A Missiological Response to Charlottesville Tragedy
In the immediate aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia I felt that I needed to write something on behalf of our Center for Great Commission Studies. But, I did not want to merely repeat what others were already saying; it didn’t feel that was a good use of time and would not be helpful. I think we can all agree that white supremacy, racial superiority, the KKK, alt-Right, neo-Nazis, have not, and are not, embracing the Christian message. Also, our mandate centers on the advancement of the Gospel around the world, not social and political issues.
I asked one of my co-workers for some advice on developing a helpful article, one that addresses our areas of responsibility and might also benefit the church. He wisely suggested it might be helpful to push through the rhetoric and the temptation to isolate the protestors as social outcasts or crazies. These individuals marched without hoods or masks – without shame or reservation. He observed, “The people who organized this protest and marched with torches were not a group of far off extremist that other white people can’t relate to. Rather these were college graduates, bank tellers, little league coaches. They are the people that we rub shoulders with every day.” With his words echoing in my head, the question I want to explore concerns the impact of racial superiority on the missionary practices of the church and the mission of God.
It is no secret that, despite our remarkable advances, many missionaries and the missionary enterprise (historical and contemporary) have been influenced by attitudes of racial superiority. Consider the language and the paternalistic attitudes we find in mission literature. Some may argue that these indiscretions do not represent the best of our missionary efforts. I hope this is true. However, we must embrace the full picture if we hope to see the gospel flourish among the nations. After all, even many of our greatest missionary heroes struggled with a sense of exceptionalism or Eurocentrism. Consider these words of the missionary hero, David Brainerd concerning the American Indians:
They are in general unspeakably indolent and slothful. They have been bred up in idleness and know little about cultivating the land, or indeed of engaging vigorously in any other business. They have little or no ambition or resolution. Not one in a thousand of them has the spirit of a man. And it is next to impossible to make them sensible of the duty and importance of their being active, diligent, and industrious It is to be hoped, that time will make a yet greater alteration upon them for the better.
Now, my goal here is not to toss stones at men long-dead. Neither is it to denigrate or dismiss the work that God has accomplished through misshapen, sinful, and broken individuals. God is gracious and sovereign. He works his wonders through all of us. God uses broken men and women because he has no other choice. However, God’s grace cannot be an excuse for our continuing sin or our continuing to embrace sinful ideologies.
How should we envision missions in light of the racial tension of our day and racial superiority we inherit?
Below I want to offer a few suggestions. I am sure this list is incomplete, but my hope is that it is helpful. The eternal destinies of millions depend on us getting these things right.
Think Rightly about our Struggles
The work of a missionary is hard. Moving into a different culture, learning a different language, swimming in new smells, tastes, and sounds all of this can be confusing and frightening. There is even a technical term for the stress and pain that comes from adjusting to a new setting—culture shock. It is real, and anyone who has lived in a different context has experienced it.
However, we need to be very careful how we process and represent these struggles. I have often heard missionaries, church planters, pastors, etc., describe these sufferings very condescending ways. Let me be clear – Only Jesus can be said to have left glory and emptied himself. Some of us envision our service as if our sacrifice and struggles include working among less worthy or less dignified people. The only man who condescended to reach others was Jesus. Therefore, our missions strategies must reflect the reality that the majority culture Christian is merely a sinner seeking to tell another sinner about the savior.
Think Rightly about our Context
People are different. Cultures are different.
Remember “different” should not be translated bad or wrong.
We judge whether something is good, bad, right, or wrong based on our experiences and preferences. As missionaries who come from majority cultures, we take these same attitudes to the mission field.Different music, different food, different dress, different government, etc., are thought of as wrong or unchristian and needing to be replaced.
Context matters for communication and culture provides the soil of Christian living. However, the gospel does not judge one culture as superior and all others as inferior. The purpose of Christian missions is not to impose one brand of civilization. The goal of Christian discipleship is not to reproduce others into our majority culture image. Timothy Tennent wrote, “The life-blood of Christianity is found in its ability to translate itself across new cultures and geographic barriers.” The superiority of one culture over another is incompatible with Christian missions. In fact, the Apostle Paul writes that the gospel’s ability to reach across cultures displays the multi-faceted wisdom of God.(Eph 3:10) When we insist that others become like us, we conceal the beauty of the gospel. Racial superiority and white supremacy devalues the beauty of ethnic and cultural differences that God celebrates.
Think Rightly about our Purpose
What then is our mission? How can we rightly participate in God’s mission to the world?
- The claim that we should not judge other cultures as spiritually deficient should not be read as an affirmation that there are other ways of salvation apart from Jesus, or that anyone is beyond God’s grace. Christ alone is the savior of all. He saves the unreached, the unevangelized, the uneducated, the wealthy, the middle-class, and even the bigot or white supremacist. Christ is the savior of all because we all share the same problem – sin. We have the same hope for salvation by grace through faith.
- Our missionary strategies must reflect that we are redeemed sinners reaching out to non-redeemed sinners to share with them the hope we have found. Our culture may be the majority, but our message is a confession that we are broken, sinful, and desperately in need of grace. We don’t do missions because we pity others who are culturally different—- this is insulting. To the missionary belongs the ministry of reconciliation “we appeal to everyone be reconciled to God”.
- The missionary task belongs to the whole church; it is incomplete and less effective when we marginalize minorities in our efforts. Let’s seek to build multi-ethnic teams and develop strategies that make much of our different strengths, insights, and passions.
The narrative of white supremacy and cultural superiority will hinder the advancement of the Great Commission. It will taint our attitudes, impact our strategies, and limit our ability to love. This is especially true when we consider the growing ethnic diversity in our country. We will struggle to reach every tribe, tongue, people, and nation if our core values are shaped by an unbiblical view of others or an elevated view of ourselves.
Part of our mission must include the pursuit of racial reconciliation. We do not make this claim because earthly peace fulfills God’s mission; rather, we know that when we pursue love, humility, repentance, and forgiveness these form the window through which God’s grace is displayed. When the gospel addresses the deepest wounds and darkest sin, God’s power is manifested through his church to the ends of the earth.
 Bowden, Henry Warner, American Indians and Christian Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) 154.
 Timothy C Tennent, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 6.
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com