Christian mission work can get bad press. It’s not just the antagonists who oppose missions – the Christian church finds itself under attack from all sides, both within and without. And the missionary arm, that which extends understanding of God’s work in Jesus to others, is often the first stop for criticism. So it should come as no surprise that Christian mission is portrayed in many circles as destroying culture. But does it? And what is the best response to this kind of criticism?
Whatever else we say, a knee-jerk denial is useless and can be positively unhelpful– a deeper answer is needed. Let’s look at this on two fronts.
Firstly, the very concept of the destruction of culture. Like energy in Einsteinian physics, “culture” itself can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change its form. Culture can be transformed, subsumed, fused with another, engulfed, enriched… but not destroyed. As humans we are cultural beings and cultural expression will always form part of who we are, like it or not. It is easy to use emotive terms such as “destroy” in an act of demagogy that contributes little to the debate but merely tries to win the argument at any cost. Christian missions do not destroy culture as such. But they do transform it.
Before thinking about the nature of that transformation, let’s just get something else clear. Culture is not static. Cultures evolve and grow, absorbing from the interface with other cultures as well as developing through their own internal cultural innovation. The Western voyages of discovery and ensuing globalization that has gradually enveloped the whole planet led inevitably to cultural encounters and a resulting cultural transformation. In the process, certain cultural practices do get overwhelmed and left behind. “Noble savages” actually wanted metal axes once they saw how efficient they were compared with their native stone. And yes, unwise distribution of axe heads by white settlers certainly destroyed the social fabric of more than one tribal people, but this is the inevitable result of cultural contact and clash. Culture is dynamic and in flux; the influences that shape it vary, but it is in a process of constant evolution. Within that, it is only natural and normal that Christian missions play their part in that process of transformation.
But there is more. Cultures change as people mingle and meet at the fringes of their own cultural basin. The majority of this change comes as an unwitting consequence of this meeting, a side-effect of cross-cultural encounter. It is not sought after, by any of the parties involved. This is where Christian missions depart from the script. At its most basic, the Christian missionary effort is about changing the deepest convictions that a people (and persons) hold about themselves, life, ultimate meaning, the universe. Christian mission aims to bring individuals and the societies of which they are a part to a new understanding, an acceptance of the nature of God, the problem of humanity, the solution Jesus offers, and the consequences of all these, as laid out in the Bible. Many of these beliefs are quite simply in radical opposition to the core values held by members of another culture. Missions seek nothing less than the overthrow of these beliefs to accommodate a new set of values and convictions rooted in the revelation of God in Scripture. This is hardly the casual transformation of cultures through the intermingling of societies, it is the planned subversion of existing beliefs in the name of a universal faith.
Now, none of this is aimed at the outer trappings of culture, which is what is usually in view when talking about the “destruction” of culture. No, Christianity aims somewhere much deeper. These deep-seated beliefs, however, and core world-view, must find expression in the surface practices of culture – and not just religious ritual or the re-enactment of primal myth. Social networks, business practices, education, family structure, attitudes towards outsiders, ways of addressing cultural deviance… the list could go on. All that we do is informed by world-view and deeply held convictions, values and beliefs. It is simply impossible for Christianity in its missionary expression to engage with a culture that currently does not hold to the Christian faith without seeking a deep and powerful transformation. Call it destruction if you will. But to aim at anything less is not, in essence, Christian mission at all.
This post was written after reading the article “Do Missionaries Destroy Others’ Cultures“. The same theme, though from a slightly different perspective, can be found in this Relevant magazine article.