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Missionary Ethics?

by Valery Countryman

Christianity has misled people by hypocritical teachings and false writings for centuries. Its history is an unhappy one characterized by disunity, distrust and conflicting philosophical messages. Christian missionaries sought conversions in accordance with the laws of their "revealed" religion. They began ministerial efforts in Africa when the trade route by sea around the Cape of Good Hope was discovered in the 15th century. They felt driven by their god to thoroughly displace African concepts with Christianity and to rehabilitate native traditions into more acceptable (to them) viewpoints of Eurocentric Christianity.

To Christendom's mindset, African culture had little or no significance. One reason for this misperception was that only a handful of more than 800 languages were written ones before missionaries arrived. Christian zealots perceived this as an indication of ignorance. They developed means of writing these languages in order to provide religious textbooks (bibles). These tomes were utilized as primary tools for education and indoctrination into Christian thinking and belief. Some translations of biblical passages had already been produced. In Egypt, the book of Psalms had been scripted in a Coptic dialect as early as the fourth century. Christian efforts didn't result in printing of a complete missionary bible until the 1700's. Today, these mixtures of tales and legends are translated into over 100 African languages with selected chapters available in 400 others.

In 1867, cleric Charles Lavigerie came to Africa as the newly appointed archbishop of Algeria. He believed that "God has chosen France to make Algeria a great and Christian nation." He sent his emissaries out with the goal of uniting northern and central Africa to Catholicism. Meanwhile, Protestants were working in other areas of the continent, spreading word of their particular ideologies. Lavigerie's hope and dream of a Christian nation failed. Today almost 99% of Algerians are Muslim.

Missionaries of the various Christian denominations were not united in their views. Even before leaving Britain many heated doctrinal disputes occurred at the Missionary Society headquarters. Each group appeared to have its own conception of what the message should be, with conflict increasing after settling into mission stations. The bitter arguments were often detrimental to specific evangelical objectives. The clergy seemed to spend as much time and energy quarreling with each other as they did in seeking to accomplish conversions. The result was often formation of rival missions, as both Catholics and Protestants fiercely competed in the name of God. Eventually several million of Christianity's converts left the mission churches, but having been indoctrinated, they merely formed denominational churches of their own.

Competition among missionaries was not the only cause of this "Black Reformation." There was also strong resentment against "White superiority." Believing that Christian religious belief was the same as European culture and leadership was evidence enough of an attitude of superiority. Few missionaries made earnest efforts to learn any of the local dialects, but expected indigenous populations to speak European languages.

A few clerics who did acquire a working knowledge did so merely as a means of translating scripture. Communication was limited unless the African submitted to the language norms of the missionary. The lack of literacy on the part of the clergy was to Africans a manifestation of the missionaries' attitude of racism.

During these times of proselytization, no provision for state/church separation existed. In 1828, one British clergyman boasted, "Whenever the missionary places his standards among the savage tribes, their dependence on the Colony is increased and every convert becomes the friend of Government." No wonder European officials saw missionaries as useful and necessary tools for a colonial expansion. Missionaries welcomed conquest, believing it was impossible to separate the aims of religion from those of government. These aims were power, influence and control over others in the name of a higher authority. The Portuguese came to Mozambique with the full blessing of the Catholic church. The country was then plundered of its treasures (ivory, gold and human beings) during 470 years of Christian and colonial rule. Some efforts to assert control relied on military might. In religious terms, army and navy forces were used to "accomplish God's purpose," each Christian sect finding justification in denominational doctrine.

Coastal towns were sometimes demolished by British gunships if villagers refused to accept clerical leadership. After establishing themselves, it was a common practice for missionaries to usurp power from native authorities. Once established, missionaries used other types of force, including coercion and physical brutality, to maintain theocratic laws. The favorites instrument by which disapproval was expressed was the cikoti, a long whip of hippopotamus hide. Anglican preachers frequently descended from the pulpit during services to whip latecomers. This had the effect of instilling messages of fear rather than the message of "God's love" that was supposedly being offered. After being persistently and vehemently told that fighting was pointless and wicked, many Africans were encouraged to fight when World War I erupted in Europe. Converts were ordered to take sides in this European civil conflict with some clerical authorities even leading their troops into battle.

