Historically, western civilization has given a great deal of respect to missionaries. What could be more noble than to leave your home, travel to an unknown and often dangerous land, all to share the love of Christ? That perspective is shifting. Now, many not only emphasize the many abuses to native cultures done by, or in association with, missionaries, but also see missionary work itself as a form of cultural appropriation. Is it still right to go out and try to evangelize to the lost, or should missionaries be a thing of the past?
Christians are All Missionaries
The first thing to keep in mind is that missionary work is simply an extension of the great commission. Christians are called to go and make disciples of all nations. All Christians are called to be missionaries somewhere. Some just happen to be called to further away places. It takes a rare person to have the courage and ability to undertake mission work internationally. My hunch is that part of the reason for modern dislike and distrust for missionaries is people assuming they always have an ulterior motive. “I would never do something like that, so there must be some way they’re profiting on this.” Don’t always assume the worst. We still need missionaries.
Our history is deeply flawed. There have been many examples throughout the centuries of people coming in the name of sharing the gospel, but focused more on money, land, and power. Even if the missionaries themselves had pure intentions, others may have abused the opportunities for their own gain. However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that those abuses mean the entire process is rotten. There were, and certainly still are, countless missionaries who served faithfully without abusing or taking advantage of the locals. When we see abuses ruining a good thing, it’s rarely the right call to ban the whole thing. Instead, we do our best to put limitations, accountability, and oversight to prevent the abuses. You don’t ban doctors from doing surgery just because someone was stabbed by a scalpel.
Is Missionary Work Cultural Appropriation?
Are missionaries just overwriting other cultures? Is it right to try to convert people to your religion? The growing thought is that in doing so you are taking away their original culture and trying to force in your own. Even if this is true, it is assuming that every religion and cultural practice is equally true, moral, and valuable. This is blatant cultural relativism. They say it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as it’s yours. If Christianity is true, it means that these native religions are not. If Christianity is true, then we should absolutely want other cultures to adopt it. We certainly don’t want to erase history, but we also want people to learn the truth and be saved from their sins. If what the Bible says is true, not every culture is good, just as not every action is moral. This doesn’t mean we ought to approach with a condescending notion of trying to “civilize” people. Obviously natives should not be forced into Christianity. The great thing about Jesus is he’s usually appealing enough for people to choose him without a gun to their heads.
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