On missionaries, Christianity, and the gospel
So…not too long ago I saw a missionary say something about there being this many people groups who’ve had little contact with Christianity, and therefore, look at all the work we have to do. And I just…couldn’t even. It’s one of those moments where you don’t really know where to start.
But I’m going to attempt to articulate why this is just so wrong. At its core, it assumes that the gospel has been preached just because the institution of Christianity is present.
I know so many people right here in the United States who have been burned deeply and badly by their experiences with Christianity. Their recovery from the damage it has done them takes years, or even longer. And when I talk to these people about Jesus and whatnot, almost always they say, “Ooooh, well if that’s what my church taught, maybe it wouldn’t have screwed me up so bad.”
This is not a trivial point. Christianity has a really unfortunate tradition of teaching really abusive theologies. Theological ideas about purity, sin, redemption, and many other topics have been stretched and twisted beyond recognition to hurt people, intentionally or otherwise. This is amplified in non-Western spaces, as the institution of Christianity has been irreversibly changed by its role in supporting colonialism.
The Christian gospel is centered around non-violent defiance against, and resurrection in spite of, the patterns of power and domination that exist in the world. Jesus went to the cross refusing to bow to the Romans, the most powerful people that there were, and exposed their empire as the corrupt, violent, self-serving, man-made institution it was. God then raised Jesus from the dead, calling into question the ultimate authority of that system. Jesus preached about an upside-down kingdom, where the last are first and the first are last, as opposed to how those the rest of the world does things. In the kingdom of God, people live in a way that defies the basic ordering of how the world functions, and in doing so the community receives life.
The empire we live in today looks different, and does not have the same form as the Romans’ empire, but it has the same function - to maintain the status quo for the benefit of those who have power and wealth. Our empire is global capitalism, and its tools are colonialism, racism, ableism, and misogyny. It shapes every aspect of our lives, as we teach each other that contributing “usefully” to the system determines our value, and that the farther away we are from the ideal of serving the system, the less worth we have.
Just as in the days of Constantine, our Christianity has been co-opted by the empire. But the voice of Jesus calls out still, giving us life in the face of a system that is slowly killing us inside and out, and calling us to stop letting the empire tell us who we are, and start letting God tell us who we are: God’s children, beloved, redeemed.
When we think the problem is how many people-groups haven’t been exposed to Christianity, we miss that the real problem in the world is not the powerless, but the powerful. The message that the early church taught is one that the world desperately needs to hear, but institutional Christianity has moved far enough away from it that I think when we hear that a whole community has been left alone by colonial Christianity, we should rejoice. We should go forth, and make disciples of Jesus’s way, where the last are first, and the first last. And we should start living the gospel, which means not being owned by empire and its tools, including Christianity as the world has taught it.
My therapist said this:
“It’s okay to be okay. It is okay to move on. It is okay to heal. It is okay to be happy. It is okay to be alright. You are not deserting anyone. You are not abandoning the people still in the dark place. You are taking care of yourself and there is NOTHING wrong with that.” —
Man oh man did I need this tonight.