Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 2b: George Boardman and the Problem of Complexity

George Boardman dying while watching Karen Christians getting baptized. That makes him an evangelical hero doesn’t it? Or does it?

And now it is time to address the question I posed in my previous post.  Was George Boardman a jerk?

Not any more than I am.

Of course, that doesn’t really answer the question, because I just might be a pretty big jerk myself.  Or I might not be.  Or I might be a jerk sometimes but not at other times.  You can ask my wife and kids about that, but I’d prefer you not.

The reality is that missionaries, including “Boardman of Burma” were actually a lot like the rest of us.  They may have been faithful Christians and deeply dedicated to their ministry, but they also had their flaws and blindspots.  They should not be divided into simplistic categories of heroes and jerks.

Why didn’t Boardman respond immediately to the Karen inquirers?  The real answer requires a more complicated consideration of his personality and the cultural situation he was in. This kind of explanation, quite frankly, doesn’t fit well into the limited space of the typical blog.  If I could accurately categorize him as either a jerk or a hero, I’d be able to explain it all right here.  But I can’t. He and his situation were more complex than that.   So you’ll have to read my book for a more complete exploration of those issues.

And since you may not like that answer, I’ll give you a shorter one:  Boardman could not predict the future.  He had invested himself in the Buddhist Burman people in the city, not this uncivilized nomadic group of Karen people in the jungle.  It was a big step for him to let go of his plans.  To do so would mean he would have to stop trying to control things according to terms he had laid out for his ministry.  He would have to go off to the jungle to operate by the terms of Karen culture.  That would not be easy for any of us to do.

Or how about this:  an even shorter answer, and one that is probably better because it has depths of meaning to it, comes from Randall Forbes’ great comment on my previous post.  Boardman sounds like Jonah.  Ponder what that means.  There are a lot of layers to that short book of the Bible.

Now, if you are an evangelical Christian, you are probably drawing a spiritual lesson from this story.  And if you are an American, you are individualistic, which means you are applying the lesson to your own personal situation.  You probably recognize that there have been times in your life when you had plans laid out a certain way and God came along and presented something different to you, which was difficult in the short run, but much better in the long run.  Great.  I’m glad you drew that lesson without me even having to point it out to you.  Well done.

But if you are an evangelical Christian and an American and individualistic, it is also quite possible that you did not naturally respond to a story like this by thinking about the larger social structures and cultural influences that influence our thinking.  So here, free of charge, is a larger point that deals with social structures and cultural influences that influence our thinking:  the very question that I posed, “Was Boardman a hero or a jerk,” reflects a common and pervasive way of thinking in American culture that runs into tension with good biblical theology.

And what does this common and pervasive way of thinking have to do with Disney princesses, you may ask.  Then again, you may not ask that question.  But I’m bringing it up in my next post this weekend.


Strangers on Your Doorstep — Part 2a: Was George Boardman a hero or a jerk?

It’s time to insert a little evangelical history into the doorstep theme.  The question for today is whether George Boardman was a hero or a jerk.

OK, I admit that as far as historical controversies go, it’s not quite as engrossing as “Did slavery cause the Civil War?” or “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?”  In fact, I’m pretty sure that most of the readers of this blog don’t even know who George Boardman was.

If you are part of the small population that is familiar with old evangelical missionary stories (a group I estimate it to be about as big as the fan base of the Fort Wayne Tin Caps) you might remember “Boardman of Burma” as a Baptist missionary who brought the Gospel to the Karen people of Burma in 1828.  Several decades ago, within this American evangelical subculture, Boardman was a hero.

Here’s how people sometimes write about missionary heroes.  The man who wrote a biography of Boardman in 1940 said he was “the human instrument used of God to initiate (the) transformation” of “the Karen people from a despised, down-trodden, backward race to a people with a prominent and honorable position in Burma.”  (“Backward race?”  Ouch.  But I’ll save the subject of paternalism in missionary histories for another time.)

But there is another side.  When I was working on my book, I had students in my missions history class read drafts of my chapters.  George Boardman appears quite a bit in my first chapter.  I remember one student read my account of Boardman and got rather annoyed.  She thought he was a “jerk.”

So here’s the story, at least how I tell it (sort of) in my book.  George and Sarah Boardman had arrived in the city of Tavoy in Burma in 1828 to work among the Buddhist Burman people.  One day, several individuals from a people group called the Karen showed up on their doorstep, asking about Christianity.  They had an oral tradition that said that one day foreigners would arrive in their land with a book, from which they would learn about God.  Would George Boardman come with them back to their village to teach them about Christianity?  Boardman said that this was very interesting and yes, he’d probably have to do that sometime.

(Actually, I don’t know what his exact words were to the Karen, because nobody was there with a video camera.  Plus, they had to translate the Karen questions into Burmese, which were then translated into English.  Boardman’s reply in English was then translated back into Burmese, which was then translated back into Karen.  Missionary conversations took a lot longer back in the Olden Times).

