Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work

By Sarah Braasch

I leaned over to one of my teammates. “Why are there so many fat, white people on the plane? We’re going to Ethiopia. We’re flying Ethiopian Airlines.”

“They’re missionaries,” she responded, completely uninterested.

“What?” I gasped. It had never occurred to me. I was not pleased.

Everything became so obvious. The Texas drawls. The recitations of Bible verses. The prayers. The seasoned braggarts recounting their prior trips to the Horn of Africa. The newbies airing out their nerves. They couldn’t wait to get to Africa to start saving souls for Jesus. I wasn’t sure I could take a full day of travel with a cabin full of bombastic Texas Christian missionaries, giddy with evangelical fervor. I tried to force myself to sleep.

As I slept on the plane, I dreamt of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The fifty or so pick-up trucks circling hundreds of cheerleaders as they moved into formation, spelling out the words, “How Y’all Doin’?” The firecrackers exploding over the international crowd of tens of thousands. Then-President Clinton’s pasted on smile, which looked more like a grimace of pain and mortification.

When I awoke, I felt troubled. I didn’t want to be a missionary or an apostle. The very thought conjured up excruciating childhood memories of door-to-door witnessing as a Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t want to be an imperialistic colonizing Westerner, bringing the good news to a nation of Godforsaken heathen hordes. I wasn’t bringing them a religious message, but I was bringing them a universal human rights message. I was bringing them the good news of individualism and democracy and rule of law. I was bringing them the light of women’s rights and constitutionalism and secularism. Wasn’t I?

I leaned over to my teammate again. “We’re not like them, are we? I mean, the missionaries. We’re not like the missionaries, are we?”

“Yes, I’m afraid we are,” she replied with the world-weary wisdom of a millennia-old sage.

“But, we’re not going there to impose our beliefs on them. We’re going there to learn, to study their political and legal systems. I mean, yes, ultimately we intend to make policy suggestions in a report, but it’s not the same thing, is it?”

“Hmmm. Well, ultimately, we think we know better than they do how they should be running their country, so, really, it is the same thing,” she said with tenderness and as little condescension as possible.

“Really?” I looked at her plaintively, as if I expected her to grant me absolution.

“Really.” And, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say it wasn’t hers to give.

“Then why do you do it?” I asked her in all seriousness.

“Because I can’t do nothing, you know?”

“Yes, I do know.”

“I think it’s good to constantly question your own motives, to have that interior monologue, to struggle constantly with that ugly truth of human rights work, that, ultimately, we are going to a land not our own and telling a people whom we do not know how they should be living their lives,” she said encouragingly.

“I like to think of it as liberating the oppressed. We’re not telling them how to live their lives. We’re saying that they have the right to decide for themselves how to live their lives.”

“But, they’re already doing that. They just don’t place the same value on individualism that we do.”

“I don’t buy that. I just don’t. I think that that cultural relativist stance is very convenient for those in power who wish to maintain the status quo. And, everywhere I’ve been people are struggling desperately for their individual rights. And, anyway, groups don’t have rights. People do.”

I spent the rest of the trip ruminating on this conversation. As soon as we were in the hotel shuttle van, I was thrilled to be rid of the missionaries. I didn’t want to see another American, let alone another Texan, for the rest of our stay. Then we arrived at the Ghion Hotel.

The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness. The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies. Throngs of white couples and families were milling around with their newly adopted Ethiopian newborns and toddlers. Even the youngest of these infants had huge, terrified eyes, as if they understood that they were being severed from their kindred irreconcilably. And, the missionaries were there. Many of the same faces that I had had the misfortune to encounter on the plane were there. They attacked the front desk with the same self-important hubris with which they attacked the un-baptized.

There was something about the entire scene that turned my stomach. The reek of colonialism sickened me: Ethiopia as baby and soul factory. I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. I was starting to hate myself by association.

We took refuge in the sanctum of our hotel room. My roommate immediately fell into a deep slumber. I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution.

After my bath, my cigarettes were calling to me. I headed out to the lobby. I ordered a Coke from the bar and sat myself at the most isolated table in the room. There was a family with school-aged children watching the television at the opposite end of the room. They were obviously missionaries. They wore the telltale earnest expressions, sensible footwear and frumpy clothing. I didn’t pay them any heed. I was concentrating on enjoying the novelty of my indoor cigarette.

Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?

“Are you in our group?” she asked me.

I tried to maintain a benign expression. “No, I’m here with my human rights clinic from my law school.”

She sat herself down beside me. “Oh, wow. That’s so interesting. Did you know that this is a Muslim country?” She looked like she could barely contain herself, she was so excited to get past the small talk and begin her theocratic spiel.

“Well, actually, it’s a secular country. I mean they have a secular Constitution with freedom of religion. On paper, anyway.” I can never bring myself to be really cruel or rude to someone, even if they are being obnoxious themselves. It’s just not in my nature.

