I have been interested in Christian missions, as in cross-cultural missions, since I was a young follower of Christ. I read the books about famous missionaries and went to missions conferences. I listened to stories of selfless heroism and noble sacrifice. Early on, I thought that my part of the task of world evangelization would be to support it from home. I never really saw myself actually ‘in the field.’ At least, not until I went on a short-term trip to Australia. Ok, not a really huge cultural shift from the U.S. to Australia. But, it created a new yearning to be more involved.
I have friends who have gone to the mission field. These folks dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel, as we understood it. They work to establish churches and to help the local population grow in our understanding of the gospel. But, as I have grown and reflected on how we have pursued missions, I’ve been compelled to rethink some things.
Our understanding of missions has been deeply rooted in a Western patristic reading of scripture. It grew out of a desire to spread the good news of forgiveness of sin through faith in God alone. This was coupled with the concept of sola scriptura, which meant that the only way to salvation was a strict adherence to how we understood
the scriptures. As missionaries accompanied explorers they went out to conquer the world for Christ. In essence, this was a mandate to spread the gospel by spreading the culture. What this meant for indigenous populations was the end of their way of life. They were taught that, as the late Richard Twiss said, “You can’t be a Christian until you reject your culture and your spirituality and your ceremonies.”
And, when the native people would not willingly do that, they were brutally ‘converted.’ Thousands of people were systematically raped and murdered…all in the name of the Church.
I began to ask, ‘why?’ Why would the God that I saw revealed in Jesus desire this kind of wanton destruction of human beings? Did God really desire that nations and people groups become assimilated or destroyed in Christ’s name? Weren’t these the nations and tongues and people that the scripture said would one day bring praise and glory to God? Something just didn’t compute.
What really got me thinking that maybe we were pursuing missions in a manner that may not be in accord with the Jesus Way, was when I wrote a paper on Jim Elliot for a missions class in seminary. Now, I am not going to disparage Elliot and the other men who gave their lives for God. Everything they did was faithful to their understanding of the Gospel and evangelization. What I am questioning is the model that they were given to use. This model, presented here very simply, was to go into a native community and begin to educate the indigenous people. They did this by learning the language of the people, translating the scriptures into that language, then teaching the local people how to read their own language so that they could read the scripture. Ok, it sounds kind of convoluted, and, actually it is. What happens with this model is that the indigenes must adopt a Western approach to education and spirituality. Their own culture and spirituality was, and still is, deemed less important than having a “saving” knowledge of scripture. In a nutshell, as Richard Twiss observed, “You have to chuck all that stuff and just become White.”
Why? What makes our Western understanding of the gospel the be-all and end-all? As I continued to pursue clarity on this, I found that there is more than one way to understand the scriptural text and the Gospel itself. I began to immerse myself in the ‘story’ of the Bible. I recognized that the text that we have has its roots in oral tradition. This tradition employs narrative and poetry and forensics and history and apocryphal stories. The biblical text is NOT a user’s manual of how to get into heaven when you die. It is a love story about Yahweh’s furious love for the cosmos. From Genesis 1 to the end of Revelation, it is God’s story given to humanity so that we can know and relate to the Divine. Story. That word has kept returning to the front of my brain. Story. The telling of events and tales and fables and myth that prick our human hearts. We find God and ourselves in stories. I began to see that my story was not necessarily yours, or anyone else’s story. Or, the story of the Auca, or the Lakota, or the Cherokee, or the Maori. God had given them a different story.