In many circles these days, mission is an unpopular subject. It evokes images of Nathan Price, the arrogant, insensitive protagonist in Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible.
In the book, Price uproots his family from Georgia to resettle in the Belgian Congo, intending to “bring salvation to the heathen.”
He proceeds to commit every stereotypical missionary no-no you can imagine:
• Rejected by every mission agency he contacts, he goes on his own.
• He comes with answers to questions no one seems to be asking.
• He shows no interest in understanding the local cultural and religious landscape.
• He refuses to leave even when it’s clear his ministry is fruitless and unwelcome.
But it is Nathan Price’s terrible language skills that give rise to the title of the novel.
In an attempt to communicate the value of Jesus and the good news, he declares, “Tata Jesus is bängala!” He means to say, bangala, or precious.
But his careless pronunciation communicates the opposite of his intended message. He has proclaimed that Jesus is poisonwood, a local tree that “will make you itch like nobody’s business.”
Even when corrected, Price insists on saying, “Tata Jesus is bängala.” Jesus is poisonwood.
Imagine my discomfort in reading this novel while serving a three-year mission assignment in La Mesa, Colombia.
Is Christian mission nothing more than an offensive enterprise aimed at imposing Western values on the rest of the world?
Yes and no, says Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest and professor at the Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. In his book Mirror to the Church, Katongole examines the case of Rwanda, where Hutus hacked over 800,000 Tutsis to death in the genocide of 1994.
Apparently successful Christian mission—nine out of 10 Rwandans called themselves Christians at the time—did little to prevent this disaster.
Yet, according to Katongole, the problem with Christian mission in Rwanda was not that it was missionary in nature but that it was insufficiently Christian. The New Testament vision for the church is one body of diverse people reconciled through the cross of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22; Revelation 7:9-10).
However, the European missionaries who first set foot in Rwanda were captive to another vision: the secular notion of progress that considered Europeans the pinnacle of human evolution.
As Katangole describes it, “They already had in their minds all the categories of race and tribe, primitive and advanced. As a result, they could not allow for a new Christian social reality that would not follow the logic of race, modernity and so-called Western civilization.”
The unspeakable tragedy of Rwanda points not to the inherent flaws of Christian mission but to the inadequate evangelization of the Western mind. Too often, we as Christians in the West have allowed thoroughly unchristian assumptions to colonize our hearts.
And as Jesus reminds us, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Our unconverted hearts lead us to preach a gospel of progress or prosperity rather than the peaceable good news of God’s reign in Christ.
Mission is not an outdated concept.
We simply have to acknowledge that we North American Christians are also in need of conversion. Jesus calls us to surrender all identities—national, religious, ethnic or otherwise—that compete with our primary allegiance to his lordship.
Again, to quote Katongole: “The church’s primary purpose is not to make America more Christian but to make American Christians less American and Rwandan Christians less Rwandan. We are no longer Rwandans or Americans, neither Hutu nor Tutsi. If we are in Christ, we have become part of a new creation.”
A year ago I heard César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference, speak about the role of North American mission agencies in the global church. When someone asked García whether Westerners should continue to send missionaries to other parts of the globe, I held my breath.
Would he tell us our message had been precious or poisonwood?
García strongly affirmed the ongoing mission efforts of North American Anabaptists.
But he offered one major qualification: “Don’t go it alone. We need each other in mission. Only as a multicultural body, listening to voices from every context where people follow Jesus, can we overcome our cultural blind spots and grow to the full stature of Christ.”