“Did you know that they chop people’s hands off for stealing here?” Ugh.

“Actually, Ethiopia has had a large Christian population almost from the advent of Christianity. They’re Coptic. Have you heard of the Solomonic line of kings?”

“That doesn’t sound Christian,” she responded. I was so not in the mood. I stared blankly off into the distance and blew smoke in her direction. It didn’t seem to help.

“Are you Christian?” she asked me. She was eager to get a head start on her conversions to show off to her companions, and I’m sure I cut a far less intimidating figure, what with my white skin and Western demeanor.

“I was raised Christian, as a Jehovah’s Witness.”

She winced, “They’re not Christian.”

“But now I’m an atheist. And, a human rights activist.”

She winced again. She looked a bit fearful, like she had bitten off more than she knew how to chew. This was an unanticipated challenge that had not been addressed in her preparatory apologetics and theocratic ministry education. She bit her lip. She decided to try again.

“Our church does human rights work too. Especially for women and children. Of course, we don’t call it human rights work. We just call it God’s work.”

Both my cigarette and my patience were finished. I bade her good night and headed off to bed.

I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing. Why had I allowed her to upset me so much? Why was I so indignant? Of course the missionaries are obnoxious and ignorant and embarrassing. Of course they are doing more harm than good. Of course their barely disguised self-interest belies any superficial attempts at philanthropy. But, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was so personally offended. Was it simply a matter of being forced to grapple with the morality of human rights work?

I couldn’t turn my brain off. I was incensed. I replayed the conversation over and over again in my mind, and each time I came up with wittier, more acerbic and more biting comebacks. I wished that I had screamed or yelled. I wished that I had shamed her into packing up and going home. How did she not understand the harm she was causing?

Spreading the gospel is not human rights work. Missionaries spread ignorance, hatred, death, disease, famine, overpopulation and war. They spread AIDS. They propagate the sexual slavery of women and girls. They encourage the torture of witches. They are the apocalypse.

I think the missionaries are right. They are doing God’s work. And exactly what kind of work is God doing in Africa? Apparently, he instructs parents to pour acid onto their children’s faces to rid them of demons at the behest of church leaders. He leads parents to abandon their albino children, because they have been condemned as witches by their churches. He sends missionaries into communities that practice sorcery to teach them to torture one another for so doing as the Bible demands. And the American churches that established these Christian communities in Africa? They disclaim any responsibility for these atrocities. But, what happened to God? Apparently, God left when the missionaries did.

And, then, it hit me. Christian missionaries are undermining our ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. Undermining it to such an extent, that most of the world rejects international human rights as a strictly Western, and explicitly Christian, ideology. To the majority of the world, it is tantamount to the venom and vitriol spewed forth by the Christian ignoramuses imposing themselves upon the heathen Third World nations.

This phenomenon threatens not only the credibility and viability of international human rights organizations and activists from the West, but also of homegrown, grass roots movements within developing nations. Their governments attribute a Christian (i.e. Western) agenda to all human rights activists. This has become a particularly virulent epidemic in Muslim nations, especially for women’s rights activists.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, for most of the world, state and church are one and the same. There is no separation between religion and government. Thus, not only are Christian missionaries undermining human rights activism around the world, they are undermining the US government’s ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. (This wasn’t made any better by the previous US administration’s explicitly Christian agenda.) Christian missionaries, unfortunately, are viewed as an aspect of US foreign policy. I shudder to think. Throw in some overt Christian proselytization by the US military, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We don’t need anyone to think that the US military or government is doing God’s work. I think we need a campaign to educate the international community that Christian missionaries represent only themselves and not very well at that. We need to start reminding the rest of the world that we are indeed a secular state, just like France. And, not like Texas.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • thoughtcounts Z

    This is wonderful, Sarah. Thank you.

  • PJ

    Not all fat, white, Texans are missionaries. Or Christians for that matter. Just sayin’. I for one am evidence of that.

  • HP

    Bravo! Just to focus on one aspect of your tale, I’ve been reading a lot about the witch persecutions in Africa, but very few connect it to the activities of Western missionaries. Media reports are spotty, and journalists refuse to connect the dots. Either they treat it as “those wacky blacks,” or they minimize it relative to the Renaissance persecutions in Europe. What’s going on in Africa regarding witch persecution is no different in kind or in scope than what happened in Europe and North America in the 16th-17th centuries, and the exact same fucking Western World Protestants and Catholics are behind it. The same ideology that tortured and killed people in Madrid and London and Oslo and Salem then are torturing and killing people in Addis Ababa and Mombassa and Lagos and Nairobi today.

