November 23, 2014

Missions 101: or How to Be More Like a Soldier of an Oppressive Imperialist Nation

centurionMy all-time favorite Bible character (yes, yes, excluding Jesus) is the centurion whose story is told in Luke 7.  I don’t know much about him, yet I’ve loved him to the point of tears since I was a child.  I suspect that one reason is that he, like me, was an expatriate.  Both of us spent years away from home, in a foreign culture, representing a richer, more powerful nation and surrounded by people who had every reason to resent us.  (Just for background, I grew up in Bangladesh, Germany, Greece, and South Africa as the child of a US diplomat, and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia and a missionary in Kyrgyzstan as an adult.)  I reread his story recently and realized that he is an example not only of faith, as is often cited, but also of cross-cultural interaction.  All of us citizens of wealthy nations would do well to imitate him.

Mostly we’re directed to St. Paul to learn about cross-cultural outreach, and I don’t want to detract from him at all.  Paul understood how and when to strip away the cultural trappings surrounding the new faith and how and when to adapt the faith to the culture.  An elderly devout Jew told me once that if it weren’t for Paul, there would be no Christianity, only another sect of Judaism.  I think he was right; Paul showed the early church how to become the universal Body of Christ that God promised to Abraham centuries earlier.  But still, Paul did not have to learn another language in order to be a missionary, as far as we can tell.  He traveled frequently from place to place but never left the Roman Empire of which he was a citizen.  Outside of Palestine he was a minority, which gave him an immediate connection with other minorities.  In many ways he was more in the position of, say, a Hispanic American missionary traveling within the United States.

But members of the majority race from wealthy Western countries – especially the US – who work overseas are more like the centurion.  They face the immediate resentment of the people who surround them.  In English-speaking West Africa, for instance, I was often followed by young men who would hiss “CIA!” at me.  (In the francophone countries the insult was “Mafia!” instead – different movies, I guess.)  Central Asians just emerging from communism called me to my face an Imperialist, a cannibal, and even “Shaitan,” or Satan.  Romans in Palestine faced the same automatic hatred, and they, like we, had the same choices of how to respond.  I don’t think anyone responded better than our centurion.  Let me pick apart the obvious to extract some principles.

He valued his servant highly.  I don’t know where his servant – slave, most likely – was originally from.  Roman slaves came from many tribes on three continents.  But wherever he was from, he was, like the Jews, at the mercy of Rome.  The people of Capernaum were doubtless watching and could tell a great deal about this Roman by how he treated those in his power; a person’s character is most revealed in his domestic relationships.  The centurion’s neighbors saw someone who loved the people entrusted to him and used his authority to help them, not oppress them.  Even more, he obviously was devastated at the thought of this slave’s impending death.

He sent some elders of the Jews to talk to Jesus on his behalf.  This tells us three important things:  he was on good enough terms with the Jews to ask for a favor; he was humble, treating the Jewish elders not just as equals but as superiors; and he had made an effort to understand the Jewish culture and to act according to its dictates.  The passage tells us that the elders pleaded earnestly with Jesus on the centurion’s behalf – really?  Good Jews interceding for the representative of a hated oppressor?  What had the centurion done to earn their trust and affection?

He had built the Jews a synagogue.  The Soviet Union during the Cold War shipped a load of snow plows and toilet seats to Guinea, a country with no snow and few sit-down toilets; the centurion, on the other hand, provided the help that the Jews wanted and appreciated.  How did he know what they wanted?

He had obviously spent some time in Capernaum and was not just serving his term and counting the days to get out.  The text doesn’t say exactly how long his stay was, but if he had made friends and built a synagogue, he was not a short-termer.  I wonder what language he used to speak with the elders.  Whether he spoke Aramaic or Greek, he knew how to bridge the racial and cultural gap between him and his neighbors.

He loved their nation.  This can’t be faked.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that he liked the climate or the food or didn’t miss the amusements of his home; it does mean that he treated the Jews as people, respected their traditions, and mingled with them as a man and not a Roman centurion.  It’s easy enough to “love” a nation in the abstract, but he was friends with people.

