I began reading Mekdes Haddis’ A Just Mission with hopeful curiosity. Although nominated recently for an award, a missions pastor from the Global South told me the book is so problematic that he can’t recommend it to others. Another person said it has a good underlying objective but is a “rant.”
Having looked at it myself, here’s my take. At best, A Just Mission is a missed opportunity. At worst, it’s dangerous because its caustic tone and muddled arguments discourage people from participating in global missions.
“Dangerous” is a strong word. I hesitate to use it, but after reading it (some parts twice) and talking with others, I sadly don’t know a more generous word. To be fair to Haddis, I’ll give plenty of examples rather than throw unfounded accusations at her work.
What’s the Problem?
Haddis urges the Western church to shed any colonial mindset that might poison the labor of Western missionaries. On this point, we applaud her ambition.
Beyond that, A Just Mission feels like the missions book version of iRobot, the 2004 Will Smith movie where robots, in the name of protecting humanity, end up destroying it. Her tone and cultural misunderstandings obscure whatever well-intended message she wants to convey. Consequently, I fear her book will have adverse effects, discouraging countless believers from spreading the gospel globally.
Perhaps because she grew up in Ethiopia, Haddis seems unaware of her own cultural privilege. What do I mean? By her own account, Haddis’ father was an investment banker who taught her about Western culture to prepare her to work in a global market. Both of her parents attended missionary schools. She also earned two degrees from two Christian universities in America.
Several stories aim to censure American (white) churches by illustrating how implicit racism contradicts their missionary labors. Indeed, racism has influenced Western missions. However, her comments are not only unhelpful; they lack generosity and misunderstand cultural dynamics. Not all division is unhealthy. But by muddying the conversation waters, she injects a cutting tone that ultimately is counterproductive.
In the end, missions serves as her scapegoat for racial injustices committed in America.
Confusing “White Saviorism” with Monoculturalism
Based on her stories, what she dubs “white supremacy” or “white saviorism” often is little more that the ignorance that comes from being a monocultural individual. Let’s look at a few examples. She writes,
Someone once had the audacity to ask a Kenyan friend if she had seen a car before coming here [the US] …It was obvious that while we were crossculturally trained from a young age to not only function but lead in Western culture, our white peers were not even aware of their own culture. Our interaction was not harmonious; in fact it was frustrating to have been the object of their crosscultural training when their parents and churches should have done that for them. (16)
Ironically, this excerpt illustrates the blindspot created by her privilege and lack of generosity. Let me explain.
People without Cultural Privilege
I grew up in a poor, low-educated family. My parents never left the state until well into adulthood. If their life depended on it, they could not identify most major countries on a map, much less countless cultural, economic, and political dynamics. They did not grow up with the privilege of not being monocultural.
When my family periodically returned from China, people often asked “stupid questions” simply because they didn’t know better. For example, we were asked whether we drove from China to Texas. If that comment doesn’t make you wince, go look at a map. I could go on and on with similar stories that reflect monoculturalism more than racism.
Furthermore, the criticism she lays on white evangelicals could very easily be leveled against Chinese. We were periodically asked why Americans don’t love their parents. They assumed that Americans putting parents in nursing homes proved that they don’t love their parents. Chinese women asked a couple why their adopted African daughter’s shoes kept falling off. “Oh,” they said, “It’s because they don’t wear shoes in Africa.”
In another instance, a Chinese woman tried figuring out why a white family had a black child. Since the concept of adoption is largely foreign to Chinese, the women surmised that the black daughter would eventually become white, saying, “Oh, so her skin will get whiter and whiter with time.” The women simply didn’t understand how genetics work.
When people are monocultural, all they have is media portrayals (e.g., television, movies, etc.) and stories passed along over time. They’re not trying to be “racist.” Instead, they’re uninformed!
In the church, I’ve known many Chinese and South Korean missionaries who struggled to contextualize the faith and had reputations for being culturally heavy-handed in their leadership (e.g., planting “Chinese-looking” churches in Pakistan or “Korean” churches among Chinese). These tendencies are natural products of monoculturalism. They are not unique to white western missionaries.
“it was frustrating to have been the object of their crosscultural training when their parents and churches should have done that for them.”
What makes this comment so disturbing is that it lacks the sort of humility that should typify a missiologist.
Any missionary who lives in an extraordinarily different culture knows that they are consistently the “objects of others’ crosscultural training.” I cannot fathom how many hours I’ve spent as the object of East Asians’ crosscultural training, simply because many of them didn’t have a lot of interactions with foreigners.