    Witch burnings are one of those things where comfortable Westerners, through the veil of time, hubristically say, “Man, if I’d been around back in witch-burning days, I’d be kicking ass on the Church.” Meanwhile, those same people see what’s going on in Africa, and dismiss it as tribal superstition or racial backwardness. There is a transnational Holocaust going on in Africa right now, one “witch” at a time, aided and abetted by Western missionaries (including, notably, Sarah Palin’s church in Wassila, AK), that is murdering and torturing women, children, and the elderly in the name of Christian superstion, and no one is lifting a fucking finger as near as I can tell.

    I hate to say it in 2009, but I believe that Atheists and Skeptics need to make fighting African witch-hunts their top priority, over Creationism and 1st-Amendment fights. Yeah, it’s nice to have a humanist display in the courthouse, or another bus-ad campaign, but dammit, in Africa, human beings are being turned into smoke over Christian superstition. You want a fight? That’s your fight.

  • epicskeptic

    Interesting. Just the other day at work I had a guy check in that was born and raised in Ethiopia. Of course I asked him dozen of questions. One of the questions was “why do Ethiopians have so many kids when you have famine every ten years?”. He responded that since there isn’t a retirement plan or 401k or something like that, they have many kids because that is their retirement plan, if you have 10 kids, then hopefully a few will be good adults and take care of mom and dad when they can’t take care of themselves. When I asked about aid workers, he said that the people from the nordic states do all the work (sweden/denmark/norway). British, Americans and everyone else are basically there on vacation trying to run things. He also said international aid is a big scam. It’s cronyism at it’s best.

  • Antigone

    I’m really sick of throwing “fat” in there as a descriptor to indicate displeasure with someone. Let people be the size they are without judgment. No, there isn’t that much evidence to prove that fat people are so much more unhealthy than the skinny people.

  • MissCherryPi

    I enjoyed this post, but since becoming a fan of Amanda Marcotte I can’t really hate on Texans with a clean conscience anymore. Huston just elected a lesbian mayor, for example.

  • Valhar2000

    PJ, you are not fat: you are just big-boned.

  • Valhar2000

    I’m really sick of throwing “fat” in there as a descriptor to indicate displeasure with someone. Let people be the size they are without judgment.

    That sounds like a load of fat-talk to me.

  • jaime

    i’m curious what you think about female mutilation and petophilia in band societies. if you took a trip to one of the tribes that practices these rituals in some fashion, would you be content if they knew their options (about the inhumanity of such practices and their choice of independence), or continue to work with them until they stopped these behaviors ?

  • D

    Now this is excellent! Wow! I was floored, I gotta say, and the struggle with the eerie similarities between legitimate human rights work and the fetid parody that is missionary work reminds me of when Ebonmuse had to talk me down with the fact that the religious-minded, at the end of the day, are just plain wrong. It’s hard, because civilization runs on pure agreement, and all our morality is ultimately stories we tell ourselves – but their stories are out-and-out lies, whereas we can at least be honest about the fact that we “merely” seek to be a damn sight less awful. It’s tough to be comfortable with that uncertainty, to walk in doubt with confidence, and it takes a lot of hard work to be prepared to see every situation with fresh eyes when the situation calls for it. Sounds like you came out ahead, though. Keep up the great work!

  • Ritchie

    Wow, that certainly made for very sobering reading.

    I was watching a programme a few days ago about the world’s sky-rocketing population. As usual it is the third world countries who are bearing the strain of providing for the privileged West – a trend that’s almost guaranteed to continue.

    According to the programme makers, our best hope for a world with a stable population is womens’ rights and freely available contraception. In areas where women are educated and free to control their own fertility, brith rates are generally relatively stable.

    (That last paragraph sounds wrong – I don’t mean it is the responsibility of women to control the population size. I meant that equality among the sexes generally preceedes sensible birth rates.)

    But these are things which are, of course, being suppressed by Christian missionaries. As the oppressed third world has to cope with providing for an exponentially growing global population, ‘God’s work’ may well be the death of us all.

    Bleak, huh?

  • Steve Bowen

    This applies to so many western adventures abroad. We really need to export secularism before anything else.
    Sarah, beautifully written. I’m not sure I have any answers to the other theme of whether western perceptions of individualism and human rights are just cultural colonialism once exported. Where does respect for cultural diversity end and cultural relativism begin?

  • Toni

    I’m a “fat” person and I think I understand what Sarah is trying to say. It’s pretty arrogant for someone who is obviously well-fed to go into a country of the poor and starving and have the audacity to tell them how to live. Personally, I would be embarrassed and ashamed to show myself among them. What happened to “don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” (or something like that)?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Not all fat, white, Texans are missionaries. Or Christians for that matter. Just sayin’. I for one am evidence of that.

    Seconded by this Grand Prairie native.

