I commonly hear Christians and non-Christians object to missions on the grounds that missionaries have sometimes been the tip of the spear for oppression and cultural subjugation. People cite the way Christian missions rode the wave of colonial domination in Africa and India, for example. The remedy, according to some, is that Christian missions be halted altogether or at least seriously re-examined.
To be sure, there’s a place for re-examining mission practice. We need to learn from the history of cross-cultural gospel ministry, especially those painful and shameful aspects we do not wish to repeat.
But it’s also important to note that some missionaries were valiant in the cause of justice. Where the gospel and the church have spread, so too has liberation and justice. Yesterday my missions pastor shared a tidbit from the life of William Carey that I did not know. It’s an excerpt from Ruth and Vishal Mangalwadi’s “Who (Really) Was William Carey?” in Ralph Winter and Stephen Hawthorne’s Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 3rd edition. The Mangalwadis write:
Carey was the first man to stand against both the ruthless murders and the widespread oppression of women, virtually synonymous with Hinduism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The male in India was crushing the female through polygamy, female infanticide, child marriage, widow-burning, euthanasia and forced female illiteracy, all sanctioned by religion. The British Government timidly accepted these evils as being an irreversible and intrinsic part of India’s religious mores. Carey began to conduct systematic sociological and scriptural research. He published his reports in order to raise public opinion and protest. . . . It was Carey’s persistent battle against sati for twenty-five years which finally led to Lord Bantinck’s famous Edict in 1829, banning one of the most abominable of all religious practices in the world: widow-burning.
Carey’s pioneering work is known by nearly all Christians with a rudimentary knowledge of Christian missions history. Yet I wonder how many know of this aspect of Carey’s work—engaging the religious cultural practices and advocating for justice using the tools of both social science and the Bible? Carey wasn’t perfect—no Christian is. But we need more “Careys” not fewer. Perhaps then Christian missions will be associated with positive good rather than injustice, with not only freedom from sin but also freedom from oppression. May it be so. May the Lord be pleased to make it happen in our lifetimes!