lord’s message to all peoples. Philip E. Hughes describes Paul’s attitude:
It is his duty to proclaim faithfully and precisely the message entrusted to him by his sovereign. Accordingly there is a real sense in which the voice of the ambassador may be said to be the voice of the sovereign he represents. Here, therefore, Paul boldly urges this analogy: when Christ’s ambassador entreats it is equivalent to the voice of God entreating through him. His message, his authority, his power are all imparted to him by his Lord. Paul, however, is not proposing an analogy which only more or less fits the situation; what he says here is factual: Christ’s messengers are really His ambassadors; God does actually entreat through them. (Hughes 1962, 210)
Paul, the preeminent envoy of Christ to the Gentiles, had a profound understanding of the significance and function of ambassadors.
Our second question concerns the relationship between the ambassadorial role and contextualization. While “ambassador” is an old word, contextualization is a newcomer to the missiological lexicon. The word was introduced in 1972, when the Theological Education Fund (TEF) of the World Council of Churches tied funding to each applicant’s ability to contextualize (Fleming 1980, xi). The TEF committee saw contextualization as encompassing indigenization, while also including an authentic, dynamic and prophetic character that “draws its basic power from the Gospel” and “contributes ultimately to the solidarity of all people in obedience to a common Lord.” The TEF committee also spoke of the need for a “theology of change” (Fleming 1980, 86). Unfortunately, this concept of “change” was stretched to accept every shade of the theological spectrum. Most theologies of liberation embrace this concept.
For evangelicals, this idea was too elastic; initial reaction was one of rejection rather than acceptance. As the decade closed, however, Bible-believing Christians eventually co-opted the word. At a 1979 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Stan Gundry offered a definition of contextualization that evangelicals could embrace:
Contextualization is concerned with the communication of the substance of divine revelation into the forms and structures of the recipients’ culture in such a way that the integrity of the Gospel and Christianity are not compromised, but also in such a way that the Gospel and the Christian way can be fully internalized by the person in that culture. (Gundry 1979, 11-12)
This understanding of contextualization does justice both to the authority of Scripture and to the significance of culture.
Contextualization, however, is not just a term to be defined; it is most importantly a project to be implemented in a particular culture. Implementation involves both the change agent (i.e. missionary) and the national believers. The change agent must learn the culture and the language of the people well enough to make the gospel “strangely familiar.” The agent employs local forms in order to introduce biblical concepts. He or she faithfully proclaims the eternal gospel, without compromise, wrapped in forms that reflect both the structures and the spiritual concerns of a culture. Simply stated, contextualization means that the message (or the resulting church) is defined by Scripture but shaped by culture.
THE AMBASSADOR AS CONTEXTUALIZING CHANGE AGENT
“Ambassador” describes Paul well. He saw himself as a representative of the living God to all people. He sought to communicate the divine message without apology. He also endeavored to wrap that message in the appropriate forms so that the message would pass unhindered to its recipients. (2 Cor. 4:2). This exemplifies the ambassadorial role.
In a wonderfully insightful tome, Mildred Cable and Francesca French elucidate the dual role of the ambassador toward the host culture:
the ambassador uses every form of courtesy among the people to whom his appointment takes him, speaking their language, and adapting himself to their culture and manner of life, yet without yielding one inch on any point where the interests of his King are involved. He is the King’s representative, and loyalty to his Royal Master is his first consideration. (1946, 55)
This often unstated responsibility of the ambassador is central to effectiveness in international relations. Ambassadorial relationships are built on mutual respect. And the idea of sending an envoy in the stead of the king indicates the gravity of the issues to be discussed and the honor accorded to the host government.
In what ways did Paul demonstrate respect for the cultures to which his Lord sent him? Several examples come to mind. Perhaps 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where he outlines his missions methodology, is most familiar:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
In this passage Paul delineates his contextualizing approach as an ambassador of Christ. When he approached his unconverted kinsmen (the Jews), he customarily entered the synagogue, disputed in typical Jewish fashion and made the case for Jesus as messiah from the Old Testament (Acts 17:2-3). Other examples of Paul’s contextualization for the Jewish people include making vows and shaving his head (Acts 18:18; 21:24), encouraging Timothy to be circumcised (Acts 16:3) and appealing to his fellow Pharisees when questioned about the resurrection (Acts 23:6).
On the other hand, the latter section of Acts 17 reflects a different methodology. In Athens Paul addressed a crowd of Gentiles who had no understanding of Scripture or appreciation for Paul’s monotheistic heritage. Preaching in Greek, he engaged the disputers on the Areopagus about their religious habits. He spoke knowledgeably about the idols. He quoted two Greek poets, and argued for the common origin and destiny of all humanity.
