Are missionaries modern colonizers? | The bottom line
Every two months I notice a pattern of images on my Instagram feed. In some variation, the posts represent my white classmates posing with African children. The caption reads: “I wish I could go back to [insert developing country here]Followed by a long paragraph detailing their unforgettable experience of service to others – most likely in the name of Christ. Although I know that such posts have good intentions, I find them frustrating and dull.
It is a growing opinion that philanthropic trips with the underlying motives for conversion are disgusting. These are real people, with real problems, and an American couple who stop to work on a construction project for two weeks “to save them from hell” is not going to make such a big difference.
Then they are back in their cushy suburban homes, posting photos with poor young children as props to emphasize their righteousness and mercy. More often than not, it seems that these mission trips are glorified exotic vacations with the added bonus of self-gratification.
Religious conversion is by no means new, but the most famous missionaries today are Christians. While there are many different reasons why people follow this path, the majority cite a passage from the “Book of Matthew” of the Bible known as the “Great Commission”, in which Jesus implores his disciples “to go and make disciples of all the nations ”. And so, over the past few centuries, many European nations, and more recently America, have attempted to foster the love of Christ in other countries.
The problem lies in the blurred lines between missionary work and the goal of “civilizing”, because the language used to describe the two goals is often disturbingly similar.
Take a look at this quote from the late Belgian King Leopold II, who implored Belgian politicians, explorers and others to join and fund his charity for the Congo: “To open to civilization the only part of our globe that it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the shadows which hover over entire peoples, it is, I dare say it, a crusade worthy of this century of progress. .
“The problem lies in the blurred lines between missionary work and the goal of ‘civilizing’, because the language used to describe the two goals is often very similar.”
This talk of saving “colored” people from their own ignorance is thinly veiled racism at best – at worst a cover for a genocidal colonization effort. It turns out that King Leopold’s philanthropic effort was in fact a pretext for his wish to exploit Congolese workers and make a lot of money with rubber, which he certainly did – but only at the expense of around 10 million Congolese.
It is far from being an exception. Colonial Europe was known for its treatment of non-whites, whether in India, many African or North American countries. You may be familiar with the quote “Kill the Indian, save the man”, which was originally a speech which included ideas about the importance of “civilizing”. Thus, “Americanize” the Indians to assimilate them to the culture of the white man.
Such ideas were the basis for the development of Christian boarding schools, notorious for cruelty for the indigenous peoples of America, Australia, Canada, and other colonizing countries – all as white colonialists methodically claimed land by force.
They justified their actions by citing the “white man’s burden” – meaning it was their duty to conquer the land to civilize the “savage” nations. Despite resistance from indigenous people, the alleged “saviors” subjugated them and dismissed their deeply rooted beliefs as primitive without bothering to understand indigenous culture.
While it may not be as blatantly racist as it used to be, missionary work is still problematic today.
There were various mission trips where funds were mismanaged and missionaries ended up being more complicated than anything else. Recipients of missionary work should spend time thoroughly teaching their customs and work to people who, for the most part, do not plan to spend much time helping.
In general, short-term volunteer work is not as useful as people would like to think. The Guardian wrote of a scathing study on ‘AIDS orphan tourism’ in South Africa that revealed how short-term volunteering projects lead to many detrimental effects. Wealthy ‘volunteers’ prevent local workers from securing crucial jobs and cause struggling institutions to waste their time and money caring for them, and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to visitors that exacerbate their feelings. trauma by disappearing soon after their arrival.
“But missionary work is still heavily polluted by its past, in which the ‘help’ offered was used as a pretext to exploit a country and simultaneously fuel the ‘white man’s burden’ narrative.”
Another problem is how missionaries gravitate to isolated tribes, hoping to connect them with the rest of the world – and Jesus. A particularly infamous story is that of John chau, a 26-year-old evangelical missionary and travel vlogger. He attempted to spread the gospel to the Sentinels, the isolated hunter-gatherers who inhabit North Sentinel Island – the risk of a deadly contagion be damned.
After a few days of attempted communication, during which he preached from Genesis and sang songs of worship from a distance, he was killed. Another example is that of the Akuriyo people in Suriname – after being approached by missionaries in 1969, 40 to 50 percent of Akuriyo’s population died from respiratory illnesses and what some suspect to be the stress of culture shock. In general, isolated tribes have little resistance to common illnesses, and historically there are many examples of catastrophic consequences when contact is forced upon them.
I am not suggesting here that every person going on a mission trip is an unconscious idiot who does more harm than good. Many liberal and younger missionaries have personally struggled with connotations of the “white savior” and focus less exclusively on converting people. Rather, they would work to do good for the community and hope that their actions speak louder than words to inspire others to join their faith, according to Melani McAlister, professor at George Washington University.
But good intentions are not always enough, especially in the case of missionary trips. The quest to save people from hell by spreading Christianity everywhere possible, even where people are reluctant, is not acceptable. Just because it’s your faith doesn’t necessarily mean good faith for everyone, and refusing to accept that perpetuates the supremacist rhetoric.
You might think I’m too harsh here. The missionaries certainly did a good job – they acted as doctors and aid workers, built schools, hospitals, and established other important infrastructure in communities in need. Much of the younger generation is focused on helping communities without pressuring locals to convert. But missionary work is still heavily polluted by its past, in which the “help” offered was used as a pretext to exploit a country and at the same time fuel the “white man’s burden” narrative.
The idea that people desperately need a random stranger to save them is often hurtful and downright narcissistic. And with all the credible international relief efforts, there are better ways to ease your conscience.