The Missionaries Win: Christianity Becomes Global Religious Superpower
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  • ms

    A nice Christmas message.

  • Kenny

    Saints be praised.

  • Micha

    Why can’t Christians and Muslims let people keep their original religion?

  • Gary L

    Nietzsche described Christianity as “the triumph of Asia over Europe”. I’m not sure Nietzche would be all that pleased over the current status of post-Christian Europe. But it’s good to see Christianity flourishing in extra-Western environs. An excellent survey of the explosive growth of “Third World” Christianity can be found in Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and its sequal The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (2008).

  • Jim.

    @Micha:

    Because Christians, at least, believe that belief in Christ is the means to eternal salvation, and as such is the most precious gift one human can give to another.

    I admit, if it is not presented in this generous spirit, something is very wrong. However, to think that because that has occurred at times in the past that that negates the value of proselytizing in the present or in the future is a fallacy.

    If you need more worldly evidence that Christianity is good for people, please read Mead’s “God and Gold” about the rise of the prosperous West, and then read the Gospels (for inspiring advice) and Paul’s letters (for practical advice).

  • Marie

    Christians “let” you do as you like. There is no coercion.

    Sadly Islam does indeed have the doctrine that those who don’t convert are to be killed.

    So kindly don’t try to make the two religions equivalent.

  • Micha

    Trying to get people who have traditions and culture of their own to abandon them for your religion is a little rude even if it is done very nicely. Why should Chinese with their ancient culture adopt Christianity? Or Africans? Shouldn’t we respect different cultures and religions?

    “Christians “let” you do as you like. There is no coercion.

    Sadly Islam does indeed have the doctrine that those who don’t convert are to be killed.”

    Not true. Historically speaking both Islam and Christianity have been more or less tolerant to other religions at different times and places. The only difference is that today Christianity is in such a place politically and historically that it is relatively more tolerant of other religions than Islam — although apparently not tolerant enough to just leave them alone. But it sure took Christianity a long time to get there. Moreover, the positive changes in Christianity were not just the result of Christians suddenly getting better, it was a long historical process that also involved things like secularism.

    Both Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions that have spread over large swaths of the earth, sometimes by violence, and replaced the religions that were there before. Even when done very nicely it has something imperialistic to it.

    That said, today I suppose it is better that people convert to Christianity than Islam if they have to convert to anything. Right now Islam is not in a good place.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Micha: Christians don’t believe that non-Christian religion has as much value to people as Christianity does. On the other hand, even in coercive environments of conquest, most actual conversion to Christianity was done through persuasive missionary teaching, which is certainly the case in the modern world. No one is being forced to be baptized. Insisting that Christians and the natives of nations that are not traditionally Christian cannot freely interact, such that the native joins a Christian denomination, is a rather coercive, interventionist, busybody, even “imperialist” position by yourself.

    Religious rights inhere in individuals, not “ethnicities”. The right of an individual to choose who or what to worship, and how, is the essence of freedom of religion. Native pagan religion does not evaporate in the face of Christianity. For example, Japan’s population has only about 1% adopted Christianity, despite a century of proselyting and many of the same traumatic experiences of World War that were experienced by South Korea, probably the most racially and culturally related nation to Japan. Korea, by contrast, has a much more positive response to Christianity.

    An interesting comparison is the spread of Christianity in Mongolia, where religious freedom is an innovation of the twenty years since the end of the Soviet Union. Almost ten percent of the residents of Ulaan Baatar are converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other denominations have their own statistics of conversion.

    What christianity does is connect people in across international boundaries. They learn about alternative viewpoints and about the importance of freedom of religion, which necessarily includes freedom of speech, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom of the press (since churches need to be able to publish religious literature), as well as the freedom to own property along with fellow church members in the church buildings themselves. Therefore, becoming Christian gives people a stake in many of the freedoms that are essential to democracy, and information about how freedom is protected in other countries. This is why freedom of religion is a belwether of other freedoms. Where religious freedom is present, other freedoms are enhanced.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Raymond Takashi Swenson: you make some good points here, but don’t get caught up in defending the historical record. Some very nasty things were done in the name of converting defeated enemies of various Christian churches, and Christians especially need to make sure their presentation of this record is candid and fair. We can’t undo the past but we can show that these episodes were deviations from rather than expressions of the true nature of our faith.

  • Micha

    “Christians don’t believe that non-Christian religion has as much value to people as Christianity does.”

    That’s part of the problem.

    I should also point out that the same attitude exists in the relations between Christians, as in the efforts of Evangelicals to convert Catholics. What should my attitude be toward these efforts? Is it good when large quantities of Catholics adopt Pentecostal Christianity?

