Sins of the Missionaries: Evangelism's Quest to Conquer the World

By Welch, Stephen R. | Free Inquiry, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

Sins of the Missionaries: Evangelism's Quest to Conquer the World


Welch, Stephen R., Free Inquiry


Each year, Americans contribute millions of dollars through corporate-giving campaigns and Sunday tithes to support the ostensibly humanitarian work of overseas Christian missions. This work--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving medicine to the sick--seems a worthy cause, an outwardly selfless endeavor unsullied by the salacious headlines and bitter disputes now roiling the life of the church at home.

But Christendom's missionaries bear their share of controversy. Though most private donors and corporate sponsors are unaware of it, overseas missions have long been embroiled in scandals involving allegations of predatory behavior towards the vulnerable. Though the largely poor and illiterate victims have complained loudly for decades, their allegations involve no sexual misconduct and thus garner few headlines in the West. Their outrage, vented halfway across the globe, rarely reaches English-language media at all.

Evangelism is waged in earnest in a large swath of the underdeveloped world, from North Africa to East Asia. Missionary strategists call this region the "Unreached Bloc" or the "Last Frontier." (1) In the rural backwaters and isolated tribal hamlets of countries like India, missionaries routinely peddle the fruits of generosity--food and medicine--as "inducements" for conversion to Christianity. When these allurements fail, more aggressive means may be employed, not barring fraud and intimidation. Apparently, in the Unreached Bloc, "harvesting" souls is an end that justifies almost any means.

THE FINAL FRONTIER

This subordination of humanitarian service to proselytization is a matter of theology--evangelical Christians believe they hold a divine mandate, their "Great Commission" from Jesus, to spread their creed. But it is also a matter of policy. During his 1998 visit to India, for example, Pope John Paul II bluntly stated that the Christianization of Asia is "an absolute priority" for the Catholic Church in the new millennium. He openly linked the Vatican agenda for that region to its conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His language, says Sanal Edamaruku, founder of New Delhi-based Rationalist International, leaves little room for interpretation, even among secular and progressive-minded Indian citizens. "It is, in fact, not the fantasy of [Hindu nationalists]," he states, "but hard reality ... nothing less than the conversion of ... the Hindus of the world is targeted." (2)

The church's "soldiers" in the field get the message. As a Mumbai- (formerly Bombay) based missionary whom we shall call "Paul" (he asked that his real name be withheld) attests, he and his colleagues in India have been unequivocally instructed by their superiors to "work extra hard in the conversion process and choose any means possible to convert these heathens." With such marching orders, earthly consequences can be cavalierly disregarded. "It's not how we convert that matters," Paul insists. "Conversion is what counts." (3)

In India, considered one of the richest "harvest grounds" in the Unreached Bloc, the methods that missionaries like Paul employ have stirred seething bitterness and resentment among the "heathen" public. Perhaps no mission tactic galls more bitterly than the intentional targeting of any society's most vulnerable members--its children.

Missionaries have long capitalized on the leverage they exercise over India's young through thousands of church-run hospitals, schools, and orphanages. For example, in a 1923 report to Rome gleefully titled "The Spiritual Advantages of Famine and Cholera," the Archbishop of Pondicherry related how a famine had "wrought miracles" in a local hospital where "baptismal water flows in streams, and starving little tots fly in masses to heaven." A hospital is a "ready-made congregation," the report contended, where there is "no need to go into the ... hedges and compel them to 'come in. …

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