Anyway, the Karen delegation left and came back a few weeks later asking if he could come preach in the jungle.  Boardman said something to the effect that this was very interesting and yes, he’d probably have to do that sometime.  They left and another group of Karen came a few days later and asked if he would come bring the Gospel to their people.  Boardman said that this was very interesting and yes, he’d probably have to do that sometime.  After another group came, Boardman said that sometime he would have to go with them into the jungle because, yes, this was very interesting.

You get the idea.   At least twelve different delegations of Karen arrived at George Boardman’s doorstep at different times.  At least eight different times they asked if Boardman would come out to evangelize their villages.  Boardman finally did his evangelical duty and went off to the jungle only after he had been badgered all of these times – nine months after the first group had arrived.  And here we see why my student was annoyed.  What was his deal, anyway?  Here are these people literally on the doorstep of this missionary, asking Boardman if he would come to preach to them.  And he doesn’t respond.

Some people would say the question is irrelevant because they believe the attempt to convert somebody to another religious faith involves coercion or imposition that violates some sort of ethical principle.  Evangelicals and many other kinds of Christians, however, believe that God’s mission to redeem the world involves the spread of the Gospel.  And so, if a missionary has a group of people at his doorstep begging him to come preach to them, that missionary really ought to jump at this opportunity.  Boardman didn’t jump so much as he was dragged, rather reluctantly, into the jungle.

So, from the evangelical way of thinking, we have the question:  hero or jerk?

I’ll give my response on Thursday.

Strangers on Your Doorstep, Part 1: South Bend, Indiana, 1995

A number of years ago when I was in graduate school at Notre Dame, I answered the doorbell and discovered four Asian young adults on my doorstep.  They told me they were from Indonesia.  Three of them were about to start college at Purdue.  The fourth, a young woman, was about to start at Notre Dame.  The problem was that the dorms would not open for another week and she had no place to stay.  Her companions were going to head back to Purdue within the hour.  She had our name and address because my wife, Elisa, coordinated a program in our church for international students.  Could she possibly stay with us?

Well, now.

Many readers of this blog are probably kind, warm-hearted, compassionate people who would not hesitate to open their home to someone in need.  I, however, am not such a good person.  In unexpected and uncertain social situations, I freeze up and worry about what might go wrong.  I once took the MMPI psychological test and reviewed the bar-graph results with a psychologist who would help me interpret them.  One bar towered above the rest of the bars in the row, like the Eiffel Tower looming over old apartment buildings of Paris.  This particular bar measured Harm-Avoidance.  Interpretation:  I am a Big Chicken.  (The psychologist, who was a kind soul, did not use these exact words, but I could see what was what).

Anyway, that day in South Bend I found myself turning over a question I could not remember considering before:  What am I supposed to do with the Indonesians?  I invited the four students in and stalled in my response while I mentally whipped through my options.  Unfortunately, the situation seemed like some sort of New Testament parable.  As a Christian, I realized, I was probably supposed to warmly tell the young stranger she was welcome to stay with us and then carry her bags up to our guestroom.  But the Big Chicken in me provoked all sorts of worrisome possibilities.  Maybe she would teach my daughters to smoke pot.  Maybe she would rip our bedsheets, leave dirty dishes stacked in the sink and monopolize the TV.  Maybe she was going to invite her friends in at night for loud, exotic Indonesian college-student parties.  Maybe this whole thing was an elaborate plot to steal all the valuable electronics in our house (a computer and a VCR).  Maybe…. maybe…. well, the scenario I couldn’t imagine seemed the worst of all.

What to do?  It was important to discuss major decisions with Elisa, but she was not at home and the three Purdue students were about to leave.  I briefly considered eliciting advice from my daughters.  The oldest, Karin, was pretty sensible.  She was, however, entering the second grade.  No, I probably should not go that route.  I was on my own.  And so I decided:  yes, she could stay with us.

End of story:  The young woman stayed, the Purdue students left, Elisa came home a couple of hours later and because she is a better person than me, she immediately welcomed the young woman with warmth and compassion.  That stranger on our doorstep, Sari, stayed with us for about ten days and turned out to be an amazingly fun and delightful young woman.  Over the next couple of years, we invited her over to our house many times.  Sari became a good friend and proved to be a true blessing to everyone in the family.  In hindsight, I can only imagine the anxieties she had that day on the doorstep in South Bend, anxieties which rightfully would have been far, far greater than mine.

We would never have been blessed that way, however, if we had not been missionaries in Kenya for six years. First of all, Sari would never have had our name in her pocket if Elisa had not started the international student ministry at our church.  Elisa did this because we ourselves were once strangers in a different culture.  Grateful for how a veteran missionary couple, Jim and Joan Harding, welcomed us and eased our transition to a very different place, we thought it would be good to do something similar when we moved back to Indiana.  Second, missionaries are not necessarily instinctively more compassionate than others.  They are made up of the same stuff as ordinary Christians are.  But my missionary experience put me in places where I had to adjust to unexpected scenarios, where I had to consider the possibility that the Holy Spirit arranged surprising situations, and where I had to face my own flaws and limitations if I were going to do this missionary thing.  I began to see that sometimes I am called to find out whether or not the grace of God is bigger than the Big Chicken within.

But here is the take-away:  with the growth of world Christianity, many American Christians will find themselves in similarly unexpected situations in the decades to come.  In fact, many already have.