He didn’t take advantage of his position to impose.  Another US Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia once shocked me by saying, “What are you doing standing in line?  We don’t stand in line, we go right to the front!”  The centurion, on the other hand, didn’t think he deserved to get in line at all.  Whether he sent friends to stop Jesus as Luke tells us, or whether, as Matthew reports, he spoke with Jesus himself, his message was “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.”  Back in Rome his powerful compatriots sent slaves with whips down the street to clear a path through the unwashed masses.  He didn’t want to inconvenience a dusty rabbi.  How much of his reluctance was humility in the face of an acclaimed holy man and how much of it was an appreciation for the complications of Jewish law, I don’t know.  But in his behavior we see acted out the advice that St. Paul tells us later, to put others above ourselves.

All his interaction with Jesus was on someone else’s behalf, not his own.  Given his humility, I don’t suppose the centurion would ever have bothered Jesus on his own account.  I’m extrapolating here, but I imagine that the centurion was intrigued with Jesus.  Maybe he felt curiosity about this traveling preacher or even a deep spiritual hunger; still, he asked Jesus for nothing himself.  He only interceded for someone he loved.  He knew he was unworthy; perhaps he thought that the blessings Jesus brought were only for Jews.  Did Jesus’ praise for his faith move him to hope that he too might be blessed?  In any case, he unselfishly asked only for his dying slave – whom Roman law allowed him to beat to death if he wanted to.

So here, in the person of a soldier of an oppressive empire, we have a model of cross-cultural interaction.  Love, humility, generosity, commitment, knowledge, and selflessness shine through this brief account.

All of us would agree that these are important qualities in any exchange, cross-cultural or otherwise.  But they are so hard to practice!  They’re hard enough in our own culture, but they become a fierce challenge in a foreign country.  As I planned this essay, I thought of recounting for you appalling failures of overseas mission work to show how necessary those qualities are – I could tell you lots, and you might enjoy reading them and tut-tutting with me.  But I realized I don’t need to look at others for examples.  I can look back in shame at my own years overseas and know how far I fell short myself.  I see more clearly now the barriers I set up around myself even as I tried to speak, eat, dress, and act like the people I was with.  I recognize the inner frustration I felt with a culture I had a hard time respecting.   I regret my desire to aggrandize myself in compensation for sounding like a two-year-old when I was learning the language.  I rue my impulse to defend and even glorify my own culture in response to insults or ignorance.  I was often grudging and selfish and lazy.  I wish with all my heart I could have been more like the centurion.

I can’t go back and redo my years overseas, but it’s not too late to imitate the centurion here and now.  All human interaction is cross-cultural in a sense, since we are foreigners to each other even if we grew up in the same family.  Love, humility, generosity, commitment, knowledge, and selflessness are never out of place.

Tradition, so I’ve heard, identifies our centurion with the one who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and praised God, saying, “Surely this was a righteous man,” or “Surely this was the Son of God.”  His name was Longinus and he became a Christian, so the story goes.  I hope that’s true, and I hope I meet him one day – or at least can send a kind friend to tell him how much he has meant to me.

 

Comments

  1. This post really struck a nerve with me. I am not an American and live in a country colonised by the former British Empire, so I have some understanding of imperialism, the impact of relatively recent colonisation, and how America and Americans can come across and are seen outside the US. As a sort of outsider to Internet Monk, every time I see a post or comment about overseas missionary work my automatic reaction is to get angry and think “cultural imperialism.” Then I wonder if I am being unfair – am I?

    • Much missions is cultural imperialism, Donna; however, there are some wonderful, loving servants who have done a lot of good. As with anything involving people, we can’t generalize.

      • Another thought: Protestant mission theory in the last century or so has tried to separate the “social gospel” from the “pure gospel” and hence detach service from preaching. I understand the reasons they did this — giving someone a bowl of soup is, after all, not the same as catechizing them in the faith — but I think it’s been a mistake. If missionaries are not sharing in the practical challenges of the lives of others, then they can’t help but be cultural imperialists, or at least seem like them. The message becomes, “Yes, you’re hungry, uneducated, and oppressed, but let me tell you an interesting story.” I don’t want to be too cynical — many people’s lives are changed by the simple message — but missionaries HAVE to share in the struggles of the people they’re sent to, to the degree that they can. When they do, then they are also weak and needy and struggling; they can then receive help from local people; and a genuine relationship is set up. That doesn’t happen when missionaries hide behind chauffeurs and air conditioning.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Another thought: Protestant mission theory in the last century or so has tried to separate the “social gospel” from the “pure gospel” and hence detach service from preaching.

