Editor’s note: The following column may contain material that could be disturbing to some readers.
A common story attributed to indigenous leaders around the globe goes something like this: “When the missionaries arrived, we had the land, and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land, and we had the Bible.”
While the original version of this story may be lost to history, its truth still resonates.
The seizure of land serves as the quintessential example of colonialism’s impulse to control others – not by invitation but by coercion.
Christian complicity in such efforts not only offends us, it also contradicts Jesus’ message of good news to the poor.
Beyond indigenous audiences, I suspect this story resonates with Americans for three reasons.
1. Globalization has made the world a much smaller place.
Our communities are more diverse so we rub shoulders with cultural and religious others more frequently than past generations.
2. Since the 1960s, Americans have viewed our institutions and history with greater suspicion.
Admittedly, this critical consciousness has not prevented mass shootings or presidential appeals to American exceptionalism, but the story about the missionaries and the land increasingly invites reflection on the displacement of American Indians, whether or not one can cite the papal Doctrine of Discovery that justified it.
3. The Bible portrays a constant struggle between nations to exert control over each other.
Recall Israel’s domination at the hands of the Egyptians or Babylonians in the Old Testament or the Pax Romana that informs the New Testament.
Some have argued that the divine promise of land to Israel establishes the pattern for the violent displacement of indigenous peoples around the world.
Whatever one makes of that historical claim, the indigenous story resonates because it has become more familiar to us.
Enter John Allen Chau, American adventurer and would-be missionary to North Sentinel Island off the Indian coast. He was killed last fall while attempting to proselytize a remote indigenous tribe.
Many of us shook our heads in disbelief at what seemed to be a deeply misguided mission.
In the rush to judgment following his death, some named Chau a martyr while others viewed him as another tragic example of Christian colonialism.
Secular news outlets discussed the health risks Chau posed to the Sentinelese and detailed the legal prohibitions India had established to prevent such contact.
The portrait of Chau that emerged in the mainstream media was not of someone sacrificially loving his neighbor but of a religious imperialist recklessly jeopardizing the lives of a Neolithic tribe.
The episode has inspired some prominent pastors to publicly question the legitimacy of Christian mission altogether.
But is the relationship between Christian mission and colonialism that simple? Are all missionaries merely Western ideologues seeking to domesticate the religious other?
Here, the scholarship on mission and colonialism offers a much more complex portrait than the one offered by Chau’s death.
In the past generation, mission studies have undergone a revolution from Western missionary hagiography to the indigenous reception, reinterpretation and transmission of the gospel to the world. This revolution invites at least five observations:
1. We live in the era of a global church.
Demographically speaking, Christianity has been centered in the global south since the early 1980s.
However, Westerners have been slow to process how this shift might reframe conceptions of mission.
Peruvian Samuel Escobar describes the new global mission as the gospel moving “from everywhere to everyone.”
2. Western cultures and churches no longer constitute the center of the Christian story.
Lamin Sanneh, a Gambian Muslim convert to Catholicism, observed that Western criticisms of mission often have the curious effect of keeping Western progressives at the center of the conversation despite the “southward shift” of world Christianity.
For example, stories on Chau interviewed Westerners rather than indigenous Christians from the region.
3. The relationship between mission and colonialism was always complicated.
Heroic figures like Bartolomé de las Casas, the colonialist turned Dominican friar in 16th-century Latin America, and Thomas Fowell Buxton, the 19th-century British social reformer, both led successful efforts to abolish the enslavement of indigenous peoples in their day.
But their success owed partly to their privileged positions. The relationship between gospel and culture is always fraught with tension.
4. The modern missionary movement has made vital contributions to indigenous cultures.
Historians have documented that missionaries, most notably through vernacular Bible translation, preserved indigenous cultures from the onslaught of Western imperialism.
Likewise, political scientists have discovered a direct link between democracy in the global south and the work of evangelical Protestant missionaries whose high view of human dignity and congregational polity seeded human rights and democratic values.
5. Christian mission requires reciprocity.
Mission that resists the temptation to domesticate the other is rooted always in reciprocity, a mutual exchange of gifts.
At the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, a young Anglican named V.S. Azariah criticized paternalism and then proclaimed, “Through all the ages to come, the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us friends!”
Likewise, Jesus said, “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
Colonialism is a hard habit to break. So, let’s build friendships across cultures characterized by reciprocity. Let’s practice humility and repentance.
But let’s not fail to recognize the contributions Christian missionaries have made to human flourishing among indigenous peoples.
For those who believe human flourishing depends ultimately on communion with the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all things – the Triune God – then mission is not an option for some but a common vocation for all.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (Aug. 9). Previous articles in the series are:
Seeking True Repentance for Western Christians’ Colonialism | Jonathan Langley
Minister, educator, and nonprofit leader with over two decades of experience cultivating beloved community, advocating for justice, and bearing witness. He served previously as the coordinator of global missions at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.