Across Pacific & Asia
MULTICULTURALISM AND MISSIONS
By Sharon Linzey, Ph.D.
Today it is common to hear academics and church goers alike question the
Commission that Christ gave His disciples: to go into the world and "preach
the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the
Son and the Holy Ghost." Those who take this mandate seriously are likely to
find themselves labeled as 'ethnocentric,' 'bigoted', or worse, not only by
anthropologists and sociologists, but by people in the street. Today it is
considered uncool to 'impose' one's religious commitments upon others. Thanks
to James Michener, (author of Hawaii,) and the proponents of cultural
relativism, missionaries have been widely categorized as ignorant, intolerant,
SHOULD WE SEND MISSIONARIES?
Is it acceptable to send missionaries to other cultures to 'impose' the
Gospel message on those who have differing religious orientations? I asked
this question to people of all walks in Russia: Orthodox, Protestant,
scholars, and politicians, and received answers ranging from a hateful and
xenophobic, 'No! You have no right to be here...get out and mind your own
business! to a more conciliatory, 'Yes, please help us do the work of the
Church and get Christ's message out to those who are lost in darkness...but
let us do it with care and consideration of the sensibilities of the people.'
In the past few centuries, no one questioned the appropriateness of sending
missionaries to other cultures. All of the major world religions have been
spread this way. But in today's political climate, the core value of
evangelism is being questioned. Postmodern values teach that each culture is
unique and precious, and every expression of diversity is valuable. According
to this view, all cultures are basically equal and no culture is entitled to
impose its values on another. Missionary activity is a form of cultural
aggression and sending missionaries abroad is a deep violation of that
But there is a problem with the postmodern multicultural way of looking at
the world...if all cultures are equally valuable, then an aggressively
Christian culture must be just as valuable as an aboriginal culture, or any
other culture. Yet, if multiculturalists were to take the view that all
cultures are equal in value, including the positive value of Christian
missionaries evangelizing for their faith, they would do violence to their own
world view. Hence the multiculturalist has a problem...are all cultures equal
in value or aren't they?
Since the relative status of Christianity has declined in Western
intellectual circles and multiculturalism is in ascendancy, this logical flaw
has not been exposed or explored. Instead, the Christian religion has served
as a straw dog for the multiculturalist argument. As a result, Christianity
has been seriously denigrated in intellectual and academic circles--even
Christian (!) academic and intellectual circles. The young people in the West
understand very well that it is better to be anything--Buddhist, Hindu,
Muslim, atheist, goddess worshiper--than to profess Christ as Lord.
CULTURAL AGGRESSION AND IMPERIALISM?
For about the past century, Western civilization has tended to identify
religion--particularly Christianity--as a source of cultural aggression and
imperialism. For the previous fifteen hundred years, when Western society had
a Christian orientation, there was an atmosphere of relative cultural
tolerance within what might be loosely termed Christendom. Cultural
unification occurred by means of sacred understandings and worship with two
distinct cultural poles, Roman in the West and the Orthodox in the East. As a
result of this bipolar cultural unification, there was a rather peaceful co-
existence of cultures in Europe. After Christianity was established, mission
activities usually did not involve the imposition of cultural standards. For
example, Irish Christianity differed from Gaelic Christianity, and these
differences were honored and respected. Likewise in the East Russian
Christianity had its own cultural imprint which distinguished it from a purely
The cultural imperialism of Europe in the nineteenth century had a deeply
secularized nature. Into this century it has not been religion but Western
secular culture that has been seen as the most aggressive and imperialistic
force. The force of this cultural aggression has only intensified as the
world has grown smaller over the past hundred years. Missionaries were guilty
of cultural aggression only as they participated in the paradigm of the
secular culture of the nineteenth century.
The grand idea of a multicultural world where no one culture of philosophy
reigns supreme has burst upon the postmodern mind lately as a new and exciting
touchstone. In actuality, however the world had been multicultural without
anyone realizing it for millennia. Historically there were numerous cultures
existing side by side, but each adherent to a specific culture believed that
'my culture was superior to any other.' It was natural to impose cultural
standards upon vanquished adversaries. Adherents to the numerous cultures
were never eager to put aside their judgments and aggression towards other
Whether you talk about the Chinese domination of Tibet, the historic and
current wars of the former Yugoslavia, or the Russian war with Chechnya, most
cultures adhere to the notion of cultural superiority--the superiority of
one's own culture. The modern Western view looks with optimism at the
possibility of bringing its more enlightened culture to those who are in
darkness. But, the postmodern Westerner views his modern compatriot with
scorn, abhorring the arrogance of thinking that one culture is a more positive
expression of the human spirit than any other.
