Saturday, March 3, 2007

Reaping what we have sown

We in The Episcopal Church (TEC) should not be surprised by neo-Puritanism that is challenging us from the Global South. For years now we have sent missionaries to those regions with less than up-to-date biblical and theological training. Over the years in various parishes, I have hosted those wanting support for their missionary efforts. In each case I was appalled by the missionary's lack of basic scriptural scholarship. In fact many of those who came to my parishes were those who were resistant to any kind of biblical scholarship that was based on the kinds of scholarship that is taught in most of our seminaries. We have often sent clergy who have been unwilling to absorb the wisdom of modern biblical scholarship to other nations knowing that their training would not be tolerated in most of our dioceses.

I also was disturbed by the theory of missiology that these missionaries displayed. It was, in my mind, incredibly condescending and even colonial in its outward character: "taking the gospel to the poor, unbelieving "brown"brothers" was much of the way they described their ministries. They often showed their slides or power point shows showing the "humble" surroundings, and smiling children trying to tug at the heart strings of wealthy members who might support their ministries. Some did not even have the rudiments of the language of the area to which they were going in their command.

Years ago when I was young and still in that "other" communion, I served as a missionary in Latin America. I too went without Spanish ready to "take my newly acquired faith to the 'poor unfortunates'. Thankfully I went to an area where the people were kind and generous and had had many of my ilk before. Very quickly I learned that the faith that they already had was stronger and fuller and filled with the kind of trust that I had not even fathomed. What they needed was education. They needed to know the theological, the biblical, and ecclesiastical information so that they could go about formulating a theology that was appropriate for their area, not some condescending do-gooding. What they did not have access to was good theological and biblical scholarship texts in their language. In one place there were just not even any basic biblical commentaries in print. The cost of books is prohibitive.

While on sabbatical in the mid-nineties I spent a month in one of the Central American dioceses and became acquainted with the seminarians there. None of them even had a concordance. I can guess that in Africa the conditions would be much the same. When 60% of Nigeria is below the poverty level, it is not surprising that even having Bibles for the majority of the burgeoning Church population would be a stretch.

So the missionary efforts that we have underwritten over the past to emerging nations have been widely off the mark. The efforts I have seen were centered upon helping the poor rather than providing the education so that locals could be about raising up the kinds of ministry that they needed to serve their own poor in ways that did not have the cloying effects of exploitative colonialism.

The issues of translation of the Bible have often been paternalistic at best. Often we supported a western person going into remote areas to learn the indigenous language and then making a translation for the people of the region, rather than raising up scholars from the indigenous people to make the translations which would speak more to the lives of the people of a region.

It is time for us, all of our companion dioceses to get some up-dated theologies of mission. I know that my missionary experience brought more to my faith that what I gave. It is time for more parity in our companion relationships. It is not American culture that we need to be teaching in the areas where our missionaries are to go. We need to convey ways for a people to confirm the Gospel in their own culture as we have done in ours.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but these arguments suggest that African men and women can't think for themselves. They learned the way they are from us and they need to unlearn it...from us.

speaking of paternalistic.

Lauren Gough said...

Anastasia, you do have a point. But I do think that we in the US need to look at our own missiology and admit that we have not done well by the people we have said that we were serving. And if we are going to admit the sin of paternalism, (which I do not believe that any western country can really avoid)then it would be well to establish ways of addressing it.

The biggest issue that we are facing throughout the communion is not a covenant but how we are going to understand Scripture in the light of modern scholarship.