Saturday, December 20, 2014

Appropriate and Inappropriate Missionary Activity

Should missionaries ever seek to change social practices and work to make laws that would change what is thought unacceptable in the countries to which they go? Most Christians now would probably say No, although perhaps they would allow for some exceptions, such as in cases such as sati (suttee) in India and foot binding in China.
Sati, the practice or burning widows on the pyres of their dead husbands, was strongly opposed by English Baptist missionary William Carey for 25 years, and in 1829 it was finally banned in India.
Partly as the result of considerable opposition by Christian missionaries in China, the cruel practice of mutilating the feet of young girls, usually called “foot binding,” was outlawed there in 1912.
In both of these cases, missionaries were opposed to customs that were unlike Western practices because of the perceived harm done to people they wanted to liberate from inhumane practices.
But in very recent years there is the odd phenomenon of some missionaries promoting legislation that most Western countries now reject. The main case in point is the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. It was exactly a year ago, on Dec. 20, 2013, that the Ugandan legislature passed a harsh law authorizing severe punishment for homosexual activity in that African country.
As has been widely publicized, and severely criticized, by many Westerners, some of the impetus behind that Ugandan anti-gay legislation was the outspoken support of some Christian missionaries and U.S. pastors.
Earlier this year I watched “God Loves Uganda,” the 2013 documentary about those working for and against anti-homosexuality legislation in that country.
The movie starts with scenes from Kansas City and clips of Lou Engle, one of the co-founders of IHOP in 1999. Throughout the film there are many references to IHOP missionaries working for the anti-gay legislation in Uganda.
IHOP (the International House of Prayer) is considered by many to be a Christian cult. But one of the best students I had one semester three or four years ago was a member of IHOP, and she had nothing but praise for her “church.”
And in stark contrast to what is depicted in the documentary, IHOP has disavowed any connection with the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. (Here is the link to an interview with Mike Bickle, the main leader of IHOP from its beginning, about that matter.)
In spite of IHOP’s disclaimer, however, it is hard to think that the makers of “God Loves Uganda” fabricated the footage of IHOP-linked missionaries being strong advocates of the anti-gay legislation.
On the other hand, the documentary also shows some Ugandan Christian leaders (especially Christopher Senyonjo, a retired bishop in the Church of Uganda and Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest) staunchly opposing the anti-homosexuality bill. 

At the end of the film it was noted that the “Anti-Homosexuality Act” was signed by the Ugandan president on Feb. 25, 2014. In August, however, that law was declared unconstitutional on a technicality. But an equally harsh, or even harsher, law is still very much in the works, it seems.
There are some efforts for cultural change and legislation that are legitimate for missionaries to be engaged in. That includes, for example, anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) activities at the present.
People who are mistreated, demeaned, or treated unjustly need to be liberated from customs and practices that seem clearly to be in opposition to the teaching and example of Jesus. Thus, those born with homosexual orientation are appropriately included with people needing liberation and they should never be made the target of unjust laws.


  1. You've opened up this issue quite well, Leroy. Respecting others' cultures does not need to include approval of everything done in those cultures; certainly not anymore than appreciating one's own culture requires approval of everything. I would agree that following Jesus inherently means concern for those "who are mistreated, demeaned, or treated unjustly." If only Christian missionaries had stuck with that project.

    Another side to the issue of missionary activity includes, as well, the fact that missionaries tended to go concurrently with, if not also in the pocket of, economic, political, and cultural imperialism; and made strong attempts to undermine indigenous faith traditions entirely.

    The current Polynesian Gods exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum notes that a great deal of the material cultural artifacts of the South Sea islanders was destroyed after many people had been converted to Christianity. We were horrified by the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddha's in Afghanistan, but Christianity has had a long history of that kind of destruction.

    Your essay and my ramblings here have me wondering whether the kind of argument you're making isn't better made on the grounds of some religion-transcendent humanism rather than from within a particular religious faith. After all, those Christians supporting anti-homosexual laws are as much within Christianity as you and I.

    1. Anton, as always I much appreciate your thoughtful comments. You raise several significant aspects of problems related to missionary activity that need to be widely considered and discussed.

      At this point, let me just make one brief comment about your concluding sentence: I would argue that while there are people with many different viewpoints and actions within Christianity, some are much more genuine than others.

      As you know, theology has often been described as "faith seeking understanding." That is a helpful description. But in addition, perhaps theology (and missiology) could also be thought of as faith seeking differentiation between that which is genuine, that is, truest to the intentions of Jesus Christ, and that which is spurious.

      So just as there has long been theological distinctions made between orthodoxy and heresy, there also needs to be distinction made between orthopraxis and heteropraxis, especially perhaps as regards missionary activity.

  2. An interesting look at the role of missionaries and the Church in making change to cultures - tribal rituals, multiple wives, buying wives, dressing like westerners for church, owning land, having pastors paid by churches in the West... Having grown up in the area, this raises so many more questions and observations. The primary mission field should probably be one's own family. Yet so many abandon their children at an early age to boarding schools, where a large percentage lose their faith. (Note: Boarding schools are common practice with many western ex-patriots, not just missionaries.) That said, it is also worth noting that Uganda has one of the highest percentage of Christians in the world.

    This particular illustration posed is still highly debated within the Church of the west, and may further split the Church. Since the Bible (even Christ's words flow the other way) this is probably not the issue on which to draw the line in another country.

    As a cultural observation, while working with Christian refugees to this country (including Ugandans), the Africans did not fit with the African-American churches because their "Christian" gospel was different. The African Americans (lead by the NAACP) would tell the Africans to go back to the "good" country because they were taking the welfare that belonged them. The Africans would reply that the "dark" Americans should have to work like they were required to in order get assistance - if a man doesn't work, neither should he eat.

