by David W. Wright
The chief lesson has to do with the values of the missionary’s vulnerability.
Gathering dust in my father’s attic is an old movie made on board the ship that brought our family home from the Philippines in the mid-1950s after my parents’ first term of missionary service. In that flickering old film my mother stands on deck holding me in her arms. My sister is at her side. All of us are wearing life jackets. Behind us heavy seas roll up and down, blown by stormy winds. The images are powerful for me not just because they are scenes from my own past, but because they are pictures from a world that no longer exists.
The world was a different place in those immediate postwar years when my parents went off to the mission field. Though the Philippines had long been a U.S. possession, it was a foreign place. There were few reminders of home. The homogenizing effects of modern mass culture had not yet arrived. Jet air travel and the electronic communications media had yet to shrink the globe. Going away to the “mission field” meant something then that it rarely means today.
My own missionary ministry 40 years later is undertaken in an international context, the reality of which is fundamentally different than the one that formed the ministry of my parents’ generation. While it is well beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the changes, I would like to point out the single most influential factor that makes today’s international context irrevocably different.
Having done so, I will discuss two shifts within the discipline of anthropology that are linked directly to this changed international context in which both missionaries and anthropologists have been working. In conclusion, I would like to suggest implications of these changes that I believe require profound and wide-ranging discussion among missionaries.
THE REALITY OF TODAY’S CROSS-REFERENCED WORLD
The world that saw the birth of modern evangelical missions was one in which Westerners went to exotic foreign places for long periods, did their work, and returned home to tell about it. This was true of both missionaries and anthropologists.1
Today, however, the anthropologist who reads an account of field work done in Papua New Guinea to her assembled colleagues in a Western university is more than a little likely to have New Guineans in the audience. Likewise, the missionary who visits a supporting church in America can probably find nationals from his field living either in the same community, or not far away.
This situation raises immediate questions for anyone with a modicum of sensitivity and insight. The anthropologist must reckon with questions like these: If they are there, why are they not capable of speaking of themselves and their culture for themselves? How should the anthropologist’s account of them and their culture be understood? Of what use is the anthropologist in such a world? Though the questions may be slightly different for the missionary, this reality points to a changed context both at home and abroad.
Evangelical missiology has yet to fully face the ramifications of the pervasive and relentless multilateral interaction of the present international context. For the most part, the popular evangelical vision of missions is still one in which heroic souls go to a far away world for several years at a time, to people living in spiritual, mental, and material “darkness,” then come home to report on what they’ve done.
But this mentality manifestly does not fit the present world. How should missionary activity be conceived and carried out in a world where societies are fluid, where the international exchange of ideas is widespread and easy, and where cultures stand on much more of an even intellectual footing than they did just 50 years ago?
For example, the children of the family who faithfully support “Dear Brother So-and-So” out in Africa may well drive to school each morning listening to African music on their personal stereos. The young people with whom “Brother So-and-So” works out in Africa probably watch American sit-coms on their televisions, wear blue jeans, and in somecases might even be able to pop down to McDonalds for lunch.
Further, it is more than likely that most of the Africans with whom he works are acquainted with the gospel, while many of the people in his own society know next to nothing about it. Just as Westerners are exposed to Eastern ideas, so much of the world is exposed to Western ideas. Capitalistic democracy and socialistic communism, the two great competing socio-economic ideologies that have held the world enthralled this century, are Western inventions. No other (non-Western) imagination for social order is even in the running.
While these facts do not mean there is no longer any need to send “Brother So-and-So” to Africa, they certainly raise questions as to his role and his mission. The world of the immediate post-war generation, though it would soon change irreversibly, was still one where interaction was mostly unilateral. It was still governed by a mentality shaped by the material, spiritual, and intellectual commerce unique to colonial centers and their colonies. This is no longer true.
ANTHROPOLOGY’S TWIN DILEMMAS
Not only has the world become smaller, not only is multilateral interaction the norm today, but even more significantly, the intellectual frames of reference applied to international relationships have shifted. Nowhere is this more apparent than in missiology’s longtime favorite cousin, the field of anthropology.
