Foreign Missions-A Fiasco
Nancy L. Fox
Oh, blessed day! Hank, (my father-to-be) is elated. It's his twenty-sixth birthday and time to reveal his plan of
action—one for which he is highly motivated, and flawlessly prepared. Credentials include a year at Oxford and a Doctor of Divinity degree from New York's General Theological Seminary. Steeped in the Scriptures and Christian doctrine, he is, in addition, well positioned as a brother, son, and grandson of Episcopal priests. (He himself is destined to become a bishop). Further, there's that "heaven-sent" handout. He is heir to an $8 million fortune-his share of Grandfather Littell's railroad stock. What's to stop him now?
And so, on this banner day, in 1898 it is "right as rain" that he should blow out the candles on the cake and proclaim his purpose. "Dear ones," he begins, all revved up, "Good news! The Lord has called. I am to bring light to those who dwell in darkness. I must go (and here, his voice cracks) as a missionary I must go to China! Hallelujah!" Stunned silence. Then, from his parents, "Bless you, son. Go make China a better place for all mankind!" But his sisters balk. "Oh no, Hank!" wails Helen. "Waste your life on those filthy, ignorant heathens?"
"Mercy!" gasps Mary, "if you don't die of dysentery, some slant-eyed thug will slit your throat. On bended knee we beg you, Brother, don't
Weeks later, in Shanghai, Hank boarded a river boat and steamed up the Yangtze 600 miles to Hankow-a city of one million souls, each of whom, he was sure, awaited conversion to Christ. It was here in central China that, for 32 years, he preached the Gospel-he and hordes of other well-prepared missionaries.
"Well-prepared?" But was he? Were they? Yes, indeed, he was, that is, intellectually, psychologically, financially. But was that enough? In truth, what did these missionaries know of the Chinese people-their language, religions, attitudes, feelings, culture? Why were those "Christers" so sure that the Chinese, submissively, would swap their ancient sages for some strange new "Savior?" Could they prove the existence, 2000 years ago, of a "Messiah," their half-man, half-god Jewish carpenter, "born of a virgin"? Had they any clue that China might not swallow the Mary-myth-that she had conceived a child out of wedlock-not by Joseph, her fiancé, but via remote control from outer space, by some ethereal ghost, said to be "holy''?
Had it entered their minds that China might not wax ecstatic over "God's Word," that vengeful, self-contradicting, violence-laden volume, ascribed to an assortment of saints, sinners and other "taken-in" tailgaters?
I am a bonafide "Mishkid," (offspring of missionaries). All my life I've wondered: "What do the Chinese really think of us? And of our religion? Behind our backs, what did they say? Were "converts" truly converted? If not, what was their shelf-life?)
My curiosity harks back to Hankow, in the 1920s, and to our family's four enigmatic servants. Were they really "saved" or, dependent on us for rice and roof, did they fake it? There was Liao Tze Fu, the handyman. He ended up kidnapped by anti-foreign rebels, whipped, forced to march toting a "Down With the Foreign Devils" sign, then vanished from our sight. We never saw him again. And we had Liao Lai Lai, his grieving wife, our amah. Also our "ding-hao-great-chow" cook, Dah Tze Fu, and the "Popo" woman, nameless, who, on bound feet trudged "way out back" to empty our waste-pails. Loyal servants all, but "converts"? Young as I was, I had my doubts.
Seventy-five years after my time with my missionary father in China, comes enlightenment. A rare, yellowed book, dated l911, has fallen into my lap. It was written by Lin Shao-Yang, an erudite scholar, East-West expert, linguist, Bible authority, and citizen-of-the-world. He calls it: "A Chinese Appeal Concerning Foreign Missions." As you can surmise, it caused a rumpus among religious circles and was denounced for its disclosures and for condemning "illogical attitudes of the West in trying to foist Christianity on China!'
Had Father read this classic, he'd have collapsed! He would have realized how inappropriate, insensitive, and aggressive was the Christian "invasion" of China. What mattered to the missionaries, mattered not to most Chinese. And vice versa. Prepared for the ministry? That they were. But not in an Asian setting,
The Words of Dr. Lin Shao-Yang
What the Chinese thought of Christian missionaries is best told in the words of Dr. Lin Shao-Yang.
Christian Hymns: "At Sunday services, the clergy sang out with gusto. [I recall Father's tenor voice booming down the block!] But never did they sense in the congregation an undercurrent of disgust each time the word "blood" was sung.
"'Blood of the Lamb . . .' 'Sacrifice them to his Blood . . .' 'Blood from his wounded Side. . . .'" Here blood, there blood, everywhere blood blood. In a House of Worship, the Chinese found this unworthy.
Christian Art: Much Christian art, worldwide, is glorious. But some of it, foisted on China, especially by the Roman Catholics, is just plain lewd!
Loathsome, those paintings-the oozing red heart superimposed on the bosom of a jaundiced-looking Jesus! "How can we Chinese venerate a visage like that?" asked Dr. Shao-Yang.
"Take those crucifixes-the contorted, twisted torsos. Such grotesque, guilt-inducing sculptures serve only to bolster our belief that the clergy manipulate; that missionaries are woefully lacking in taste."
Church Bells: What foreigners would ever guess that their church bells provoked vexation? Says Lin ShaoYang, "We hated them. As a boy, I recall they made me shudder!" Rarely in tune, none sweet-toned, always rung too loud, too fast-that hideous jangling between the dying notes and the new ones! By contrast, we Chinese revere the rich, soothing sounds of the Buddhist gongs, "which seem to echo the beauty and harmony of nature all around."
