Sunday, February 6, 2011



It is no accident that the world's
two largest and most widespread religions
include a missionary imperative.
Unlike faithful Hindus, Jews, Taoists,
and practitioners of Shinto, Christians and
Muslims are expected to carry the Good News
and the Islamic call to faith, respectively,
to the far corners of the world. Although they
disagree on the precise nature of God's revelation
and the paths to the ultimate goal, adherents in
both traditions agree that their faith incorporates
a missionary mandate. Far too often in both
traditions, however, a narrow understanding of
mission has combined with cultural imperialism
and military power in ways that destroyed any
witness to God's love and mercy.
.Examples of missionary-related abuses abound.
The history of the spread of Christianity and Islam
in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas (for
Christianity) is a checkered one at best.
Pick a continent and study the behavior of
those who came in the name of these religions.
Raw power and conquest sometimes dominated
the process. Conversion by force is often inter-
twined with moving stories of people whose faith
and courage changed them and their communities
in many positive ways. Certain missionaries made
life-changing contributions, making possible
greater opportunities in health care, education,
and the economy, but celebrating the positive
doesn't tell the whole story. When missionary
zeal is informed by absolute truth claims
defining who is "saved" and what is acceptable,
the propagation of religion frequently
includes sinister dimensions.
The California missions system (1769-1834)
as founded and developed by Father Juipero
Serra exemplifies the problem. Serra's piety,
courage, and commitment to evangelize
Native Americans have been affirmed by
his critics as well as by those who advocated
for his beatification in 1988 (a formal step
toward canonization as a saint in the Roman
Catholic tradition). A professor of theology,
Serra left Spain for the mission field of the
new world in 1749. By the time of his death
in 1782, he had walked some twenty-four
thousand miles through Mexico and California
and established twenty-one Franciscan missions.
However noble his intentions, his methods and
close cooperation with Spanish government
and military officials were cruelly devastating
to the indigenous people. The mission was,
in fact, part of a larger strategy of colonization
and conquest. Serra and his fellow missionaries
traveled to new territory with Spanish military
contingents and apparently understood
themselves as agents of both God
and the civil government.

Serra and others like him viewed the
native population as savage heathens
who had to be disciplined as children.
Their version of discipline would warrant
state intervention and charges of child
abuse in California today. The Franciscans
were convinced that cultural conversion was
a prerequisite to conversion to Christianity.
With righteous determination, "they went
about the task of dismantling what they
regarded as backward traditional lifeways,
social structures, mores, and values of
Indian peoples." Missionaries destroyed
towns, separated families, instituted slavery
and economic exploitation, applied religious
coercion ruthlessly, and carried out various
types of corporal punishment.
 George Tinker, a Native American seminary
 professor and pastor to Lutherans and Episcopalians
 in Denver, closely examines Serra and three
other highly respected historical missionary
leaders and concludes that they were naive
and possibly unwitting partners in genocide.
Without question, the California mission is
part of a larger pattern beginning with the
subjugation of Aztecs and other native peoples
in Mexico. Franciscans, Augustinians, and
Dominicans carried the enterprise north
into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and
The uncritical mixing of religious, political,
military, and economic realms in the missionary
conquests of the Southwest offends contemporary
sensitivities and contradicts the cherished
principle of the separation of church and
state. It is far closer to the military, political,
and religious expansion of Islam in the seventh
and eighth centuries. These and missionary
movements in Asia and Africa reflect another
era and outdated worldviews. In different
ways at different times, Christian and Muslim
missions rested on absolute truth claims -
stated or assumed - that theirs was a superior
culture and religion. In fairness to early
Islamic expansion - across North Africa and
into Spain, through the Fertile Crescent and
across Mesopotamia and Persia into India -
there is little evidence of widespread conversion
at the point of a sword.
by Charles Kimball


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