          JMJ/Christian Monist keeps pointing out this is Platonic Gnosticism — extreme separation between the physical (service, meeting physical needs) and the spiritual (preaching, getting Saved) — “Spiritual Good, Physical BAAAAAD Spiritual Good, Physical BAAAAAAAD!!”

          That doesn’t happen when missionaries hide behind chauffeurs and air conditioning.

          Then they become Big White Bwana in the big house on the hill, doing what they do for the Wogs’ own good.

        • Oh my…… you mean actually DO something that shows divinely inspired and empowered love instead of only talking about the gospel ?? And do you think this crazy radical scheme could work HERE in the states, by coarse and unseminary (word??) trained penny stinkers ???

          Excellent post and love your comment here also (lunchtime: tongue is coming out-of-cheek)

    • Donna, one of the most compelling aspects of Internetmonk is there are no outsiders. This is beautifully displayed by Damaris regretting opportunities missed and you questioning if you are being unfair in circumstances most would find grating. Damaris was actively trying to do some good while you were experiencing something most of us cannot imagine – and yet you are both questioning what more could be done.

      Damaris’ admonition to “imitate the centurion here and now” is a real challenge. You have both given me a lot to contemplate. Thank you both.

  2. Lord, I am the beneficiary of much violence committed on my behalf upon people better than I. Please keep me mindful of this and let it work a deeper repentance in my heart.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      +1

    • Mule – Not sure I understand your comment. How was violence committed on your behalf?

      • In Guatemala, most of the arable land is owned by American companies. Most people don’t know this, but Guatemala is a next EXPORTER of beef to the United States. Now, the land “belongs” to the American companies because it was sold to them by the landed elites who received it from the Spanish crown as an encomienda.

        When the indigenous people agitate for land redistribution, their protests are usually very bloodily repressed. Quite often there is loss of life. But hey, the rule of law is upheld and the price of beef, bananas, almonds, etc. stays low in my supermarket.

        Then there’s oil, industrial diamonds, molybdenum, cobalt, the Chinese industrial complex where the pistol of the state is pressed against the temple of the workers, etc. etc. Empire is necessary to maintain the level of consumption to which I am accustomed, and Empire is never bloodless.

        I’m a little curious as to how you can be oblivious of this. Or do you think this is just some hustlin’ guys makin’ a buck?

        • I suspected you were referring to something like that but I wanted to make sure before I responded. My response to your initial comment would be, why are you repenting for something you didn’t do? The men who do these things do them for their own benefit not yours. The people who are impacted aren’t helped but your misplaced white guilt. If you feel strongly then stop buying the cheap bananas, write your congressman, start a business or ministry that helps indigenous businesses. I see nowhere that it is written we should repent for being beneficiaries of something, only that we be responsible in how we use the benefit.

          • If you feel strongly then stop buying the cheap bananas, write your congressman, start a business or ministry that helps indigenous businesses.

            That would be part of the repentance, certainly, and the object of my prayer, for which I view your reply as a partial answer. “Metanoia” means a lot more than just feeling sorry for your actions and refraining from them in the future.

            I didn’t know guilt had a color, or that it could be misplaced like a hat.

          • The seemingly ill-fitting definition of repentance is exactly my point. The generally accepted definition means to feel contrite for something wrong that you did, admit guilt, and then change your behavior. Of those three only the change in behavior seems to make sense unless you were the one who stole the land or oppressed the worker.

            As far as guilt goes, it can be misplaced exactly like a hat. Especially when talking about setting it on the head of someone it doesn’t belong to. But I guess that really isn’t for me to judge. If you feel repentance is the right word then fine. I just find it curious is all.

          • Marcus Johnson says:

            The seemingly ill-fitting definition of repentance is exactly my point. The generally accepted definition means to feel contrite for something wrong that you did, admit guilt, and then change your behavior.