The hottest issue one can discuss in a multicultural context is the idea of
mission, evangelism, or proselytizing. For a multiculturalist all three
concepts are equally deplorable. For them proselytizing means the forced
imposition of not only religious, but cultural values. For modern
multiculturalists, this understanding of proselytism has also been attributed
to the concepts of mission and evangelism, unless a particular 'outreach' is
devoid of religious content, like a soup kitchen that serves only food and no
doctrine. It doesn't take long for a modern Christian, steeped in
multicultural ideology to ask which should take precedence: the multicultural
mandate or the 'great Commission.' How can you have it both ways? The answer
of the modern era was quite direct. As Elton Trueblood stated, "there is no
such thing as a non-witnessing Christian." But what should the Christian's
answer be in the postmodern era?
APOSTLE PAUL SET THE STANDARD
The multiculturalist's contempt for evangelism and missionary activity
ignores the question of indigenous missions--missions whose instigators belong
to the cultural milieu in which they evangelize, like the Christian house-
church leaders in China or the Serbian Christian missionary activities in
Muslim locales. The early disciples of Jesus, who were the first Christian
missionaries, preached to compatriots whose cultural understandings and values
were their own. The Apostle Paul was the first Christian missionary to reach
out to those of another culture.
Saying that what a different culture believes is 'good enough for them,' or
saying that they don't need 'the truth as we understand it' would seem to
imply one of three things: 1) we don't have anything significant to share
with others and therefore actually believe that there is no universal Truth
that humankind can know; 2) we are dulled in our sensitivity and awareness as
to what it is that Christians have to offer; or 3) we possess an inherent
disdain for other cultures and judge them not to need knowledge and faith in
Christ. After all, 'God will judge them according to their measure of
knowledge and His mercy,' so common talk goes. This last position is as
ethnocentric as the forcible imposition of any culture or religious teaching
on 'less developed' people.
Can there be any way of mediating or ameliorating the cultural divide between
extreme multiculturalism and the calling to the Great Commission? Logically
speaking, the postmodern multiculturalist should be very tolerant toward all
religion, including the most intolerant of religious expressions, because all
religious expressions are a special genus of culture, if for no other reason.
But the reality is quite different, the multiculturalist ideology, when pushed
to its limits, inhibits discussion and debate, cultivates grievances and self-
pity, and then lays claims to entitlements arising from alleged victimization.
It attacks individualism by defining people as manifestations of groups,
rather than as defining them as participants in free societies.
The peculiarity of postmodern civilization is the disappointment in the idea
of progress. The faith in progress that defined the modern era resulted not
only in great achievements, but also in great disappointments and
disillusionment. Our present ecological crisis, complete with global warming
and huge ozone holes in the atmosphere is the result of an ill-placed faith in
progress. Not only do we not know how to solve these problems, we do not have
the political will to do so. The human race is so fractured and divided
politically that even if a solution were created, it is unlikely to be
implemented any time soon. Postmodern thought was founded on these great
stumbling blocks which have sunk the optimism of the modern era.
In the West it is fascinating to watch postmodern intellectuals as they
criticize Christianity. To understand their vehemence against Christianity,
we need to understand the function that the Christian faith has played during
the modern era. Christianity was an ideal spiritual complement for the modern
era. The Christian faith lent itself to the notion of progress--there was no
sin so heinous that it kept a person from ultimate perfection. Sin was always
followed by redemption from a loving God. This central act of faith gave rise
to a great hope in those who embraced the Christian religion.
This hope was seemingly confirmed by people's experience in the secular
world. In the Americas the dispossessed peasantry of Europe found an
apparently endless horizon into which they could advance and claim as their
own. For cultures dependent on agriculture, an endless supply of land was
equivalent to an endless supply of wealth. The world around them reflected
the spiritual values of Christianity.
At the dawn of modernity, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was
commonplace to compare Christian missions with trade. Missionaries actually
went hand in hand with traders because traders were looked upon as 'preachers'
of new economic ideas. Missionaries, conversely, were looked upon as
'merchants' selling new religious ideas. The new economic model that spurred
the beginnings of global commerce had common roots with the missionary model.
This innovation in the idea of Christian mission was significantly different
from what had gone before. Through medieval times Christian missions were
aimed not at the individual but at converting collective entities--the
household, family, tribe, people, or race. From the thirteenth century,
however, Christian missions attempted to convert individuals. It is
problematic whether this new missionary model preceded and determined the new
capitalist model of economic life, or vice versa. In the modern and
postmodern worlds, mission clearly belongs to the sphere of private life.
The postmodern criticism of Christianity and Christian missions is, at its
root, a criticism of the idea of constant progress and eternal optimism. It
is a profoundly conservative reaction to the optimism of Christianity. The
postmodern worldview is rooted in the notion that things should stay the same.
Cultures should be corralled and not be allowed to aggressively intrude on one
another. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean the cessation of
global trade and travel. It would mean a return to a more primitive life,
perhaps rooted in agriculture. It would mean the loss of many of the economic
and social freedoms that have developed as a result of the progress achieved
in the modern era. These are tremendous prices to pay. But if progress can
no longer be achieved, then what other choice is there?