    “even in coercive environments of conquest, most actual conversion to Christianity was done through persuasive missionary teaching”

    That’s also true of Islam. Should we be as happy of Islamic missionary successes over the centuries as Christian ones?

    “Insisting that Christians and the natives of nations that are not traditionally Christian cannot freely interact, such that the native joins a Christian denomination, is a rather coercive, interventionist, busybody, even “imperialist” position by yourself.”

    It would have been, if that was what I said. But it wasn’t. I’m not suggesting outlawing missionary work, or preventing inter-cultural interaction. But I believe the effort to get people to reject their own religions for yours because you believe yours is better is rather rude, that’s all.

    To make it clear, I am sincere in what I say. Even as we speak I am working (as a graphic designer) on a missionary publication of the New Testament in Hebrew. The missionary in question couldn’t be nicer, and I am fine doing this work for him, but I am not appreciative of his effort not one bit.

    “Religious rights inhere in individuals, not “ethnicities”.

    If what we were talking about here was an individual named Hasan converting to Christianity, or a man called Bob converting to Islam, or Josh going Buddhist, Prof. Mead wouldn’t have bothered making this post. None of us, I should think, would begrudge a friend his own individual religious path. But conversion matters when it is a large scale sociological, cultural, political and historical phenomenon.

    “Native pagan religion does not evaporate in the face of Christianity.”

    Nowadays the power behind missionary work is not as strong as it has been in the past, so we can be safe in assuming that Japan’s Shinto or Buddhist culture is not going to evaporate. But historically this has not been so (see Philippines for example). And it is not the same when the indigenous pagan religion in question is that of some small remote tribe and not of a strong and large culture as that of Japan.

    “They learn about alternative viewpoints and about the importance of freedom of religion, which necessarily includes freedom of speech, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom of the press (since churches need to be able to publish religious literature), as well as the freedom to own property along with fellow church members in the church buildings themselves. Therefore, becoming Christian gives people a stake in many of the freedoms that are essential to democracy, and information about how freedom is protected in other countries. This is why freedom of religion is a belwether of other freedoms. Where religious freedom is present, other freedoms are enhanced.”

    I agree that freedom of religion is important, which was why I’m not advocating against it. I disagree that we need Christianity in order to promote democracy, freedom of speech or openness to diverse opinions. Moreover, wrapping your democratic in Christianity is a good way to give non-Christians reason to fear the spread of democracy, since it implies that democracy threatens peoples indigenous cultural identity.

  • Brad

    Micha: I’d like to make a couple of points in reply to your post:

    1. You seem to hold the view, like a lot of people, that no one “religion” is better than another, but they are just a personal choice, influenced largely by culture. Under that view it is “rude” to try to get someone to change their religion. It’s like fans of one sports team trying to get fans of other teams to switch to their team. That can be okay if done politely, but it can also get bothersome, sometimes even rude or violent. But most people, even avid sports fans, would agree that it ultimately just doesn’t matter. Cardinals fans are not going to convert Cubs fans, Yankees fans are not going to convert Red Sox fans, and it doesn’t really matter. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is how you view religion.

    The reason you are not understanding posters coming from a Christian perspective is that we see religion differently. We see it as a statement or set of beliefs about *reality*, not just an opinion. So to us, there really is one right answer. The statement

    “Christians don’t believe that non-Christian religion has as much value to people as Christianity does.”

    is offensive to you in the same way that the statement “Being a Cubs fan does not have as much value as being a Cardinals fan” would be to a Cubs fan. The bottom line is that there is no underlying reality, it is just a matter of opinion.

    But what if someone were to say “Cancer treatment X has more value than cancer treatment Y”? That would be a question of immense importance to cancer sufferers. This is the way Christians, Muslims, and other religious people see the question of religion. It is *crucial* to get it right. It’s okay to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.” We do it all the time about medicine (and lots of other subjects, of course). But if we do it about religion we are labeled “intolerant.”

