"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


so this is africa

I knew it would be bad when a birthday gift from Melissa the Missionary showed up bearing this label:

Oh, yes, and dear Melissa outdid herself this time. What greeted the 30th anniversary of my appearance on this planet? Why this little gem, of course:

Miss Anderson, it seems, was a Georgia native who was appointed by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to make her way to Nigeria in 1920, where she spent the rest of her life civilizing the natives. According to the forward, Miss Anderson's time as a teacher at a Baptist Girls' School in Nigeria made her "greatly beloved by all the black people who come under the influence of her Christlike personality."

Sigh. Melissa doesn't know how many of these sorts of books I have to read for my research. In trying to establish the social histories of the churches of the Kivu provinces and the history of social service provision by those churches, I get to read dozens of accounts of American missionaries who took off for darkest Africa, many of them never to return. And, truth be told, many of them give accounts of activities that are absolutely horrifying. If what they did bothers me, a nice Christian woman, then what do you suppose their Congolese converts thought?

It's not that I'm opposed to missionary endeavors. It's just that so many of them, especially in Africa, are undertaken with a level of naivite, arrogance, and lack of respect for existing cultural traditions that's just appalling.

In my work, I'm in the middle of reconstructing the history of Baptist churches in North Kivu in the DR Congo. There's a fantastic book about this, which makes the task a lot easier. But the history of mission and church in North Kivu isn't pretty. A group of missionaries, no doubt with the best of intentions, but also with a cultural arrogance and a sense that anything secular was inherently corrupting, ended up depriving a generation of Congolese converts of an education that would provide them with non-mission-based employment, and refused for far too long to allow local Christians any measure of control over the activities of the mission. They wouldn't even ordain African pastors.

As you can probably guess, this ended badly. The missionaries and their supporters were challenged by a group that agitated for more African control, for an education system that would allow parishoners to attain a level of material well-being that was comparable to that of the missionaries themselves, and for the mission organization and properties to be turned over to the Congolese Baptist churches. People actually died in violence that resulted from this struggle for control, and by the time most of the missionaries realized what they'd done in their quest for doctrinal and spiritual purity, it was too late. North Kivu's Baptists split, and they are still split today.

I've thought about this at length over the years - especially when watching groups of enthusiastic young American college students wearing matching t-shirts and carrying guitars board flights to East Africa - and I've come to the conclusion that the problem is not in the message, but rather in the culture. One of the huge (and entirely understandable) mistakes the early missionaries made was the assumption that deviations from American cultural norms of dress and conduct were representations of a "savage" or "heathen" mentality. So if women went around in the jungle naked all day, they were violating Biblical standards of modesty. Or if a marriage was celebrated by dancing, then clearly the culture had to be changed, because that was obviously a sign of an overt sexuality that needed to be repressed.

Never mind that those early westerners were projecting their cultural norms onto the society of others.

Unlike most of my colleagues in this field, I don't believe the missionary influence on Africa was entirely bad. They brought a new faith, they brought modern health care, they brought connections to the outside world that didn't exist before.

But they also brought a legalism, a sense of superiority, and an arrogance whose effects are hard to correct . And I fear that many very well-intentioned Americans carry that same attitude into Africa today as they go off to "bring Jesus to Kenya." May we remember that Jesus is already there. May we know that the kingdom of God is not about hierarchies, but about communities. May we be mindful of the fact that God speaks through all cultures, not just our own, and that what God requires of us is to do justice, love mercy, and act in a spirit of humility.


Blogger euphrony said...

Mayhap, this attitude of arrogance pervades not only the Western church, but Western culture (which introduced it to the church? or vice versa?). The belief is that for a place to become better - "civilized" or "educated" or "enlightened" or "wealthy" - then it has to be done in recreation of what the teachers have done to attain their perceived status of better. As if one path to success were the only possible path to be traveled. As if you actually have to travel that path in the first place.

Thursday, May 08, 2008 1:10:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up in Congo and Burundi as the child of missionary parents, I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.


Thursday, May 08, 2008 2:11:00 PM

Blogger Amy said...

Thanks for this most interesting post.

Thursday, May 08, 2008 2:47:00 PM

Blogger Tauratinzwe said...

Fortunately, a few groups have taken the trouble to learn a bit of culture and to preserve dying languages. The confusion between contextualization and syncritism is a major problem -- especially with Americans who confuse American culture with Christianity. A black pastor friend told me his life and faith were transformed when he discovered that God was not an American.

Since all cultures are changing, I pray that the Gospel can play a positive role when missionaries encounter other cultures.

Thursday, May 08, 2008 3:05:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you all read the novel about this - the poisonwood bible? BRILLIANT

Thursday, May 08, 2008 7:49:00 PM


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