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Atheist says: ‘We need more missionaries’

Just spotted this article by Matthew Parris in the Times Online.  It’s a great contrarian point of view. Missionaries have done a lot of good and have gotten a bad rap for all their effort (for a good example, look at the argument going on in the comment section of my blog on the subject).&n…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Just spotted this article by Matthew Parris in the Times Online.  It’s a great contrarian point of view. Missionaries have done a lot of good and have gotten a bad rap for all their effort (for a good example, look at the argument going on in the comment section of my blog on the subject).  Usually all you ever hear is how paternalistic and culturally invasive missionaries are.  Parris, a confirmed atheist, finds that even the spiritual changes missionaries have brought in Africa have been a positive thing.
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as
a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas
Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps
rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their
village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It
inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But
travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been
trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to
avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs,
stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing
belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve
become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism
makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs,
government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not
do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity
changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The
rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth
by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in
Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the
package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the
sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of
secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world
would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to
motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the
help, not the faith.
 
But
this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the
missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect
that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First,
then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a
child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little
brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had
working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers.
The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined
its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them.
There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a
directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in
traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by
land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to
Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right
through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends
and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the
stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless
parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by
nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a
territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something
changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in
their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without
looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards
strangers – in some ways less so – but more open.

This time in
Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter
missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development
strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed
that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid
team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians.
“Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard
any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the
villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our
conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the
car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and
optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work
was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was,
in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that
Christianity had taught.

There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for
placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques
founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”;
authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don’t
follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than
ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively;
first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This
rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster
politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering
leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of
loyal opposition.

Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors,
of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things
– strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every
man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds
down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the
initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own
shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps,
explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to
another he finds – at the very moment of passing into the new – that he
loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try
an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why
climb the mountain? “Because it’s there,” he said.

To the rural
African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the
mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be
done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation – that nobody
else had climbed it – would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity,
post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct,
personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by
the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes
straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just
described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast
off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those
who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must
not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the
knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change.
A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I’m afraid
it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from
the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign
fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.
 
Other interesting articles in the Times Online:

Comments (8)

  • Isn’t that amazing? Praying right now for Mr. Parris that he will see that the thing that the Africans need is from a God who loves him passionately and is very, very real.

  • Fascinating article. A very lucid and non-partisann assessment of Jesus making a difference to lives and culture, and not a philosophy or a set of rules.

  • I was just about to stop by and mention this very article to you. It is interesting because my husband and I were just talking about the same thing in terms of the Middle Ages and how Christianity and missionaries were what brought human kind back out of the dark ages.

  • What a remarkable article. My favorite part is this:

    Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described.

    He might be an atheist, but he understands the heart of Christianity’s message. It must have been a humbling article to write.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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