  • Yahzi

    “Well, ultimately, we think we know better than they do how they should be running their country”

    Nobody questions that we know how to make steel or airplanes or computers better than they do. Why isn’t it obvious that we know how to run a government better than they do? Running a government is a technological problem. We are technologically advanced. Social technologies are still technologies.

    Everything benefits from scientific inquiry, even morality and the art of happiness. Does that mean everyone must eat at McDonalds and wear 3-piece suits? No, of course not: those are not products of science. They are merely cultural prejudices.

    The systems that produce clean, cheap restaurants and affordable clothing, however, are universally applicable. The systems that produce accountability and fairness are not culturally unique. Everybody wants those things. And we (demonstrably) know how to build the systems that deliver those goods better than many.

    D said “morality is ultimately stories we tell ourselves”

    No, it’s more than that. Monkeys have the basics of morality too, but they don’t tell stories. Fairness is encoded into our genes.

  • Dan Gilbert

    What a wonderful piece of writing. I was drawn into your feelings of frustration and anger and fully sympathize with your getting upset at the evangelist proselytizing to you.

  • RandomLutheran

    Sarah, I hope that you are doing good work in Africa. As a Christian, it makes want to vomit that some evangelical leaders are exporting our stupid culture wars to such disastrous results. I’m not sure your characterization of mission work is very holistic though. While I’ve never been to Africa, the several mission experiences I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of have been genuine experiences of helping people that needed it and were thankful for it. I would ask that you avoid painting Christians with too broad of a brush- many of us see the bigotry that you see as antithetical to our beliefs. If more American Christians were actually cognizant of some of these atrocities, I believe the reaction you would get would not fit the stereotype you have constructed here. Count me as one working to produce that awareness, and to obliterate your stereotype.



  • Matt

    Sarah, that was a moving, if sobering, recount of your experience in Ethiopia. Thank you for sharing it.

  • D

    Advocating for women to be able to control their fertility is not sexist, and nobody with half a brain and an appropriately thick skin will care about the particulars of how you put it. Birth control is everyone’s responsibility, but robbing women of options once that arbitrary boundary of conception has been crossed (putting the boundary there is what’s arbitrary) is pretty explicitly sexist because it’s the fact of being a woman that makes this a potential problem in the first place.

    As for the Third World becoming our working class, the problem is that we’re exporting the work without exporting the standard of living. But now that Americans don’t have those shit jobs (and a lot of them really are shit jobs), we’re pretty much pouring money into other countries. To be honest, I don’t see it as fundamentally different from the industrial revolution (the first time it happened, anyway), except that our generation really ought to know better. But as usual, undirected evolution favors short-term gains over long-term planning – in the long run, things will work out or crash and burn, but it would sure be nice if we could make things less awful along the way, I think.

    @ Yahzi (#15): So what if fairness is encoded into our genes? That just makes it a story we’re genetically programmed to tell ourselves. For clarity, I meant simply that the particulars of an individual’s or culture’s morality – specific ideas of what is fair/good/etc. – are in our heads. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t matter, I’m just saying we should be honest with ourselves that “what is right” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans at the end of the day, unless we make it matter. The point is that it’s not enough to talk a big game, we have to see to it that the story comes true (which is why we need to punish war criminals, cough cough…).

    Although I suppose that I could have been clearer if I said “ethics” instead of “morality.” Though all animals display some sort of code of conduct which could be described as their “morality” (with the tiny assumption that how they tend to live is how they ought to live, which I’ll grant for the sake of argument), what I meant is that we use our language to actually try to figure out what we mean by “good.” So, to rephrase, “Doing ethics is ultimately stories we tell ourselves.” Better?

  • Lucas

    Obesity is a sign of lower socio-economic class; sure, rich people can be fat, but if you put 100 fat people in a room, most will be lower-middle class or working poor, especially people of color. It’s only going to get worse as economic hardship and the ever-increasing cost of living leads us to try and get more cheap, garbage food out of our grocery dollar, leading to further dietary problems. As someone who grew up on free lunch and food stamps, I don’t appreciate someone with a legal background, who will never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, speaking ill of my class.



  • Ritchie

    But now that Americans don’t have those shit jobs (and a lot of them really are shit jobs), we’re pretty much pouring money into other countries.

    (Hmmm, why doesn’t that work for me anymore? Anyone any ideas??)

    Another sad situation. We in the West are now buying farmland in third world so the farmers there work for us, growing crops for an export market, but depending on charitable food aid themselves instead of simply being self-sufficient.

    As an aside though, I’m not sure that the USA is particularly guilty of this – it has a lot of land, and I think it might actually produce enough to meet its own high demands for food. But China and Europe certainly are.

    In any case, with the church supressing contraception and forgeign governments owning their farmland, the world’s poorest countries are certainly poorly equipped to feed a booming population if it just relies on charitable aid.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Try it with instead of brackets.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    … with “>” and “<” instead …

  • Ritchie

    Try it with instead of brackets.