            What if what we did was nothing?

            You refer to the “generally accepted definition,” which only seems to address contrition for sinful acts. While I would definitely concede that this is the generally accepted definition, it is a very limited definition. Once we fix that list of sinful acts, and promise never to do them again, then we’re good.

            Mule seems to be acknowledging a definition of repentance that transcends what we did and includes what we didn’t do, or what wrongs we chose to remain oblivious to when we could have done something. For too long, we have accepted that first definition and, as a result, White people assume no responsibility for living in a White-privileged society because they didn’t join the Klan or use the N-word. Men don’t rape women, so we don’t have to feel guilty about living in a “rape culture.” And nothing gets changed or better.

            Maybe Mule’s definition of repentance would make more sense if we considered “nothing” to be just as much of a sin as murder, theft, etc.

          • I’ll let Mule reply for himself, but I believe he’s viewing this from a traditional Orthodox perspective. If through Adam we all sinned, and through the Son of Man we were all redeemed, then there is some collective participation within both creation generally and the Body of Christ particularly. The sins of each of us harm the Body, just as a diseased organ harms the whole organism. Even if Mule did nothing to harm the people you’re referring to, even if he is guilty of no sin of omission, still he partakes vicariously of the guilt of all. This is not a neurotic, solipsistic guilt, just spiritual kinship with a broken world — and on the flip side, spiritual kinship with the glorified Christ and his saints.

            This is a difficult and unattractive doctrine for individualistic Americans, but I think it has biblical foundation.

          • Marcus – Read my comments and you’ll see that I specifically mention a person’s responsibility to act and even change the way they act based on what they have and know. I’m not trying to dismiss irresponsible behavior (sins of omission).

            Damaris – Interesting take on original sin. We are all guilty of everything. Is this really how the Orthodox view it?

          • @TPD

            The short answer is “yes”

            The long answer is, you don’t want the long answer

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I didn’t know guilt had a color…

            It does when someone tries to use it as a weapon to control you. There was a big-name politician (crooked, of course) here in Cali who built his whole career on inducing white guilt — his Assembly district was a patchwork of “Progressive” Yuppie white neighborhoods connected by the center dividers of streets. He kept getting re-elected (no exceptions) for over 20 years by white voters he kept pee-their-pants terrified that he might accuse them of RACISM RACISM RACISM.

            And I’d rather not have a chain that can be yanked like that.

    • Josh in FW says:

      whoa! that prayer hurt. It hurt in a really good way. Thanks Mule.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > Then I wonder if I am being unfair – am I?

    Probably not.

  4. Excellent post, Damaris. The story of this centurion is one of my favorites too.

  5. On my very first overseas missions project to Bulgaria, a very intoxicated woman asked why I was in her country. I told her I was visiting friends, and doing some missions work. She cursed at me and yelled, “Bulgaria is a Christian nation! We are not a mission project!”

    Ouch. What an idiot I was. It only took a few days to realize the foolishness of the leadership I served under, telling those who went on the trip that all Orthodox Christians were in need of conversion. Shame on them, and shame on me for being foolish enough to buy what my former denomination’s leadership was selling without studying, thinking, learning, and discerning for myself.

    It’s notable that the project I was on was in collaboration with a US-based campus ministry, and that the local leadership in that ministry (Americans) lived in a home that would be considered very large, even by US standards, while other staff members (Bulgarians) lived very humbly, in two room apartments (families), and some even renting rooms (singles). Shame on us again.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It’s notable that the project I was on was in collaboration with a US-based campus ministry, and that the local leadership in that ministry (Americans) lived in a home that would be considered very large, even by US standards, while other staff members (Bulgarians) lived very humbly, in two room apartments (families), and some even renting rooms (singles).

      My first impression upon reading that was to check the “home that would be considered very large, even by US standards” for any “No dogs or Bulgarians allowed” signs (like the French did in Vietnam).

      Never mind the Reformation Wars concept of “converting” those liturgical Christians in the country to the “proper” (Altar Call and Sinner’s Prayer) BRAND of Christian. (When you say “US-based Campus Ministry”, the first ones I think of are Campus Crusade and the Navigators, both of which are American Fundagelical “We are the ONLY True Church”.)