All throughout the years, missionaries condemned African culture. Misguided efforts to substitute Christianity for prevailing rituals - one being the practice of consultation of "diviners" to appease spirits of dead ancestors - at the same time promoted veneration of saints and the Virgin Mary. These Catholic teachings served to confirm the belief that dead ancestors were also alive. By venerating religious icons such as crucifixes, justification was given to the African use of amulets as a means of protection from evil spirits. It was possible for converts to participate in the worship service while carrying concealed amulets, or to go from church to diviner without feeling that a conversion had been violated. Indeed, in a cemetery near Cairo, a 490 page bible of Coptic origin was excavated from the grave of a 12 year old girl. With the book was a tiny ankh, a pagan talisman in the shape of a cross with a loop on top. This ancient Egyptian symbol of life was apparently as strong a religious totem as the Bible. Complete conversion to Christianity was not a total success for the missionaries.

One reason for partial failure of conversion was due to the many doctrinal differences between rival sects. Some potential converts were warned that their pagan forefathers were being tormented in a fiery Hell, and that the same fate would befall them if they refused to accept Christian teachings. This fundamentalist eternal torment doctrine conflicts with others. Depending on which Christian is consulted, their Bibles can be used to prove that "sinful human souls die" and "the dead are conscious of nothing at all." Some sects preached that those who died before receiving an opportunity to convert would have the prospect of being included in the coming resurrection. On judgment day, such souls will be told the conditions for salvation and if they respond appreciatively, reward will be everlasting life in an earthly paradise!

By the 18th century, efforts at conversion were becoming extremely difficult. In addition to confusing bombardment with religious messages, church involvement with slavery was a factor. The official position of Christian clergy was approval and support of participation in slave trading despite the horrendous suffering it produced. Slavery was a close companion of Christianity and was not thought to conflict with religious doctrines. For example, by 1880, a Jesuit monastery in Angola had subjugated 12,000 Africans as slave laborers. Before boarding the ships bound for Catholic countries in South America, entire families were forcibly taken to churches and baptized in batches of hundreds at a time. After having been sprinkled with the "holy water" they were told, "You are now children of God. Don't think any more about where you came from. It's the will of God." One Christian bishop, sitting at dock-side on a stone chair, bestowed his episcopal blessing on departing human cargo, giving guarantees of future happiness when "the stormy trials of life are over."

Missionaries of numerous diverse and conflicting religious persuasions continue to proselytize in Africa as well as in the United States. Their methods may be somewhat different from those of the past 500 years, but the end results are the same-subjugation of intellect to concepts of divinity. At the pinnacle of its philosophy, religion positions a god and expects humanity to live by "God's law." In efforts to clarify life's ethical code, religions have only succeeded in division and separation. Each particular sect uses its own man-made rituals, scriptures and formal theology. Cultural variations exist and divisions are frequently made along racial and socio-economic lines. Instead of building a philosophy based on humanity's relationship to fellow human beings and the world, religion stresses mankind's obligation to an unknown and unproved deity. By citing God as authority, religion can prove anything it sets out to prove. It is simply a matter of selecting proper conditions and then insisting that suppositions are divinely inspired.

While mistakes of the past cannot be undone, repeat occurrences can be prevented with faith in our earthly future and the belief that the highest goal for human endeavor is to strive for a better world for all. The manner in which we live in the here-and-now, and the kinds of relationships we have with others, are more important than an irrational spirituality. Since discovering we need no cover of sacredness over our lives, we live quite well without clerical authority and a deity.

Maybe we humanists need to become missionaries. Our perspective would certainly be more ethical than the legacy of Christianity. Missionaries of years past often spent an entire lifetime seeking to impose their creeds, doctrines or lifestyles on fellow human beings. An implementation of the philosophy of secular humanism would eliminate the superstition, bigotry and totalitarian influence of religion. As members of AAH, we try to build a world based on individual freedom and respect, combining personal liberty with social responsibility, and trying to find satisfaction in an ethical lifestyle. Can we do any less?

Valery Countryman is a member of the Rationalist Society of St. Louis.

[*] AAH Examiner Selected Articles


This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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