    Try it with instead of brackets.

  • Ritchie

    Oooh, that last one worked. Thanks. :)

  • Yahzi


    I’m not sure what you’re getting at. My point was just that we do not have to surrender to moral relativism: there is an objective good for human beings that is defined by our biological evolution. It’s not just stuff we make up arbitrarily.

    Uncovering and implementing this good is something we have to do ourselves. In fact, it is the uniquely human endeavor. Although I agree that if we fail to do this, the only consequence is that our lives will suck. There’s no cosmic reason humanity should be as happy as possible, or even exist – that’s on us.

  • jemand

    yeah, the whole “they just put less value on individuality” argument is shit since the ones who are DECIDING that their society will put more value on “collective” than “individual” are also the ones set up at the top of the totem pole to get the most benefit of it, and the individuals in the society never have the chance to *not* be subsumed into the collective. Lincoln didn’t just say the slave states placed a different value on individual and collective… because the ones who *decide* that are the ones who benefit, and the one who sacrifice most, are the ones who are powerless to change the status quo on their own.

    But that’s pretty much the same dynamic you see ANYWHERE where there are human rights abuses.

  • D

    What “surrender” are you talking about, I wonder? And what “objective good” are you talking about? It sounds like the good you’re talking about is relative to and contingent upon our biology. How is that objective at all? I definitely buy into the idea that “what is good” is “what is good for us” (whatever we in fact are), but how we define “us” is a moving target. Whether your “us” is merely yourself, your family, your friends, your tribe, your town, your nation, your race, your culture, your species, or your planet, “the good” will always be defined relative to the in-group. That’s because “good” is a word we made up, and it does not correspond to “a thing in the world” that we can study independent of other things.

    This is not moral relativism, though. Moral relativism, to my understanding, is that “the good” is defined by cultures – it is “whatever we say it is,” but that’s really the good. It has a referent and that referent depends upon cultures. I’m saying that there’s no referent at all, and we need to do the hard work of continuously expanding our in-group and working towards values common to all while still respecting the individual’s pursuit of their own unique set of values (without fucking up anyone else’s shit). This is less morality and more politics, though. And I’m not seeing where “objective good” comes into play here, I just see arbitrary values being met as non-competitively as possible. If that’s what you mean by “objective good,” well, then I guess we just have different ideas of what “objective” means.

  • Irene

    Nobody questions that we know how to make steel or airplanes or computers better than they do. Why isn’t it obvious that we know how to run a government better than they do? Running a government is a technological problem. We are technologically advanced. Social technologies are still technologies.

    I’m the champion of X. I define everything as X. Therefore, I’m the champion of everything.

  • AnonaMiss

    More than it giving real aid a bad name, I consider religious aid appalling because it’s aid with strings attached. I’m reminded of the stories I heard after the big tsunami in southeastern Asia, when churches were sending missionaries over to “help rebuild” the homes and lives of the people affected – but they were only helping Christians, and actively advertising it to the people there. Buying souls is one thing when you’re bribing the rich with further luxury; but offering food and shelter to a starving homeless man, contingent upon his conversion, is sickeningly coercive.

  • MS Quixote

    And, not like Texas.

    Sure seems to be a Texas-sized amount of T-envy on this site!

    HOOK ‘EM!

  • joanna

    As much as the philosophy behind missionary work is repulsive to me, this article doesn’t match up with my personal experience at all. Most of the white people I met in Tanzania were missionaries, and I did get tired of everyone assuming I was a missionary because of my race. But most of the hospitals (and especially the good ones) were founded by missionaries and staffed with missionary doctors. Most of the missionaries I knew were extremely committed (living for years/whole life away from their homeland) to helping the country, and spent little, if any, time proselytizing. It makes me sad that god is their primary motivation instead of helping people. And it makes me sadder to watch Tanzanians associate wealth with whiteness and christianity and admire both in hopes of attaining wealth. But I still think the work missionaries do is important enough (and not being done by anybody else) to justify this.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Thanks so much for the comments.

    I have to admit — I’m not a huge fan of Texas. I’ve only been there a couple of times, and I had my civil rights violated each time. But, the missionaries in question were actually from Texas.

    The fat thing — I struggled with whether or not to include that adjective. I feared derailing the conversation. They were fat (or most of them anyway). But, I wasn’t trying to say that they are bad people, because they are fat. Not at all. I have yo yo’d my entire life between anorexic to a little more than pleasantly plump. It just seemed so emblematic of their grotesque insensitivity. Toni pretty much hit the nail on the head.

    Jaime, you bring up such a fantastic point.

    I struggle with that issue every day. I am a universalist. I am an anti-cultural relativist. I abhor the concept of group rights. But, I like to think of myself as a pragmatic idealist or an idealistic pragmatist.

