Mission World - September/October 2023

World Mission and Postcolonialism

According to the World Christian Database, in mid-2022 there were 435,000 foreign missionaries in the world. Let’s put that into perspective. This database estimates that there were only 62,000 foreign missionaries in 1900. This expanded to reach 240,000 in 1970 and is expected to reach 450,000 in 2025. Foreign Christian missions, primarily promoted by conservative evangelical agencies, are still growing.

This growth of foreign missions is a matter of concern to those who reflect upon the ambivalent relationship between world missions and colonialism. Some foreign missionaries served the cause of colonialism by converting the heathens and imposing Western moral values under the guise of bringing civilisation to the natives. Foreign missionaries also built hospitals and schools, which improved the health of native populations and provided them with education. Unwittingly they also introduced diseases to which local peoples were not immune. In some colonies, this led to a severe decline in the population of indigenous peoples.

Still, other missionaries opposed the colonialists. Often these missionaries entered deeply into the culture and lifestyle of the local people. They were sometimes accused of “going native”. However, they could easily be expelled from their places of missionary assignment by the colonial authorities, who saw them as destabilising.

As revolutionary forces gained control in many of these colonies, a cry was sometimes heard for “missionaries to go home”. Whether rightly or wrongly, foreign missionaries were branded as “colonisers” or as agents of foreign colonial powers.

The study of Postcolonialism takes up “the academic task of revisiting, remembering and, crucially, interrogating the oppressive colonial past.” [Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 4]. In doing so, these academics, in researching the role of missionaries in supporting the oppressive objective of colonialism, would question “whether mission has a place in post-independent contexts, and, if so, what form it should take.” (J. Jayakiran Sebastian, “Christian Mission and Postcolonialism: Re-reading the Bible, the Theology and the Call”, The Oxford Handbook of Mission Studies [(Oxford Handbooks) (p. 348). OUP Oxford.]

In her book “Rethinking Mission in the Postcolony: Salvation, Society and Subversion” (London: Bloomsbury, 2011, p. 248), Marion Grau writes, “We know the sacred, God, the gospel, through our cultural projections and conceptions, and this knowledge is embodied through language and practice. In this sense, mission has always been ‘civilised’ and ‘civilising,’ if by that we mean it tends to shape subjects, communities, and ideas of divine and sacred. The question is not whether or not this occurs but how!”

So understandably, we are challenged to revisit the recent colonial past and to be brutally honest about how complicit foreign missionaries were in the great colonising endeavours of predominantly European powers. Furthermore, the question remains: to what extent do these ever-increasing numbers of foreign missionaries continue to support or encourage colonising theories and practices in our present day and age?

Columban Fr Tom Rouse lives and works in New Zealand.

Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds., Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed January 2022

Mission Intentions

September - For people living on the margins: We pray for those persons living on the margins of society, in inhumane life conditions; may they not be overlooked by institutions and never considered of lesser importance.

October - For the Synod: We pray for the Church, that she may adopt listening and dialogue as a lifestyle at every level, and allow herself to be guided by the Holy Spirit towards the peripheries of the world.

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