Let’s Go to Theology Class: Colonialism and Christianity

The following summary is from the last class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Early nineteenth century missionaries were important participants in colonial expeditions. Given that many in twenty-first century Western culture decry the era, goals, and abuses of colonialism, we must ask: Did Christianity benefit from an un-Christian impulse (colonialism)? Discuss this by answering the following questions. Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism? Does the fact that colonialism aided Christianity in its spread throughout the entire world bestow ultimate value on the colonial experiences, making colonialism worth it?

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. Most people during the first century saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. When I consider the progressive thread of redemption throughout the entirety of Scripture, I am able to accept some of the negatives of Christianity developing alongside colonialism.

Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism?

Colonialism is the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. It is reasonable to expect abuses and negative consequences with such activity. Many Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions often taken in the name of conquest or expansion include 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 evangelism during global expansion, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity had on new populations during the era in question.

Most mission societies were not responsible for the troublesome side effects of colonization. However, as Gonzalez notes, the relationship between colonialism and missions is complex and difficult to gauge. Tradesmen, explorers, and colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries. This interrelationship was both positive and negative. I think it is no coincidence that not all churches or colonizers supported missions. Several key companies objected to spreading the Gospel in conjunction with colonialism and industrialization as they feared it would cause disagreements and protests that could hinder economic growth. The aim of colonization was to exploit the economy of each region, which usually led to making the new colony economically dependent on the colonizers; not to share the gospel or plant new churches.

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. Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. I agree that this helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries. This was possibly the spark that prompted a more ecumenical movement in Christianity. Missionaries stood up against the caste system in India. Protestantism helped liberate those people deemed “untouchable” and excluded from everyday society. Other missions helped rescue women from sexism and violence and spawned their education. Further, the rapid Westernization of Japan aided the work of Christian missionaries.

Although colonialism brought much abuse and controversy to new regions, does the spread of Christianity outweigh the negative?

Gonzalez tries to draw a line-in-the-sand between colonialism and missions. Missions over the centuries have reached regions not visited by white explorers, traders, or colonizers. Were these “missionary” activities better than those occurring in tandem with expansionism? Is “saving souls” worth it no matter what? Do the ends justify the means? Not an easy question to answer! Many individuals have been brought to Christ during colonization. Over the centuries, Christianity has been labeled elitist, manipulative, arrogant, destructive. Gonzalez describes the so-called “white man’s burden.” Simply stated, it means taking to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. I cannot help but think about watching TV documentaries on countries devastated by war and extremism (such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq), or underdeveloped nations showing conditions that no one should want to endure. It’s easy to ask (from my comfortable recliner in modern America) why anyone would enjoy living in such conditions? Actually, this underlying question (nay, concern) is one of the driving forces of many efforts over the centuries to industrialize or “modernize” underdeveloped nations.

Gonzalez said modernity has produced the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, suffering the destruction of cultural patterns that had sustained them for generations. Expansionism has been blamed for growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor throughout the world (1). Indigenous populations frequently suffered a loss of culture as colonizers tried to impose their way of life on their new “subjects.” White colonizers often considered these native peoples to be savage and lacking in culture. No doubt they felt justified in attempting to bring stability to what they might have considered “barbaric” or primitive populations. This is unfortunately as much a “value judgment” as it is a desire to aid in improving the living conditions.

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 in accordance with the command in Matthew 28:18-20. To achieve this, missionaries have translated and distributed the Bible in many languages. Countless indigenous peoples have learned to read through the work of missions. Treaties often included clauses that made allowances for the work of Christian missions. Following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, the presence of tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries throughout the provinces (many in positions of authority in the church) helped quash further rebellion. Corrupt governments and rampant exploitations met staunch Christian opposition.

I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Moreover, 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. At the least, many seeds of faith were planted. Of course, I believe most missionaries were primarily motivated by the Great Commission. Thankfully, all things tend to work for good for those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). To this end, I believe the pros of colonialism outweigh the cons relative to spreading the gospel.

Response from Classmates

Thanks for sharing a great post. I deduced that you feel that it was “worth it” in the end. Although I must admit that I wrestled A LOT with my answer this week, I ended up concluding that the abuses of colonialism were not “worth it,” as I don’t think that God would place inherent worth/value on sin and evil. However, I do agree that He can bring good out of all things.