      • Although I have not been involved in Navigators ministry, I know their excellent materials are used across denominational lines. Living in central Florida, where Crusade is based, I do know, have worked with, and worship with Campus Crusade staff and missionaries. The staff at headquarters attend many different types of churches across the area (both liturgical and non-liturgical) and are definitely not (especially since the organization itself is non-denominational) of the view that ” ‘We are the ONLY True Church’ “. I’m so sorry you have been given that impression.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      William McKinley reputedly justified the Spanish-American War in part with the opportunity to Christianize the Philippine Islands. It has never been clear to me whether he was aware that they were largely Roman Catholic and didn’t consider that Christian, or if he was completely pig ignorant.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Or a little bit of both. Remember he was under heavy pressure from both Roosevelt and Hearst at the time.

        “Christianizing the Philippines” remains McKinley’s most-quoted “Pat Robertson moment”.

      • Even today, in Latin America, many evangelical and fundamentalist mission groups do not consider the Roman Catholics Christian. Oh, they may in theory, but in practice it’s another story. Some of this may be justified, if there is an unusual amount of devotion to images or to the Virgin, but there is not even an effort to cooperate or to cultivate renewal within the Catholic Church. I think this needs to change.

  6. Great post … As for me , I had to leave the missions organization I was heavily engaged with because I just couldn’t do it anymore. For several years I attempted to lead our organization in a less imperialistic manner , but nobody got it , nobody could see it , nobody cared that we steamrollered over people. Our approach was arrogant , and I humbly repent.

  7. David Cornwell says:

    Much to my chagrin I have not travelled very much abroad. But when I did I made a point of watching for Americans (I am an American) in order to take note of behavior. I cannot indict all Americans, for many did behave themselves. But I observed enough happening to understand where the idea of the stereotypical American comes from. One group in a London business type hotel were loud and demanding when eating in one of the hotel restaurants. The young Indian waiter kept his cool and did all he could to satisfy his demanding guests. I made a point of befriending him as best I could over the next few days.

    One thing has always bothered me from my past. In 1955, after high school, I went to a conservative Christian college in Kentucky. The college was known back then as being the beginning point in preparation for the ministry, mission field, or teaching. An annual missionary conference was held on campus which brought representatives from many mission boards. Speakers, films, and seminars filled up the week.

    However I noticed one thing very early in my freshman year. The school was segregated except for one or two students from Africa. This was policy, not accident. Later it changed, but very little before I graduated. Yet this school taught that one could be made perfect in love (based on Wesley).

    • Such unfair and racist policies persist. Even today in our California higher education system, black people are treated differently that say, Asian people. They don’t look merely at performance or character…but factor in the color of a person’s skin when it comes to admissions. That is out and out racism, in the 21st century in “progressive” California. I guess this is just another indictment of the human and another reason why we really need a Savior.

      • Not at all what the post is about, but we get the politics.

        • My comment was to David’s remarks of racism in college. And to say that it still exists. Politics aside.

          • Steve, to compare administrative programs designed to remedy (mildly) the effects of past (invidious) discrimination, such as the segregation David mentioned, is over the top. Arguments can be made against affirmative action. Comparing it to segregation is not one of them.

          • When you are denied a job because you are white it is just as racist as being denied one if you are black.

          • That sentiment is appropriate in an ethical classroom, all things being equal and looked at theoretically. In the context of real-world suffering and centuries of oppression, it may not be quite so simple.

    • Ah yes, Wesleyan perfection. God bless ‘em Methodist for all the good they do, but I get the suspicion this doctrine was formulated at a pub. After more than a few rounds.

