Is Jesus an Imperialist? The Problem of Missions and Empire

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It has become a standard tenet of evangelical missiology today that missionaries overseas must not impose their extra-biblical cultural values on proselytes or converts. Critics say that missions by definition involves cultural imposition, if not outright imperialism.

There was a time in American history when missions advocates had no hesitation about combining the agendas of evangelism, “civilization,” and even empire. That backstory should make it clear why American Christians and other missionaries need to be careful to not let cultural or political assumptions infiltrate the gospel message. Yet the fact remains that it has always been easier for American missionaries to go where America has a strong business, political, or military presence. Like it or not, there has been a historic connection between empire and missions.

This was nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in the U.S. annexation of the Philippines in 1898, one of the first instances of the United States acting as a formal colonial power. It was also the first time that the United States had taken colonial possession of a territory with large numbers of Muslims living there.

As Karine Walther shows in her book Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, prominent U.S. politicians and missions advocates made the case for annexing the Philippines on evangelistic and civilizational grounds. President William McKinley told a group of Methodist pastors that God had shown him that the United States should  “take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.”

Senator Albert Beveridge added aspects of civil religion and racial superiority to bolster the case.

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man.

Some anti-imperialists accused the pro-annexation, pro-missions advocates of hypocrisy, as these same people would criticize Islam for having been spread by force. South Carolina senator Ben Tillman declared, “We are a Christian people and our missionaries, or those imbued with the missionary spirit, clamor for the annexation of the islands for the purpose of shedding over them the light of the gospel. We are asked to do as Mahomet did with his creed—carry the Christian religion to these people upon the point of a bayonet, as he spread Islamism over western Asia and eastern Europe and northern Africa on his scimitar.”

But in general, American missionary societies and other Christian leaders (including advocates of both Social Gospel service and direct evangelism) backed annexation as a boon for missions. One Presbyterian minister said that he believed “in imperialism because I believe in foreign missions. Our Foreign Mission Board can teach Congress how to deal with remote dependencies. . . . The Church must go where America goes.”

One religious periodical, the Missionary Record, even claimed Jesus for the cause of empire. “Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus was the most imperial of the imperialists?” they asked.

Evangelicals believe that the gospel is universally true and that they should share the gospel message with the hope of converting the world. How hard it has been to distinguish that conviction from other forms of cultural and political baggage! But we must be constantly vigilant against letting other agendas corrupt the gospel.

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