Democracy:  How to Do it.     

The cold hard truth:  we Americans love to believe there are easy solutions to complex problems.

Want to build a democracy in southeast Asia?  If we were to believe Sargent Muldoon in The Green Berets, simply defeat the bad guys and write a Constitution.  There it is!  Happy Ending!

These guys know everything! Why don't we have more shows like this?

These guys know everything! Why don’t we have more shows like this?

Right.  In moments like these, it can be helpful to get some perspective from Monty Python.  In this case it is an old sketch, “How to Do It,” satirizing a popular children’s TV show in Britain, in which they explain how to do all sorts of amazing things.  It takes the Pythons all of thirty-four seconds to describe how to play the flute and rid the world of all known diseases.  There it is!  Happy Ending!  (Yeah, click on the link above.  It’s worth watching and it is short).

Come to think of it, want to fix America?  Our political candidates will explain how to do it in one TV ad, which is about as long as the Pythons took to rid the world of all known diseases.

Gosh, the Pythons didn’t have to satirize a children’s show — they just as easily could have done the same thing with our politicians.

But before we get too self-righteous here (a great temptation when writing blogs or discussing politics or, heavens, doing both) keep in mind that most politicians know these problems are very complicated.  They grossly oversimplify complex issues because they want our vote and we respond positively to those who give us simple solutions to complex problems.

Real life, of course, is complicated.  Very complicated.

Take, for instance, the establishment of democracy.  As I mentioned in my last post, the U.S. and the new Latin American nations had a number of important factors in common in the early 19th century.  But it didn’t go well in Latin America.  Between 1820 and 1990, twenty-two nations of Latin America wrote, implemented and scrapped between 180 and 190 constitutions (depending on how one counts them).  Not sure what Sargent Muldoon would say about that.

Why do some nations develop democracies and others fall short?

It is complicated.  Did I mention that?

Here are just a few things that the American colonies had going for them upon independence that Latin American colonies did not have:

  • widespread literacy among ordinary people
  • practices of religious freedom that had been established for decades before independence (Christians in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania getting a jump on this before Enlightenment thinkers caught on).
  • not just capitalism, but a particular kind of capitalism in which land (critical for an agricultural economy) was available to ordinary people (if they were white).  A while back I described how I have personally benefited from ancestors who took advantage of this situation, which would not have been possible in Latin America, where almost all the land was controlled by elites.
  • a couple of centuries of political developments, conflicts (and a civil war) in England in establishing practices that divided power between the legislature and the executive.  These developments produced…..
  • a tradition of representative government (on local levels) that goes back 150 years before independence.  Virginia got the ball rolling with the House of Burgesses in 1619 and every colony established a legislature shortly after they were founded.

And here is a rather odd and disconcerting factor:

  • Racism in America helped extend democracy to (some) ordinary people, while racism in Latin America worked against extending democracy to ordinary people.  How does that work?  In essence the whites in control of new Latin American nations simply did not want to grant “consent” in government to ordinary people, because the majority of ordinary people in most places were Indian, black or mixed-race (mestizo).  For instance, in an 1881 election in Brazil, 142,000 people were able to vote, out of a population of 15 million.  That’s 1% of the population, folks.  American founders were more willing to grant “consent” to ordinary people because a majority of Americans were white.  The American founders did not, for the most part, extend government “of the people, by the people and for the people” to the people who were black or Indian.  But the people of color were a minority, so they did not scare the American elites like the vast majorities scared the elites in Latin America.  (A reminder that it took the United States a long time after 1776 to grant basic democratic rights and opportunities to people of color).

Not a pleasant historical point, but there it is.

And finally, a factor that does not have to be a factor:

  • it has been common among many Americans to declare that one has to fight militarily to gain freedom and democracy.  But Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several other nations have shown that it is possible to achieve democracy without employing soldiers to fight for it.  So there is one factor that is often thought to be a necessary condition that is not necessarily necessary.

And I haven’t mentioned all the factors.  In fact, you might know of other issues or factors that should be added in the mix.

Democracies are very, very difficult to develop.

So, what can we take away from this? Many things, but here are a few thoughts I have:

First, democracies take a long time to develop.  Americans had at least a two-century jump on new Latin American nations in many of these areas.   Americans are not superior to African nations because they are trying to achieve in fifty years what took America several centuries to achieve.

