Presentism and Missionaries
On judging past actions by current standards
In liberal Western circles it has long been axiomatic that Christian missionaries were guilty of offenses against humanity. These include racial discrimination, genocide, the introduction of alcoholism and venereal diseases, the imposition of a sense of guilt onto innocent sexual relationships, and the heartless suppression of native cultures of great richness and value, replacing them with something harsher and less forgiving.
To those who take the trouble to learn about the true nature of missionary activity, these charges range from the occasionally plausible to the utterly absurd: There may be an element of truth in some, but taken together they constitute a colossal and preposterous fabrication. Yet many people today believe all this and are seriously angry about it.
How do we answer them? We can start by producing contrary evidence, all the instances of good men and women sacrificing their lives and comforts to bring peace and love, kindness and healing, to societies that were riven village from village by dark superstition. And we can home in on the many failures of paganism – the maiming and abuse of women and children, ritual sacrifice, the mechanistic morality of taboos. But that risks attracting a charge of racism from people who cannot (or will not) distinguish between race and culture.
In Australia we have tourists who would like to experience “real” island culture, yet I’ve never seen tourists at church on Sundays. If they had come and seen the place packed with happy families, young and old, and heard the marvelous, passionate singing, they might have begun to understand the culture. It’s got little to do with food and drink and the usual touristy activities, and a lot to do with the contented souls of the people. Believe it or not Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians honor the memory of the missionaries who brought them the Gospel. In the West our hearts have grown cynical. We speak patronizingly of the simple faith of less “sophisticated” peoples. We in fact become racists ourselves.
For believers the incarnation of Christ was and is the greatest event in human history, a greatness not simply of degree but a kind of absolute and ultimate truth against which alone all other events must be measured. If we are wrong, then as St. Paul said, “We are of all people most to be pitied.”
The Azaria Chamberlain case, of a two-month-old baby killed by a wild dingo, is emblematic of that gulf between religious people and the secular majority. Lindy Chamberlain’s great offense, which juries and a majority of the general public could neither forgive nor understand, was her faith in the eternal life of her baby. The calm acceptance of her loss was proof to many if not of her guilt then certainly of her insanity.
The scandal of the Stolen Generations (the mass removal of indigenous children from their parents) opened the rawest of wounds, painful to the indigenous communities and to that small army of missionaries, social workers, nurses, and magistrates who can no longer defend themselves (for they are almost all dead), who strove to protect aboriginal children according to the Christian-inspired principles of their day, and whose memory is now covered in shame.
I have no doubt that some of these acts were unjust and wrong, and insofar as they were I condemn them too. But equally I do not doubt that many were justifiable then on grounds of humanity and decency. To condemn all unreservedly is to share the feeble, uncritical yet prevailing belief in presentism – judging past actions by current standards. There is a grave downside to presentism: apart from blackening people’s reputations, intervention to assist endangered children in some indigenous communities has become too risky. Social workers and others who try to intervene run the risk of being branded as racists. Children do not receive the protection they need.
St. Augustine, looking back on his conversion years later in the Confessions, accuses himself of having railed against Christianity without taking the trouble to understand it, of having imputed to it beliefs that believers never held:
“I was ashamed that for so many years I had yelped, not against the Catholic faith, but against fables of human imagination. I had in fact been rash and wicked in condemning, as an accuser, things that I ought to have taught myself to understand.”
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