This is an article from the September - October 2000 issue: A New Day

Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment

Why do missions seem to fail when they work at home among minorities like Native Americans but they often succeed fabulously "overseas"?This is a very significant question.

One weighty answer has to do with subtle assumptions that differ markedly whenever a missionary is on foreign soil, completely cut off from his own people and their ways.

Dear Reader,

This is not so much an issue about "American Indians" as it is about little understood and even mysterious clues to effective mission work anywhere in the world.

First, we have failed at missions in the United States.

Our national history may well be filled with little known but incredibly sacrificial mission outreach to the tribal peoples encountered by European settlers.

We think of the Jesuits among the Hurons in Canada, or Catholic missionaries in Florida at the time of Puritan missionaries in New England, or Catholic missionaries in the American Southwest from New Mexico to California and in the rest of what was then Mexico.

We can relive the labors of ingenious Moravian missionaries who taught forest Indians the artisan skills of Europe and created whole cities such as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

How can we say we failed?

Well, where are the Bethlehem Indians today? And, of the hundreds of tribal societies, not a single example exists of a truly indigenous, virile church movement.

Two obstacles we faced can be listed. One is obvious. One is subtle.

The obvious obstacle was that the settlers in general did not share the good will of the missionaries toward the native peoples. In the long run the masses of immigrants from Europe simply pushed out and pushed down and, quite honestly, proceeded to exterminate the native peoples.

In all of the Western hemisphere the citizens of the United States have conducted the most thorough and successful genocide. Ninety percent of the indigenous population was slain. It is a wonder that any of the indigenous peoples remain at all.

By contrast, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil have all done a much better job of preserving the indigenous peoples, even though their efforts were also woefully flawed.

How flawed? Missionaries there also had a similar and very subtle problem. Ultimately the swelling colonial population put the task of mission in a very different light. It even allowed the missionaries themselves to assume that while it is unthinkable that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," it was equally unthinkable that these tribal peoples could survive and thrive without becoming like the colonists themselves in speech, dress, and way of life. Christianization generally meant civilization along European lines.

The Indians, on their part, were quick to take on the European's horses, liquor, guns and even the scalping techniques which they learned, it is said, from the Dutch colonists. The Indians were very bright and quick to learn. To this day the Mohawk nation is very skilled in high level building construction.

However! While both home and foreign missionaries often had similar ideas of strategy, it was only the foreign missionaries whose own ways were completely outnumbered by the indigenous peoples with whom they worked. That is, foreign missionaries are the ones who have been forced to make greater concessions to the native cultures.

For example, L. L. Legters, one of the two initiators of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, bailed out of his U.S. field among the Apaches and resolutely went to Guatemala to see if he could find backing for his angry rejection of the stateside assumption that missionaries working in the United States did not need to learn the language of the tribal peoples. That was a widely held assumption in patriotic 1895.

There in Guatemala he found several key missionaries who also believed that learning the native language was absolutely essential. He also found an intelligent, determined and resourceful young man named Cameron Townsend who took that ball and ran with it to generate what is today the world's largest Protestant mission structurethe Wycliffe Bible Translators.

However, (2) Even in Mexico, where Wycliffe and other missions working in the native languages have had extensive impact, we today see tens of thousands of Tzeltal Indians fighting for their lives between the crushing forces of a strident, Pope-backed Catholicism and an impassioned Zapatista revolutionary movement. Tens of thousands of Evangelical families have been forced to relocate, and their future is not at all secure. This sounds very similar to the history of U.S. tribals, does it not?

What is the answer? Due to population and cultural pressures, tribals today are not ableand cannot be forcedto remain as tribals. That is no more a solution for them than for the European colonists to try to survive by adopting the way of life their fathers had followed centuries before.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of perplexing wisdom in Terry LeBlanc's article (p. 21) deploring purely economic "uplift" among his people. His people are or were closer to a "sustainable" relation to the environment than are the thoughtless, energy-hungry, labor-saving patterns of the "modern" world.

For example, it is not "sustainable" for everyone in the world to have a chauffeur for the simple reason that in such a situation even chauffeurs would have to have a chauffeur. We can't promote this idea as a universal pattern.

A second example is more down to earth. If the whole world were suddenly to achieve refrigerated air conditioning, all the world's oil reserves would be exhausted in a matter of days. This is not a sustainable way of life. No use teaching tribals around the world how to employ air conditioners and give up their own ingenuity in alternate technologies if in fact it is to tempt them out on a branch being sawed off. (Right today, in Pasadena, California, the city tells us we have to turn off our refrigerated air conditioners by 4 p.m. or we'll blow a massive fuse.)

Maybe a Roman emperor could make meals of hummingbird tongues, but he could not recommend this practice to all his people. Many modern ways are simply not sustainable on a world level.

One Step Further. I do not doubt that Ray Carlson's exciting approach (p. 20) could totally occupy all the young Native Americans with jobs. After all, five times that number in federal prisons have been readily put to work effectively all day in prison enterprises that are part and parcel of the American economy. But if "jobs for Native Americans" is all we achieve, does this not simply erase any potential for a cultural contribution by the native societies?

In the first place, wouldn't it be safer for a Native American to get a job with WalMart than to find out how to borrow money to set up a one-man store next door? But in either case, mixing in American society, there is little room for any kind of significant contribution from the original culture.

Second, we have only half succeeded in our foreign missions.

But overseas the tables are turned. There, the culture of the missionary is in the minority. The distinct possibility is that instead of the individual "natives" being extracted into the missionary's culture, selective features of the foreign culture are assimilated into the native culture.

In foreign missions the field peoples tend to retain their language despite a great interest in English and some sort of tie to the outside world. Thus, their own cultural vehicles are more likely to survive. Intact Chinese extended families are the economic backbone of much of Asia, even though they traffic in the latest artifacts from the West.

By contrast, Chinese families (or Korean and Japanese, etc.) that migrate to the United States tend to lose their more Biblical extended family structures. Their traditional respect for elders begins to evaporate. Social Security now becomes a necessity instead of naturally depending on their children. The great potential value of America being able to learn from Asians goes down the tubes when we see Asians simply becoming Americans.

Except for the home-school movement, Americans have not yet figured out that the extensive stratification of our social structure is not merely unhealthy but is the source of perhaps 80 percent of the violence in our crime-ridden cities.

In any case, while there are over 300 denominations in Africa of Western-origin, there are close to 10,000 made-in-Africa denominations, encompassing 32 million people. Somehow the Gospel got loose from the missionary culture, and in general missionaries did not expect this and don't know what to do about it.

This issue of Mission Frontiers thus presents a staggering challenge which bears strongly on our overseas "triumphs," substantial and legitimate though they may be.

Read one of our writers superb and nuanced update on India (p. 28). He ends up discussing the true "Indian" issue there. What does our faith look like in the clothing of a Hindu society? India is another place where, as is reported in the latest World Christian Encyclopedia (2nd Edition), there are 34 million earnest and authentic followers of Christ who have not chosen the foreign clothing of the White Man's Christianity.

Those are the true Indians. But our "American Indians" have also kept their distance from the White Man's Christianity. Japan does not yet have a truly Japanese form of the faith either. On and on. But, if Native Americans like Richard Twiss (pp. 8, 12) with more faith than anger can find the faith within their non-white culture, they can lead the way around the world in that same transformation!

What a switch! From sullen, inaccessible non-converts to active, enterprising international missionaries!


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