Is It a “Rant”?
A missiologist friend called A Just Mission a “rant.” That’s a strong word, but there’s plenty of evidence (sadly) to suggest that it’s appropriate. (For those who want me to elaborate with evidence, I’ve included an “addendum” to this post below.)
Much of what Haddis says is an ungracious, judgmental airing of grievances rather than a generous, reasoned, and nuanced argument. Consider the following:
Although the city of Charlotte was racially divided, my church was heavily involved in annual short-term mission trips to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. By then, I had made the decision not to participate in any missional activities that didn’t start from their own neighborhoods.
Every time an invitation to go on one of these short-term trips was extended to me, I found myself tensing up, wondering how in the world this made sense to my fellow church family. Our city was still wounded from communal trauma and Black people were still trying to heal, but instead of pouring our resources into restoring trust and praying for healing, we were making a tone-deaf move: mobilizing white people to go reach Black people in a faraway land.
I suspected perhaps this was a subconscious effort to ease the guilt and discomfort racism brought up in our church folks. It broke my heart that the remedy for the privileged was to go to another Black community to make themselves feel better while they ignored the needs nearby. (20-21)
First of all, it’d be impossible for “missional activities” to begin in the neighborhoods of less reached or unreached people groups (since there are little to no Christians!). In this instance, how does she know that these trips weren’t being taken at the request of local Haitian and DR leaders (and under their leadership)?
Unfortunately, she maligns her church’s motives, speculating that congregants merely want to soothe guilty consciences. Her charge of “mobilizing white people to go reach Black people in a faraway land” misses two obvious counterpoints.
First, they invited her, a Black woman, and possibly other non-Whites to participate. Second, if her church represents US demographics, the church likely is a majority-Caucasian congregation. To send a representative group would certainly mean sending White people. Would the church do better (in her eyes) not to mobilize White people?
Finally, her logic is fatally flawed and effectively kills missions. By her account, no cross-cultural missions can exist until racism is eradicated. However, just as Jesus said we’ll always have the poor with us, so also, we’ll always have racism among us. By this logic, the gospel never would have left Jerusalem, much less Samaria and the Roman Empire!
There is no reason the church must choose either to combat racism locally or spread the gospel globally. In fact, combatting racism is one important motive FOR missions!! The gospel challenges racism! Just read Acts, Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians for more on this point.
A Just Mission is Just Wrong
Chapter one sets the tone for the entire book. For example, she opens another chapter with this statement:
“In the western mission movement, missionaries are typically identified by their affiliations to a philanthropic work and rarely by their character.” (29)
Such provocative judgments are not merely unconstructive; they are aggressively divisive.
Later, she commends Philip, who shares the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. She states,
My hope is that our churches produce missionaries like Phillip, who go where God calls them, who say yes to the things that are asked of them, who share with curiosity to learn about where people are with God and figure out their role, and who have no agenda to convert people so they can conquer their lands and dominate their culture. (44)
She seems to suggest that a person’s motive to “convert people” (i.e., helping people know Christ) is conquest and domination. While I assume (or hope) that she is simply unclear here, such remarks are destructive, discouraging efforts to spread the gospel among all nations.
Furthermore, if Paul applied her reasoning from Ch 3, he would never have persisted in ministering among Gentiles who rejected his message with violence.
Other comments leave one perplexed. For example, she writes,
Labeling people as “unreached” because they haven’t been colonized and Westernized is a dangerous fruit of the doctrine of discovery… (48)
This sentence is not only a strawman argument (no one defines “unreached” in this way); it demonstrates how disconnected the author is from the mainstream world of contemporary missions. She routinely conflates missionary labors from 200 years ago with missions work today. In that sense, it seems her primary audience died 100+ years ago.
Haddis criticizes people who speak of “spiritually dark places” (i.e., places where the gospel is little or not known). She claims that such verbiage is residual colonial language and that there are no spiritual dark places. Why? She explains that a dark place is a place without God’s Spirit, yet God is omnipresent.
This misconstruing of language is so extreme as to seem effortful. While I don’t accuse her of such, it is the product of negligence— of not seeking to understand people’s meaning as they understand themselves (the very thing she condemns in Western missionaries).
In summary, while she sets out to renovate and renew the missionary enterprise, some readers could easily use the book to raze the entire edifice itself.
