WHERE IS MISSIONARY?
The word ‘missionary’ comes from a Greek word ‘apostolos’ (apostle). It is translated into a Latin word “missio.” It means, “being sent out into an unfamiliar place with a good news.” Mission is an integral part of Christian living; Jesus sent disciples out for a mission. (Mark 6:6 – 13) Some one rephrased Mark’s Gospel’s message, “a beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” It is an action in humility and love, not of domination and power. However, the idea had been wrongly understood and practiced by the Church for centuries. It’s time to rediscover its true meaning. Acts 16 helps us find the mission of Jesus Christ in true form.
When I went to Africa in 1968. I was sent out by the United Church as a missionary, almost one of the last ones to be called by that title. We were a group of twenty-six people trained together, ordained ministers, a dentist, physicians, nurses, engineers, accountants, and teachers. We also studied in Paris because our destination was the church that followed French Huguenot tradition. There, I trained with a Swiss mechanic and his wife, a nurse. Already the notion of “going out into the dark continent to lead heathens to Christ” was quite redundant. We were commissioned to help the local indigenous churches with skills they needed. Today the United Church does not send missionaries. It sends out “overseas personnel” when requested by overseas church partners. Why the change? It is a result of post colonial revision of history, where the word “missionary” became a bad name.
In Africa, I ran into harsh criticism of the Western missionary movement coming from African colleagues. They termed former missionaries as the agents of Western colonialism and imperialism. They said, “When you (missionaries) came, you had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and you have the land.” Canadian indigenous people make the same observation. David Livingstone was followed by British soldiers who conquered East Africa from Cape Town to Nairobi. Cecil Rhodes famously asked the Colonial Office, “Send us more missionaries. They are cheaper than policemen.” Although today Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Africa and in the world, something went terribly wrong in the process.
The cause of this travesty was the marriage of the Roman Imperial power with the Catholic Church. Religion became a tool of the Empire. For eight centuries, there was no distinction between church and state. It distorted and re-defined the notion of the Mission of the Church. So the missionaries and the armies marched together into Asia, Africa, and Americas. Consequently, in Asia there are only two countries which have never been colonized: Japan and Thailand. Why? Both countries prohibited the Christianity by refusing entry of the missionaries and brutally persecuted and killed those who had been already in the countries. Those locals who had already been converted met the same fate. In Africa, only Ethiopia was not colonized. Ethiopia had long been a Christian country with the well established Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is older than the Roman Catholic Church. All the rest of the continent became colonies of European countries. However, missionaries from Americas did not represent colonial powers but preached Western culture. American missionaries urged locals to accept Christianity as the way to become civilized. Thus the strategy of the Christian mission switched from use of state power to cultural intimidation.
However, despite the negative effect of the wrongly implemented the vision of the mission of Christ, you can not deny the importance of the apostolic faith and the centrality of mission. For nearly eight hundred years, the Church got it all wrong. Swiss theologian Emil Brunner called it “A glorious misunderstanding.” But do not dump the baby out with bath water. It’s time to rediscover the true meaning of Christ’s mission. Let us see how the Acts of Apostles chapter 16 helps us see the true way of Christian mission.
Timothy’s circumcision, verse 3: Timothy was a son of Greek father but because his mother was Jewish Paul circumcised him. Customarily all children of Jewish mothers are considered to be Jewish. It shows Paul’s flexibility and sensitivity. Despite a great controversy about the circumcision and his objection, he was ready to be accommodating, because the matters that were culturally important to the Jews. Compare that to the Canadian churches’ determination to stamp out all native customs like Pow-wow and Potlatch.
Speaking to the believers, verse 4: Paul never forced his way in. He approached only those believers who were ready to listen. And as in the case of Lydia (next paragraph) this verse does not say which God these Romans believed in. Would Paul speak to a believer of a pagan god?
Women, verse 11: In Phillipi, he was hosted by a rich merchant woman, Lydia, whose home became the church. Sociologist Rodney Stark who studied the rise of Christianity attributed the prominent role women play as one of the most important reasons for rapid expansion of Christianity. Unfortunately the advancement of women’s status in the church was halted when the empire took over the control and the church adopted the male dominated power structure of the imperial government. But the Bible records many important roles women played in the early church.
Healing, Verse16: Christians always followed the example of Jesus and showed compassion for the sick in body and mind. Rodney Stark again pointed this out to be the reason why many Christians survived the plagues and the church grew fast. When mental and physical afflictions were considered to be punishments for evil deeds, patients were often abandoned to die alone. But Christians took care of the sick and the possessed thus they survived.
Charitable work often offends money and power, 19 – 24: Paul and Silas were imprisoned because their healing act caused loss of business and offended the people in power.
Forgiveness, 25 – 34: Paul did not hold grudge against the jailer and gave him a new life. Only politician I know in world’s history who forgave those who inflicted injustice was Nelson Mandela. All others, though being Christians, practiced the law of revenge and called it justice.
Forgoing privileges, 36 – 40: Paul and Silas did not insist on the privileges they were entitled to as Roman citizens. Whereas Western missionaries always rode on the coat-tails of the colonial power, and took advantages of the special status where-ever they went. For example, my salary was better than the locals, and I had a free car though locals walked.