Second, we should resist supporting policies based on oversimplifications.  The United States has sometimes underestimated these complexities.  The Vietnam War showed that it was very difficult to “win the hearts and minds” of the people.  In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq and defeated Saddam Hussein and his military in about three months (which was what the U.S. military had calculated).  However, our government did not have an effective, or even well-developed plan for how to help Iraq move to democracy after Hussein was gone.  We sort of assumed the Iraqis would just embrace freedom.  A long, painful and protracted civil war followed that ensnared us since, well, we helped create the disorder that produced it.  So, think carefully about simple promises that we can bring freedom to other places in the world.

Third, if you think about the factors above that helped establish democracy, you will see that many are built on ordinary people doing what is good and right in caring about other people, even if they are quite different from themselves.  Teachers teaching.  People of faith, and business people and politicians working to ensure that all people have economic opportunities.  Ordinary people granting respect and freedom to people of different religions.

In fact, a number of months ago I mentioned a ground-breaking study by Bob Woodberry that shows that the work of missionaries in history has actually helped build democracies around the world. So, we should support our missionaries, our non-profits and those who are serving others particularly the “widows and the orphans,” as the Bible reminds us regularly.  We should do it anyway, but we can add the development of democracy to our list of motivating factors.


Ebola, the Media and Christianity

A little analysis from our favorite media giant with the Big Religious Blind Spot, The New York Times, from an article on October 10:

“The first to respond to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Doctors Without Borders remains the primary international medical aid group battling the disease there.  As local health systems have all but collapsed and most outside institutions, including the United States military, have yet to fulfill all their pledges of help, the charity has erected six treatment centers in West Africa, with plans for more.”

So, Doctors Without Borders was the first organization to respond the Ebola crisis.

Uh, not quite.  When Doctors Without Borders arrived in Liberia to battle Ebola they collaborated with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical missionary agency.  Samaritan’s Purse has had medical care in Liberia since 2010, so they were right there when Ebola first broke out.  They were, in fact, trying to alert the world to the Ebola problem before it became a big news item in the West.  In July, an official of Samaritan’s Purse declared:

“We need them all to help us in the fight against this dreadful disease…I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease.”

And where does one find this declaration from Samaritan’s Purse, an organization fighting Ebola in Liberia along with Doctor’s Without Borders?

A New York Times blog.

Don’t these reporters read their own paper?

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia.  Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

A picture from the Times in July, showing Kent Brantly treating Ebola patients in Liberia. Any further comments I would make at this point about this would be way too snarky and disrespectful.

That article even carried a picture of Kent Brantly working on Ebola patients.  Brantly, as you may know, is the doctor from Samaritan’s Purse who later made international news as the first American to contract Ebola.

So why does The New York Times say that Doctors Without Borders (which is an excellent organization, by the way) was pretty much the only organization in West Africa working on this?  Why do they fail to mention the work of an organization like Samaritan’s Purse?

Another blind spot.  And it is a blind spot connected to the reality that missionary organizations make some secular people uncomfortable.

You don’t have to take my word for it.  Slate writer, Brian Palmer, who declares himself to be an atheist, makes the very point that missionaries are overlooked in the whole Ebola crisis.  Palmer explains how he was recently at an international conference discussing Ebola and the control of infectious diseases and somebody made the point that Doctors Without Borders were the “only group on the ground” dealing with this problem.

Palmer, however, wrote in the Slate article (he doesn’t mention whether he said anything at the conference) that missionaries have long been on the ground dealing with these issues.  He also indicated that missionary doctors and nurses actually have long-term commitments, don’t just parachute in during a crisis, and do not profit economically from their work.

Of course, this is not news to any of us who are familiar with missionaries.

But it is news – uncomfortable news – for certain kinds of secular Americans. Palmer gives reasons why secular people are uncomfortable with missionaries — and why he himself, in fact, is uncomfortable with them.  (The subtitle of his article is  “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?”)  There’s nothing new there — those arguments he gives have been around for more than a century, as Palmer points out himself.

I give Palmer a great deal of credit, however, for bringing to light the good work done by a group with which he has serious disagreements.  That is a difficult step to take.  It is so difficult that The New York Times can’t seem to pull it off.