Concluding Thoughts on A Just Mission
To conclude, A Just Mission takes the most extreme negative attitudes and actions over the past 200 years of missions and then speaks as though they are the norm for contemporary Western missionaries. It is a string of provocative ad hominem and strawman arguments, lacking generous and constructive interaction with others.
The author lobs sweeping accusations that reinforce prejudicial and uninformed generalizations. Every chapter (and almost every page) convolutes facts, gotcha claims, missions concepts, and countless cultural dynamics. Haddis oversimplifies complex political, social, and economic problems that require creative and multifaceted solutions. She writes in the world of ideals, not reality. To read A Just Mission, one might think these problems would all go away if only Western people simply didn’t have a “white savior” complex.
I hate writing negative reviews. I’d rather highlight the good in otherwise weak books. A Just Mission leaves me little opportunity to do that. Some people will take issue with this article. That’s fine. But when they do, I challenge them to rebut my review without ad hominem arguments that dismiss my comment simply because I’m an X-type or Y-type person. Being an A-type or B-type person doesn’t automatically make your arguments are (un)sound.
In a word, A Just Mission is well-intentioned, but terribly executed and even dangerous.
Axe Grinding, Grievances, and a Lack of Generosity
Some people will take issue with my criticisms, wondering if I’m exaggerating. So, this section is for those who want more evidence of the axe-grinding that mars A Just Mission.
She shares the following as experiences shape her perspective. In chapter 1, she writes,
I experienced uncomfortable but oddly similar interactions with my new friends and strangers alike. For example, the first time I was made aware that I was Black was when a man who hosted a church BBQ at his house approached me and asked, “Do you feel like you have an easier time being accepted in white circles as a Black woman because you are light-skinned?” You can imagine my shock as I had no idea what he was talking about. My cultural identity didn’t have a race. It certainly had an ethnicity––Ethiopian––but not a race. I was flustered because I had many questions of my own but, most importantly, at that moment I was deeply hurt because I realized he did not see me as one of his own. No matter how much I loved Jesus, I was never going to be one of them. I felt unwelcome in his home and wanted to run back to my dorm….
Jesus expects us to love even our enemies, but how do we love someone who wounds us so deeply and doesn’t even know it? It is difficult to apply Scripture in this dynamic so the relationship can be restored: “If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault, between you and him alone….” (13-14)
This story seems more to reflect her unpreparedness as an immigrant coming to America than this gentleman’s heinous intent.
The following is a more generous explanation of his inquiry: His question shows a desire to learn about her experience and to enter her world as best as he can. He tries to be a listener. Instead of seeing this as a humble, compassionate question that invites Haddis to share her experience, she accuses the man of sinning against her.
This lack of generosity saturates A Just Mission. Later, she recounts,
I remember the first time someone called me an immigrant. I felt somehow less than because of the way he said it. Even though Webster’s Dictionary defines immigrant as “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence,” this young man’s disassociation of himself from me taught me that it meant more than that. It felt like a code word for a freeloader, someone who takes Americans’ jobs, someone who cheats their way through life. It’s safe to say it was effective in making me feel othered. (153-54)
In light of the previous story, we’re left to wonder what to make of her judgment that “because of the way he said it,” this man “disassociated” himself, especially because she repeatedly and proudly applies the term to herself.
Why does this matter? Here’s one reason…
An Afghan immigrant once shared how difficult it was to make friends because no one invited her to places. With much perseverance, she made several close friendships. After a bit, she asked her American friend, “Why didn’t you previously invite me to places?” The American friend said, “I was afraid I would somehow offend you.”
That fear is bred precisely through accounts like those above (shared by Haddis). The fear of being misunderstood or demonized leads people not to invite international students to their homes.
I’ll conclude with a few other comments that illustrate Haddis’ lack of generosity. She asserts,
The rise of street kids in Africa is directly connected to “poverty tourism,” a.k.a. short-term missions. (99)
Likewise, she criticizes white Americans for wanting to touch her hair, not realizing that Brazilians touch Peruvians’ hair, and Peruvians touch Brazilian hair. I saw the same basic human curiosity among Chinese with other people not from East Asia.
Finally, she criticizes Westerners for Africa’s “brain drain” since Western nations offer diversity visas for international students wanting a Western education. It makes me wonder, “Would she prefer the US and others not to give visas to people who want access to Western universities? If they didn’t offer such visas, wouldn’t that be deemed unloving?”
To see my follow-up post, click here.
 Another online article demonstrates a similar pattern. In a response to a TGC article, she often lacks generosity, verging on misrepresenting the article.