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The Not-So-Great Commission: A Brief Analysis of WCC's Missionary Code Plan PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Monday, 29 January 2007
By Tim Mitchell
The other day, I was looking around www.Crusadewatch.org when I found an article about a Christian group that's determined to implement a new code of conduct for missionaries. The World Council of Churches (WCC) held a meeting in Geneva in early January 2007 to discuss guidelines that will reduce aggressive evangelism that stirs conflicts in regions such as Africa and India with majority populations that are not Christian. The goal of the meeting is to develop by 2009 a code of conduct that would allow missionaries to continue to spread their faith without "discrediting" it and "antagonizing" other religions. According to the article, one of the main goals behind the code is to "reassure other religions that Christian activists are not simply out to steal their sheep."

Now, I've been reading about Christian missionary activities and their detrimental impact on indigenous religious traditions for quite some time now, and all I could think about the article was: are they serious? Isn't this almost two thousand years too late, since the entire history of Christianity involves relentless expansion, ensuring its overwhelming presence in cultures all over the world? Christianity has resorted to a wide variety of tactics against other religions to "steal their sheep" and thus guaranteeing its dominance, but it is only NOW that they're worried about angering other religions?

Missing Minorities
Upon review of the article, what is notably lacking in the description of the meeting is input from the would-be converts. Even though the meeting announced that its aim was to avoid causing violent conflicts with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, it appears that no Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim was actually present. Only Christians were involved in the meeting or, as the article puts it, a "broad spectrum of Christianity, from Roman Catholics and the WCC—which groups mainline Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox—to the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal leaders." No input from the religions that would be, could be, or have been targeted by Christian evangelicals for conversion.

What I can only conclude from this blatant omission is that the participants in the WCC effort are only troubled by areas where there are non-Christian MAJORITY populations. In other words, WCC seems not to be concerned with offending Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, but with particular regions where Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are present in large enough numbers to engage in activities such as boycotts, demonstrations, violent riots, and the passage of legislation that is prohibitive towards religious conversion. Ergo, the WCC code will more likely be sensitive to, say, Hindus in India, but Hindus in countries where Hinduism is in the minority will still be fair game.

Converting Captives
Particularly good examples of minorities targeted for conversion by a majority religion abound in the area of traditional Native American tribal faiths. Even though the American continents are home to their cultural origins and holy lands, the Native American tribes have been repeatedly subjected to Christian conversion campaigns since the arrival of Columbus, particularly through the provision of social and medical aid. During the post-Civil War era and up to around the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. government initiated various taxpayer-funded efforts with Christian missionaries to undermine tribal religious belief systems. As summarized by Lee Irwin in his essay, "Freedom, Law, and Prophecy: A Brief History of Native American Religious Resistance":

During this period Sun Dancing and other such rites were made illegal, suppressed by government Indian agents as "barbaric and uncivilized." In accordance with the Grant Peace Policy, the Board of Indian Commissioners was formed in 1869. Their first report noted that the duties of the board were "to educate the Indians in industry, the arts of civilization, and the principles of Christianity." This board was given joint control with the secretary of the interior over congressional funds appropriated for dealing with the Indian agencies. Christian missionaries of all denominations were given government support for the founding of missions on Indian reservation land on seventy-three agencies. In 1872, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Walker reported that agents from the most Protestant denominations were appointed "to assume charge of the intellectual and moral education of the Indians thus brought within the reach of their influence." During this time, Native children were forcibly shipped to Christian missionary schools where they were denied the rights to speak Native languages, to wear Native clothing, or to practice any form of Native religion. Missionary zeal specifically targeted Native religions as the bane of all civilized Christian ideology. Subsequent missionary activities caused "fractions, feuds and schisms, discredited popular leaders and imposed new ones on the Indians and in scores of ways undermined and weakened the unity of the tribes." Indian ceremonies were banned, religious practices disrupted, and sacred objects destroyed or confiscated.

Indeed, the Christian missionary schools were particularly brutal in their conversion of Indian children. Abuses committed against the children included sexual abuse, beatings with paddles, whippings with razor straps, being locked in closets for hours, and being forced to eat lye soap if they were caught speaking in their tribal language. Some of these abuses continued in the schools until the late 1980s. Amnesty International provides a comprehensive overview of the lingering impact of such abuse:

The abuse has dealt repeated blows to the traditional social structure of Indian communities. Before colonization, Native women generally enjoyed high status, according to scholars, and violence against women, children, and elders was virtually non-existent. Today, sexual abuse and violence have reached epidemic proportions in Native communities, along with alcoholism and suicide. By the end of the 1990s, the sexual assault rate among Native Americans was three-and-a-half times higher than for any other ethnic group in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Alcoholism in Native communities is currently six times higher than the national average. Researchers are just beginning to establish quantitative links between these epidemic rates and the legacy of boarding schools.

Even though apologies were issued later by some Christian groups for the abusive treatment of Native American children, holding any Christian sect accountable for its participation in abuses against indigenous communities as part of oppressive evangelization may be impossible: even though Canadian Native American tribes were xhref="http://www.christianaggression.org/item_display.php?type=NEWS&id=1133046741"  awarded $2 billion in November 2005 for 80,000 former pupils who endured abusive treatment in boarding schools similar to the ones in the U.S., the legal claims they had against Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches that ran the schools had to be dropped as part of the deal.

Sadly, the efforts of tribal conversion through Indian children continue to this very day. Even though forced removal of Indian children no longer happens, Christian evangelists have been so persistent at their conversion efforts that Christian schools have a dominant presence in tribal communities and proselytization has become commonplace. For example:

  • Saint Joseph's Indian School says on the Questions and Answers page on its Web site that it "teaches the children traditional Lakota language, culture and traditions," but it also summarizes the religious affiliations of its student body as 50% Catholic, 40% Episcopalian, and 10% from "other" religions. It also features a link to Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel, home of the "Indian Christ" painting.
  • According to the Web site of St. Labre Indian School, a Catholic school for Crow and Northern Cheyenne children, students have a chance to "not only receive a quality education" that "places great importance on Native American culture and tradition," but they "also have the opportunity to attend Mass on a weekly basis to feed the spirit as well as the mind."

In summary, while the staffs of Christian schools such as Saint Joseph's and St. Labre claim to value traditional Native American culture, they apparently feel that traditional tribal religious traditions are not appropriate to "feed the spirit" of Native American children and are thus an inferior, disposable part of their heritage. (It could be argued that by divorcing Native American customs such as traditional tribal dancing from their traditional faith roots, Christians are "secularizing" indigenous religions—which would in turn make it easier for evangelists to, in a semiotic slight-of-hand, affix Christian meanings to Native American symbols, resulting in stuff such as the "Indian Christ".) Furthermore, such schools shamelessly continue their proselytization of Indian children in the aftermath of the abuses committed by their evangelical predecessors: they proudly claim to be helping the Native American communities deal with the very same alcoholism, drug abuse and unemployment that Christianity helped to foster in the first place. WCC's meeting to establish a code of missionary conduct may be intended to allay the fears of other religions, but they'll never issue an apology for the obvious intent of the missionary schools (past and present) in indigenous communities, both in America and around the world—namely, to cripple traditional tribal faiths' ability to pass their traditions onto future generations, reducing them to a minority status within their own ethnic communities and thus threatening them with extinction. If an apology were ever issued and the Christian evangelists were truly sorry about damaging other faith traditions, schools such as Saint Joseph's and St. Labre would either not exist or be vastly different in nature.

