This is a follow-up thought prompted by In Trust’s Spring 2000 article on the “Sorry Past” of Canadian churches in regard to their one-time operation of residential schools for First Nation children. The issue of what the churches can do to repair the damage they did is urgent and agonizing. But I suggest that the residential schools experience also bears serious lessons for theological schools about how they should teach evangelism and missionary strategy.
The issues of physical and sexual abuse are clear. There is no excuse for these wrongs, and they must be righted. Much more complex, however, is what is being labeled cultural abuse or “genocide.” This closely parallels missiological theory and practice in many other instances, not only in the past, but even today.
In the case in question, for 150 years, Canada’s three largest churches—Roman Catholic, United Church, and Anglican—cooperated with the government in staffing the residential schools. Conventional wisdom was that the government’s interest in assimilation and the church’s interest in conversion could be joined to benefit aboriginal communities two ways: to help them become self-sufficient in an economy that could no longer be sustained by hunting buffalo and the like, and to provide them the cultural and religious benefits of Christian civilization. Many aboriginals saw the need for education and were willing at the time to accept European-Canadian schooling. What they got was a form of assimilation that denigrated their culture; took away their language, identity, and self-esteem; and created spiritual confusion.
The missiology taught in the last few decades has been generally more respectful of traditional religious and cultural values. Mission theory and practice in some Western churches, however, could still be characterized in terms of cultural genocide, especially but not exclusively in Third World contexts.
The demise of Christendom is well documented. Most would agree it is not recoverable in the present age of religious pluralism. Many, if not most, would agree that Christian triumphalism today contributes more to the world’s problems than its solutions. In a post-Christendom age, it is important to recognize that God is not confined to the church and that we have no monopoly on God’s wisdom and spirit.
An important aspect of the globalization of mission today is that immigration traditionally, though nominally, Christian has made Western countries like the U.S. and Canada significantly more pluralistic religiously. Moreover, more than half the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia, Latin and Caribbean America, or the Pacific. If present trends continue, the figure could be two-thirds within the present century.
This contextual change has important implications for theological education. We tend to assume that the forms of Christian theology as shaped by the interaction of biblical faith with Greek philosophy and Roman law are normative. But in the coming century we can expect an accelerated process of new theological development arising from Christian interaction with other ancient cultures—and we should not exclude the culture of our own North American First Nations.
This transition from Western dominance is not new except for its rapidity. If it was ever justifiable to ignore religious diversity in theological education, that time is past. Moreover, addressing religious diversity from a primarily negative perspective in the theological curriculum miseducates students for ministry in contemporary society and a globalized culture.
Adding courses in other traditions to an already crowded curriculum won’t meet the challenge. More fundamental is the need to create an ethos throughout the whole curriculum that makes students aware of the importance of religious diversity and teaches them to relate to that diversity in a dialogical way. If a dialogical ethos is nurtured, students may be motivated to understand and appreciate the faith traditions of their neighbors.
There are dangers of syncretism. Dialogical theology should not be syncretistic, but it need not be adversarial. Introducing concepts from other traditions into theological reflection, at the very least, may stimulate deeper reflection on the Judeo-Christian tradition. But ideas from other traditions should not be treated automatically as alternatives to Christian belief; they have been used to express Christian truths from the first encounter with the Greeks.
I am indebted to Dr. Lamin Sanneh for a particular insight, in this regard, that sheds light on the relationship of mission to cultural imperialism. I met him at a World Council of Churches consultation held at Chiang-Mai, Thailand, to examine the theological basis of interfaith dialogue; it followed the Nairobi Assembly in 1975 where the issue of syncretism was raised to declare such dialogue incompatible with mission.
At Chiang-Mai, a consensus emerged that translation of the gospel into indigenous languages was key to our understanding of the issue, for inevitably concepts from the local language and culture informed by the dominant religion are used to convey Christian meanings. A prevalent view of Christian missions both in Western circles and among some third-world nationalists who have struggled to overcome foreign domination is that missions are inevitably an anti-indigenous cultural manifestation of Western dominance and are motivated by the desire to impose the cultural values of the West coupled with the desire to legitimate commercial and military expansion.
Sanneh (originally from a Muslim background and now on the faculty of the World Religions Center at Harvard) argued that other dynamics are at work, though often unrecognized. These dynamics he links to the role that translation has played in mission and which he regards as its indispensable basis. To convey their message, missionaries should learn the language, the idioms, the values, and mores of the culture into which they move so that the message can be clearly understood in the vernacular of the people.
Sanneh has documented what cultural historians and comparative religionists have long known but not fully appreciated, that attempts at conversion by preaching and teaching from the text requires translating the text into the meaning systems already present in the context. As one example, Sanneh cites the 1859 translation of the Bible in Xhosa, one of the languages of South Africa. One of the early missionaries asked the Xhosa, “What do you say about the creation of all things.” They replied, “We call him who made all things ‘uTikxo.’” He asked where uTikxo was, and the group replied, “Usezulwini—he is in heaven.” So the God who is preached in Xhosa by Christians to this day is uTikxo, and he is, in part, what the Xhosa have always known about uTikxo. A great hymn sung by the Xhosa begins:
Thou are the great God—the God who is in heaven.
It is Thou, Thou shield of Truth.
It is Thou, Thou Tower of Truth.
It is Thou, Thou Bush of Truth.
It is Thou, Thou who sittest in the highest.
The hymn concludes these days with explicit Christian references, but the Xhosa sang these opening words long before the gospel came to them.
The process of translation freed African Christianity from exclusively Western expression but entailed a theological transformation that was unexpected, namely, the implication that reliable knowledge of the one true God was present before the Christians arrived. Thus the highest truth of the imported text could be articulated in terms already at hand without betrayal of the truth of the message. Indigenous concepts of God were connected to the God of peoples and times beyond the range of the known world, with a new vision of God in terms of universal truth, justice and peace rather than a limited tribal deity.
Our case study indicates that this process is not infallible. In spite of the sorry example of the residential schools, however, the larger story of Christian missions among Canadian First Nations could be used to support Sanneh’s thesis. I would argue further that one major reason for the failure of Christendom’s original efforts at globalization was the lack of respect for the religious and cultural diversity of the “mission field” until well into the twentieth century. Another reason was the failure to recognize that, if the mission of the church is seen as “from the west to the rest,” it is a tribal mission, rather than an authentic mission of God.
While there are exceptions, my experience with third-world nations and churches is that, rightly or wrongly, the Christian church is still often perceived to be closely linked with the economic and military might of the West, and not least that of the world’s only superpower. Theologians have a responsibility to help the churches dissociate themselves from any tendency to identify imperial political structures with imperial forms of the Christian faith and to contribute to a sense of critical distance from the seat of power. Or to put it more positively, to repudiate the affirmation of empire in favor of the constructive theological task of relating the gospel to oikumene, the whole earth, all its people with respect for their diversity, and all its creatures. This should be high on the agenda of globalization of theological education.