The Forbidden City, Beijing

Christianity in China

Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (2)

Review of Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. ISBN978-0-631-23620-7. 214 pages, including index.

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n part II of her book (review of part I) , Dr. Robert re-visits the history of missions by focusing on three themes: 1. The Politics of Missions; 2. Women in World Mission 3. Conversion and Christian community

Politics of Missions

As we all know, an immensely-significant transition took place in the fourth century, when, under the Emperor Constantine and his successors, Christianity was first tolerated and then made into the state religion of the Roman Empire. Hailed as a great blessing by many at the time, this connection between church and state has had a corrosive and corrupting effect on Christianity ever since, as the book proceeds to demonstrate (though not, perhaps by the author’s design).

Indeed, one of the strongest lessons I learned from this brief history is that Christianity thrived on the margins of power, and degenerated when it has occupied the center. From Constantine onward, big buildings replaced homes, while bishops gathered more and more power to themselves, funded by big budgets and buttressed, often, by big government. The oppressed often became oppressors, the persecuted turned into persecutors, whenever church leaders had access to ecclesiastical or political power. It’s a very sad and sobering tale.

That connection between Christianity and politics has persisted almost without interruption or exception throughout the history church’s mission in the world, as Robert shows in both her brief chronological treatment in the first part of the book and in a special chapter on “the politics of missions” in the second part. Whether “at home” or “overseas,” Christian proclamation has often gone hand in hand with political power, though often against the wishes of the missionaries.

As a result of this nexus of power and proclamation, missionaries have been painted “with the brush of cultural and political imperialism. . .” They have been “condemned for introducing social or cultural changes, or for being connected to outside global forces such as imperialism, colonialism, westernization, or modernity.” Almost everywhere, the introduction of Christianity has “been charged with interfering with the established social order.” China might be called Exhibit “D” – after Latin America, Africa, and India – of all these charges, many of them justified.

On the other hand, Dr. Robert takes pains to demonstrate that missionaries have, more often than not, worked for the well-being of those among whom they served; brought countless social benefits; and opposed colonial abuses. Specifically, people’s lives have been “improved through missionary efforts, including the introduction of vernacular literacy, schools, hospitals, modern agricultural methods, work to enhance the lives of women, suppression of the opium and drug trade, and the missionary study of nonwestern religions and literature.”

The “repeated attempts by missionaries to defend human rights and to provide education and medical care to people around the world belie the easy assumptions about their acquiescence in the colonial project.” A few missionaries stood between life and death for thousands of helpless Chinese during the Japanese slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Nanjing, for example.

Furthermore, “the role of indigenous initiative in mission” has been omitted from the critical narrative, as well as “the crucial role played by early converts to Christianity as mediators between traditional ways and Christianity.” Robert especially highlights the powerful ministries of John Song and early converts to Roman Catholicism in China.

Women in World Mission: Purity, Motherhood, and Women’s Well-Being

An expert in the history of women in missions, Dr. Robert summarizes her knowledge in a few pages to give an excellent summary of their unique contributions.

By and large, women missionaries have elucidated “the meaning of mission as service,” for they have “concentrated largely on lifestyles of service and personal relationships as the way to spread the gospel.” Dr. Robert uses Annalena Tonelli’s life as a paradigmatic example of such missionary life and work.

Purity: Thousands of women have chosen a life of celibacy as the best means of expressing their love for God and other people, sacrificing family life and all that goes with it. “Paradoxically, the choice of celibacy bestowed upon women a gender neutrality that allowed them to overcome the normal expectations of and limitations on women’s roles in traditional societies.”

From the wealthy women in Roman society who devoted themselves and their resources to the poor and to the church, to the order of deaconesses in the early church, to the highly-organized societies for celibate women in the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries, these women have gained independence over their own bodies and the roles and responsibilities usually signed to them. In doing so, they have gained freedom to serve without distraction.

Motherhood: Many celibate women have been able, nevertheless, to attain the status of “motherhood” through the love which they have lavished on other women and children in their host cultures. Furthermore, the married Protestant women missionaries not only served as mothers in their own homes, but reached out to share God’s love with local women and children and, like their celibate counterparts, found themselves regarded as “mothers” of many “children” besides their own offspring.

Two things stand out, at least to me: First, they way that women were able to penetrate the closed social systems that kept more than half the population from hearing the gospel from male missionaries. And second, the tremendous work that women missionaries have done to rescue widows, orphans, and others at the margins of society.

Protestant missionary wives have been able to strengthen the family as the primary unit of society and of the church, and to introduce a kind of “Christian” family model that allowed both sexes to exercise their God-given abilities, with wives being accorded the dignity they deserve.

Women’s Well-Being and Social Change: Finally, the author relates how women missionaries have been at the forefront of advocacy of changes in customs deleterious to women, such as female circumcision in Africa, foot-binding in China, child-brides in India, and sex slaves in Japanese-occupied areas of Asia. Women have opened schools for girls and dispensed medical care for women and children. “Bible women” have carried the gospel to women and children in Asia and Africa, and some have become noted healers and preachers.

In an especially provocative paragraph, Robert highlights the importance of hospitality in the advance of the kingdom of God and quotes one missionary who said, “One must never underestimate the importance of a cup of tea in the evangelization of the world.”

Conversion and Christianity: The Missionary from St. Patrick to Bernard Mizeki

In this final chapter, the author deals with the ways in which foreign missionaries brought Christianity to local cultures and created communities, and how these communities, in turn, both changed their own cultures and affected the form in which Christianity took root in that culture.

The missionary is a bridge personality who serves “as an agent of religious and cultural change.” St. Patrick, as we all know, went from being a captive slave in Ireland to a missionary who helped to transform the land of his captivity into a “Christian” nation and culture. He saw himself as “a wanderer under God’s protection, . . . someone who operated on the margins of society.” A “stranger and sojourner,” he later so identified with the Irish that he suffered much for their sakes.

“The expansion of Christianity in Ireland took place on multiple levels, led by indigenous leaders…” who engaged in all sorts of evangelism and education that eventually re-shaped Irish culture and made the Irish church – or, should we say, monasteries – bases for further extension of the faith to Europe. In the process, some aspects of Irish culture were jettisoned, while others were incorporated into Irish Christianity. For example, Patrick acknowledged the existence of demons and devils, and drew much of his persuasive power from his ability to defeat them in power encounters.

On the other hand, the violence of the Irish was countered, and to some degree tamed, by the gospel of peace. To their tribal identities was added a greater one: membership in the worldwide family of God through faith in a common Lord, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures were then used as a framework for a whole new body of law that “civilized” the wild Irish.

The story of Bernard Mizeki carries equal meaning and evokes similar emotions of wonder and gratitude. Originally from Mozambique, he served as an Anglican missionary in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He possessed rare linguistic aptitude, musical ability, and zeal. His work included evangelism, education, power encounters with local spirits, and care for orphans and other sufferers. Faithful at his station unto death, he has become a martyred “saint” to millions of African Christians.

The author concludes her energetic, enlightening narrative with an anecdote demonstrating her thesis that Christianity has become a worldwide religion and that the missionary endeavor is now multi-directional, multi-cultural, and multi-faceted. Since I want you to read her book, I shall only give you a hint: Her story traces the journey of the thought of a white South African to a major Chinese church leader and then back to South Africa.