Are Christian Missions Inherently Racist?
**John Allen Chau was an American adventure blogger and missionary who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He was killed by the people he was trying to reach on in 2018 at the age of 26. This is the third post in a series, if you haven’t read the first two yet, it may be helpful for some context. You can find them here: Part 1 and Part 2.**
“Thousands of commentators weighed in, with a near unanimous verdict. The idea that people still lived seminaked in the forest, sustained by what they could hunt with bows and spears, was enchanting. The idea that missionaries were still venturing into the jungle to convert them was outrageous and probably racist.”
The above quote, written by Alex Perry in an article for Outside Online titled, “The Last Days of John Allen Chau” highlights the outcry that followed the death of American Missionary John Allen Chau. This outrage was not just heard from the general public but also within progressive Christian communities. As information about Chau and his missionary venture was all over the news countless blog posts, podcasts, and tweets from within progressive Christian communities began making similar accusations of racism, colonial influence, and the overall unethical practices of this missionary venture.
Many of these criticisms were legitimate. It does not seem like Chau had adequate training, he risked exposing the Sentinelese to diseases like the common cold or flu that could kill a large portion of their population, he broke a number of laws put in place to protect the Sentinelese people by going to their island. The list continues on. But similar to my last post, I would like to focus in on the idea that this type of missionary endeavour is “probably racist.”
If you read my last post, you would see that I believe the use of the word “probably” in this context is appropriate. Unfortunately, when surveying the history of Christian missions globally there is a lot of racism. But, I think that the challenge is that progressive Christian circles go almost so far as to write off the work of sharing the gospel due to the church’s ugly past. In her book Native author Kaitlin B Curtice explicitly addresses the story of John Allen Chau writing, “Giving indigenous peoples the right to be lest along was trumped by one missionary who wanted to “share the love of Christ,” and in doing do, he lost his life to a people who were protecting themselves once again from the outside world.” She continues, “If Christianity is able to de-center itself enough to see that the imprint of Sacred Mystery already belongs all over the earth, to all peoples, it would change the way we treat out human and nonhuman kin.”
Curtice presents an important point about colonial and supremicist tendencies in Christian missions but then seems to wipe away the call of the great commission to make disciples of all nations and while I may be more comfortable than most with a de-centralization of Christianity, I am much less comfortable with the decentralization of Christ.
I am a huge advocate of naming the brokenness in our institutions and seeking reconciliation. I want to see racist practices and thoughts gone from missionary ventures. I feel like the voices of Curtice and other progressive christians are vitally important if we’re to move in a better direction with Christian missions but at the end of the day beyond the outcry of progressive voices I find myself sitting with one bit “but”.
But we really do want people to know Jesus.
Because of this, we cannot simply write off all Christian missionary endeavours as “outrageous and probably racist.” History is filled with many stories of when the church has gotten it totally wrong and allied itself with powers and principalities. But, there are also examples in scripture and in Christian history of missions going right. Whether it was an Ethiopian eunuch who of his own accord was trying to learn about Jesus and eventually brings the gospel home to his community as an insider, or missionaries who became strong advocates for indigenous communities that they serve, or even one of the many stories of people finding their way to Christianity through dreams and visions, the Spirit is doing a redeeming work in all of creation and we should absolutely seek to be active participants in this mission.
The mission of God is a core piece of our understanding of God and the Church. The call of the great commission to make disciples of all nations is not inherently racists and should not be stripped out of Christianity in favour of a universalistic faith that simply recognizes all individual perspectives as sacred. Instead, it should be recognized as part of a beautiful and diverse picture of the kingdom of God where people from many different places in many different ways are able to lift their voices together in worship. The goal has never been that we all chant in unison, instead, it is to be like a choir singing many different parts, each an important piece of the whole.
The big question then becomes: What does Christian decolonized Christian mission look like? And how does one go about doing it well? This is what I will discuss in the final post of this series.
**I understand that you have questions. Before passing judgement and leaving an angry comment, take a look at the rest of the series. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4. Also, if you’re looking for more resources on the topic you can find my annotated bibliography here. While it’s far from exhaustive, it should be an okay place to start.**