      • Miguel, the Wesleys didn’t drink. Nor did they write hymns to the tunes of drinking songs. You can look that up on the internet. ;-)

    • “Much to my chagrin I have not travelled very much abroad. But when I did I made a point of watching for Americans (I am an American) in order to take note of behavior. I cannot indict all Americans, for many did behave themselves. But I observed enough happening to understand where the idea of the stereotypical American comes from. One group in a London business type hotel were loud and demanding when eating in one of the hotel restaurants. The young Indian waiter kept his cool and did all he could to satisfy his demanding guests. I made a point of befriending him as best I could over the next few days. ”

      David, I agree completely. I’m an American and I notice it even here in America. People in our country (in general) tend to be rude, demanding, and above all, arrogant (and have an entitlement mentality – no political implications intended – conservatives and liberals are equally arrogant and demanding). And it seems to be getting worse (e.g. the May 20 ‘Time’ article, ‘The Me, Me, Me Generation’). These attitudes are actually promoted by the media – when was the last time you saw anyone on TV (or any celebrity in real life) display any humility or concern for others? These attitudes also don’t seem to be challenged in the church – in fact, they are emulated and catered to in the typical consumer-driven church model. This is one area where the church would do well to be ‘counter-cultural’ (instead of fighting gay marriage or some other crisis of the day).

      This is one of the things that concerns me about short-term missions work. Take a bunch of (typically) young, spoiled, and arrogant Americans and send them to a poor country and make a good impression for Christ??? Oh well, I’ll get off that soapbox.

  8. “So here. in the person of a soldier of an oppressive empire, we have a model of cross-cultural interaction. Love, humility, generosity, commitment, knowledge, and selflessness shine through this brief account”.

    Surely we must recognize the direct relationship to the seven virtues. Caritas( charity), Humilitas(humility). Industria(diligence), Casitas(Chastity or knowledge from Wikipedia ). And some repetition with generosity as charity and selflessness as humility.

    There are direct correlations between the Beatitudes and the virtues. Therefore we have a model of cross-cultural interaction in Mathew 5. I think it is instructive of the gospel in a plural society. I think we tend to think of the small religious places( like Israel 2000 years ago) as culturally uniform( conforming). And there is truth here in that mimetic desire is a big human trait which often leads to conflict and scapegoating. But I think the example of Jesus shows us that the diversity in all groups, families, and people is very real. In Babylon you are encouraged into looking like me, acting like me, believing like me( reminds me of seventh grade and also many a church group). I think God’s “Go into all the world” or also “Go and make disciples…….” is not necessarily with your feet, or an airplane, but just as much in your being…..attitude.

  9. “Paul understood how and when to strip away the cultural trappings surrounding the new faith and how and when to adapt the faith to the culture. An elderly devout Jew told me once that if it weren’t for Paul, there would be no Christianity, only another sect of Judaism.”

    Excellent observation! Paul was wise enough not to burden the Gospel with his cultural preferences. It is very hard to separate ourselves from the pure message. God help us in this!

  10. I enjoyed this story very much. I have no first hand knowledge of missionary work. There has been a part of me over the years that has yearned to take a week and build homes in some other country…there’s probably many that feel the same way, the adventure, the feeling of doing something good for others…but then I looked a bit deeper withn myself… was I doing it for them or me…

    My kids have gone off to build homes for those in areas stricken by weather disasters so that they may know how to server on a broader scale – but that was here in the states.

    I see two types of missionaries (and I am oversimplifying here I know)… those who go with this American form of “I will help make you better based on what I think is better and you Will find Jesus in the process” and then those who assimilate into the culture and plant seeds while trying to understand the culture. I have mentioned here before that I had some family members who were missionaries and I will be quite honest and say I inwardly did not agree with many of the things they did (the orthodox comment above – stealing from one bucket of christians to populate another – or that the time was right to convert all the muslims in the area – as examples). Yet… I was not there, I didn’t walk in their shoes, I did not know what was truly in their hearts or understand what they gave up… so I try to temper my perceptions and not go into bashing mode. Because of my faith tradition most of my exposure of missionary work, aside from my extended family’s experience, came from reading the Maryknoll magazine that my mother use to receive in the mail.

    Your comments of trying to learn the language (this family member was trying to learn Kyrgy as well) made much sense…

    These stories help me to understand better, where ideals at the heart were spot on, where sometimes the execution due to human factors may not have been, and the times when work and love really did make a difference.

    What type of misssionary work did you specifically do in Kyrgystan (teaching, building rec centers or housing)?