Paul’s customary approach to both Jews and Gentiles involved tailoring his message to his audience. This tailoring, moreover, was not merely cosmetic, but encompassed the actual form of his presentation (e.g. he dialogued in Thessalonica but addressed the crowd in a monologue on the Areopagus). As an ambassador, he reiterated his Sovereign’s message yet customized it for the context in which it was presented. This is the heart of the change agent’s role in contextualization.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TODAY
The modern missions movement has until recently been driven by the North American missionary force (although this is changing rapidly), and this force still significantly impacts missionary efforts around the world. In the light of the foregoing study, how should the missionary ambassador approach the task of contextualization?
First, the ambassador of Christ should shun methodologies grounded in American egotism. Much of the rest of the world is offended by the perceived American disrespect for polychronic cultures. Americans live by the clock, and our time orientation implies that both Americans and God are “in a hurry.” Most of the world, however, orients life around events, not clocks. Africans say, “Americans have watches, but we have time.” This statement levels a stinging indictment against America’s exaltation of time over relationships. What’s more, methodologies employing American funding generally produce dependency and jealousy among national believers (McQuilkin 1999, 57-59). Such approaches are shortsighted and counterproductive.
Another significant implication of the above study involves preparation. Both the career and the short-term missionary should pursue adequate training before embarking on the missionary task. Inadequate preparation may lead to cultural insensitivity which perpetuates the “ugly American” stereotype.
Many times short-term volunteers have visited other countries and returned with glowing reports of numerous decisions for Christ, without ever understanding people who made these decisions. The person who follows the traditional healer’s instruction to buy a black blanket and put it on a shelf in order to see his or her daughter healed believes in magic. When an American preacher tells that same person to raise his or her hand to go to heaven, he or she may do so out of the same magical belief. Only careful preparation and understanding can prevent such grave miscommunication. This requirement further reinforces the need for long-term incarnational missionaries and discounts the idea that short-term volunteerism can replace career appointments. While volunteers can and should be productively employed overseas, their shortcomings should be duly recognized.
Third, and most obvious, the missionary ambassador should understand his or her three worlds. The intersection of home culture, host culture and the Scriptures provides the starting point for the ambassadorial mission. The missionary who fails to know Scripture commits treason, as the King’s message will be garbled, misinterpreted or presented wrongly. The missionary who fails to understand his or her home culture may falsely equate “Western” with “biblical.” Such an approach prolongs condescending paternalism. The missionary who neglects to understand his or her host culture reinforces the worst attitudes that the rest of the world generally holds about American missionaries. The greatest challenge the ambassador of Christ faces is to triangulate his three worlds.
Just as Lederer and Burdick’s book impacted the United States delegacy, so the contextualization debate has affected Christian missionaries. Missionaries are ambassadors representing Christ, whether or not they properly contextualize the message. They either present the ugly face of the home culture as a mask for the gospel, and thereby inhibit response, or present the glorious gospel of the King in ways amenable to and consonant with the host culture. The ambassadorial motif offers an approach to understanding the “delicate and difficult task” of contextualization. The unchanging message is never compromised; the King’s ambassador represents the King and delivers the King’s message without apology. The wise envoy, however, recognizes the important distinction between medium and message. Media change from culture to culture, but the message of the gospel is supracultural and fixed. Missionaries who remember Paul’s words and see their work as ambassadors stand true to the cross and, at the same time, true to the culture in which the cross is preached. This is the heart of being an “ambassador of Christ.”
Cable, Mildred and Francesca French. 1946. Ambassadors for Christ. Chicago: Moody.
Deissmann, Adolf. 1978. Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World. Trans. by Lionel R. M. Strachan. Rev. ed. Twin Brooks Series. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Feinberg, Paul D. “The Contextualization of Theology.” Chapter. 5 in Systematic Theology. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, prepublication manuscript.
Ferguson, Everett. 1993. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Fleming, Bruce C. 1980. Contextualization of Theology: An Evangelical Assessment. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey.
Friedrich, Gerhard, ed. 1968. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 6. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans. and ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Gundry, Stanley N. 1979. “Evangelical Theology: Where Should We Be Going?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (March): 11-12.
Hughes, Philip E. 1962. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament, F. F. Bruce, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Lederer, William J. and Eugene Burdick. 1958. The Ugly American. New York: Fawcett Crest.
McQuilkin, J. Robertson. 1999. “Stop Sending Money! Breaking the Cycle of Missions Dependency.” Christianity Today, 1 March, 57-59.
Mitchell, Margaret M. 1992. “New Testament Envoys in the Context of Greco-Roman Diplomatic and Epistolary Conventions: The Example of Timothy and Titus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111/4: 641-62.
Polybius. 1980. The Histories. Vol. 6. Trans. by W. R. Paton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Stan May Ph.D., served with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention in Zimbabwe from 1989-95. He is chairman of the Missions Department at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee.
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