You and I have both shared painful experiences from our own past throughout the coursework. As I was writing this prompt, I couldn’t help but think about how it could relate to my life, or anyone who has experienced some form of abuse. I honestly felt as though the pain that I endured was “worth it” because it led me to Christ, and my salvation is the greatest gift I could receive in this life. I also realized that Christ’s abuses were deemed “worth it” for our salvation—His sufferings in the world and horrible death on the cross gave us a shot at eternity. This is where I struggled!

However, there was a difference with colonization—the individuals who were abused during colonization were not Jesus, but rather His sheep. That is where I decided that the abuses of some to lead to the salvation of others was not “worth it.” God does not delight in sin, and calls us to spread the Gospel, not evil. One of our classmates mentioned that they don’t think that Christians should ally themselves with the “lesser evil,” but rather should uphold to what is true according to the Word. Do you think it could be dangerous to justify a lesser evil in the name of a greater good?

Meredith

My Response to Meredith

Thanks for your response to my initial discussion post. Let me begin by (re)stating the definition of colonialism: the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. I do so in order to draw a definite line in the sand between colonizers and missionaries. I would further state that those colonizers who were Christians and yet chose to cajole, cheat, manipulate, dominate, or otherwise force themselves and their beliefs on indigenous people merely to profit from associated gains are to blame, and not Christianity itself. Further to this point, I am quoting from Tiffany’s initial discussion post:

It is important to separate out Christianity from Christians, as well as those falsely speaking under the claim of Christianity, in support of this assertion. It is not that Christianity was tarnished, but that the reputation of Christianity blemished. Christianity suffers in the way Christ suffered—in that Christianity is birthed in, sustained by, and brought to culmination in Christ. He is the identity of Christianity (italics in the original).

I would argue that one of the positives of colonization was missionaries often accompanied the colonizers, making it possible for missions to have the means and companionship to travel where they might otherwise be unable to get to. Admittedly, there were more explorers and tradesmen who were motivated by expansion, wealth, and increased territory than there were Christians solely dedicated to sharing the gospel. I can tell you’re on the fence regarding the “worth it” question. You are closer to saying yes than you think. You referenced Romans 8:28: God will always use whatever circumstance or individual He requires to bring about His will.

Grudem (1994) provides insight regarding God’s will as it relates to (i) His absolute moral will, and (ii) His providential will. God’s moral will is revealed in Scripture. We know His character, His affection, His desire for us. We know how He wishes us to behave. He has provided certain “moral commands.” God also has providential (or “secret”) will (1). God is able to permit us to do something that might displease Him in the short run but which brings about His intended results in the long run. This is the very essence of Romans 8:28.

Speaking of our pasts, as I struggled a year and a half ago to stop abusing pain medication and to “forgive” myself of my past and see it as an asset for helping others (rather than a liability), I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who had spent 17 years in active addiction living on the streets. He became a born-again Christian and quit abusing crack. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention for sure. He continued: “He wants you to know that everything you’ve been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now meeting me was ordained by Him in order to assure you became the man He needs you to be to carry out your ministry.” Whoa!

The concept of God’s providential will also speaks to His eternal plan whereby He determined (before the foundation of the world) to bring about everything that happens, and to work it together for our and His good. Grudem believes this “decree” type of will is critical because it shows us God doesn’t “make things up as He goes.” Grudem says, “He knows the end from the beginning, and he will accomplish all his good purposes” (2).

You quoted a classmate who declared that Christians should not align themselves with the “lesser evil” just because of a potential good outcome. For me, “aligning” with any evil would suggest being complicit. This is a question of personal motive. We must always remember that God works through human actions (even the horrific ones) in His providential oversight of creation. The individual making the wrong decision for the wrong reason is liable for his or her behavior, but God has absolute providence over the situation. I believe we must always remember that nothing about God, His creation, or us (as His image-bearers) is determined by chance or randomness; nor are they determined by impersonal fate or karma (determinism). God is sovereign over all.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 418.

(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 332.

(3) Grudem, 333.

I Look Foward to a Dialog on This. Please Comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s