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Radagast,

      People talk about one person sowing seed and another harvesting; my husband, children, and I were hacking a trail and girdling trees — pioneering a mostly new area, in other words. We were there on business visas and taught English, worked with gardeners, and helped with small business — all the kind of help the rural Kyrgyz wanted. We were not “church planters,” just relationship builders, so that our neighbors at least knew that Christians were not cannibals. During the time we were there, small Kyrgyz groups formed, mostly on the initiative of Kyrgyz who brought Christianity from other areas. As they wanted us to, we taught those house groups. We mentored some people, but many of them mentored us, too.

      • Very cool… a different focus than the folks I knew who were over there. Did you need to learn Kyrgy to communicate or were they versed in enough English for basic dialog?

        • Yes, we needed to learn Kyrgyz right away. We knew only one Kyrgyz person in our area who spoke any English when we first arrived. Having to buy food and defend against overt hostility are good incentives to learning a language quickly, we found.

  11. Heaven help me if this turns into a minipost:

    It wasn’t a year after my moment of repentance and faith in the early 70s that I “felt a calling into missionary work”. Being intrigued by languages I thought it would be a good idea to work with a very large, very well known Evangelical missions agency that translates the Bible into minority languages. One thing led to another and I never did get to work with that agency, but I did have a lot of contact with that agency while I was serving with Operation Mobilization and Youth With A Mission. OM is great. They put Koreans, Indians, and Africans in charge of Westerners as often as they can, and that’s probably the best thing you can do with Western wannabe missionaries.

    My contact with the unnamed linguistic missions agency in Guatemala was so negative it obliterated any desire I had to work with them. Not that the missionaries themselves were bad or evil people. Far from it. They were just American Evangelicals, sort of on the fundamentalist side, with a little linguistic training trying to do the best they could. The only trouble was that what was acceptable in the American heartland was like Bizarro World in Guatemala. Guatemala is basically a US colony, and the Evangelicals there are basically trying to erase four centuries of Spanish spiritual colonialism and implant the highly reactive US variety instead. It didn’t help that the missions compound in the capital had its own security team. You can imagine what those guys were like.

    This was during the disastrous administration of the evangelico Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the Bible-thumping Pinochet clone. when I commented that I believed the guerilleros also had a legitimate beef, I was hustled off the compound as quickly as possible. One elderly missionary lady with that particularly Wesleyan flavor of piety that I always have a weak spot for, told me later she didn’t know how I had been infected with Communist propaganda. The missionaries I worked for lived like rajaputs, passed their castoff vehicles down to the ‘native pastors’ and told me the Communists wanted to cut the throats of all the Christians in Guatemala, which I found odd, because I had multiple conversations with Marxists daily at the Uni.

    • My goodness, Mule, just conversing with Marxists in some places in Central America during the 70’s was an invitation to be “disappeared” or gunned down by death squads; God must have been looking out for you.

    • This happened during your stint with YWAM?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      This was during the disastrous administration of the evangelico Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the Bible-thumping Pinochet clone.

      I remember that — Christianese AM radio of the period (Reagan-era Late Cold War, when Russia and Cuba were backing Ortega as their SOB in Nicaragua) couldn’t find enough good to praise about the guy, because He Was A REAL Born-Again Christian(TM) and Could Do No Wrong. “FOR CHRIST AND AGAINST COMMUNISM!!!!”

      The missionaries I worked for lived like rajaputs, passed their castoff vehicles down to the ‘native pastors’ and told me the Communists wanted to cut the throats of all the Christians in Guatemala…

      Did they have “No dogs or Guatemalans allowed” on the gates of their Foreign Legations/Missionary Compounds?

      And the local Death Squads on speed-dial? I’ve heard stories of what the Jefes and Corporate Managemen were like in that time and place. As in if a wog employee got too uppity, you just made a phone call, gave the Death Squad guys the name, say “Him Communist”, and the matter was taken care of for you.

  12. This is an excellent study on the Bible passage and an excellent challenge toward humble servant ministry.

  13. Where I’m living presently (China) furnishes a rather egregious example of what you’re talking about.

    The Jesuit Matteo Ricci, when he fist arrived here, devoted himself to learning the language and reading the Confucian classics- first Westerner who had ever read them. He then devoted the rest of his life to a fascinating intellectual project: early Christianity had availed itself of the philosophical categories of neo-Platonism to articulate its doctrines (eg. Logos); could a similar thing be done with Confucianism? He began to dress as a Confucian scholar, engaged in debates with the Buddhists, made friends with high-ranking government officials (in hopes of converting the emperor one day) and published books in Chinese about the Lord of Heaven (??). The Jesuit missionaries who followed him continued his work, and many conversions followed.

