Tuesday, September 18, 2007,12:40 AM
Cultural Imperialism, Contextualization, and Postcolonial Missions
I have my Master's in Intercultural Studies and Missions from Wheaton College - a very Evangelical institution. I was a bit of an oddball in the program as I went through it and would most likely not even begin to fit in now. I appreciate what I learned there and the paths of inquiry and questioning it led me down, but in many ways it didn't seem to go far enough. I studied cultural anthropology, intercultural communication, linguistics and the like all within the framework of contextualizing the Gospel into other cultures. For many students in the program the whole concept of contextualization in the first place was "liberal and heretical." For them the ends justified the means. Getting converts was worth whatever cultural cost had to be paid. (granted most of them actually thought that the way evangelicals did church was the way it had always been, so why syncretize the Gospel through such dubious means as contextualization?). But it wasn't until later that I saw firsthand that the vestiges of cultural imperialism in the guise of Christian missionary work are alive and well in many areas of Christianity.

During my stint as a Children's Ministries Director at a small Baptist church, I had the horrific experience of encountering one of the worst examples of Christian missionary cultural imperialism that I have ever seen. There was a family from another local area church (the super conservative and filthy rich one) that was doing the rounds of local churches to raise support to go be missionaries in Africa. They came to our church to do a special presentation during the Sunday school hour. That meant that somehow I got stuck with them coming to do a mini-presentation for the kids during the children's church I led during the main service. The wife who was wearing a dress straight out of Little House on the Prairie didn't say a word the entire morning, so we got to listen to the husband give the most racist missionary talk ever.

To give a bit of background, this family was white, very white and most of the kids in the children's church were black. After giving a report on Africa straight from the World Book Encyclopedia, the "missionary" guy launched into the whole "white man's burden" to go help the savages in Africa sort of thing. It was the whole "go convert the heathen" sort of missions work, but that wasn't the worst of it. He talked about the Africans as if they were less than human. At one point he even said that the Africans do nothing but sit alongside the rode all day being lazy, but they like it if you give them peanuts. I am so not kidding, he actually said give them peanuts like they were some sort of animal at a zoo. I was so appalled and shocked I didn't even know how to respond. I could tell that the kids were uncomfortable, but didn't think that they could disagree with the adult missionary. So when they finished their talk about what they would be doing in Africa, I just asked them to leave and then I started in on damage control with the kids. I officially begged that our church not support them and was seriously stunned that missionaries like that were still being sent out as representatives of Christianity. I have no clue if they ended up actually making it to Africa and I hope to God they did not.

I react in horror to stories like those, but of course there are those who react in horror to any sort of missionary work no matter how culturally sensitive or contextual it is. But I am realizing that most of my perspectives for or against contextualization or missionary work in general have come from Western sources. I rarely hear indigenous perspectives on cultural encounters with Christianity. I instead hear selected reports from converts who have bought the Western Christian package in its entirety and I hear missionary reports that include only the success stories spun in such a way to keep the money coming (and yes I've written such reports). But encountering the whole postcolonial theological perspective is new to me. Not only are the methods of church and missions questioned, but the whole Western theological paradigm is deconstructed. I'm exploring how the pieces all fit together for me. Where does the line of imperialism lie? When is compassion and dialogue and contextual expressions of faith domineering and condescending, and when are they appropriate? How do I not place my cultural heritage at the center of my beliefs? I'm just beginning to struggle with how these questions play out in my life.

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posted by Julie at 12:40 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 9/18/2007 11:49:00 AM, Blogger paul

    your thoughtful piece reminded me of the quote from Bishop Tutu that when the white man came to africa they had the bible and we the black man the land. They asked us to close our eyes and pray and when we opened them they had the land but we had the bible. But I think we got the better deal as we got the right to ask for our land back as well...

  • At 1/16/2008 02:24:00 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes

    Have you ever read The poisonwood Bible?

    If not, I recommend it. It sounds like the guy who visited your church was far worse than the one described in that book, but the book has some quite good insights into intercultural communication.

    I was also interested in your comments on the motives of your fellow students at Wheaton.


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