Sunday, March 12, 2023

Converts or Disciples Part 2: The Problem With the Missionary Project

This is Part 2 of the series. Other parts (will be updated as I post them):


Converts or Disciples Part 1: A Musical Analogy

Converts or Disciples Part 3: Selling It

Converts or Disciples Part 4: The Theological Story is Shit

Converts or Disciples Part 5: The Fruit is Shit 




Part 2: My Family History and my Discomfort With the Missionary Project


I was raised as an Evangelical, and, as I got older, increasingly as a Fundamentalist. (Both in the doctrinal sense and in the cultural sense.) This culminated, as my regular readers know, in our family joining Bill Gothard’s cult, over my objection, in my late teens. 


My earliest church memories are of attending John MacArthur’s megachurch in the Los Angeles area, and I can still hear the cadence of his voice in my head. 


Big at the time was the concept of “Evangelism.” The nationwide movement was epitomized by Evangelism Explosion (EE), which involved a very Jehovah’s-Witnesses-style door-to-door cold calling and asking The Question™: “If you were to die today, would you know for certain that you would go to heaven?” Yeah, it has been decades since my parents were in that sort of an organization, and I still can quote it. From there, the “evangelist” is supposed to lead the mark - I mean potential convert - along a series of leading questions directing the conversation in a way that makes Evangelical doctrine the only possible answer, to where you can spring the Sinner’s Prayer™ on him or her.


John MacArthur, like many other egotistical religious celebrities, “rebranded” the EE format into his own, proprietary program, named Discipleship Evangelism - see, “discipling” was a big trendy buzz word back in the 1980s, kind of like “relevant” was in the early 2000s. Even if nothing about “DE” actually involved discipling people - it was just “get a convert and convince them to come to our church.” That was the one my dad was involved with for a while, and I came along to a few meetings, even though I didn’t go out door-to-door.


I can’t remember if it was with MacArthur’s church, or the later small clone church we attended after that, but I watched one of the “training” videos. It (badly) dramatized the first attempt of one of the founders to evangelize - he and his buddy end up getting invited in and handed beers by the poor mark, who innocently thought they were just being friendly. 


After thinking more, and coming up with a “better” sales plan, the two go back, and spring The Question on the poor guy. I remember feeling nauseated at that. At some level, my conscience knew that this was wrong, that it was a fraudulent violation of the person being “evangelized.” (More on this in the next installment.) 


Let’s go back even further, though. Both sets of my grandparents were foreign missionaries: my paternal grandparents in the Philippines, my maternal grandparents in Mexico. 


As part of the American (and European) Evangelical missionary culture of the time (the “missionary era” began in the 15th Century but had its American heyday starting in the 1800s), there was a heavy dose of what is best described as Colonialism and Imperialism involved.


Missionaries had house servants (who they sometimes raped), and lived significantly richer lifestyles than the populations they supposedly served. Some even brought their slaves with them (one of the reasons the Southern Baptist Convention split from other Baptists was over this issue.) Even the best-intentioned ones were the “rich Americans” by comparison. The kids, seen as an inconvenience, were sent away to boarding school at young ages. (As shocking as this seems now, my dad took the bus to Manila by himself starting at……wait for it……age 8. By himself. At age 8. My mom was dumped with relatives by age 13.) The boarding schools were filled with white Americans, the children of missionaries, diplomats, soldiers, and corporate bosses. 


Likewise, there was (and often still is) an emphasis on “saving” the “natives” from their ignorant superstitions and cultural practices, and teaching them how to act more like white Americans (or Brits, or whatever.) Don’t sing the old folk songs, sing these European hymns from the 19th Century. Don’t dress that way, wear European clothes. Don’t celebrate your old traditions and holidays, celebrate these we stole from the old pagan Europeans. You get the idea. 


This combination of neglect of children (the trauma of which has reverberated down the generations in my family on both sides) and cultural imperialism has made me increasingly uncomfortable with my ancestry, and with missionary work in general. Is it really about creating followers of Christ? Or is it about spreading American values such as capitalism, consumerism, white supremacy, and the cultural trappings of white America? 


Another thing that has caused me discomfort: In both cases, my grandparents weren’t just making converts, they were making a specific kind of convert. 


Mexico, even now, is more than 90% Christian, and 80% Catholic. Both of those numbers were even higher in 1950. 


The Philippines is very similar in breakdown, with the exception that it has more Muslims than Mexico, and fewer non-religious. 


In both cases, by any non-sectarian definition, the countries were and are filled with Christians. More so than the United States then or now.


So who the ever-loving HELL were the targets of this “evangelism?” 


Other Christians. 


So, let’s get this straight:


What this was about was just converting people from one sect of Christianity to another sect of Christianity. 