Now before I end up out of line in my snarky comments about the Times, (I might already have crossed that line, actually) I better point out that I am often not able to pull that off, either.  We Christians, who ought to know something about humility, respect, and loving those with whom we disagree, ought to be able to regularly point out good work done by people with whom we have serious disagreements.

Do we?


(My thanks to my friend and colleague, Scott Waalkes, who brought the Slate article to my attention and understands evangelicals and missionaries, even though he grew up amidst Calvinists in Grand Rapids.)


Some Things Very Few People Know

A quiz.

What do the following people have in common?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sun Yat-Sen, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, W.E.B. DuBois , Jomo Kenyatta, Rosa Parks.

You could say they are all important people of color.  You could say that they all played an important role in forging nations in the 20th century.

And if you have been following my blog lately and are good at guessing at quizzes, you are also calculating that I have some sort of missionary angle here.

Yep.  But what is it?

The answer:  each one of these individuals received at least some of their education from an institution founded by missionaries.  And those missionaries would have been the evangelistic types who wanted to convert people to Christianity.

This is not widely known.

In fact, the missionary education connection to all of these people may not be known by anybody but you and me.  (Hey, that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?).  Two weeks ago I did not put all these people together.  I knew that King, Kenyatta and Mandela had gone to schools founded by missionaries.  But Bob Woodberry’s article got me thinking.  (Come to think of it, Bob probably knows these things, so it’s probably not just you and me.  Sorry.)  I started digging a little into the academic history of notable people of color from the 20th century.  The Nobel Peace Prize list was a good place to start — I found quite a few there and I haven’t even listed here all the Nobel Peace prize winners who attended a school founded by missionaries.  In fact, the list of nine people above is a pretty impressive group of people.  I’d put it up against any list of twentieth-century people of color who were not educated at schools founded by missionaries.

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with.....

So, it turns out that this guy has more in common with…..

Yet you will find very few scholars who make any missionary connection to any of the people above.  In fact, as I was wondering about these questions the past week, I had to dig quite a bit to find the information about these people.  Go ahead and research Gandhi’s life on the internet like I did (this is not the best way to do solid research, but my budget for this blog is rather limited) and see if anybody mentions that Gandhi went to a university founded by missionaries.  Google “The University of Mumbai” and see how many of the links mentions this.  (The University of Mumbai does not describe itself this way).  A few sites will say that the institution was founded by a guy named John Wilson, but will not mention that Wilson was a missionary.  It will be quite likely, though, that the reference will say the University of Mumbai was founded by the British.  You’ll find the same kind of descriptions if you try to research the educational background of the others on my list.

A few years the conservative pundit and habitual gadfly Dinesh D’Souza wrote a flawed article entitled “Two Cheers for Colonialism.”  D’Souza, who was born in India himself, made the argument that there was a good side to colonialism because the British brought western education to India.

Now, strictly speaking, it is true to say that the British brought western education to India.  But this is sort of like saying the town of Wapakoneta, Ohio brought the American flag to the moon.  Wapakoneta is a very nice little town with some fine people in it, I am sure, but when we explain how we landed on the moon, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong seems somewhat incidental as a causal explanation.

While it is true that the British and French governments established schools in their colonies, they invariably did this fifty to one hundred years after missionaries had already built schools and colleges in these areas.  In fact, the British East India Company opposed missionaries and missionary schools for many years.  Company officials battled missionary supporters in Parliament in 1813 over whether missionaries should be allowed to operate freely in India.  So if we want to be even more precise about D’Souza’s claim, we would have to say that the British both opposed and supported bringing western education to India.  So how much credit should we give them?

....this guy, than just a commitment to nonviolent protest.

….this guy, besides a commitment to nonviolent protest.

In essence, the British government began setting up schools many decades after the missionaries did when they began to see that locals who had been educated by missionaries were useful to their colonial system.

And there is more.  Once the British Parliament implemented the policy pushed by the evangelical lobby in the early 19th century to allow missionaries the freedom to establish schools, print newspapers and exchange ideas freely, they were forced to allow Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians in their colonies to do the same.  So Gandhi, who never converted to Christianity, of course, had the freedom to campaign for democracy and against British colonialism in large part because missionaries had helped create the conditions to make this possible.

