For fifty years we have been criticizing Christian missions. Why? “Because,” our major criticism goes, “Christian missions interferes with and Westernizes non-Western cultures.” But that is not really the right answer.
In its first century, Christianity, with strong rootage in Judaism, went eastward, and in Syrian trappings affected the culture of Persians and Indians who became Christian. It went westward and took on Greco-Roman trappings and for centuries interfered with the cultures of Europe; it “Greco-Romanized” them at the same time that it injected them with Oriental and Judaic concepts.
No criticism for that, however. An amalgam gradually took place between the introduced Christianity and the culture it brought from the Mediterranean to the rest of Europe. That amalgam became “Christendom.”
It is the modern missionary movement—beginning with the Roman Catholic “Counter-Reformation” and continued in “The Protestant Missionary Enterprise”—that we criticize. What is behind these fifty years of self-criticism in mission?
Many of the ablest missionaries in the earlier years of the modern missionary movement were people who thoroughly “indigenized.” They adopted the culture of the people to whom they went and sought to apply the Gospel in that cultural context. Matteo Ricci, Robert de Nobili, Robert Morrison, and John Williams were foremost but typical. Even David Livingstone, who hoped to open Africa to European commerce as an antidote to slavery, would not practice his Western medicine among tribal people without consulting and acting on the approval of the African witch doctors, whom he treated as colleagues.
Later, when converts ...1
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