Welp. That’s awkward. Unless you go with the “Catholics aren’t real Christians” thing. And once you start on that, you are pretty far along the “only our particular narrow sect and its doctrine will go to heaven and everyone else is a heretic” path. [Cue the Emo Phillips joke that pastors love to quote.] 


Ultimately, for me, the idea of “evangelism” being about poaching people from other sects to join your sect is, at best, to completely miss the point. Sure, try to convince people to join your sect if you want, but don’t kid yourself that you are actually “saving a soul” (to use another buzzword), let alone making a Christ-following disciple. You are just trying to increase your market share.


But let’s dig deeper here, because I think it is seriously illuminating. There is more going on when it comes to “converting” people from one sect of Christianity to another than is generally acknowledged by those seeking to make converts. 


The Protestant/Catholic line isn’t solely - or even primarily - about doctrine. It is primarily - and sometimes solely - about politics. 


From the beginning, the Catholic/Protestant divide had a significant political element. In particular, the break of political authority from religious authority was inseparable from the desire of northern European rulers to cut the apron strings from Rome. (And, in the case of Henry VIII, get a divorce.)


Soon thereafter, advances in technology (and I would argue, the jettisoning of any vestige of Christ-following from European organized religion) led to the rise of Imperialism. Several nations saw the rest of the planet as a potential source of wealth - gold, slaves, land, other resources - for their empires, and took military action accordingly to enslave, exterminate, or (if they survived the first two) convert indigenous peoples, and steal their land and resources, which the Pope and other religious authorities then blessed as somehow “bringing Christianity to the savages.” 

 Benjamin West's famous painting about William Penn's treaty with the Native Americans.
By the time West painted this in the 1770s, that treaty had been broken, and the indigenous people nearly exterminated, with the survivors removed from their homelands. 

On the continent, hundreds of years of religious holy wars wracked Europe - wars that would eventually lead to the decision by the founders of the United States to separate church and state. But make no mistake, even these holy wars were also about empire - who would rule Europe, and who would control the “newly discovered” wealth of peoples who lacked advanced weapons, immunity to disease, and the deadly avarice of European conquerors. 


Eventually, the lesser empires faded, and two nations became proxies for Protestantism and Catholicism. The British Empire would carry the banner of the Protestant faith, while Spain would conquer in the name of Catholicism. 


You can still see this played out on the world stage. Places conquered by Spain would become overwhelmingly Catholic, while places conquered by England (and later the American empire) would become Protestant. 


Thus, to understand why the United States (the currently dominant empire on our planet) sends so many missionaries to the former colonies of Spain, in order to convert Catholics to Protestants, it is crucial to remember the history. In light of that, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this “missionary” work isn’t really about saving souls so much as it is about continuing the holy wars and colonial battles of the past, establishing the dominance of Anglo-American religion, Anglo-American culture. And, indeed, of the dominance of the American empire. 


I think it is also helpful to understand that the heyday of American missionary work in the Catholic Third World (which started in the 1800s - my grandparents were the tail end) also coincided with vicious anti-immigration sentiment directed primarily at Catholics coming from Ireland, Italy, and the rest of Southern Europe. Religion then, as now, served as a proxy for old-fashioned racism and xenophobia.


Hence my discomfort with missionary work in general, and specifically with missionary work directed at converting people from one sect of the same religion to another. 


Between the Protestant-Catholic wars and the overweening racist arrogance of “civilizing the savages,” it is difficult for me to see any Christ-following in most missionary work.


One final thought here: 


The core idea that supports sectarian religion in general is that God specifically spoke the One True Doctrine™ to certain people in the past. To them, and only to them. 


For Protestants, this means that guys like Martin Luther and John Calvin got some special revelation. Move it on down to Evangelicalism, and you find that most of the lucky men (and it is always men) who got that One True Doctrine™ just happened to live in England or the United States in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and that many of them just happened to enslave black people or support the institution of slavery. Or at least supported Jim Crow, exclusion of non-white and Catholic immigrants, and a whole host of other truly fraught political positions. Which makes it seem to those who aren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as if maybe it wasn’t God speaking so much as it was just about politics all along. 


Once you start down this road, there really is no easy place to get off. Mormons believe the One True Doctrine™ was given to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the One True Doctrine™ was given to Charles Taze Russell and Joseph Franklin Rutherford. And the list goes on. In every sect, there is some point at which this perfect revelation was received, and all prior ideas were incomplete, and all future ideas are heresy. 


That’s how you end up with “evangelism” being about a combination of empire politics, white supremacy, and sectarian conflict. And, in our own political moment, a theofascist culture war, aimed at asserting white male dominance over everyone else. In the name of Christ, of course. 


What it most certainly is not is anything recognizable as making disciples who will follow Christ. That is a lot more difficult. 


1 comment:

  1. Quick joke about how most of society sees Jehovah's Witnesses and other door-to-door Evangelicals: