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Living in a Missionary world PDF  | Print |  E-mail
Friday, 23 March 2007
By Tim Mitchell
Several years ago, my wife and I visited the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida. As we were walking into the main gates, we were greeted by an unusual sight:
Image Image

It struck me odd to see a religious icon (albeit small) mounted over the entrance of a secular theme park. It turned out that both Disneyworld and Universal Studios hold weekend Christian rock concerts annually at their parks during the month of September. (Yes, that's right: two consecutive evenings of Christian entertainment held annually during the same weekend in the month of September at two of America's most popular secular theme parks.) Universal holds "Rock the Universe" (when we were there, the "Rock the Universe" ads mentioned connections to the evangelical Liberty University), while Disney has their "Night of Joy". The concerts include both Christian bands and Christian evangelical speakers, so these are more than just musical events. To this day, the Christian cross is still part of the "Rock the Universe" logo.

In all fairness, the management leaders of these parks have the right to rent out their facilities to whomever they want. However, the marketing of "Rock the Universe" was another matter entirely, which was rather insistent when we were at Universal Studios. In addition to the round sign in the arch of the park entrance that features the cross-embedded "Rock the Universe" logo, flyers for "Rock the Universe" that openly advertised this event as being Christian were handed out with each ticket purchase at the park's Universal Cineplex movie theater. In summary, Universal was requiring visitors of all backgrounds and beliefs to walk under a Christian symbol just to enter their nationally recognized secular park, no matter how unintentional this requirement might have been, as well as handing out flyers of a sectarian event at a place of otherwise secular business. To put things into perspective, just imagine how Christian evangelists would react if Universal Studios hung a Wiccan, Islamic, Druidic or atheist symbol over their park entrance or handed out similarly themed flyers at their movie theater to everyone who buys a ticket.

Events like "Rock the Universe" and "Night of Joy" could've been held down the road at the Holy Land Experience, the tax-exempt Christian theme park founded by Rev. Marvin J. Rosenthal, since these are Christian events and that's logically where Christians would be. But as with most Christian evangelism, the goal is to 'share the good news' of their religion in settings where non-Christians are likely to be found. Never mind the fact that America is overwhelmingly Christian in its religious demographics, or that Florida itself is located in the so-called Bible Belt, or that the techniques that they were using to promote their events (radio spots, flyers, billboards, etc.) were almost identical to techniques used to promote secular events. When I called the Universal Studios park's main office to inquire about why a religious icon was hanging from their entrance, the reaction I got was akin to someone talking about a billboard for Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart: the sponsors of "Rock the Universe" were merely paying for advertising space to promote their wares, and they got it. (In fact, one secretary I spoke to couldn't understand why I was concerned over "just some form of music.") The Christian cross in this context was just another brand logo, and the implications of religious favoritism didn't exist at all in the minds of the people to whom I was speaking.

The Immaculate Misconception
Incidents such as this remind me of how often in America we are encouraged to view the ever-growing expansion of Christianity as something inevitable, as if it were an irresistible force of nature that cannot be denied. Christianity has become so dominant in the West that it is the de facto source of information about religion in general, be it for discussions on faith, religious freedom, or the nature of divinity. The notion that the world is rich in diverse religious traditions, both large and small, polytheistic and monotheistic, simply doesn't exist in this reality. When I took classes in American and world history in both high school and college, the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion across the various countries of Europe and elsewhere was usually summarized as "Christianity spread across X" or "A brought Christianity to B," with no details provided as to which religions were wiped off the Earth in the process. Imagine: generations of brutal religious conflict and conquest dismissed as an afterthought in five words or less. As long as Christianity was the victor, all was right in the world and advancement from superstition to reason, from barbarism to civility, was ensured. In fact, when I was first exposed to Greek mythology in high school, the ancient Greek pantheon of gods and their related mythologies were taught by my teacher (who was Catholic) as nothing more than colorful, creative stories about fictitious, fantastic beings from some foreign, bygone era, not elements of religious belief and practice. I'm sure there would've been hell to pay if the Christian Bible were taught in a similar fashion.

Another thing I have noticed over the years about Christian discourse is that the terms "Christianity" and "religion" are often used interchangeably. Yes, Christianity is a SPECIFIC religion, not ALL of religion; however, by treating the terms "Christianity" and "religion" as synonyms, it gives the impression that Christianity can speak on behalf of and has authority over all forms of religion and religious expression. Pay careful attention and you'll notice that Christians have a habit of doing this word switching all too frequently. They do it reflexively, without thinking for a second about the underlying cultural implications—namely, that commentary on religion and religious issues that comes from anyone or anything outside of the Christian faith is of lesser value or of no value at all. Come to think of it, I cannot begin to name all of the times I have heard the question asked, either in interpersonal discussion or as some part of survey on religion, "Do you believe in God?", as if that question alone was enough to adequately summarize someone's faith.

Hawaiian Punched
The mainstream American media are no better. They too use the terms "Christianity" and "religion" interchangeably, particularly when writing about religion as a broad social, political, or economic issue. When writing about lands deemed sacred by the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they are referred to as the "Holy Land"—with capital letters and in the singular, implying that there no other holy lands exist in the world. Articles that profile missionaries mention little to nothing about the indigenous religions they are trying to replace with Christianity, let alone what kinds of intra-community conflict such action provokes and if the survival of the indigenous religions have been compromised by missionary intrusion.

Several examples regarding Hawaii come to mind when I think of the media's compliance with the Christian supremacist worldview:

  • The PBS television series American Experience featured an episode in 1997 entitled "Hawaii's Last Queen". As the title suggests, the hour focused on the life and times of Queen Lili'uokalani, Hawaii's last indigenous political leader before the fall of Hawaii's political independence. Within the first few minutes of the episode, the narrator describes the social climate of Hawaii's indigenous culture at the time of Lili'uokalani's birth in 1838, that one-third of the native population by then had converted to Christianity and that indigenous traditions such as hula dancing were banned. This conversion was encouraged by the band of Congregationalist missionaries from New England that arrived in Hawaii around 1818. According to the narrator, the families that made up the tribal ruling class were consulting with the missionaries with increasing regularity as more American ships arrived, even to the point of handing over their children to the missionaries so they could be completely indoctrinated in Western ways. But several minutes later in the episode, another crucial detail is mentioned out of chronological sequence: as the result of the diseases native Hawaiians contracted from Americans after their first contact in 1778, the native population of approximately 800,000 shrank by 80 percent over the next 50 years. The episode doesn't mention other exact numbers related to this epidemic: around 640,000 people died between 1778 and 1828, the resulting native population was approximately 160,000, and an average of 12,800 people would have had to die each year to reach that number. By keeping this event out of sequence, the episode avoids having to mention the fact that the missionaries exploited the fear produced by this Hawaiian version of The Black Plague to convince the natives to denounce their culture and ancestral religious beliefs and practices as a way of escaping death. This leaves the viewer to assume that Hawaiian natives were not coerced in any way when they converted to Christianity.
  • In 2003, the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ voted on a package that would give $3.5 million in grants as part of a redress for the church's participation in the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. Even though this was part of an apology designed to seek "reconciliation" with the Hawaiian natives, only $1 million was intended to go to the Pu'a Foundation, which was formed to promote native rights. Of the remaining grant money, $1.5 million was to be given to 60 Hawaiian Christian churches, and $1 million was to go to the Association of Hawaii Evangelical Churches, which has a membership that includes the aforementioned 60 churches, to support theological education. The fact that this apology was obviously not intended to redress multigenerational Christian efforts to put an end to Hawaiian indigenous religious traditions is not mentioned in the article.
  • In July 2004, Associated Press reporter Alexandre Da Silva wrote an article about modern-day Hawaiian lava sledding, a sport based upon the 2,000 year-old tradition of he'e holua. According to the article, "he'e holua served both as a sport and as a vehicle for native Hawaiians to honor their gods, especially Pele, the goddess of fire." However, the missionaries who brought Christianity to Hawaii thought the sport was "a frivolous waste of time" and its practice was ended in 1825. The article does not say what kind of authority the missionaries used to put an end to the sport, or how the Hawaiian natives were persuaded to end such an ancient tradition of skill, virility, and spiritual devotion.

It is as if Christ's Great Commission—his command to his followers to spread the faith in him to all corners of the world—has permeated every aspect of Western thinking, no matter how secular some say it has become. Mind you, this does not make very citizen of the Western world (let alone every Christian) a dedicated evangelist, but it does encourage an atmosphere of acceptance (or at least indifference) when it comes to Christian evangelism activity, regardless of what that activity may be, where and when it takes place, and to whom it is done. Furthermore, such deliberate exclusion of non-Christian, non-monotheistic faiths indirectly suggests that when any culture is given the choice of either following Jesus Christ or following the non-Christian faith of its ancestors, it will always choose Christ. In other words, the suggestion is that everyone innately WANTS to be a Christian, even if he or she is not consciously aware of such desire, or that everyone is ultimately destined to become a Christian. Then again, this belief must be maintained to accept Christianity's assertion that it is "universal" for the entire human race. While this doesn't explain the ongoing existence of other religions such as Judaism or Hinduism and overlooks situations of indigenous resistance to encroaching Christian interests, such an assumption is necessary to accept the pro-Christian view of world history. In this history, there is only one true, monotheistic religion that is the pinnacle of morality and progress, and all other religions are nothing but exercises in empty superstition, chronic ignorance, questionable sanity, and/or remorseless evil. This kind of interpretation of history runs parallel to Christian Creationism itself, as if all of human history revolves around the Christian Bible's view of history.

With such blatant favoritism in place, few Americans seriously recognize the contradiction between our own First Amendment and a national motto that says "In God We Trust", the nationalization of Christian holidays such as Christmas, or the insertion of "under God" into the national Pledge of Allegiance. When atheist litigant Michael Newdow appeared before the Supreme Court in 2004 in his case against the words "under God" in the Pledge, Justice Stephen Breyer unflinchingly argued that the word "God" in this context is "meant to include virtually everybody". This means that America has justices on the bench of its highest court—the court that has absolute authority over the enforcement of the First Amendment—who are oblivious to the fact that such words in the American national pledge suggests that America's government endorses religions that believe in a monotheistic universe, particularly a monotheistic universe ruled by a deity named God. Such words in turn exclude those of polytheistic, agnostic and atheistic affiliation, no matter how legal authorities try to contort the meaning of the word "God" so it doesn't contradict America's questionable claim of religious diversity and freedom.

Sometimes, Christianity's insistence as the sole authority of all things religious has led to some bizarre views of the world. For example, the series Morning Edition on National Public Radio (NPR) did a run of articles in 2005 that examined how different communities around the world celebrated the Christian holiday of Easter. One article profiled the Tarahumara Indians (who refer to themselves as the Raramuri) in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The article begins by emphasizing that "the Tarahumara Indians observe Holy Week unlike any other Christians on the globe", and then goes on to describe the details of the holiday celebration that involves large amounts of beer consumption:

For the Tarahumara, the astringent, homemade corn beer is a sacred social lubricant—and during Easter week, or "semana santa," the entire town of Norogachi turns into a giant brewpub. Corn kernels are soaked, ground up, boiled and spiked with a local grass to help the mixture ferment. ... For them, beer is an elixir for healing, a barter item and a divine beverage. "God taught the Raramuri how to make corn beer," says Guadalupe Espino Palma, the traditional governor of the Norogachi district. ... Even getting drunk is a spiritual act, he explains. … The Raramuri also believe they are God's chosen people, and that their mountain home is the center of the world.