    Then the Dominicans and Franciscans arrived. They didn’t bother to learn Chinese, but went out into the midst of the towns and began preaching to the common people through translators. In fairness, they won their share of converts too, but they also began to have doubts about the Jesuits’ methodology. They noticed that the Christians converted by Jesuits still revered Confucius (whom they assumed must be a god of some kind) and engaged in what appeared to them to be ‘ancestor worship’. The Jesuits were accused of syncretism and idolatry, and messages were sent back to the Pope to rein in such pernicious practices. After a long controversy, the Pope, who knew nothing of China and had never even met a Chinese, declared that these practices were idolatry and that all Chinese Christians must reject Confucius and give up ‘ancestor worship’. As a consequence, many Chinese Christians chose to give up Christianity, and the conversions, which had been steadily increasing to that point, slowed to a trickle.

    When I first came here, I had heard of this controversy, but wasn’t entirely sure who was in the right. The longer I live here, though, the more I wish the Dominicans and Franciscans had just taken the time to get to know the culture a bit before drawing their conclusions.

    I had the good fortune earlier this year of visiting a friend of mine in his hometown during Qingming (Tomb-Sweeping Day) and seeing ‘ancestor worship’ firsthand. He and his sister and I went to their grandparents’ grave. It was a mound of earth in the middle of a field that used to belong to their family. After the traditional three years of mourning, a tombstone will be erected there, but the three years weren’t up yet. We approached the grave, and Ye Xiong (my friend) began talking to his grandparents in turn- chatting really. He apologised for not having visited more often, introduced me to them, told them a bit about how his studies were going. Then we burned some paper money (in the West, we would have given flowers) and, after a final filial bow and farewell, we headed back towards town. The whole affair might have given some Protestants the willies, but I found it rather touching and poignant. Me, I pray for my dead family members, though I don’t talk directly to them, but then I do talk directly to saints, asking for their prayers. This was not so hugely different. Certainly there was no idolatry here.

    By the time the Pope finally lifted the ban on Confucius and ‘ancestor worship’ (in the 1930s), it was much too late. Now, when I think about the sixteenth and seventeenth century missions, I grieve the opportunities lost through cultural ignorance.

    But then, the story of Christianity over here is far from over. On that note, I was surprised to see, when I first started attending my current church, that it has a large statue of St Francis (some of the Franciscan missionaries once worked in this area). It occurs to me that, though the particular characteristics of the Franciscans had very little to say to the Chinese mindset during imperial times, perhaps the current Marxist-saturated culture is different (and Marxism is, of course, also a form of cultural imperialism). So I believe God can overcome and redeem even our most egregious and consequential sins and errors.

    • Ah, looks like the characters for Lord of Heaven didn’t compute. Well, in roman letters it’s ‘Tian Zhu’, a title with very heavy Confucian overtones, and which Chinese Christians still use to refer to God.

    • Fascinating history and personal story, Glenn! Thank you for sharing it. (I’ve always liked Matteo Ricci.)

  14. David Cornwell says:

    This has been a very informative and interesting post. I’ve learned a lot. Once we learn these things, then we do have cause for repentance and change. This applies to both the main piece by Damaris and the comments.

  15. Christiane says:

    DAMARIS,
    I loved your post . . .
    the centurion showed an ability to ‘enter in’ to the world of the Jews with a respect that evokes a human solidarity and compassion, not placing himself ‘above’ them in importance . . .

    and his ‘Lord, I am not worthy’ comment in St. Matthew’s Gospel is the inspiration for our communion prayer:
    ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, only say the word and my soul shall be healed’

    this is a great post filled with much to think about from sacred Scripture, and how it applies to real life when folks go out to serve among those who may ‘have less’ but are still ‘NOT less’ as viewed from the Kingdom of Our Lord

  16. Great post, Damaris. Thanks!