“The Missionaries accompanied the Colonialists, bringing Bibles and guns!” So stated my lecturer as he explained the background to postcolonial fiction. I was horrified. His lecture on the socio-political aspects of the colonial period highlighted that, although missionaries didn’t carry guns, they shared a colonialist perspective of “natives.” It was a body blow to me. I grew up revering missionaries; despite two decades of Biblical teaching I had never heard of these aspects of mission. I realised the importance of engaging with uncomfortable perspectives and unsavoury aspects of the history of the Christian faith, however uncomfortable.
First, some caveats. I am aware that the issues raised are not true of all Christians, churches, or organisations – I have enjoyed being an equal member in the body of Christ in a few places. Nor am I condemning mission, or judging the entire history of the missional church. Without Christ’s commission to take the Gospel “to the ends of the earth,” the world would be lost, the blazing light of Christ would not illuminate the darkness and transform lives across the globe, and I would not know Christ.
However, the Church (Western and non-Western) has rarely confronted its colonialist past, or faced the continuing influence of colonialist attitudes within it. I grew up in Sri Lanka, a former colony, to which missionaries (Dutch, Portuguese and British) came. Seven years in England and thirteen in Northern Ireland convinced me that colonial attitudes to people of colour are alive and well. I lived with this knowledge until the Black Lives Matter movement exploded.
The church – and Christians – believe they are not racist. Nowhere in the British or Irish Church are white Christians shouting inflammatory racist slurs or threats. In fact, the Church is a safe enclave, welcoming strangers with kindness in an increasingly, belligerently racist world. The church is clearly humane. The church actively “loves its foreign neighbours” whatever colour they might be – if by love you mean kindness and welcome. But radical Christian living is not about emotional “niceness.” Niceness is easy. But is that really all Christ meant by love? Loving as we love ourselves surely includes respect and equality.
Often the church shamefully colluded in slavery, but racism is not manifested in slavery alone. There is a kinder face of racism: we know the stories of godly missionaries; we also read of the “uncivilised savages” they preached to and civilised. I imbibed this perspective, viewing people of other cultures as “uncivilised,” until my undergraduate, postcolonial lecture left me feeling ashamed. These attitudes cast a long shadow, even in my own life.
We may not recognise it, but racism may be entrenched within our church culture. Paternalistic, colonial attitudes can still shape foreign missions, persisting deeply but invisibly within the Church. These attitudes work both in Western and non-Western countries. White, Western Christians are still treated with honour, and revered in non-Western countries as teachers or experts who bring wisdom. Meanwhile, in the West, people from non-Western countries are viewed as needing support, but rarely invited to contribute or share expertise.
The church appears to echo secular attitudes: in the West a foreigner is an immigrant (needy), in non-Western countries, foreigners are expats or missionaries (experts). In the West, during the week, non-western engineers, doctors, academics and scientists stack shelves in supermarkets; at weekends they quietly warm church pews.
Are “coloured” people welcomed in church as equal contributing partners from whom we could learn? How really do we view foreign Christians among us? Perhaps we have forgotten that Christ, and all biblical characters, authors of scripture, and most of the early church were Middle Eastern, coloured, “foreigners.”
Prejudice, even clothed in kindness and welcome, is still prejudice. Racism by any other name is still racism.
This is not theoretical speculation. These are experiences of non-Western Christians in England, Northern Ireland, and Australia. All professionals, all mature Christians – most leaders, preachers or teachers (in their home countries).
- “In the Bible study group, I talk, get involved, but deep inside you know you’re not a part of them… makes you tired after 11 years. You see them getting involved in each other’s lives, and you sit in a corner and watch. What a turn life can take…”
- To a coloured minister: “Do you think congregations will be comfortable with having you as a minister?”
“I hope so, why?”
“Well… because you are…you know…” (tails off).
- “Are you free on a Tuesday morning – we have a women’s bible study that day” The coloured female assumes an invitation until she hears “Would you be free to mind the children for us?”
- Planning an event, the organiser realises that “white” Christians at the meeting avoid eye contact and do not look or speak directly to the organiser; instead they address the white American despite being told repeatedly by him that they should address the organiser.
- Doctoral students in pharmaceutical engineering, Economics, and Cultural Studies:
“I had been a Christian for years in China before I came to UK. Although my church knew this, I was put with international students and taught basic Christianity. For 4 years they thought I had nothing to offer. So frustrating.
A young man – (a preacher back in Ghana) – remained unacknowledged, relegated to the “international students” group for his time in England.
A woman – a leader in Asia – interviewed for a Christian organisation’s promotional video for international students, talks of positive experiences among academics and colleagues, enjoying the UK, appreciating the multinational postgraduate fellowship. Although an almost entirely positive interview, the final cut contained only the section portraying her as a needy foreigner.
The church needs to ask itself:
- What colonialist/racist prejudices have infiltrated our thinking?
- What does loving my non-Western neighbour mean?
- What should mission look like in this context?
The body of Christ is called to live the values of God’s Kingdom and “loving our neighbour as ourselves” matters. It calls for mutual respect and participation in ministry, irrespective of skin colour. The church is to be a place where, in Christ, there is no “Jew” or “Greek”.
There may be diverse cultures, but there are no “foreigners” in Christ’s kingdom.
Rev Dr Maithrie White is a former Head of English Dept (Uni – Sri Lanka), Chair of UK Postgrad Conf, a Church of Ireland minister at Belfast Cathedral, and serves on the Board of Contemporary Christianity.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
Hi I would love to let Rev Dr White see the ministry of Thrive Ireland which is seeking to turn all that she is talking about on its head and bring learning from our brothers and sisters in many places across the world to the church in Ireland. We have invited leaders from Rwanda and Zimbabwe who are involved in ministries which could teach the church here a lot – to speak and engage in dialogue. But it’s a hard road. http://www.thriveireland.org