Current anthropology is a discipline very unlike the one that helped to create the standard missionary conceptions of cross-cultural work that have been in place over the past thirty or forty years. In a nutshell, anthropology now faces two dilemmas.
First, anthropologists have always taken for granted their right to enter and observe foreign cultures. Field work has always lain at the heart of the discipline. Since World War II, they have been guided in their cultural interaction by several principles — primarily those of self-awareness, and a nonjudgmental stance toward observed cultures. Today, however, anthropologists are no longer sure that they have the right to enter and observe foreign cultures. This has raised serious questions. Anthropologists are being forced to ask themselves: Should I go? If I don’t go, how do I carry on my work? If I do go, how do I conduct myself and my work?
Anthropology’s second dilemma is centered around the anthropologist’s stock-in-trade, his or her field notes. One of the primary foundations on which all social science has rested over the years has been the assumption that written texts convey objective meaning. This assumption is so basic as to seem beyond question. Nevertheless, in the post-war period, intellectual seeds were sown that have eventually brought even this fundamental assumption into question. Today anthropologists are being forced to reckon with the argument that their field notes and written studies do not, indeed cannot, be the vehicles of objective fact. Therefore, they are faced with another dilemma: Should I write? If I don’t write, what is the point of my work? If I do write, what does my writing signify?
These two dilemmas have come about because of two shifts in the intellectual moorings of the social sciences, shifts inextricably tied to the anthropologists’ (and other social scientists’) awareness of the changed international context in which they have been working.
THE RISE OF CONFLICT THEORY
When it first appeared as an academic discipline, anthropology tended to be, in the words of Clifford Geertz, “a sweeping, up-from-the-ape, study-of-mankind sort of business.”2 Cultures were viewed as fitting somewhere on a continuum between civilization (of which the great societies of the East and those of Western Europe were the exemplars) and barbarism. It was the business of anthropology to study the evolutionary movement of cultures along this continuum.
Later, anthropology shifted its focus. Anthropologists abandoned the notion of this supposed continuum of cultures and began to study societies as a whole, particularly examplesof living cultures. By doing so, they hoped to identify cultural structures (e.g., family arrangements, languages, symbols, governmental structures, education), and to describe the interrelated functions of these structures within the particular societies they observed. Further, by collecting studies of numerous cultures, they hoped to be able to create universal theories that could be applied across cultures.
The theoretical basis of this approach is known as structural-functionalism — the study of separate cultural structures with an eye to describing the way they work together to keep a society intact and functioning normally.
But in recent decades, structural-functionalism has been replaced by what can loosely be called conflict theories. These have been decades of enormous change. Structural-functionalism views societies as stable, well-functioning units, in which change is minimized. But this does not accurately reflect the reality of the present world. Today, very few cultures can resist change. Most are becoming more and more plural. Very few can resist the encroachments of the mass culture of the West, and of industrialization. Further, they manifestly do not always run smoothly. Conflict and dysfunction are imbedded in them.
Conflict theories, therefore, have provided approaches that seem to offer better reflections of these realities because they are change-biased. That is, they view cultures as inherently unstable, always changing. Conflict theories argue that the central reality of culture is not a collection of stable, smooth-functioning structures, but conflict between differently empowered groups of people. Social structures exist to maintain these power imbalances. The most influential conflict theories have been those based on Marxist analysis that describes conflict with reference to economic class.
As will be immediately noted, Western societies (of which the academy is a part) can be subjected to this kind of analysis. Revisionist scholars have pointed out with some vigor that academe (including the supposedly value-neutral social sciences) has been one of the hegemonic structures the West has used to maintain its position of power vis-à-vis the rest of the world. One of the ways the West remains enormously powerful is by controlling the production and dissemination of knowledge.
Applied to anthropology, this argument says that anthropologists have not been merely disinterested observers of diverse peoples. Their work has helped to legitimize a particular arrangement in which non-Western peoples and cultures have been maintained as objects of study, and thereby denied their own voices. Just as Western capitalists have appropriated the natural resources of non-Western countries, so Western scholars have appropriated the stories of non-Western people.
