Sunday, October 16, 2005

Missionaries at work: what is to be done?


Left: Charmaine Fenstermacher ; Right: Maquiritare boy, NTM photo

The Los Angeles Times reported today that an outfit named New Tribes Mission has been attacked by populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"They gather sensitive and strategic information and are exploiting the Indians," the Venezuelan leader was quoted as saying during a visit to indigenous communities in the plains of southern Venezuela.

Not surprisingly, New Tribes describes its mission quite differently:

[New Tribes] missionaries evangelize people groups who have had no access to the Gospel, translate the Scriptures into their language, and plant a church.

"People groups" seems to be New Tribes language for indigenous or Fourth World peoples.

Meanwhile in the US, BPNews headlined: "Volunteer’s query to Muslim family yields positive response." Charmaine Fenstermacher "is still amazed at the encounter God gave to her."

While feeding Hurricane Katrina evacuees with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Fenstermacher held on to a few Christian tracts, looking for suitable subjects to give them to. Most of the people they served were not good candidates for her evangelism, already born-again Christians. But when a Muslim family turned up in the food line and complained that their community had not helped them, Fenstermacher was moved to ask: "do you know Jesus?" A brief conversation ensued, ending with Fenstermacher joining them in "a prayer of salvation."

Two stories, both of Christians carrying their faith to people of very different cultures. I find myself thinking about them in the context of Saltyvicar's fascinating quicky historical survey of Protestantism in the US. He concludes that by the 1960s, the liberal mainstream churches had made peace with the fact that the US was not a Christian nation, that people of other faiths (or none) had both full rights and moral legitimacy. The liberal Christians opted for service rather than hegemony and simply brushed aside their evangelical Christian siblings who were not then inclined to contest the public sphere. Liberal Protestantism took on the opinion that "that missions were inherently patronizing."

These two stories seem to me to make the case for that opinion. The New Tribes folks do seem to make for more than fly-by-night connections with the people they evangelize; their international teams have worked in Venezuela since 1946, translating the Bible into five indigenous languages. There must to be some respect for the indigenous people there. But it is very hard to imagine how importing foreign technologies, culture, and diseases as well as a novel belief system can be anything but destructive to a poor, isolated population who presumably suffer already from being outside the dominant Venezuelan culture. New Tribes may not be working directly for the CIA as Chavez charges, but it is very hard to see how evangelizing the indigenous will do anything except break down the feeble defenses these people have against an encroaching, exploiting modern world.

The case of the Muslims prayed over in the Baptist food line is also troubling. Perhaps the experience of being uprooted yet surviving Katrina really had shaken the traditional faith of these evacuees -- but does anyone have the right to leap into that breach and seek to fill it with their own deepest convictions? Sure, those of us who are Christians believe deeply that we've been fortunate enough to learn something magical about the possibility of love in the world. And we do want to share. But that very good thing we've found teaches us that power over others is not the way. Food line conversions reek of force to me. So too do the quite common conversions of migrants to the faith practices of their new countries, something that may have been going on here.

And yet -- who is to deny that, for some individuals, acquiring the faith of the missionaries may genuinely help them have a better life, whether in the remote jungles of Venezuela or in this country? If poverty forces an indigenous tribesman into migrant labor outside his region, Christian faith may be both personally sustaining and improve his "cultural literacy." The Muslim family may have an easier time in this country as Christians -- or may discover that US racial lines at present don't evaporate along with individual convictions.

Globalization means we all rub up against each other more. No one's culture is immune from encroachments by neighboring cultures. Even here in the "sole superpower," we are fast becoming a multilingual nation, kicking and screaming. People create their individual peace in this stew by finding a shifting equilibrium between the shared culture in which they live and the beliefs they adopt more or less individually and consciously.

Somehow we have to ensure freedom for all the peddlers of deeply held beliefs to put out their wares -- and at the same time, prevent anyone from being able to force another to their way of thinking. People of good will (and good faith) certainly have a right, and possibly a duty, to share our experience of the power of love and justice. However, Christians have, I think, a special responsibility to forgo even the appearance of coercion, since we've been top dogs in much of the world for the last millennium or so, wiping out many pre-existing cultures in the name of our God of love. We can do better than either of the stories that brought on this rumination.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Just found this article...2 years after you wrote it. Have you ever been to a "small, isolated people group" over in a fourth world country - either one that New Tribes Mission works in or one that it doesn't? I'm not attacking you, and I don't know if you'll care enough to respond. But I thought I'd ask, anyway.

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