    2. At worst, your low opinion of missionary efforts has some basis in reality. You see it as “cultural imperialism.” Sadly, it has been that in some cases. But the vast majority of Christian mission organizations today (I can’t speak for Islam or others) are much more aware of cross-cultural issues than they were in the past. Specifically, they strive to separate the religious reality from its cultural baggage. This is known as the “contextualization of theology” and will make no sense to you if I have correctly described the way you view religion in pt 1 above (sports fan analogy). You will see religion as inseparable from culture. But for the Christian the two are separable. Of course, there is no simple formula for separating the theological “non-negotiables” from the cultural trappings. That’s why mission organizations today send not only evangelists (as well as doctors, teachers, etc), but also anthropologists, linguists, sociolinguists, ethnomusicologists, ethnographers, etc. We don’t always get it right, but we are trying to bring our message in a way that values the local culture. Our view is that all cultures, including our own, have aspects that are good and aspects that are bad. *All* cultures need to be examined in light of our religious beliefs. Again, this will make no sense if religion is just an opinion that doesn’t really matter. I think the global success of Christianity in the past 100 years, as noted by Mead’s article, is at least in part a result of this new wave of missionaries trying to get it right.

    3. On cultural imperialism, you need to read “Spirit of the Rainforest” by Ritchie. It is a mind-blowing account told by the Yanomamo people of Brazil/Venezuala. This is the group that Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon wrote about. The traditional Yanomamo culture is heavily steeped in revenge killing, rape, and slavery, encouraged by the spirit world of their religious system. The book documents the coming of secular anthropologists as well as missionaries. The missionaries came to teach love and forgiveness, and also brought modern medical techniques, literacy, etc. The anthropologists just came to study the people. One village wanted a “white person” to come because they had heard of the good things that missionaries brought. But to their eventual disappointment, they got a (non-religious) athropologist. They took a sick child to this anthropologist, and he told them to treat the child their traditional way. He took notes. The child got worse. He took notes. The child died. He took notes.

    Eventually, when a number of Yanomamo had become Christians, they founded a village. This village refused to participate in revenge killings. Other villages fought against them in one of their traditional ways – two by two with clubs. The Christian village was able to defend itself in this, well not “non-violent,” but at least “non-deadly” way. Eventually, due to good medical care and the absence of revenge killing, this villge grew strong enough that no other villages dared attack it. It became a place of refuge, healing and forgiveness for those seeking safety. Yet, the secular anthropologists were enraged by the “cultural imperialism” of Christians. They wanted people to hang on to their killings, rape, wife-beating and inadequate medical care so they could be studied. This is the point at which anthropology becomes imperialistic, wanting to keep people in a sort of “cultural zoo” so they can be studied.

    Note that the cancer treatment analogy I made above is actually not totally metaphorical. It is a metaphor for how we see religion, but it also has literal examples in how some people have been denied life-saving treatment in the name of “cultural sensitivity.” What if a culture had a cure for cancer, but didn’t give it to us because the way we treat cancer was so fascinating that they wanted to study it? Would we thank them for their cultural sensitivity?

    The other fascinating thing about this book is how the Yanomamo spiritual beliefs dovetailed with the teachings of Christianity. They discovered that the spirits they were following were evil and leading them into more and more suffering. Nothing conflicted with their traditional belief system, but they switched their allegiance to a different set of spirits, and ultimately the “greatest spirit” whom they formerly called the “enemy spirit.” I obviously can’t do the book justice here. You’ll just have to read it.

    4. You may be wanting to say “Lots of conflicts would be avoided if only nobody held religion as a statement about reality.” That is undoubtedly true, but does not bear on the question. Religion is either a statement about reality or it isn’t. Either/Or. If something is true, we should not disbelieve it just because we don’t like the consequences of believing it. All religious people need to interact in love and respect with adherents of other religions.

    I hope some of this resonates with you. I probably haven’t changed your mind, but I hope you can understand a bit better why we feel religion is worth spreading. Sorry for such a long post. Thanks for reading, and have a happy new year.

  • Mike Edwards

    In the 1960’s a friend of mine who had given up on his Catholicism signed up for the Peace Corp and was assigned to Africa. While there he encountered a missionary order known as “The White Fathers of Africa”. This group of priests so impressed him that he joined the order and returned to the Church. I would like to think that most conversions follow this pattern.

    It strikes me that God will reach out to a person through whatever avenues available. A person’s native culture and native religion certainly is such an avenue.

    I don’t know that God ever repudiated the “chosen people” status of the Jews. Even Paul gives some deference to the Jews as God’s chosen people when he brings the message of Christ to them. I find something distastful about Christians aggressively proslytizing Jews.

    While no one forces a person to be Baptized Christian, there is indeed a subtle difference between persuasion and manipulation. All too often, I wonder if a conversion was a manipulated event for a person’s “own good” rather than a product of gentle persuasion and good example–especially when I see missionaries talking among themselves as if they had just put another knotch on their gun.

    Rather than gloat about an increasing number of conversions, we should thank God for the influcence of the Holy Spirit and pray that the new converts will be able to experience the true Spirit of Christ.

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