The Sabbath: China does not need a "Lord's Day." Too confusing. On Sunday, Christians will fish, but not shoot; walk, but not dance; play dominoes, but not cards; knit, but not sew. "Shei-shei'' (thank you) but nobody regulates our "7th day!" And so the ex-convert returns to his Temple where, on any day, he can send whiffs of incense wafting upwards towards the broken nose of his ancient idol!
"Why did you quit?" asked Father of a boatman. "We miss you in church."
"My family is too large. We cannot afford not to work on Sundays."
"Never fear, young man. Just believe. The Lord will provide."
". . . and when he doesn't?"
"Well then, your faith is too weak!"
The boatman shrugs.
Christian Prayer: "As one man moaned, 'We Chinese lack guidance concerning Christian prayer.' He sees a mother praying to God for the healing of her son. The boy recovers. She is told, 'Your faith made him well. God heard you!'"
But what if she lived in a Muslim country, prayed the same prayer, got the same results from Allah? Or if she lived in southeast
Asia, prayed to Buddha, and her child was cured? Prove to us that your Christian God is the only dispenser of benefits from prayer. Or that "God" even hears your supplications.
"A canoe capsizes. Three of the four rowers drown. Gratefully, the fourth thanks God for being 'so good' to him. Does that mean God was 'bad' to the others? Or that he plays favorites?"
Christian Literature: "As with art, some Christian literature can be awe-inspiring. Some can also be 'nauseating rubbish.' Many Chinese are offended by the biblical tales of heinous crimes committed by divine command and approval. God orders Abraham to set fire to his son? Asked one child, 'While the father was tying his son to the altar, why didn't the police come and arrest him?' Others are offended by God's heartless punishments, (Psalm 109), his orders to kill, his sanctioning of slavery, polygamy and, in countless passages, the demeaning of women.
"Brags the British Bible Society; 'In 1907 we distributed 1,212,407 Bibles in China.' Perhaps they were unaware that those (that were read) were often seen as fairy-tales full of historical errors, crude philosophy, bad morals. 'Why would a civilized God daub his altars with the blood of oxen, lambs and doves? Or make his priests butchers? Or delight in the smell of burning flesh?"
"There was widespread outrage at a suggestion that the Bible be the basis for the moral education of our young Chinese Emperor. We are also puzzled by such biblical bosh as the Resurrection, Immaculate Conception, Satan stories and miracles, noting that Westerners swallow them whole. Why do they bring us so much that is ugly, untrue and violent? Why don't they scrap those silly sayings like: 'Let me to thy bosom fly?'"
Damnation and the Devil: "A Swedish missionary was tried for heresy when he stated: 'Among my religious convictions there is no place for a devil.' Small wonder, since Christians everywhere fear Satan, fear sizzling in hell's fire. Deplorable, the doctrine of damnation for the unbaptized! As one story goes, an unchristened baby dies. Left to wander aimlessly for eons in interstellar spaces, he winds up at Heaven's portal. But God slams the door on him. (Here ends the story-but for the intervention of a sympathetic soul who dreamed up a more fitting finale.) Said he, 'After witnessing God's cruelty, St. Peter unlocked the gate and let the baby in, won over by the irresistible smile of the child!'"
Revivals: "China is no place for revivals. We're repulsed by those raucous outbursts-the remorse, sobs, tearing of hair, the fainting. Soon after the
phony confession is made, the "saved" behave no better than before! We dislike the overblown focus on sin. Said one penitent: 'Before the revival, I thought I was a fairly decent fellow. Now I know I'm the worst of sinners!'"
"Why are we taught that we're 'made in God's image,' then told we must harbor an infinite sense of wickedness? Confused by this, some converts overdo their display of remorse-they augment their own confession by confessing the sins of their neighbors!"
"Revivals are known to result in a state of nervous instability. Sad when Chinese children, by imitating their elders, fall to the floor, go home and refuse, for long periods to eat and sleep. Cried one father: 'Enough! We must save our children from these religious fanatics!'"
The Missionary Legacy
The preceding examples of how the missionaries misjudged, and underestimated the Chinese only touch the surface. Sad for them and bad for the Chinese that this "salvation stampede" lasted so long! (1850-1950)-100 years of intense proselytizing by aliens unable and unwilling to consider the differences in East-West cultures. Foreign missions a fiasco? Let the Chinese decide!
Perhaps now the reader wonders what happened to Hank, my father? Well, he never did "die of dysentery," as predicted by sister Helen. And his "throat was not slit by a slant-eyed thug." But he did survive many a serious death threat, including the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901). Finally, at 94, he joined that "'Innumerable caravan" and "lay down to rest," always clinging to the "noble cause of Christian missions." Not even the Mao Tze Tung takeover jarred his faith. When asked, in retirement, "Do you grieve that your life's work was all in vain?" his cheery reply: "Heavens No! Our cause may have quieted down, but Christ will emerge victorious! We've planted the seeds. One day China will officially be declared a 'Christian nation.'" Like a balloon under water, he could not be held down. That was the missionary spirit for you!
Some final thoughts. The Chinese were often provoked by the patronizing approach. Take the grateful mother whose son was spared death by a doctor. But when that physician donned a different hat-that of evangelist-saying; "Your soul is in jeopardy if you don't accept Jesus," that's when resentment flared. Neither this "strings-attached" thrust was well taken, nor was the idea that everything good was Christian, all else, unthinkable!
Foreign education, medicine, sanitation, industry in China? A boon! But not foreign religion?
Dr. Lin Shao-Yang, with broad strokes, concluded his book:
"If you of the West have much to teach us, there is also much that we can teach you, if you will learn from China.
"For beyond the farthest shores of all wisdom of Europe and Asia, there stretch the waters of an unexplored ocean, in which islands of beauty and wonder await discovery, by the explorers of both East and West."