Listen. Don't Preach.
Updated: Sep 1
Helping others is valuable and admirable, but in order to create real change, one must participate in help that is collective and mutual.
Missionaries…… what are they?
While a number of religious groups have sent missionaries around the world, Christian missionaries remain the most wide-spread, prominent and influential of religious missionaries to date. When researching information on Christian missionaries, the description that continually re-surfaced for me, described Christian missionaries as ‘an organised effort’ to spread Christianity to ‘new converts’. Such missions involve sending groups of people or individuals into new communities (most commonly impoverished communities) for the purpose of ‘conversion’.
Within the International Development field, Christian missionaries fit within the categorisation of ‘faith-based organisations’; otherwise labelled as FBOs. One of the key players within faith-based organisations is Christian missionaries; which can also be considered as one of the first developments and formations around the idea of FBOs itself.
What I want to address within this piece, is the risk of the preservation of colonial values, processes and practises which often stem from the participation and influence of Christian missionaries. Due to Catholicism and Protestantism being the main religions of the European colonial powers; it is hard to ignore that Christianity and colonialism can be closely linked when discussing topics such as development.
Throughout history, Christian missionaries have been described as ‘saints’ who set the standard of the ideal virtue for populations of vulnerable people considered ‘uncivilised’ and ‘savage’. However, once the process of decolonisation had begun in many continents such as Africa, in the last half of the 20th century, Christian missionaries began to be viewed as ideological groups used for colonial invasion, whose own (often extreme) practices and ideologies did nothing more than blind them from their detrimental impacts.
When considering this topic for discussion, I cannot help but think of John Allen Chau and his recent death on the remote Indian island of North Sentinel. According to Chau’s diary, while he himself, did not consider himself a missionary, Chau’s aim with his encounter was to ‘declare Jesus’ to the tribespeople of North Sentinel. Shortly after making contact with the island, it is believed that John Allen Chau was hit and killed with a number of arrows from the Sentinelese tribe.
North Sentinel Island is home to the Sentinelese people who are considered to be among one of the last remote and uncontacted Indigenous tribes in the world. Past efforts to make contact with the tribe has been met with great hostility; resulting in the island’s freedom from all outside influences, including Western intervention. The death of John Allen Chau and his primary motives to visit the island have sparked significant discussion around the impact of religious missionaries and other faith-based organisations, as well as how we think about Indigenous people and their rights.
John Allen Chau had no place on North Sentinel Island. Despite good intentions, we need to consider who’s place it truly is to assume and determine the livelihoods of others; this goes the same for many other development projects. In the case of remote tribes and uncontacted people, such as the Sentinelese population, such a unique position demands the right for these people to be left alone. The legitimacy of Christian based missionaries and their values are lost when put in comparison with the risk of vulnerable people and their inherent right to self-determination.
It has been estimated that 440,000 Christian missionaries were working abroad in the year of 2018. With such high figures, it is important to re-emphasise the point that Christianity is often linked with the foundations of colonialism due to historical examples showing how the beliefs behind the religion were used to justify the actions of many colonists throughout history. As well as this, the agenda of many invaded lands were similar to the agendas behind the values of Christianity. Considering the detrimental and devastating impacts of colonial interventions throughout history, it is only rational to think that by leaving uncontacted populations and self-sustaining Indigenous communities alone, we are correcting the mistakes from our colonial past and respecting the values and ideas around self-determination. It is hard to deny that missionaries were undoubtedly apart of the front-runner for colonial invasion and exploitation. Almost all nations within Africa at some stage throughout history, have been affected by Christian missionary activities.
“The Missionary was undoubtedly the forerunner of subsequent infiltration of the colonialist who was eager to carve an empire in Africa for purposes of exploiting African resources for his own good” - Maboyi.
In considering the notion that former missions were at the heart of exploiting African Nation’s resources, religious missionaries were also set up to introduce such targeted Nations to a more Western, non-secular approach within society; which not only included teachings from the Bible, but also the conquest of individuals through treaties with the prime objective of ‘saving souls’. Reowned political philosopher Frantz Fanon, describes the influence of Christianity as becoming apart of the 'colonial project'. He describes the values and influence of such, as a form of 'pesticide'. "Just as pesticide kills parasites, Christianity kills the colonised people’s myths, their spirituality, their identity and their core being"(Fanon, 1965).
Professor Adam Faber of Dalhousie University Canada continues in suggesting that religious NGOs, particularly those of Christian missionaries are often “remnant of western colonialism and imperialism, as the primary goals of economic and political exploitation are pursued through manipulating attempts of conversion of faith.”
Through the establishment within communities and creating a powerful base of converts, there is an extremely higher potential for these bodies to influence societal institutions such as educational systems, economic systems as well as social policies. While there has been a number of examples were the accomplishments of FBOs have been fulfilling, the underlying foundational values and concepts of faith focused conversion of a particular population, cannot be ignored. Faber emphasises that these faith-based initiatives “are nothing less than subversive tactics with the intention of changing cultures and communities to subscribe to a foreign ideology, so that ulterior economic and political motives may be pursued”.
With a growing trend of faith-based organisations across a variety of faiths, Faber warns that if we continue to promote the presence of religion within NGOs, the international community will be continuing to “stoke an age-old battle of domineering dogmas”. Therefore, if humanitarian work is to work effectively, it must remain independent; otherwise, there will be pressure to influence vulnerable people within communities to convert.
Professor Michael French of the Hudson Institute suggests that through the primary focus of converting individuals within FBOs, religious morals can often get in the way of effective aid and treatment. French gave the example of Catholic organisations having the potential to eschew the distribution of condoms within a community, based on moral, religious grounds; disregarding the fact that through the use of this contraception, it would benefit the community they are serving. French introduces the notion of a ‘halo effect’ which describes the protection of FBOs actions from scrutiny as they are supposedly doing ‘God’s work’; as a result of this concept, such groups are held less accountable for the consequences of their actions.
The problem of cultural clashes also come into play when considering the issue of religious morals. It is essential when working within a community that there are shared priorities and the establishment of shared values. Faith-based organisations encounter a considerable amount of areas of difference within the communities they are interacting with; issues involve different approaches to reproductive health, gender, attitudes towards LBGTQIA+ rights, links between religion and politics as well as ideas surrounding spiritual development; to name a few. In many cases throughout history, religious influences have been at the root of conflict which has resulted in poverty and development issues within many vulnerable communities.
In addition to this, faith-based organisations market their services from a strong position of limited perception, and through such a position, these organisations are continuing to create detrimental development perspectives; which further harbour colonial values. Such activity has also continued to construe the ‘single narrative’ of continents such as Africa; limiting the interpretation and value of the many contrasting and complex nations within this limited narrative.
Religious-based slogans used by missionaries, such as ideas around ‘bringing Jesus’ light’ have developed the problematic notion and belief that Africa is a ‘dark’ and ‘problematic’ continent and these faith-based organisations are there to be the saviours and bring these communities this needed light. Thus, through such a process, these organisations begin to ‘other’ a body of people through a lesser category within society, as well develop the notion that these people need ‘saving’ and are ‘helpless’ without their presence or intervention.
While there is significant potential for religious values to influence development positively and effectively, many teachings have been applied and often manipulated in ways that are not beneficial for development and the communities involved. Within the era of European colonial conquest, such values were seen as a responsibility by Christians to civilise ‘backwards’ people. These mindsets and impacts from such historical values are still visible today within many of these practices.
Therefore, it is not only essential but also significantly more effective to approach development with neutral organisations. Positive engagement with communities and developers requires open, constructive discussions of these issues and where appropriate, agreeing to differ, but choosing to cooperate anyway.