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Religion Library: Protestantism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Ted Vial

Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden," depicted the tension between the self-imposed imperialist "obligation" to bring Western civilization to perceived inferior cultures and the racism and exploitation that often accompanied this endeavor. Though the poem is not overtly Christian, it captures the vision of many Protestant Christians, particularly during the 19th century.

Even when undertaken with the best of intentions, missionary work can be controversial. The work of medical and educational missionaries, for example, can be seen as displacing indigenous cultures, spreading a globalized western set of values and leaving indigenous people vulnerable to the vicissitudes of world markets and national rivalries. Awareness of some of the negative aspects of mission and expansion has shifted the emphasis in recent years, from a predominant self-understanding that the goal is to win people away from damnation and for Christ, to a self-understanding that the goal is to minister to developing parts of the world. To take just one example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently has 452 full time missionaries around the world (in South America, Asia, Africa, India, and other places). Of these, the vast majority sees their role as development, education, and peace and justice; only 88 have as their primary job description "evangelism."

The website of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) states that "national churches now have competent ministers of their own who are far more adept than outsiders at evangelizing and witnessing among their own people. Instead of issuing calls to outsiders to do what they themselves can do best, they call mission personnel to assist in developing leadership skills for pastors, medical workers, and educators, to affirm the role of women, to support ministries of reconciliation, and to respond to international disasters." The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states, "The role of World Mission staff and mission workers who offer support to mission networks is not to set the agenda for networks but to help PCUSA members serve our global partners more faithfully and effectively." Most mainline denominations have some similar language to describe their missions. In other words, the stated goal now is less to make other people more like "us," than it is to help them in achieving their own goals.

Study Questions:
1.     What are some examples of Protestant influence in empire-building?
2.     In what ways were Protestant missionaries and merchants beneficial to foreign cultures? In what ways were they harmful to those same cultures?
3.     How has missionary work changed over time?


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