Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology
SO FAR WE HAVE explored how the Christian church began, the “marks” and underlying doctrine of the Christian church, Islamism and the Crusades, and the impact of dissension and the Protestant Reformation. In Part Five, I will expound on colonialism and evangelism. Of concern to many individuals over the life of the Christian church is whether colonization deliberately included forcing Christianity on indigenous peoples. Whether missionaries were agents of imperialism or a separate activity meant only to share the gospel. And whether these “lesser evils” are of no concern given the spreading of the gospel.
Colonialism is defined as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” A good example of this concept is how three major powers occupied Afghanistan over the centuries: the British, the Soviets, and the United States. Colonization is sometimes done for the sake of increased security in a region, as in the case with Afghanistan. Rashid writes, “Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location on the crossroads between Iran, the Arabian Sea and India, and between Central Asia and South Asia, has given its territory and mountain passes a significance since the earliest Aryan invasions 6,000 years ago” (1). Regarding Medieval expansion Mumford notes, “When these limits were overpassed, the medieval town, as a functioning organism, ceased almost by definition to exist; for the whole community structure was a system of limitations and boundaries; and their breakdown in the city revealed an even wider dismantling through the whole culture” (2).
Gonzalez writes, “In the Western world, the attitudes of Christians toward colonialism were widely divergent,” adding, “Many Christians of profound convictions protested against the treatment of people in some colonized areas [yet many] were convinced that their enterprise was justified by the benefits the colonized would receive” (3). Some have objected over the years to the concept that God placed the benefits of Western civilization and Christian faith in the hands of white people. I certainly understand this objection; in fact, I wrote in the margin of my copy of Gonzalez, Why say “white people?” Without malice or prejudice, some Christians believe God placed the gospel in the hands of Europeans and North American settlers as “…the so-called white man’s burden: to take to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity” (4). To the extent that this is likely true, I pray that “white” men and women always share the great news of the gospel with respect and without any air of superiority.
Liew and Segovia write about, “…the process of theological (political-liberationist) as well as critical (imperial-postcolonial) engagement with the relation between the colonialist project and the biblical tradition,” adding, “Worthy of note in this regard is the formation of a network of theologians devoted to the formulation of a Christian theology with poverty and oppression at its core” (5). To me, this approach aligns with the life and ministry of Jesus, who came to minister to the poor, the captive, the homeless and hungry, and to set people free from hopeless oppression (see Luke 6:20-21, 16:19-25; Mark 12:41-44). Yet, the main focus of the story of Christianity is not about “social justice,” but salvation. (See my article Identity Politics in Social and Biblical Justice, June 27, 2021.)
There was an anti-colonial reaction to the work of colonizers whether or not they came bearing the good news of the gospel. Modernity, an intended benefit of colonization, often brought about the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, the destruction of many of the endemic cultural patterns that had sustained societies for centuries, and growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor. But this is more a result of racial and cultural arrogance than the efforts of missionaries. Gonzalez notes, “The church was deeply influenced by all these circumstances and ideas, but the relationship between colonialism and missions was very complex” (6). Unfortunately, it has often been alleged that missionaries were agents of colonialism, but this was not always true. Further, there were many cases where missionaries reached regions that had never been visited by white traders or colonizers.
The “Mission” of Missionaries
It is true that the colonial expansion of the West—particularly the Protestant West—coincided with its missionary expansion, with the two sometimes impeding each other. Gonzalez said one of the most remarkable characteristics of the missionary movement during the nineteenth century was “…the formation of missionary societies.” Forerunners for the movement were the Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), founded in 1698, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.), founded in 1701 (7). Many such “societies” were formed from this modest beginning. It is important to note that during this time most Western settlements had little or no official relationship with missionary enterprises. This was the “official” position in the new colonies of North America.
Spencer addresses the positive and negative aspects of Christian missions. He asks, “What if we had empirical, long-term, statistically significant evidence that Christianity increased the general well-being of surrounding populations? It turns out we do.” The basic assumption of many in our culture is exactly the opposite. They claim the Christian ethic is repressive, and that it detracts from human flourishing. Nineteenth-century history is considered by some scholars to bring the legacy of colonialism, which is far from positive in most cases, and is blended with the history of Protestant missionaries. Christian missions are sometimes described as a form of cultural imperialism, viewed as negatively as economic and social colonial oppression. Spencer writes, “This confusion of missions and colonialism, though, appears to be in error” (8).
Samson writes, “Perhaps the most obvious problem, one which has attracted revisionists in recent years, is the dilemma raised by traditional critiques of Christianisation [sic]. If missionaries were always racist colonialists, how did they make converts?” Samson adds, “Instead of being the dupes of colonialism, whose actions must be limited to the subjectivities of victimisation [sic] or resistance, they can be regarded as active agents in their own histories” (9). Etherington said, “…writing[s] about the relationship between colonialism and Christianity [are] still permeated by disputes about the role of organised [sic] religion in sustaining white supremacy, despite an emerging consensus among historians that Christianity was a two‐edged sword that could undercut as well as sustain domination” (10).
Gonzalez leads us on a necessary quest to understand missions to the original thirteen colonies. For example, colonists were not “…free…cultivating their own land, but indentured labor working the land [now] owned by a colonial company” (11). As to religious freedom, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania led the new world in that direction. Yet, Gonzalez notes the evils of colonization in the New World included mistreatment of Indians. The British wanted their land, and to reach that goal the British followed a policy of extermination and confinement. Thankfully, others (including true missionaries) thought religious tolerance was best because it was God’s will. Conversion to Christianity must be accomplished through an apologetic and evangelism that serves only to provide a defense (a reason) for the hope that is in a believer in Christ to anyone who asks, but to do so with gentleness and respect” (see 1 Pet. 3:15).
It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, its roots are in Judaism. During the first century of the Christian church, most people considered it a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. The progressive thread of salvation and redemption can be seen throughout the entirety of Scripture. Judaism and Christianity have “rolled with the punches” so-to-speak, developing alongside cultural diversity, colonialization, and purposeful evangelism. Obviously, there are pros and cons to missions achieved alongside global expansion.
Numerous Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions taken in the name of conquest or expansion included domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to the world in which missions were conducted, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity has on new populations under such circumstances. From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission (see Matt. 28:19-20). Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. This helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries.
I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Of course, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater.
(1) Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2000), 7.
(2) Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1961), 313.
(3) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christiantiy, Vol.II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 417.
(4) Ibid., 417.
(5) Tat-Siong Benny Liew and Fernando F. Segovia, Colonialism and the Bible (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2.018), xiii.
(6) Gonzalez, Ibid., 418.
(7) Ibid., 418.
(8) Andrew Spencer, “How Christian Missionaries Changed the World for the Better,” Institute for Faith, Works & Economics (Feb. 10, 2014). URL: https://tifwe.org/the-truth-about-missionaries/
(9) Jane Samson, The Problem of Colonialism in the Western Historiography of Christian Missions, Vol. 2 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishing, 2021), 511.
(10) Norman Etherington, “Recent trends in the historiography of Christianity in Southern Africa,” Journal of South African Studies, 22:2, 201-219, DOI: 10.1080/03057079608708487.
(11) Gonzalez, Ibid., 276.