    Translating one’s ideals into real world positive change without causing harm — that is the struggle of every human rights activist.

    I don’t like to think of universal human rights as categorizing certain behaviors as good or bad. As I’ve said before, morality is wholly subjective, and, therefore, has no place in the law.

    I am promoting the maximization of individual freedom, of individual liberty. If a grown woman with all of her cognitive faculties in the absence of coercion freely chooses to have her clitoris cut off — so be it.

    This conversation quickly becomes very esoteric and philosophical. What does it mean to freely choose something? No one is removed from his or her cultural context. It is a difficult issue. This I know.

    But, I do want to promote the rights of children as universal human rights. Children are not the property of their parents to be used and abused and indoctrinated and brain washed as their parents would wish. What does it mean to freely choose something as an adult after a childhood of inculcation. Again, a very difficult issue. Because, we also want, we need parents to instill values and lessons.

    It’s interesting that you choose the example of FGM. One of the other teams in my human rights clinic worked with a grassroots org in Sierra Leone working to combat FGM. Basically, their conclusions were that we have a long road to travel. But, probably a methodical, grassroots approach is best (in conjunction with top down efforts to change the laws). Slowly, slowly mind sets are being altered, communities are being educated. The ritual is being replaced with other rites of passage into womanhood. FGM is often a foundational element of a society’s economy as well. Women and girls are still too often only economically viable in the context of marriage. If a family knows that their daughters will only be marriageable if they undergo FGM, and the family is struggling to survive, it’s hard to judge them too harshly for their decision.

    So, you get a country to outlaw FGM (as Uganda actually just did). How do you enforce it? Are you providing other opps in education and employment for that generation of women and girls? Or, are you making them destitute? Are you making all of the country’s citizens aware of the new law and the consequences for defying it?

    Basically, there are no easy answers.

    I tend to support the paradigm of international human rights orgs providing support to local grassroots orgs along with international human rights orgs working on the national level with government officials and national level NGOs to get laws and constitutions changed. Use of whatever media outlets exist is important too.

    But, I guess those are my thoughts on the matter, as vague as they may seem. I think each situation requires an ad hoc analysis.

    I would strongly, strongly support and promote the idea and a law that no one may perform FGM on a girl until she is old enough to make the decision herself. (Again — what does that mean in a real world environment?) But, anything that encourages people not to impose unalterable acts upon children is a step in the right direction. Simply because they are not old enough to choose for themselves.

    Sorry — I’m rambling. But, yeah, in a nutshell — that’s how I view human rights work.

  • JulietEcho

    Thank you for writing this. I went on a mission trip with Teen Missions International when I was fourteen, and it pretty much embodied most of the negative stereotypes about missionaries. I spent three months in Zambia – a very impoverished country, dealing with an AIDS crisis, malaria, hunger, preventable diseases, etc. All we did there was *sing* to school children and church congregations. We presented the gospel message, sang about Jesus, and led the “Sinner’s Prayer” and moved on – without giving any actual aid, education or labor.

    I feel sick to my stomach when I read about people I grew up with raising money to go on similar mission trips today – all that money, all that potential manpower, wasted on spreading what’s at best a useless message and at worst a harmful one.

  • Kat

    Ha. I feel like the author and I are kindred spirits. I was also raised a JW, though I was never a believer in it, never got baptized and was always dubious of its doctrine, always questioning. I also eventually made the decision to admit to the world that I’m an atheist, after several years of wishy-washy declarations of agnosticism, and I also eventually graduated from law school.

  • Corvus

    More than it giving real aid a bad name, I consider religious aid appalling because it’s aid with strings attached.

    This! It also seems to me that some very dubious, if not racist, assumptions underly a lot of missionary work (specifically, ‘work spreading the gospel’). Like Ms. “Did you know this is a Muslim country?” above, who obviously did not think Ethiopia worthy of thirty seconds of research, which would tell her that Ethopia’s state religion (and religious majority, though the Muslim population has grown to the second largest religious group) has been Christianity SINCE THE 4TH CENTURY, making it one of the oldest Christian nations on the bloody planet. No. They must be heathen, because they’re dark and in Africa!

    I spent a few months in Tanzania a couple of summers back. My group was mostly having fun with the challenge of walking across the country (no, really- shore to shining shore), but we also handed out a few mosquito nets along the way because we were going a bit off the beaten path and we had the room. Our second day in from the coast, maybe 40 miles from the largest city in East Africa, we ran into missionaries who had shipped huge pallets of swahili bibles in from their church in the US, driven an hour from the big shiny buildings, and were handing them out to the poor, unsaved Africans. Talking to them I got the impression that they truly believed that they were in the dark heart of Africa where everyone was uneducated and primitive and no one had EVER heard the Good Word (TM). Yeah. I pointed out they could probably have bought the swahili bibles in the capitol, if not just up the road, and saved themselves the shipping… and hey, maybe they could spend the savings on something useful and appreciated, like mosquito nets! They didn’t like me after that.

