Why does God use flawed people to represent Him and His mission?

Review of ‘Faultlines in Mission: reflections on race and colonialism’  Anvil Journal of Mission and Theology Volume 36, Issue 3.  Church Mission Society

Did missionaries go out as colonialists, preaching the supremacy of the white race, and collude with colonial rulers who shaped their mindset and strategies? These questions are posed in the CMS publication of the Anglican Evangelical Journal, Anvil, Vol 36, Number 3, 2021 which seeks to ‘engage in meaningful conversations about racial justice’.

The issue’s stated purpose is ‘to examine fault lines in Christian mission with particular attention to the legacy of empire in our formulation of mission strategies and practices.’ It records the experience and reflection of some Diaspora Christians and Churches in the UK who see themselves as missionary churches to UK secular society as much as economic migrants.  Among twelve major contributors is a Nigerian Bishop, an English (former missionary) scholar of mission history, and ten from the African and Asian Disapora in the UK, who hold key positions in mission leadership. From their experience they extrapolate conclusions about the collusion of missionaries with colonial rulers who shaped their  mindset and strategies. There is no awareness of mission theology written by the INFEMIT Network of Two Thirds World Theologians since 1978 – from Latin America: Rene Padilla, Samuel Escobar, Orlando Costas; from Asia: Melba Maggay, Vinay Samuel, Michael Nazir Ali; from Africa: David Gitari, Kwame Bediako. All experienced Europe or North America during their post-graduate studies. Their ‘holistic theology of transformation’ has had major impact in the Global South.

Harvey Kwiyani in the lead article, claims that for 600 years Christianity has trafficked in racism, preached the supremacy of the white race, and that many white Christians still struggle to think any non-white Christian is their equal. This is offered without evidence by Kwiyani who, originating from Africa, lived for some years in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered. The tendency to condemn most ‘white’ mission endeavour as colonialist and racist is troubling. Some could be accused of supporting the colonial endeavour. But to see early missionary pioneers as deliberate colonial oppressors appears to derive from a ‘Black’ North American perspective understandably influenced and embittered by their history of slavery, particularly in the southern states.  Kwiyani did his doctoral studies on African Christians in the USA which also ‘birthed’  Martin Luther King who said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This cuts both ways.  To imply that Livingstone promoted such oppression in Africa, as Dr Kwiyani seems to say, is deliberately misleading. Livingstone, like many missionaries today, found himself working with [and serving] the marginalised. Missionaries often have to stand between oppressor and oppressed. Their distinct cultural identity often enabled them to perform this role.

Canon Dr Vinay Samuel notes that “Most of sub-Saharan Africa did not have a strong written intellectual and religious culture.  So African Christians were indeed taken over by white Christian culture.  How far have African theologians been able to hold on to, engage, recover their own religious culture and engage it with the Christian faith? How far did writers such as Lamin Sanneh, Byang Kato, John Mbiti and Kwame Bediako draw on African intellectual tradition to balance the white intellectual traditions that underlay Western Christianity?”

Christianity is always in a cultural form. Missionaries could not be other than themselves. But they did not go out as colonialists. Many resisted the colonial government and its representatives. Bishop John Colenso from Cornwall, the first Bishop of Natal (1853 ff) is  exempted from Dr Kwiyani’s almost universal condemnation.  Was he inspired by colonialism or did he go in obedience to what he saw as God’s call to serve?  Obituaries of Desmond Tutu note that he was inspired by an English Missionary in South Africa, Father Trevor Huddleston.

Dr Samuel comments further: “Critical race theory, which is what we are facing, argues that the race element is always present, reinforcing its supremacy with religious judgements.  It is necessary to separate what was good and what was bad.  The real question is why and how did God use flawed instruments in the mixed legacy of mission?”

It appears to Dr Samuel that Dr Kwiyani is seeking for a historical truth without taint, and is trusting the truth as he sees it from an African context rather than truth as shared with another perspective.

Andrew Symes reports that Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos, Nigeria said to a UK meeting in March that Nigerian Anglicans honour the young people who arrived in Northern Nigeria in the nineteenth century to share Christ, sometimes packing their belongings in coffins as they expected to die within a few months. In northern Nigeria, some preached the gospel to Muslims against the rules of the colonial powers. He listed some British and local indigenous missionaries, and spoke of a project to restore some of their graves.

Though historical research reveals that mission history was a patchwork, the ‘bad’ examples are generalized to explain all. Exceptions are unexplained. The Rev Kip Chelashaw, born and brought up in Kenya who has served in Anglican Churches in Essex and Surrey now leads a church plant in Nairobi.  He asks how Kwiyani’s claim that Christianity is complicit with the sin of racism fits with his claim that most Christians are non-white and asks whether they also are complicit in racism. He says Kwiyani would have been more helpful if he had engaged with writing on whether Christianity has been a force for good or evil, such as Robert Woodberry’s article ‘ The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ (American Political Science Review May 2012). Chelashaw sets this challenge: “If (such non-western intellectuals) are strongly persuaded about the inherent racism, why (do they) not give up the West’s luxury and come to Africa to address the questions of corruption, police brutality and exploitation of women?”

According to Shemll Mathew  the Covid pandemic has affected Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities in the UK disproportionately. (p.45) But 40% of Black and 26% of Asian communities in UK are (by choice) unvaccinated (Spectator 23 Dec 2021). Contrary to Vini Paul whose work he cites, the Syrian Christians in Kerala prevented Dalits accessing education, not the CMS who ran the schools.

Awais Mughal (p.72) claims that the communal violence between Hindus and Muslims at the birth of Pakistan in 1947 were due to its ‘colonisation’. But India ( Pakistan was formerly a number of states in Northern India) was never a British colony but an ‘empire’. The British state exercised both direct and indirect rule over rulers of the princely states. The East India Company allowed no missionaries at all. William Carey’s mission took place in a Danish colony.

Angus Crichton contributes a valuable bibliography on the history of the Anglican Church of Uganda. Eleasah Phoenix-Louis studies minority black denominations which read the Bible as their authority as a continuation of their ancestral history, interrupted by Christendom. She argues that ‘colour-blind theology failed to see that differences among people are natural, biblical and God-given.’

Reviews of relevant titles and resources, described as reflections. complete the volume.

Dupe Adifala notes (p 64) that ‘there is a gift from the white church that the black church needs, and gifts from the black church that the white church needs.’ As Dr Tony Sewell of Jamaican origin recently pointed out, other losers in current UK society are poor white working-class boys. Might a future ANVIL turn its attention to them

Chris Sugden

Church of England Newspaper  April 29 2022 p 13,14