It is particularly unnerving to compare this situation—Christian schools in Native American communities that are modern holdovers from the government-funded efforts to convert the indigenous population—to the 1972 Supreme Court case Wisconsin vs. Yoder, which basically said that the Amish, an arch-conservative, agrarian, technophobic Christian sect, are allowed to disregard compulsory education laws and limit the education of their children to the eighth grade level for the sake of preserving the Amish faith. As the court record states, the Amish "sincerely believed that high school attendance was contrary to the Amish religion and way of life and that they would endanger their own salvation and that of their children." In light of this court decision and America's treatment of the Indians, it could be said that in America it is better to be an ill-educated Christian than a well-educated non-Christian, regardless of what the First Amendment says. It is also worthy of note that despite their minority status, the Amish are not targeted for conversion by ANY evangelical Christian group—Catholic, Protestant, or Mormon. How this privileged status is maintained by a minority that would be fairly easy to convert through technological bribery and educational advancement remains unknown.

Religious Diversity Congress
The method of repeatedly damaging smaller faith traditions to facilitate the expansion of a majority religion is deplorable as it is, and to see a so-called "inclusive" group such as the WCC support it (albeit indirectly) by not addressing the past and present situations of minority non-Christian indigenous cultures is hardly encouraging. One could go as far as to say that because WCC invited noted avid evangelical organizations and sects to their meeting and not the victims of evangelization efforts, the WCC is actually more worried about offending Christian evangelists, not other religions. WCC's refusal to deal with the damage inflicted on others in the past does not bode well for the prevention of damage committed in the name of Christian salvation in the future.

To contrast the WCC event, there was another event back in 2001 that actually did feature feedback from indigenous religious minorities that were violated by the Christian faith. In November 2001, the World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity was held to examine the preservation of religious diversity through aiding indigenous, non-proselytizing religious traditions that are nearing extinction so they can be passed on to future generations. Of course, many representatives attributed the weakening of their faith traditions to aggressive Christian missionary efforts:


Chief Nana Osei Yiadon from Ghana gave a fiery speech on the proselytization of Africans by Christian missionaries for a period of 500 years. Chief Nana also spoke on how this process of colonisation had destroyed native cultures, languages and religious traditions in Africa. Kaka Wera Jecupe, an indigenous native from Brazil, spoke on similar lines. Dorothy Randall Gray from the United States talked about the condition of African American populations who had been inducted into slavery and whose culture had been destroyed by missionary activity and colonisation. Lighning Bear, Akatl Ortega, and Alexandro Perez, representing North and South American indigenous traditions, also reiterated the role of missionary activity in the extinction of their respective cultures. Many individuals from India also concurred with this assessment. In this way, there was a unanimous consensus that ethnic religions and cultures are in need of protection for religious diversity to exist in the world.

In response to this event, some Christians were not amused. According to an article by the National Catholic Reporter, the Congress was "predominantly attended by Hindus and Hindu sympathizers"; an anonymous Catholic priest who was quoted in the article said, "Others were not even given a chance to talk, it was Christian bashing all the way."

Electronic Evangelism
Odder still is what the WCC meeting has pinpointed as the source of problems between evangelical Christians and other faiths. Yes, the article highlights one particular case of problematic evangelization, that evangelists in Jakarta, Indonesia tried to put Muslim children into a Christian-run home after the recent tsunami disaster. However, the meeting members chose instead to blame "fire and brimstone" sermons broadcast via satellite from America, sermons from the likes of Pat Robertson. According to Thomas Schirrmacher of the World Evangelical Alliance, "The main problem is the international, almost exclusively American media . . . They are not linked to local churches and have no idea what effect their broadcasts have."

Granted, there's anything wrong with pointing out the shortcomings of evangelical leaders such as Pat Robertson. Yet something is horribly amiss when, in trying to understand why other religions would by angry at Christian evangelists, attempts to remove helpless children from the faith community of their upbringing and place them into a Christian environment (as was the case in the Native American mission schools) are given lower priority when compared to electronic media content. Electronic media can be turned off, but children are helpless in the face of forced relocation and fit all too well into WCC's "sheep stealing" analogy.