  • Staceyjw

    Thanks Sarah, this was a great post.

    I live in Baja Mexico and see American xtian charities (NOT ALL, just lots)that provide desperately needed services, yet dedicate half of their time and resources to preaching. Mexico is already heavily Catholic, and the beliefs preached by the church, and these charities don’t seem to be in the interest of the population: ie- Abstinence only? No condoms? Patriarchy? Recipe for disaster, and I’m sure a contributing factor in the large and growing HIV/AIDS population in Tijuana.

    These groups just won’t let you eat their food without pushing their religion on you- and it’s irritating to see so much money wasted on preaching destructive message. And yes, I find xtian teachings to be actively destructive- just because they preach “gods great love” and “don’t steal or kill”, doesn’t make up for/fix the damage to society from the oppression of women, and the denial of rational thinking, among other things. Fundies like that they can preach their “ideals”, and make impoverished people live by their rules. It IS sick.


  • Entomologista

    There was a group of missionaries on my flight when I went to work in a lab in Panama this summer. They were all super excited and wearing matching t-shirts. As far as I can tell, the main goal of missionaries is to erase centuries of interesting history and replace it with their tacky schlock.

  • really?

    Gee, what a one-sided view on things. You bunch all missionaries into that sure no human rights activist has ever caused any of the issues that you point out above have they ?

    I can totally see your point of the ‘fat white americans coming over to impose views and ‘sort it all out’ . How terrible that there are people like that out there or who come across that way. However that is a ignorant human and I know several so called ‘human rights activits’ who fit right into that category but your article seems to just group all missionaries into that category and ignore the fact that at the end of the day there are numerious so called ‘do-goders’ wheather they call themselves Christian or Human rights activits that fall into this category.

    Maybe you were so upset at the conversation because of an inner struggle yourself.

    I think it very one sided and sad you think of all missionaries like that. I know one human who has dedicated her life to the people of cambodia. Yes she may be a christian and some may categorise her as a missionary but she has raised, not soley money which we all know doesnt solve things, but awareness from school kids to Directors who have come to Cambodia and worked togehter with these people… people who lived with branchs for roofs and have worked hard themselves with her help to now have a ‘hut’ to live in, a pig to breed and sell and bartor…She hasnt imposed herself on them, they have embraced her and she has helped them with their own goals..I have seen first hand the love that she has for them and they for her.. would you dare place her in that category and bring yourself above her level ??

    To say ‘Missionaries spread ignorance, hatred, death, disease, famine, overpopulation and war. They spread AIDS.’ is very synical and one-sided… I think how upset the genuine people who have given their lives to human rights efforts, who may fall into your missionary category must feel. Mother Theresa is looked upon by many as a missionary or infact the ‘modern day persona of the ultimate missionary – Jesus’ ..gee she did spread alot of hatred didnt she ??

  • Steve Bowen

    Mother Theresa is looked upon by many as a missionary or infact the ‘modern day persona of the ultimate missionary – Jesus’ ..gee she did spread alot of hatred didnt she ??

    You couldn’t have picked a better example of someone who valued souls above human suffering.

  • Ebonmuse

    Mother Teresa was not the noble soul that commenter #40 seems to think she was, which ironically just goes to further prove Sarah’s point.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Really? really misses the point.

    “Maybe you were so upset at the conversation because of an inner struggle yourself.”

    I must be a really really bad writer if I failed to get that point across. Unless I am grossly mistaken, I think I made it pretty clear in the essay that such is the case.

    Yes, the missionaries do horrible things and cause unspeakable harm. And, I am railing against that harm.

    But, I am really railing against the lack of any self awareness. I am really railing against the lack of any self reflection. I am really railing against the lack of any inner struggle on the part of the missionaries.

    They do not question the morality of their actions, because they think they are doing God’s Work.

    This is why they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the harm caused by their work, by God’s Work, because then they would have to acknowledge that they are not being directed by God at all.

    And, they are not just causing harm, they are not just failing to recognize that harm, but they are making the efforts of the real human rights activists even more difficult than they already are. They are turning the world against human rights activism. Both activists from the West and grassroots efforts.

  • Modusoperandi

    Ebonmuse “Mother Teresa was not the noble soul that commenter #40 seems to think she was, which ironically just goes to further prove Sarah’s point.”
    Hey! Don’t go ruining a comforting fiction with so-called “facts”! What have facts ever done for anybody? Nothing!

  • D

    I did some thinking about this essay, and changed my mind quite a bit on further reflection. My criticisms got long, so I put ‘em on my own soapbox. Hope I wasn’t too harsh; keep up the good work!