This has proven to be a devastating line of argument for the previously self-assured Western academy. Anthropologists have been much more used to dishing out this sort of criticism than taking it themselves. As this view has gained influence, they have found it less and less easy to justify entering and describing cultural contexts. The act of entering has become politically and morally fraught.
THE RISE OF DECONSTRUCTION
While the first dilemma questions anthropologists’ right to enter and observe cultures, the second questions the authority and meaning of their written texts. This second dilemma has come with the rise of deconstruction.
Deconstructionism has turned the world of literary criticism on its ear and has had a profound impact on all the social sciences. Massively simplified, decon-structionist literary criticism denies the existence of objective meaning in written texts. Readers, not authors, invest texts with meaning. A reader’s interaction with what is written is an experience of self-discovery, not of the discovery of some objective reality that lies back of, communicated in, the text.
Liechty has summarized the broader impact of deconstructionism thus.
Since the advent of deconstructionist thought, many fields in the humanities, from literary criticism to law, have been in the process of revolution. With its radically humanist perspective, deconstructionism casts a long shadow of doubt on the validity of the use of transcendental categories of truth and pushes to the front the political implications involved in the use of such categories. The core of the revolution created by deconstruction thought is a crisis of authority.3
This too has proven a devastating line of thought for anthropology. After all, the anthropologist’s stock-in-trade is his or her field notes, the written record of his observations of a foreign culture. By means of careful research and publication, the anthropologist became an “authority” in his or her chosen field and culture. But if one relinquishes the idea that objective fact—the way things really are in New Guinea let us say—can be communicated in a written text, then what is one to make of the anthropologist’s field notes? They are pretentious at best, and delusive at worst. These shifts, taken together, have produced great discussion and ferment in the field. As Geertz says, “half-convinced writers trying to half-convince readers of their (the writers’) half-convictions would not on the face of it seem an especially favorable situation for the production of works of very much power.”4
ANTHROPOLOGY’S REMAINING PURPOSE
This confusion and general loss of nerve do not mean that anthropology is dead. Geertz, for one, has attempted to articulate the purpose that remains for anthropology in today’s international context. In his words, it can and should continue to open (a bit) the consciousness of one group of people to (something of) the life-form of another, and in that way to (something of) their own. What it is (a task at which no one ever does more than not utterly fail) is to inscribe a present — to convey in words ‘what it is like’ to be somewhere specific in the lifeline of the world: Here, as Pascal famously said, rather than There; Now rather than Then. Whatever else ethnography may be…it is above all a rendering of the actual, a vitality phrased.5
By their work, anthropologists should enable “conversation across societal lines…that have grown progressively more nuanced, more immediate, and more irregular.”6 In other words, as multilateral contacts increase in the world, there is an even greater need for anthropologists to provide descriptions that will allow us to understand each other. Anthropologists should keep on going, and they should keep on writing. But the present intellectual moorings to which the social sciences are tied demand that anthropologists retreat even further from any pretention of erecting grand theoretical structures that seek to “explain” one culture in the terms of another. By their writing, they should aim, in Geertz’s words, to “enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where, tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way.”7
Beneath this suggested purpose lie two tacit admissions of enormous import. The first is the admission that cultures can no longer exist in isolation. Whereas anthropologists used to berate missionaries for introducing change into supposedly pristine cultures, here is a recognition that change will come whether or no. We can no longer get out of each other’s way. The second is the assumption that enabling conversation is the best and perhaps only hope of helping people get along together in a world where mutual interaction is not only widespread but unavoidable.
Anthropology was built on the assumption that the scientific world view could unite human discourse and pave the way for peaceful co-existence. The present ferment has occurred because social scientists have come to accept that in a world without objective truth, a world without transcendent authority, the scientific world view is just anotherof the cultural manifestations that humans use to make sense of and organize life. It can make no claim to be the basis on which human discourse will be unified. If their own culture must submit to the relativity they have applied to other cultures, then to use their own culture as a foundation for unity is merely another form of imperialism. All that is left is to try to enable conversation across societal lines.