Now, I was raised in the Christian faith and have celebrated Easter annually for many years. Beer was never part of the Easter holiday traditions, getting drunk was never considered an act of worship, and none of the Bible lessons ever included the Christian god teaching people how to make beer. The Bible also doesn't mention the words "Tarahumara" and "Raramuri", and it doesn't mention ANY mountain as being the center of the world (let alone a mountain that's part of a continent that the people in Biblical times didn't even know existed). Nevertheless, the Morning Edition writers insisted on referring to this unique cultural celebration as "Easter" and the Tarahumara Indians as "Christians" anyway.

Identity Crisis
I write about this skewed perspective of the world and spirituality because in some ways, I'm just as affected by it as the modern day non-Christian cultures that are targeted for conversion by missionaries. My ancestors are from Ireland but because I was raised in a Christian home, I know more about pre-Christian Jews than I do about the pre-Christian culture of Ireland. (Of course, the average Christian's knowledge of key figures in Jewish history stops when Christ arrives, putting an even grimmer spin on the anti-Semitic notion of "the only good Jew is a dead Jew.") Moreover, the people who taught me about the pre-Christian Jews weren't even Jewish, and they did it in the name of a religion that isn't Judaism. I've read repeatedly about missionaries who "saved" the so-called savages of the Americas and Africa. Yet it's plain from my analysis of Christian thinking that my own ancestors were at one time considered to be savages too, supposedly in need of Christian salvation. Not only don't I know who these people were, but they also didn't merit remembrance in the places where I was raised or from the people I knew there who were also of Irish ancestry. I suppose it could be argued that people like me are the model for what Christian evangelists hope to see in other ethnic groups all over the world: people who can only measure their knowledge of religion by what they are taught about and/or what they have personally experienced in Christianity, not by what their pre-Christian ancestors actually believed or practiced.

St. Patrick's Day was celebrated a few days ago. St. Patrick's Day is a holiday to celebrate Irish/Celtic heritage and culture, but it's named after the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland. Let me rephrase that: it's a holiday to celebrate a particular culture (a culture that, I'm assuming, is different from other cultures), but it is named after the man who brought a religion that is not INDIGENOUS to that culture. You can read any translation of the Bible from cover to cover and you won't see a single reference to anything that could be considered Irish/Celtic; I'm sure none of the people depicted or referenced in the Bible could have even told you what a "Celt" is. Nevertheless, the holiday used to celebrate Irish culture is named after a Christian missionary figure. Even the Irish national flag is steeped in Christian meaning, with the green representing the Catholics, the orange representing the Protestants, and the white representing peace between the two. (Of course, that takes just pushes my point even further: not only does the Irish culture holiday bear the name of a Christian missionary, but EVEN THEIR NATIONAL FLAG is symbolic of a conflict within a religion that didn't even originate in Ireland.) There are St. Patrick's Day masses at Catholic Churches to further re-affirm the relationship between Christianity and the Irish ethnic identity.

Entire fields of theological study have been devoted to the Irish culture's interpretations of and contributions to the Christian religion. On the other hand, pagan reconstructionists who aim to revive the pre-Christian religion practices of Ireland are left with few resources from which to work, since most of them (spiritual teachings, sacred sites and holy artifacts) were either destroyed or seized by Christianity, thus leaving their efforts in a perpetual state of questionable authenticity. According to the legend, St. Patrick drove the "snakes" out of Ireland. The snakes are supposed to represent the pagan elements of Ireland, the very elements that the pagan reconstructions are trying to recover. By granting such authority to St. Patrick as a defining element of Irish heritage, we're left to think that whatever he banished from Ireland by using Christian evangelism is best forgotten and that in turn the modern pagan reconstructionist effort is wrong. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Ireland and its native culture didn't legitimately exist until Christianity arrived to claim them as its own. Will other cultures that are currently being evangelized view themselves in a similar manner a few hundred years from now?