It seems more than likely that in their fear of offending the evangelists who attended their meeting, WCC chose to blame something "safer," so to speak. Yet even this safe, disingenuous way out is not without its shortcomings:

  • For as offensive as American religious media can be, other non-American Christian groups have proven that they can be just as offensive to other religions as well. The Vatican, an institution that is firmly linked to local churches all over the world, has proven as much with the current Pope's xhref=" http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/09/16/pope.islam.0750/index.html"controversial comments about Islam last fall, as well as his dismissive remarks towards Buddhism and Hinduism.
  • According to Paul V.M. Flesher, director of the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program, Nigeria's film industry, or "Nollywood," has made an entire sub-genre of films that specialize in the derogatory portrayal of religion—the traditional African religions, that is, while at the same time praising Christianity. While American evangelical media may have an abrasive impact on other religions, WCC's avoidance of Nigeria's film industry suggests that it is acceptable for a majority religion to use the media to repeatedly slander a minority religion (or in this case, a religion that was once in the majority but then reduced to a minority by aggressive Christian proselytization). As Flesher summarizes:

One of the most popular plot lines features the clash of religions, old and new. The key characters are villains who use aspects of traditional African religions, often characterized as witchcraft or voodoo, to work their wicked ways. In the end, however, Christianity triumphs by redeeming the victims and vanquishing the evildoers, although they may be forgiven upon conversion to Christianity...(Christianity) worked to eliminate the practices and beliefs of traditional religions. This was so successful that by the 1990s, less than 10 percent of Nigerians followed traditional ways ... With traditional southern Nigerian religions dying out under the onslaught of Christianity, the theological structures in which spirit worship existed have been forgotten. The activities of communicating with spirits and using their power is now seen in a Christian perspective as witchcraft...Given the film industry's cutting-edge character in Nigeria and its popularity among younger Nigerians, these Nollywood plots help solidify Christianity's increasing hold on the populace.

(One particular detail in the WCC article focuses on the charges against Pentecostals, that "Catholics and mainline Protestants have long accused well-financed evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries of angering majority faiths in the developing world." What is astonishing about this is that the Catholics and Protestants making such accusations clearly forget that that the Pentecostal sect was created by William J. Seymour, the child of two former slaves after the Civil War. It's rather ironic: the Christian Church originally endorsed slavery as a way of converting Africans into Christianity, only to have one of the victims of the slave trade initiate an evangelical sect that other Christian sects do not like because of its aggressive conversion efforts. The mind boggles.)

The Liberal-Conservative Divide
Of course, that is not to say that the WCC itself is without its detractors within Christian circles. For example, the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) regularly criticizes the WCC and its U.S. counterpart, the National Council of Churches (NCC), believing that "the National and World Councils of churches are theologically and politically flawed." In the 1980s, the IRD accused the WCC of being anti-American in its support of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress in South Africa and its opposition to President Ronald Reagan's contra wars that destabilized governments and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Central America. More recently, the IRD accused the NCC of becoming little more than a political front for liberal political organizations such as People for the American Way (PFAW), due to the NCC's supposedly dwindling membership. So, with the presence of other prominent Christian groups such as the IRD that are hostile to the "liberal" nature of the WCC, it's highly unlikely that more conservative evangelical Christian missionary groups are going to care about WCC's code of missionary conduct, let alone adhere to it.

On the basis of all the contradictions present within WWC's missionary conduct code effort, it strikes me that WCC wants, as the cliché goes, to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to simultaneously allow missionaries to encourage conversion to Christianity while at the same time reassuring non-Christian religious majorities that they are not going to lose any followers to Christianity. Yet by deliberately excluding members of other religions—particularly minority religions that are threatened by extinction due to evanglical missionary activities—WCC misses the fact that it cannot, and should not, have it both ways. Such a refusal is evident in WCC's willingness to attribute blame to such a vague, inconclusive culprit as American media, instead of holding the evangelicals themselves accountable. As long as WCC refuses to acknowledge the impossibility of its desires and rigorously assess the crippling effect Christian proselytization has had on countless minority religions, any missionary code it devises will probably do little (if anything) to stem the tide of overzealous missionary aggression.


 
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