Oh, and Dinesh D’Souza, who has argued that we need to thank the British colonizers for providing India with a western education?  He attended a school in Mumbai that was founded by Catholic missionaries.

Now, Neil Armstrong, on the other hand, attended a public high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio before going on to the University of Southern California.  USC, which is known for its Trojan football team, was not founded by missionaries.  It was founded by evangelical Methodists.

And that is different.





Those Missionaries. There They Go Again, Building Democracies Around the World. Wait a Minute…What?

I think I’m done with my ranting.  I may not be done being snarky.

One of the points I made in my previous post was that Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, social scientists from the 1970s, and Barbara Kingsolver did not really know a lot about missionaries.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Maybe they were still correct.  Maybe they picked up their information from others who knew the situation well.  Maybe missionaries really were cultural imperialists who set back causes for freedom and human flourishing.  After all, a lot of really intelligent people of goodwill in the American establishment viewed missionaries as cultural imperialists.  And we certainly can find examples of missionaries behaving badly.

On the other hand, maybe Bob Woodberry is right.

Bob Woodberry says that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on the average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  And, oh yeah, they “heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracies around the world.”


That runs smack in the face of 100 years American establishment thinking about missionaries.

But who is this Bob Woodberry guy, anyway?  And what does he know?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Bob Woodberry is a sociologist who recently published an article in the American Political Science Review (APSR), which is the top academic journal in political science.  Some things to consider here:  you can’t get published in this journal unless you can convince others that your work is top-notch.  The APSR is also a journal that is not inclined to believe Woodberry’s argument.  The editors of the APSR, in fact, were skeptical enough to ask him for more data and studies when he first submitted his study.  He responded with 192 pages of supporting material.  Woodberry has been at this research for fifteen years now and he uses historical analysis and very sophisticated quantitative methodology of social science, including “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis.”

There you are.  The “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis” technique.

I have no idea what that is.

If you are one of those people who are deeply fascinated in both missionaries and sophisticated sociological methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR....

If you are one of the millions of people who are deeply fascinated by both missionaries and sophisticated social science methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR….

But I know this:  his article in the APSR has won four academic awards.

In other words, he has convinced a lot of skeptics with his research.  There is a fine article about him and his work in the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Christianity TodayIt goes into more detail about how he reached his conclusions and some of the things he was up against as he tried to convince others of the validity of his research.  I happen to know Bob and I’ve heard a story or two about scholars who got quite irate when they were confronted with his research.  Other scholars, though, are sitting up and taking his work seriously.

Now, I should point out that these global developments did not happen simply by missionaries going out and preaching democracy.  It is more complicated than that. Usually, missionaries were just trying to figure out how to spread the Gospel.  Sometimes, in their falleness, they acted in undemocratic ways.  Furthermore, many people who did not convert to Christianity still ended up embracing democracy and education and better health practices and more honest government and more robust economic practices.  But according to Woodberry’s findings, the influence of missionaries played a key role in that whole process.

This is very important research.  And it matters, because if Woodberry is correct, there are a lot of scholars (in the United States and around the world) who will need to reconsider the relationship between religion and the formation of democracy.

....or you might just want to read the CT article....

….or you might just want to read the CT article.

Woodberry is not alone in his scholarship on missionaries.  A number of very good scholars in the last couple of decades have started to show that the 20th century establishment view of missionaries is flawed.

Of course, maybe Woodberry is wrong.  After all, you can always believe H.L. Mencken, who did his research on missionaries by reading a few newspapers at his desk in Baltimore in the 1920s.   Or Barbara Kingsolver, who not only read a book by Chinua Achebe but also one by David Livingstone.



Those Missionaries. I’m Sure Glad We Don’t Stereotype People Like They All Do.

Remember back when the American establishment admired missionaries?  No you do not, because that was 1901 and you were not born yet.

I say this because I’ve been re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible for a faculty/student book club I am in.  It’s a clever novel, but I am finding it more annoying than the first time I read it about fifteen years ago.

I’m afraid, then, that a tone of annoyance will probably run through this post.  I apologize to all of you for this, except to those former students (this for you, Brian Faehnrich, if you are reading this) who said they enjoyed times when I ranted in class.