MISSIONS IN RUSSIA
Let's look at missions in Russia for a moment. It may be a shock to learn
that experience of the last four centuries demonstrates that Protestant
missions have had little or no cultural or social effect in Russia. Beginning
with Peter the Great's attempt to import forward thinking Protestant ideas
from Western Europe, Protestants have made few deep inroads if you look at
Russia on a very broad, or macro scale. While Western technological advances
have been appropriated by the Russians over these centuries, the social and
cultural effects of the Protestant faith in progress and its accompanying
optimism seem to have been minimal.
In fact, Russia's most important import from the West was the revolutionary
economic ideas of Karl Marx. While masquerading as 'progressive,' and rooted
in a common hope for economic and social improvement, these ideas in actuality
stultified and oppressed the culture, economically and socially. The
communist regime actually delayed Russia's economic development.
Correspondingly there has been a delay in cultural and individual progress as
Why, then, engage in mission activity at all? Why intrude on foreign lands
to give a version of the truth which is not going to change the cultural
mindset of the foreigner? Christians would reply that they are not going to
foreign lands to change cultural mindsets. They are going to proclaim the
truth of Jesus Christ. The reason for mission is to give the foreigner the
means to achieve spiritual freedom irrespective of culture. If the foreigner
can understand the proclaimed Truth and apply it within his/her own cultural
context, then from a Christian perspective, that person has inherited the
Kingdom of God.
There are some fine examples of present-day missionaries who have gone to
foreign lands and cultures and were able to present the truth of the Gospel
within that culture without violating it. Bruce Olsen went to Colombia and
lived with the Motilones for five years before he told the story of Jesus
Christ to one Motilone friend. With the convert of Bobarishoara, the entire
tribe embaraced Christ as Lord. This tribe then went to the neighboring
village and won that entire tribe to Christ. Don Richardson and his family
went to the Sawi tribe in New Guinea and related Christ to the Sawi people as
the eternal 'peace Child.' The Sawis were able to cease the practice of
exchanging babies in an attempt to 'keep peace' and avoid war when they
realized that God Almighty had given His only Son as the eternal Peace Child.
Jackie Pullinger, a twenty-year old British woman left her comfortable
Anglican parish to go to the Walled City near Hong Kong to work among the drug
addicts. Today she has throngs of indigenous followers in colonies all over
Asia who feed the poor and hungry and help gang members get off drugs and get
their lives together--all without betraying the culture.
Is religion superordinate to culture, or is it subordinate to culture? How
do we view the truth claims of Christ? Are there boundaries beyond which He
cannot be shared? Do we teach our young people to stay home and mind their
own business? Do we tell them to engage in some form of 'helpful' missionary
activity and let the truth claims of Jesus Christ be incidental? However
these questions are asked, and however they are answered, Christians must also
respond in some way to another mandate: "All authority in heaven and on earth
has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:18-20
Why did Jesus ask His disciples to intrude on others' private religious
beliefs and cultural understandings? The commandment, after all, was to go to
'all nations!' Didn't He understand that all peoples in their search to
answer the great questions of life--the questions of pain, suffering, and
death--would have to come up with answers on their own?
WHO HAS ULTIMATE AUTHORITY?
All of these questions revolve around a single question: who has ultimate
authority? From the Christian's perspective, scientific postmodernism is not
the ultimate and final authority. Christ is. In addition to the Christian
appeal to a higher authority, there are fatal flaws in the postmodern logic.
Looking at the beliefs of the postmodernists critically, they are logically
inconsistent. If accepted, the postmodern beliefs about multiculturalism
destroys those very beliefs. It is the problem of a tolerant person's
intolerance of another's intolerance.
However, some postmodern criticisms of present mission practices is well
taken. Christians are not commanded to reproduce Western culture, we are to
witness to the kingdom of God on earth so that our fellow human beings can
enjoy and participate in the Kingdom of God here and now. We are to witness
to the truth of Jesus Christ because we believe that hearing this truth is a
basic human right for all people. Why should those of other lands be bereft
of the knowledge of the truth of Christ? Why should they be left in darkness
if indeed Christ is the One who can make a difference here and now in this
life as well as in the next? Is it not the epitome of ethnocentrism to leave
others in darkness, saying that they have no right to the truth? It is
because all cultures are equal that they all have the equal right to hear and
know the truth of Jesus Christ.
Who are we to attempt to convert others? We are disciples of Christ, the
living God, who loved all peoples of all cultures equally, who wants all
peoples of all cultures to know Him as the Truth, so that they may experience
eternal life. Ethnocentric? Unwarranted aggression? An artificial
imposition of Western cultural values? Leaving others in darkness would
certainly be all of those things.
Sharon Linzey is Professor of Sociology at George Fox University in Newberg,
Oregon. AND - cousin and dear friend of the APA ministries director.
A across Pacific Magazine
C Chr'n Ministries & Churches
R Referrals / Reconciliation
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