    Another question would be how to teach the Church to love its enemies when they are kidnapping and killing the non-Muslims near the northern border.

    So many questions on Christianity - how it should be believed and practiced. Not just in Uganda, but here, and around the world.

    1. There is also much here that deserves serious consideration and discussion. But at this time let me respond to just one aspect of these meaty comments.

      There seems to be widespread divergence between much contemporary Christianity in the U.S. and Christianity in countries where Christianity was planted by 19th or 20th century missionaries. In many cases, the latter seems to be more "traditional" than the former so that those who move from a former "mission field" to the U.S. (or Europe/England) or vice versa find significant differences and difficulties of "plugging in" in their new locale.

      It was quite common in Japan, for example, for Japanese people who became Christians while in the U.S. to have considerable difficulty finding a Japanese church that suited them, especially if they had been in a "contemporary" (rather than more traditional) church in the U.S.

  3. Your article is on point, as usual. I did not know of the movie "God Loves Uganda." I will have to see it!

    Gay rights is a sticking point between US Quakers and East African Quakers. (It's a sticking point among US Quakers, but I'll leave that aside for now.) When I was teaching biblical hermeneutics last December at Friends Theological College (FTC) in Kenya, the topic did not come up, mainly because it's really not an issue for Kenyan Quakers, who are more or less agreed that homosexuality is sinful. (See the very interesting article by a US Quaker living and working in Kenya, My students at FTC were much more concerned about female genital mutilation (FGM), which is not practiced among Quakers in Kenya but is practiced in some of the areas in Tanzania where my students do "mission work." The students were opposed to FGM but wanted to be sensitive to the people with whom they are ministering.

    As I return to teach at FTC, as I hope to do next December, and again long-term when I retire in 2017, I will consider how I might help Kenyan Quakers think theologically about issues related to sexuality. I hope to do the same as I continue to teach at Howard Div, though it seems that "the tide has turned" (in an open and affirming way) in recent years.

  4. I have another beef with the IHOP mentioned above. It started in 1999, obviously hoping to sneak into public view based on confusion with the IHOP that started in 1958. The original IHOP deals in a much humbler subject as the International House of Pancakes. Who can be against maple syrup and bacon? (Besides my doctor!) The new IHOP reminds me of Jesus' comment about those who pray loudly in public. He was not amused.

    It is unfortunate that the uproar in America about homosexuality has been internationalized. Fundamentalists in Africa are behaving much like the man who has a bad day at the office, so he comes home and kicks the dog. Too many fundamentalists have totally failed to learn more about grace from the LGBT movement, and have resorted to lobbying for their darkest fantasies in third world countries that have far more important things to do that getting sucked up into the west's coming of age struggles.

    On a more general scale, Christianity has frequently been the opposite of a liberating force. We may read about "true freedom" in the Bible, but we tend to find our inner Carrie Nation when we reach the interface between church and state. Prohibition, despite its lofty goals, was an abominable failure as public policy. Its longer lasting spinoff in the war on drugs continues to do massive damage around the world to this very day. I remember reading an article many years ago that made the point, "Compulsion in pursuit of a norm leads to abnormal behavior." America's jails are overflowing, her police forces are increasingly alienated from the communities they are ostensibly there to serve, and somehow many nations around the world seem to hate us. Is there not a common denominator in all this?

    When Jesus began his ministry, he announced, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Luke 4:18-19 NRSV Now measuring sati in India, or foot binding in China, or FGM in numerous countries, or even exploding prison populations in the United States leaves plenty of room for the church to prophesy against the nations. However, campaigning against the civil rights of LGBT persons is not something that I see measuring up against Jesus' list. There is plenty of room for theological debate on exactly what the church's stand on homosexuality should be, but I see none for embracing the politics of persecution.

  5. Really good stuff here!

    During my youth, and the Civil Rights Movement, Goyspel - as leaven vs. social engineering - was an issue. In my view, as leavening proceeds social engineering will happen - from bottom up.

    The issues before us, however, are attempts at using civil power to impose - cherry picked - fear-driven standards by force.

    Cherry picked? Well, why not legislatively impose the Year of Jubilee, and the political-economics implied by The Advent messages from Mary and cousin John?

    In the US we have a similar situation, with a twist: The equal protection clause of our Constitution. Does the right of free exercise include the privilege to demand, and get, civil power to advance any one religion/standard over any/all others?

  6. Craig refers above to Carrie Nation and her opposition to alcoholic drink. According to the PBS "American Experience" webpage, Nation described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn't like." Hmm, Jesus said that folks accused him of being a "glutton and a drunk" (Matt 11:19 CEB). The webpage also notes, "While Carrie Nation was certainly among their most colorful members, the members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, left more in their wake than strewn glass. Once the largest women's organization in the country, the WCTU concerned itself with issues ranging from health and hygiene, prison reform, and world peace." See

  7. Thinking Friend Ed Kang, who was a close personal friend in Japan where he also served as a missionary, sent the following comments:

    "About homosexuality, I was ignorant about the issue as I was coming out of conservative/Asian background, but as an open minded person I have been more and more educated and I have come to understand the issue much better now.

    "But we have a problem here: the Korean church community in our PCUSA is dead opposed to homosexual marriage and ordination even at the time, although the PCUSA has finally come to understand and taken steps to change after decades of attempts/struggles to change.

    "Constitutional revision is put on the ballot of presbyteries nationwide and we will see the outcome in the coming months – marriage from between 'one man and one woman' to 'two persons,' which has been problem, for many southern presbyteries have voted it down. But we will see this time what will come out."

  8. Local Thinking Friend Dub Steincross sent this brief, but appreciated, comment:

    "Excellent observations. Thank you for sending them and helping us all reflect on difficult matters."