It has been fashionable during the past 50 years to denigrate the work of Christian missionaries. Criticisms have ranged from imparting Western culture and diseases to failing to respect the good in other cultures. And of course it is always easier to criticise others, especially with the advantage of hindsight, than to recognise the extraordinary benefits that have accrued in many cultures on the back of Christian missionary endeavours. Increasingly, however, there has been more public recognition of the role Christian missionaries, motivated by the love of Christ, at great personal cost have made to many cultures.
In our own nation, many Aboriginal languages have been preserved for ever through the efforts of missionary Bible translators who have firstly learned the dialect, then reduced it to writing, then taught the speakers how to read and then produced books. There is no doubt that the goal was to produce at least the New Testament, since this is our only way of knowing God and how to relate to Him through Jesus, but the by-product has been the writing of local histories and the ability to learn. It was missionaries who went in to bat for Aboriginal communities in order to secure a share of mining royalties, in the early days of mineral exploration in the Northern Territory.
A criticism of foreign missionaries was that people from other cultures became ‘rice Christians’ only – putting up with the teachings in order to receive gifts. Sociologist Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason makes this comment on the mission work in China. ‘Fifty years later, we have discovered that these ‘rice Christians’ were so insincere that they endured decades of draconian repression, during which their numbers doubled again and again – there might be as many as 100 million Christians in China today. Moreover, conversion to Christianity is concentrated not among the peasants and the poor but among the best educated, most modern Chinese.’ Concluding his book with a quote from a Chinese scholar, he tells how the Chinese once thought that the West was pre-eminent because of guns, a better political or a stronger economic system. Now however they realise that ‘the heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.’
If this is true, what a tragedy it is for us in Australia for failing to understand this connection and to be persistently engaged in actively rejecting or passively ignoring the very foundations and source of our common life. When Jesus came into this world it was to open our eyes to the truth that we cannot live without God and that we live best when we honour Him and serve others. Capitalism is collapsing, not because it is about money but because we have forgotten that it should always be our servant but never our master, and a way of improving each other’s lot rather than a way of measuring our worth, status or value.