    Love and kisses,

  • Sarah Braasch


    Why did you have to give it a second read?

    Just kidding. No worries. Your criticisms are valid. We’re still BFFs.

    But, I would just point out a couple of things:

    I’m not writing an academic piece. It’s a polemical piece grounded in personal experience. Those are the works I find the most compelling. That’s what I gravitate towards. I thought about adding statistics, etc., but, honestly, I chose examples that have been front page news during the past few months, so I wasn’t too concerned about being called out on my facts.

    Second — yes — as I mention above — I am railing against the actual harm, but what I am really railing against is the lack of self awareness, the lack of reflection. (If you’re doing God’s work, if you are directed by God, then self awareness is not only not necessary — it’s detrimental to the effort.)

    If anything, I would have expected more of a fight on my claim that they are hindering the efforts of real human rights activists and turning the world against human rights and human rights activism — that seems to be the most ballsy claim — and the least justifiable on quantifiable facts. (But, actually, I do have some really good quotes from Sudanese and Pakistani women’s rights activists to back up that claim.)

    Anyhoo — my main point is that I didn’t set out to write a legalistic journal submission, but I wasn’t shooting for rant either. I like my description above — polemical piece grounded in personal experience.

  • D

    Fair enough, at that. I suppose that a little awareness of current events isn’t too much to ask, especially of readers here. And your point on self-awareness is spot-the-Hell-on. As a polemic, I suppose the fact that I (and, apparently, many other readers here) share experiences that color your descriptions of these events in the ways you think they’d want to be colored.

    As for tarnishing the good name of actual human rights activism, I thought that was one of your stronger points because you straight-up laid out how the public perception works. It just makes too much psychological sense.

    And hooray for still BFFs!

  • Scotlyn

    Sarah, this is a lovely post – whoops – polemical piece grounded in personal experience. As the daughter of evangelical missionaries I can concur that they (and many others I know) are personally dedicated people, who are not particularly intent on destruction, but they are certainly lacking in self-awareness of the cultural harm in what they do, as you describe. As one commenter here put it (can’t find it again, sorry) – as I grew up, I watched the process whereby the people my family befriended came to associate their Americanism, and their Christianity with wealth – making their message attractive on a number of non-spiritual levels. When I went to college to study anthropology, I thought I would try to raise their consciousness about their role in the destruction of a culture – first the traders, then the missionaries, then the soldiers….like you, I eventually came to question if I myself was not on the next step along – after the soldiers… the anthropologists coming along to document what’s left before it’s gone… so I can also sympathise with your self-criticism.
    I guess in terms of helping others, I would be tempted to apply the same principle as I would with individuals – wait until asked. I don’t necessarily mean asked by the government, or the powers that be, in any country. But if there isn’t already some group or gathering of people who are looking for the specific kind of help you are qualified to provide, then you would have to keep on questioning what you are doing there. (Just to give a specific example – there are Afghani women’s groups working on issues such as the education of girls – if I wanted to offer help to organise schools for girls in Afghanistan, I would want to be checking in with them first, and find out what kind of help they actually want). On the other hand, you don’t need to wait until asked to help remove hindrances, especially those that you (collective you – collective us) have put there – like lobbying against unfair, western-imposed, trade practices, etc.

  • Caiphen


    Your post was brilliant.

    Faith infects the mind, thankyou for reminding me of that.

  • D

    Mother Theresa is looked upon by many as a missionary or infact the ‘modern day persona of the ultimate missionary – Jesus’ ..gee she did spread alot of hatred didnt she ??
    – really?, #40

    Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall they be of his own household.
    – Jesus Christ, Matthew 10:34-36

    I don’t think that juxtaposition is quite as absurd as you seem to think it is. Really really.

    Anyway, Sarah, I had a chance to think over what I wrote, and I think I owe you an apology, so I’m sorry. I’m one of those people who thinks it’s important to show that you learn from your mistakes, so I explore that here.

  • Sarah Braasch


    You have absolutely nothing to apologize for.

    The whole purpose of these pieces is to provoke and elicit meaningful dialogue (it’s even ok if it gets a little rowdy from time to time).

    That’s what we’re having: meaningful dialogue.

    And, anyhoo, my BFFs don’t have to apologize for speaking their minds.

    Actually, no one has to apologize for speaking their minds.

    I appreciated your feedback. It gave me a lot to think about.

    It makes me a better writer.

    I don’t just write for myself. I write to get my point across to an audience (hopefully, anyway).

    So, it’s important for me to be as effective as possible.

    And, I write to have a conversation. It’s no fun if it’s one sided, or only with yes men (and yes women).

    We’re all good. I was surprised to find out that I’m scary though. I so don’t think of myself as scary.

  • anardana

    Great post.