This is a breathtaking retreat, and a frightening admission. It is a retreat from ideological imperialism, and an admission that, as far as they are concerned, there is nothing left to unite human life, no authority to which all humans bow, before whose principles all cultures are accountable. In the end it is a renunciation of the classic liberal concepts, so central to the historic development of modernity, of the “brotherhood of man” and the universality of natural law.
WHAT CAN MISSIONS LEARN?
Are these developments not a unique challenge to Christian missions? I believe these shifts provide points of departure for a much-needed discussion of the role and meaning of missions in today’s world. There is much to learn in the current situation.
First, as we read current anthropological literature we will be challenged to examine our work in the light of the conflict between competing values and world views in the present world. Whereas in the past anthropology influenced missionaries to be sensitive and adapt to the context to which they went, present literature will demand that we examine more critically the socioeconomic context from which we come. In the past, the concern has been to contextualize our message to the receiving culture. Current thinking will ask us to examine the ways our presence, our message, and our work are contextualized by the sending culture. We will be asked to consider whether our work participates in, or challenges, the global imbalances of power, wealth, and knowledge in the world today.
Second, and more importantly, what should stand out in bold relief here to all missiologists, certainly to all those of an evangelical persuasion, is the paucity of common ground that remains between the assumptions that drive the two fields of missiology and anthropology. The stage is set for missionaries to contribute a radically different imagination of the possibilities for human interaction, to help create a world that is not simply cross-referenced (that is, bound together in confused and dangerous interaction), but Cross-referenced (that is, called to account before the message and meaning of Christ).
Evangelical missionaries are far from uncertain about the moral validity of entering and interacting with other cultures. They have thus far shown little inclination even to think seriously about the political ramifications of their presence in foreign cultures, let alone to question whether they ought to be there. After all, the divine imperative to “go” is the strongest single assumption that drives the missionary agenda.
Further, far from being uncertain about the ability of words to carry transcendent and objective truth, the evangelical missionary agenda is built around the belief that the written word of God carries a message that transcends time and place, one that must be communicated to the whole world.
Those of us who claim to bear a standard of justice and reconciliation to which all cultures must submit must find a way to speak a creative and redemptive word into a world where we are “tumbled into endless connection” and find it “increasingly difficult to get out of each other’s way.”
Perhaps the current ferment will help us to begin thinking of missionaries not so much as those who go to tell a foreign tale, but as those who go to live a universal truth. In a foreshortened world, a world filled with bruising and scarring conflict, alienation and separation are natural and inevitable. In such a world, when we speak to each other, it is only to hurl accusations and insults. Missionaries must be those who, by going and thereby making themselvesvulnerable, contend for the validity of personal interaction. There is nothing redemptive in vulnerability and suffering. They are not ends in themselves. The movement into vulnerability is only redemptive as it leads people into a relationship with the Redeemer. The history of God’s action in this world suggests there is no other way.
God works incarnationally by preparing and sending people. His greatest act was in sending his Son. Perhaps, then, we must realize that our redemptive role as missionaries in this present world is not in our “superior” theological training (this is largely a myth), nor in our efficient structures (they are rarely as efficient abroad as at home), nor in our material aid (it is divisive and fleeting), nor in our technological gifts (much of the world is deeply suspicious of them), but in our vulnerable presence in the name of Christ.
We do not go as owners of the truth. We go as those who live the only truth that belongs to all humanity — that God has made us and longs for us to live in harmony with him and with each other. We do not go as technical experts, but as incarnations of God’s love, living witnesses to the unity of the human family. We go, and live, and work not because we have something they do not have, but because it is the way of Christ to establish bonds of love across whatever divides there may be. Thus, our presence among those with whom we differ can become a living witness to the truth that transcends the divisions that anthropology sees so clearly and so hopelessly.
l. Clifford Geertz’s influential recent book, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), is a particularly interesting and helpful treatment of these shifts. I am indebted to him for much of what follows.
2. Ibid., p. 146.
3. Daniel Liechty, Theology in Post-Liberal Perspective (London: SCM Press, 1990), p. ix.
4. Geertz, p. 139.
5. Ibid., p. 143.
6. Ibid., p. 147.
7. Ibid., p. 147.
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 402-409. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.