DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Colonization and Evangelicalism

Written by: on April 10, 2015

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Just prior to His ascension into heaven, Jesus spoke these words to the disciples who were gathered around Him. Throughout my Christian life, I have always understood these words to apply to me and all believers. I was taught, and it seemed plain, that these were words for all people across all time. I was surprised when I read this week that early leaders of the Reformation – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli – believed and taught that these passages were spoken by Jesus to a specific people at a specific time. These were words for the disciples, not for those of us today. [1]

Here lies one of the challenges of hermeneutics: to determine the meaning of the Word based on its historical, cultural, and literary context. Interestingly, our ability to conduct effective biblical exegesis is impeded (or perhaps not) by our cultural context. 1500 years after Jesus’ death, Western Europe was the central point of the world (according to the Europeans) and Christianity – Catholic or Protestant – was the way of the world. These theologians grew up in a culture that assured them of their prominent place in the world, and that there was one way of doing things – the European way. There was no need to go to the ends of the earth because they were living in its center.

I start my post with this comment because it lays a foundation for what I found missing in Global Evangelicalism. [2] The contributors to this book provide a definition of evangelicalism, and historical overview of the spread of evangelicalism throughout the world, with focused descriptions on each global region, ending with a brief discussion of issues currently facing evangelicalism. As a historical survey, the contributors do an appropriate work of discussing the process of the expansion of evangelicalism. But I posit that they make the error that many of us from Western cultures make: it focuses on the influence of the west on the rest of the world, without significantly considering the impact of colonialism and colonization; without considering that until the last fifty years (and less) non-whites were considered and treated as lesser peoples.

Today in my class we talked about historical trauma: the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences.”[3] As Europeans and North Americans spread across the globe and brought their understanding of society, government, religion, and economics, they enslaved other people groups, and robbed indigenous people across the globe of their land, culture and identity. This was not without ethical challenge. The English crown convened a legal team to make a determination about the legality of taking these lands, and concluded that if the societies they encountered did not have a government (royalty descended by birth), culture and civilization similar to the Europeans, that the lands were open for taking. The Spanish Catholic Church convened a debate between two noted theologians and scholars, de Las Casas and Sepulveda, to determine the appropriateness of colonization. Sepulveda argued that the indigenous peoples of Central and South America were barbarians, and natural slaves. He compared them to monkeys, and while acknowledging them as rational, he deemed them less.

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It seems that in order to justify colonization, we Europeans needed to rationalize our dominance. In order to do so, we needed to de-humanize the other human beings we encountered. The ethical and legal debates were followed in time by a scientific rationale. In the 1700’s the growing science of biology decided that there were races of human beings, or sub-classes: the Homo Americus, the Homo Asiatic, the Homo Europus, and the Homo Afer. These were identified by skin tone and assigned personality and intellectual capacities. In the 1800’s the medical science of Phrenology determined that intellectual and moral reasoning capacity was determined by the shape of the skull, and that Caucasians, having superior skull capacity, had the highest capacity. This was further reinforced by Darwinism, which argued that evolution produced stronger, dominant species. All of this “science” was used to reinforce the dominant culture and subjugate the non-European and indigenous people groups.

As Christianity and evangelicalism spread across the globe, there were certainly Christians who argued for social justice and equal human treatment of all people. de Las Casas was one of the first to speak for the indigenous peoples. Sadly, however, many went to save the “heathen” and “savages”. In my contemporary culture, these terms are derogatory. Saving the savages often meant suggesting, or forcing, indigenous people groups to abandon their cultural practices, governance, economies, and identities, to adopt a new Euro-Christian identity.

I recognize as I recount this aspect of colonization that my tone is less than encouraging. In some ways I don’t fault the Europeans. They had little experience with other cultures, and the whole notion of cultural competence or cultural intelligence was hundreds of years away. They understood their own culture. It was normal to them. What was different was considered abnormal, and even morally wrong. This is a common human response to difference. At the same time, I also recognize that colonization was fueled by economic and political motives. These motives often take precedence over justice and morality.

Over the last century, most African, Latin American, and Asian countries have regained governance of their homelands. In other places, indigenous peoples have gradually also been given a place. Native Americans were allowed United States citizenship in 1945. Aboriginals in Australia gained citizenship in 1967. And so on. But all of this came at a significant cost, after hundreds of years of oppression. The dominant culture had told them that their cultures were immoral, their identities were barbaric, their darker skin color was ugly, their intellect was less.

Which returns me to the expansion of evangelicalism. In spite of us, people groups across the globe found Jesus. How about that! The greatest numbers of evangelicals and Christians are now in the global south! In spite of their relatively new introduction to Christianity, these churches have grown and multiplied. Throughout Global Evangelicalism there are brief references to indigenous leadership, but I suggest that the text would be strengthened by greater attention to indigenous Christian practices and theology. Just as colonization was informed by our cultural values and context, so indigenous theology is informed by theirs. As a member of the dominant culture who did not perpetrate the historical trauma, yet benefits from it still, I find it my responsibility to support the strong development of indigenous culture and practices. Those of us with theological expertise should walk alongside our non-dominant brothers and sisters to support them in wrestling with understanding God.

When we consider theology, and when we consider the practices of evangelical churches across the world, it seems we have much to learn from each other. The south seems to recognize a transcendent, supernatural God, while the north struggles more in these areas. The north has the benefit of a longer history of formal and written theology and academic study, which might be offered as a support (not the answer) to indigenous leaders.

I struggle at this point with how to end this long post. I recognize both the harm and the hope that evangelicalism and Christianity, intertwined with colonization, has brought to world. Perhaps it is best for me to simply recognize that God, who is quite greater than all of us, seems to be able to use us as His vehicles of the gospel in spite of our humanity. This to me is very good news.

[1] Wilbert R. Shenk, “The Theological Impulse of Evangelical Expansion,” in Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective, edited by Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014, p. 44-45.

[2] Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, editors, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014.

[3] M.Y. Brave Heart, “The historical trauma response among natives and its relationship with substance abuse: a Lakota illustration.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 35, no. 1 (Jan – Mar 2003), 7-13.

About the Author

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Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.