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Missionaries and Neo-Missionaries

01.17.2006 | RELIGION

During his Catholic phase, Graham Greene observed, "A great deal of nonsense has been written about missionaries. When they have not been described as the servants of imperialists or commercial exploiters, they have been regarded as sexually abnormal types who are trying to convert a simple happy pagan people to a European religion and stunt them with European repressions." These words occur in his travelogue Journey Without Maps. How accurate are they?

It would appear that some of the literature surrounding missionaries is not nonsense, as even Graham Green seemed at one time to believe. Certainly the scholarly work of Vittorio Lanternari--The Religions of the Oppressed--cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as nonsensical.

The work is a catalogue of suffering on the part of natives who have come into contact with the white person. And missionaries have been responsible for much of that misery. "When a people is unable to repel the intruders who have seized its land," says Lanternari, "as in the case of the Plains Indians in North America or the Maoris in New Zealand, almost invariably a new religious cult springs into being which inspires the natives to express opposition to foreign rule. Thus, by making a display of their religious independence, the people strive to fight the racial segregation, forced acculturation, or destruction of tribal life imposed both by missionaries and by the colonial administrators."

In Africa, the local attitude to missionaries and the society they represented was summed up in the saying: "At first we had the land and you had the Bible. Now we have the Bible and you have the land." In South Africa, after seizing their land, the white man enforced apartheid. Three words came to govern the white-native relationship: Net Vir Blankes ("for Europeans only").

The story is told of a European woman who went to a missionary centre in Durban from Natal. She met a Zulu pastor in the street and stopped to talk. She later received a letter from the pastor thanking her for treating him as a human being, because even missionaries complied with the accepted social rule.

One of the best documented of the movements that broke away from the orthodox Christianity of the missions in protest against colonization was that founded in the lower Congo by Simon Kimbangu. Kimbangu had been brought up in a Protestant mission and worked for some time as a catechist. He first became widely known as a prophet with gifts of healing in the year 1921. He upheld many of the principles of the Christian missions by requiring the destruction of fetishes and by forbidding polygamy and "obscene" dancing.

His fame and following spread rapidly, to the initial delight of the Protestant missions who regarded him as an ally. The interpretation put upon the Biblical (usually Old Testament) passages which were so central to his teaching, however, was primarily anti-European and especially anti-colonial, so that his followers were soon proclaiming him to be the God of the Black Man in contrast to the Christ of the missionaries. In keeping with the Biblical imagery, the village he came from was renamed Jerusalem; Kimbangu himself was renamed as a "saviour"; and he appointed twelve apostles to follow him.

The anti-European element in his teaching soon led him into trouble with the government authorities. He encouraged his followers to defy the government and to refuse to work for Europeans, telling them that this would force the Belgians to leave the country which in turn would bring the millennium. In the end he was arrested and deported by a government which saw no political implications in the action and he died behind bars in 1950. But, as is often the case, the martyrdom of the leader merely added to the success of the movement. Kimbangu's identification of himself with the sufferings of Moses and Jesus became more real and his successors were able to continue his call for emancipation from white domination.

It is interesting to note that it was the Roman Catholic missionaries who were responsible for the arrest of Simon Kimbangu. A later version of Kimbanguism observed: "The Roman Catholic missions are responsible for every injustice perpetrated by the colonial power against the natives." The missions would refuse to recognise the new emancipatory sects as distinct and legitimate churches and so supported their suppression. The sects were, of course, reactions to the white man's rule and the suffering of the black man, this suffering being interpreted in religious terms, usually by adopting the narratives of the Old Testament.

More recently, and closer to home, Father Timm, an American Catholic priest, has been quoted by The Economist as saying: "In a Muslim state [Bangladesh] we've managed to ensure more rural women cast their vote than men." Also he has been quoted as describing that as "a social revolution to combat the medievalism of the fundamentalists [Muslims]." (The Economist, September 15th, 2001). The question the article raised was whether such social engineering was helpful or disruptive. Clearly, it is disruptive.

When talking to the rector of a seminary, I was told that fewer people were joining the church and that one reason is that NGOs have an alternative to offer. NGOs are, in other words, secular churches. Imagine the energy of the missions channeled into NGOs and you have a picture not totally unlike that of the earlier missions--the desire to change the world given institutional form.

One major difference between the neo-missionaries and their predecessors is that the former take great care to purchase the loyalty of the elite, where the latter did not. Nevertheless, the missionary zeal of the NGOs will backfire once their values come into conflict with traditional values--just like in earlier eras. The resulting response will probably be a religious one, though the narrative of the New Testament will not be necessary where Islam is the majority religion.

The backlash came on August 15th, 2005, when around 500 bombs went off simultaneously in every district in Bangladesh bar one. The government found pamphlets that condemned, predictably enough, George Bush and Tony Blair, and also the foreign-funded NGOs in Bangladesh. In November, the first human bomb exploded in the country. The jihadi died demanding an Islamic state.

About the Author
Iftekhar Sayeed, who lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is a freelance journalist and teaches English and economics. Visit him at
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