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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.

11 responses to “Colonization and Evangelicalism”

  1. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    I noticed the some of the same things you did Julie, I just didn’t mention them in my post… I wonder if there are any people writing on how the global south has influenced the west?

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      I’m not sure, Stefania. And in hindsight, I think of so many better ways to say what I said. Perhaps I am an idealist, but I like to think that more and more we are becoming open to learning from one another. Of course there is prejudice against others and comfort within out own groups, but at the same time, I like to think that there is a growing curiosity.

  2. Julie,

    WOW! You are speaking my language here. Thank you for having the courage to speak the truth.

    As I was reading this week’s text, I found myself continually asking, “Don’t these guys get it?” It is not only what is said but also what is not said that matters. And there was a lot that was unsaid in this book. But you said it in your brilliant post, for which I am deeply grateful.

    You say about colonialism, “The dominant culture had told them [indigenous peoples] that their cultures were immoral, their identities were barbaric, their darker skin color was ugly, their intellect was less.” How could that mindset be “Christian”? Answer: It wasn’t. The more I study the history of indigenous peoples, the more I am ashamed of my ancestors, even the Christian ones. I think of the decimation of the Native-American tribes and I sometimes find myself weeping and ashamed at what was done to these people (at least partly) in the name of Christianity. But why do so few seem to care about these issues or about this (ongoing) oppression?

    We have a lot of work to do. I am glad that there are people like you out there doing the work. Your students are indeed blessed to have you. God help us all to do the work of advocacy that still needs to be done.

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      Bill, I could ramble on forever about your response. I have come, in my own identity process, to appreciate and value my own identity – even as a privileged, dominant culture person. I have to be able to value who I am. But I must also recognize the oppression people like me have (and continue) imposed. I have several thoughts. First, I think so very many people went forward, not recognizing how their faith was also embedded in their cultural values, and an inability to separate those. God is not culture bound. Yet our predecessors didn’t necessarily recognize that. In that sense, I think of Jesus words, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.”

      I also find that with my privilege comes both responsibility and opportunity. I can speak from a place of privilege and power on behalf of those who have not had the same access. I can open doors for others to walk through so that they may also speak for themselves. If I stay in the place of shame, I run the risk of being paralyzed. I also run the risk of not appreciating all that God has given me.

      Am I proud of my ancestors? Not all the time, for sure. But I can understand them. Their behavior makes sense. Fallen human beings who act out of self, not selflessness; who see ourselves first, and not others. People who act out of pride or fear or greed. It’s not necessarily justified by any means. But Thank God for the grace that He extends to us. And I am thankful for those who have the courage, like you, to grieve over our historical and current crimes and strive to love differently.

  3. mm rhbaker275 says:

    Julie, excellent and thought-provoking post…

    You make a valid observation, “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.” You answer the dilemma in your post – the West is not listening.

    As long as the West perceives of itself as “the center” of learning, there will be no reciprocal exchange. Tite Tiénou refers to this as the “dialogue of the deaf” between the West and the rest of the world. (Tite Tiénou, “Christian Theology in an Era of World Christianity” in Craig Ott and Harold Netland, eds. “Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006, p.46) Tiénou goes on to say, “Today, America’s bad listening skills prevent it from hearing the third world.” (p.48) The outcome is the inability for theologians to adequately address both: the contextual (local) concerns and issues and the theologically universal dimensions of Christianity.

    Julie, you have really stimulated an important discussion – there is so much more to say on this – but assignments and deadlines loom large…!

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      Ron – more and more I have come to deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness, and how much you have read! I wonder about our poor listening skills. Do you think it is because we are arrogant, or perhaps we are so anxious to speak and be heard that we don’t recognize others? For me, so much comes back to our fallen nature. We are sinners, saved by grace. Apart from Christ, all of us, from all cultures and nations, struggle. I think for us as Americans specifically, we have this notion of being best, and we fight like anything to hold onto this notion of superiority. It scares us not to be best. But again, for me, I find not being “on top” frees me up so much more. There really is freedom in being a servant – a slave – of Christ.

  4. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Julie, you hit this one out of the park. Have you ever thought about teaching or writing on this subject? 🙂

    Your last paragraph closed the post perfectly. In spite of our wrongness, in spite of our stupidity, in spite of our need to conquer, the Gospel still spread. Jesus is still known in many parts of the world. Praise God that He can undo our stupidity and reign over hearts and minds. How great is our God. Incredible.

    • mm Julie Dodge says:

      Oh Ashley – thank you so much for making me laugh. I might just have to think about that teaching thing… 🙂

      But you also highlight what I find the most beautiful thing. In spite of us, God is faithful.

      As Paul writes to Timothy (II Tim 2):
      11 It is a trustworthy statement:
      For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
      12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
      If we [d]deny Him, He also will deny us;
      13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.

      That last line has always given me great peace and freedom. He will always be faithful. It’s who He is.

  5. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Julie, Excellent post! I agree with you, evangelical churches in the Global South and Global North have a lot to learn from each other despite their economic, social and theological differences. Like you, I do find it my responsibility to support the strong development of indigenous culture and practices, which we can use to make Jesus known. Thank you.

  6. Richard Volzke says:

    Julie,
    Great post – I appreciate your honesty. I think that colonization is a good thing. We can find examples of this throughout world and biblical history. For example, we see this when the Hebrews moved into the Promised Land and introduced them to God. I know that colonization can have both positive and negative effects on the indigenous population, but change is a constant fact of life. When missionaries go into an area they introduce change and we pray that it is beneficial to those individuals.
    Richard

  7. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    Thanks for this post, Julie.
    The miracle is that good happens at all. Incontrovertible proof of God right there! 🙂
    I concur overall and there’s so much that could be offered.
    I will just offer that like with our salvation, all of this with healthy “fear and trembling.”

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