It’s long been accepted that missionaries are the ideological henchman of empire—maybe not by the missionaries themselves, but by much of the public. Just last week the Globe splashed the Christian ministry Crossroads across its front page for its lifestyle beliefs, arguing its religious content contradicted Canadian values and so invalidated its work digging wells in Christian Uganda. It’s a bad brand for folks that are generally sincere in their good intentions, and—further—that do so much actual good (even) in the name of religion. Whether religion invalidates development work today, or whether religious content and savvy religious literacy may actually be essential in a religious world, is another matter. But what about this easy history of missionaries as cultural imperialists? Is this a fair story?
In some sense, says Andrew Preston, it is. There were missionaries who were hardcore imperialists. But based on his research, and primary historical accounts, he argues that these missionaries were actually the exception, not the rule. He says,
I was really surprised to find that missionaries were often the bitterest critics of, say, the American role in the Philippines, or what the United States was doing in China . . . They were also, more surprisingly, critics of the idea of an American Empire, or even the idea of the United States having some sort of dominant or domineering role in these countries.
Missionaries, he argues, were a kind of cultural imperialists, but often an informal, inadvertent kind. The spread of values missionaries claimed were universal intrinsically involved a sort of imperialism. Common examples are the China missionaries, who have such terrible reputations, but whose record shows that the issue for most of them wasn’t even primarily conversions or spreading the Gospel, but on building schools, and digging drainage ditches. Their special concern was spreading rights to girls and women, and their biggest crusades were anti-foot binding and anti-opium.
Unquestionably, this provoked local anger, culminating in the Boxer Rebellion, which was an anti-missionary rebellion, not just an anti-Western rebellion. There were riots and attacks on missionaries, putting these missionaries in the uncomfortable position of turning to the Western powers they so bitterly criticized to shield them. At the time, and even in many cases today, there is not much love lost between missionaries and the diplomats whose problems they become.
What Preston calls the cultural imperialism of missionaries he compares against the work of present day human rights NGOs, which certainly present certain perspectives—on the human person, and their dignities and rights—as universal, and push, sometimes force, changes in law and cultural practice in other contexts.
History’s missionaries are not guiltless in their own exchanges, but neither were they collaborators in the hard imperialism of the Western states they often sharply criticized. Their religious impulses have unfairly caricatured them in a secular age, the same ethos which confuses the lifestyle commitment of liberal democrats in Canada, with the punitive and corporeal punishments of radical legislation abroad. Maybe missionaries, rights organizations, and the rest, should be judged less on the rationale by which they arrive at their values, and more on the actual values, and practices themselves. That judgment, at least, would make the history of missiology more intelligible, do better justice to its one-time practitioners, and better charity to its advocates today.