The Christian Left Behind
There are liberal and progressive Christian groups in America (otherwise known as the Christian Left) that are actively working against conservative Christians (otherwise known as the Christian Right) to preserve religious freedom and diversity in our country. Groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and The Interfaith Alliance are two of the more notable examples; even though they are not explicitly labeled as Christian groups, their leaders (Barry W. Lynn and Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, respectively) are ordained members of the Christian clergy. I've read articles and books from a wide variety of authors who express in their writing horror and bewilderment over the Christian Right's rise to prominence in America's political landscape. (Chris Hedges' American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America and Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism come to mind.) They argue that this should not happen—that evangelical Christianity historically shunned government involvement or that Jesus himself would abhor such politicization of his teachings, thus making modern conservative American evangelists aberrations of the Christian tradition.

However, for as much as Christians Left say they celebrate religious diversity and freedom, I'm convinced that they fail to comprehend what their religion's historical devotion to Christ's Great Commission has set into motion. I often find myself shaking my head in a mixture frustration and sadness as I read works from the Christian Left, for they repeatedly ignore Christianity's chronic seizure of political power throughout the centuries at the expense of others, be it other religions or other Christians, even to the point of possessing the collective soul of entire ethnic groups. Yes, the Christian Right are sending out wave after wave of missionaries to communities all over the world, but Christianity as a whole has been doing this for centuries. Countless organizations are determined to reach every single ethnic population in the world, complete with Bible translations for almost every known language and meticulous population analysis efforts such as the Joshua Project to determine who has yet to be evangelized. This agenda of expansion endorsed by the Great Commission has nurtured an entire brood of ideological progeny, including the Manifest Destiny and the Catholic Church's Doctrine of Discovery, that likewise support Christianity's unrelenting, never-ending growth by whatever means necessary. By choosing to ignore how other religions, both past and present, have been victimized by Christian evangelism, secular and liberal Christian groups and authors in America can only panic helplessly over how their domestic religious freedoms could be jeopardized by overzealous conservative evangelists—never mind what American-funded overzealous conservative evangelists do to the religions and religious freedoms of others overseas.

While Christian evangelists seek to create a Christian world, the Christian Left are convinced that the First Amendment—a legal statement that consists of only 45 words—will prevent the United States from becoming a Christian government. It is as if they believe that the First Amendment somehow curbed Christianity's antagonistic nature, taming it in a manner that would allow it to peacefully coexist with whatever other religious groups that choose to claim America as a home as well. Yet given Christianity's ongoing conflicts within itself and with others, it would appear that all the colonization of the Americas accomplished is to move Christianity's faults and weaknesses to new locations. Additionally, when a religion such as Christianity relies so much upon aggressive evangelism to expand its social, political and economic power around the world, then it only stands to reason that the future of such a faith lies in the hands of the most aggressive, most influential, and most prosperous evangelists. The Christian Left may deny this, but what other outcome can be expected in an international social landscape that has already been so thoroughly acculturated to accept the dominance of the Christian religion as legitimate and inevitable?

The Christian Left fears the rise of the Christian Right and its establishment of a government-endorsed Christian nation in the United States, as they should. Yet when we celebrate a holiday where an entire ethnic group is recognized under the name of a Christian missionary—St. Patrick, a missionary who led Ireland into becoming a nation governed by Christianity—the rise of Christian supremacy is exactly what we are celebrating. Events such as St. Patrick's Day show that we Americans are all too content to let Christianity re-define ethnic identities and decide the fate of indigenous non-Christian religions. The issue is not how the First Amendment can be enforced fairly to the benefit of all religions (regardless of size, place of origin, or number of gods worshipped) within such a cultural environment, because it simply cannot. The First Amendment has failed, and it will continue to fail as long as the Christian Left refuses to face the unjust, intolerant legacy of their faith.

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