Peace Scholar Post: “Peace Scholars Seminar: (Maybe Missionaries)” by Alexandra Hjerpe

Peace Scholars Seminar: (Maybe Missionaries)

One of the most compelling articles we read for class was Marianne Gullestad’s “Chapter 2: Establishing a Goodness Regime” in Picturing Pity: Pitfalls and Pleasures in Cross Cultural Communication – Image and Word in a North Cameroon Mission, 2007. 

On reading this article, I found myself in a tension between insider and outsider, advocate and accused through the reading. How do you approach a criticism of missionary work from a social justice narrative, as a social-justice-peacemaker-missionary?

Gullestad is an anthropologist: the article is an analytical, rational criticism weighing the benefits—both intentional and unintentional—of the mechanics, money and media behind missionary work. A significant portion of the article examined the history of missionary work (and the missionaries, and their chosen mission fields, and their execution of mission work), noting the transitions from evangelism-first to the more recent service-as-an-end action of belief.

Several of Gullestad’s points aroused the social justice advocate within me and my classmates; the usual list of grievances were listed, from the lack of equal dignity towards those “served” to total cultural dissolve. Noting the limitations of Westernized institution and activities, the chapter examines the changes and dependencies of local culture as it focuses on the outer action; focusing on the inner workings of the church, Gullestad reveals a network of organizations “feeding” off of a rich, steady crowed of spiritual (financial) body. The usage of media in doing this—especially photographs—is noted in this critical assessment.

The text resonated with many of my frustrations and realizations with evangelistic mission work which I had developed over years in conversation with others less-than-supportive of evangelism, and in my own mission experience. The previous summer I had worked on an Indian Reservation in the USA for a Christian-service organization, providing a safe-house with a secure, friendly, nutritious (and, of course, Bible-story sharing) environment for children living in an intensely stressful environment. Knowing the reasons Gullestad listed and more, I was happy to talk with my peace-scholar friends and professors about living on the Rez—but leaving out the details that I was a part of a mission organization. I was hesitant to associate myself with the church, with it’s mechanics of money, mechanics and media so exposed so responsible for the damage of others—enough that some would call the church an “institution of structural violence” without hesitating. And in my time on the Rez hosting youth groups and service teams of incoming American youth throughout the summer, I had witnessed the best and the worst of evangelistic ministry. In the worst of times, a degrading, rich-giver-gives-and-poor-Indian-takes action occurred, with little dialogue and positive intercultural exchange.

Yet, in the best times, a mutually dignifying, equal give-and-take relationship began between two individuals from on and off the Rez, based on a sense of compassion and respect. Something humanizing happened; something that was not a temporary, evangelism-focused exchange, but a sustained, engaging friendship. Such relationships were rare, but extremely beautiful; they were the stuff of peacemaking and empathy, of exchange and transformation. A change and a humility was required of both individuals; a perspective of awareness, and approach of respect was necessary. This empowered both the giver and the receiver, and focused on a target outside of finances and faith coupe.

So could mission work—and missionaries—only be mechanisms of injustice and structural violence? Could nothing be said for the benefits?Is it possible that missionary service is still a valid action—or is it far to complex, too political, and to violent to vulnerable individuals and communities? I don’t think so.

Gullestad’s article is not at all a condemnation of missionary work; in fact, part of the text outlines the unique benefits of the mission sphere, including academic freedom for youth and spiritual independence for women. In its criticism, the text is an observational, unapologetic listing of the conflicts, benefits, and paradoxes of mission work. In her anthropologic work, Gullestad calls for greater responsibility and awareness of missionary impact, as well as financial and social transparency in mission works.

As a missionary-peacemaker-advocate, I receive such information as critical understanding of the work that the church does, internalize it, and use this education and awareness to make the most informed, responsible, sensitive and ethical actions possible. I recognize the potential for violence in local communities and seek actively to reduce this in whatever ways necessary. I recognize a history that has gradually changed to be more inclusive, more responsive, and more empathetic, as well as more service-end focused than evangelism-end focused, and seek to continue this tend. I note the monetary, academic, social and political influences behind missionaries and mission work, see myself as a part of this machinery, and learn to acknowledge these but allow immediate interactions with other human beings to take precedence. And I choose to recognize that only with an intentional, focused balance of listening, humility, awareness and responsiveness can I really approach others, changing the missionary landscape to giving-and-receiving rather than a one-way relationship. Isn’t that what the faith behind missionary work calls for in the first place? Isn’t that what being a peacemaker is all about as well? Are they not in pursuit of the very same goal: to bring great peace to all the world?

One thing is very certain: the stressful socio-political complexity and precarious help-harm binary of interacting with others must not freeze peacemakers like missionaries from action. The path towards equality is an ethical minefield, and we are all certain to make mistakes; however, the costs are far too high to abandon all such relationships and beliefs for the fear of loss. Perhaps the key is to continue on in gentleness, awareness, and an overall willingness to learn, receive, and move on, together.

Alexandra’s entire blog:

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