(Sigh.  I really shouldn’t do that.  Rants often reinforce stereotypes, which is the main problem addressed in this post.  We humans are a messy lot, aren’t we?)

imgresKingsolver’s novel tells the story of a missionary family (parents and four daughters) in the Congo in 1960.  The missionary father is strict, stubborn, uncaring, narrow-minded, obtuse, controlling and tragic.  The first time I read it, I was willing to let this go as a story about an outlier — every group has their disturbed individuals, after all.

I was too charitable.  This time through, I see the novel as a critique of a patriarchal system that encompasses families, religion and politics.  Men dominate these systems in the novel and that creates all sorts of problems for everyone they interact with.

And it is all too simplistic.  Patriarchy is a complicated and problematic feature of many societies, but I’d like to leave that aside for now to draw attention to Kingsolver’s understanding of missionaries.  She seems to have picked up these perceptions from the American establishment.  None of the twenty-eight books that she lists as sources effectively address missionaries or evangelicals, with the exception of a book written by David Livingstone in 1872 and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  So it seems Kingsolver is basing her understanding of missionaries on the assumptions of her culture.  Granted, I am sure she ran into missionaries and a few evangelicals when she lived in the Congo, but of course, real-life missionaries apparently ran into a few Africans when they lived in the Congo, and that didn’t always guarantee that they understood them well.

As I mentioned, the American establishment admired missionaries in 1901.  You could see changes coming in 1901.  That was the year that Mark Twain published a number of pieces that accused missionaries of behaving badly.  Actually, he depicted them of being hypocritical, narrow-minded imperialists.

Mark Twain:  expert on Chinese culture, anthropology, and theology.   Or wait a minute...maybe he was the guy who wrote *The Adventures of Tom Sawyer*

Mark Twain: expert on Chinese culture, anthropology, and theology. Or, wait a minute…maybe he was the guy who wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”

Twain’s writings were controversial at the time, but these kinds of ideas gradually caught on in the American establishment.  In 1927, the nationally known pundit, H.L. Mencken, wrote that the Chinese “see that the missionary is not only a most unpleasant theological propagandist, but also that he is the advance agent of all sorts of commercial exploiters, and even of military assassins…..If the missionaries will retire gracefully, shouting polite hosannas, well and good; if they linger, they will be heaved out.  Who will blame the Chinese?”  By the 1970s, social scientists were using the term “missionary position” to explain how missionaries tried to convince South Pacific Islanders the “proper” position for sexual intercourse.  This was, of course, an illustration of how missionaries thoroughly impose their cultural values on others.

Imagine, then, the situation faced by a student that I had taught in the early 1990s when my wife and I served at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya.  This student, whose parents were missionaries, had gone off to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  During arrival weekend she was involved in one of those mixers that help students get to know one another.  A fellow freshman asked her where she went to high school and she told him Kenya.  When she explained that her parents were missionaries, he replied, “Oh. Your parents are cultural imperialists.”

Now, this guy was quite bright, if not especially blessed with tactfulness.  Northwestern is a prestigious university and it does not accept dull-witted types.  But I should point out that this guy was 18 years old and had not yet had a single college class.  (Not that his college classes would have changed his thinking on this issue).  He hadn’t been to Africa and he did not even know any missionaries.  In other words, he didn’t know a hill of beans about missionaries except for a stereotype he had picked up somewhere in American culture.

The same goes for Mark Twain.  And H.L. Mencken.  And those social scientists in the 1970s.   And Barbara Kingsolver.

Let’s start with Twain.   Some missionaries in 1901 — the ones Twain was writing about — were behaving badly in China in their reaction to the Boxer Rebellion.  They were demanding that the Chinese government pay reparations to missionary agencies in response to rioters who had killed a number of missionaries and destroyed property.  And they wanted the militaries of the western imperialist powers to back them up.  That is not good.  But most missionaries did not respond this way.  Hudson Taylor, who led the China Inland Mission, for instance, which suffered more missionaries killed than any other agency, stated that CIM missionaries would not demand anything, but proceed with gentleness and meekness.

H.L. Mencken, champion of the "smart set" in the 1920s. Like Mencken, the "smart set" understood what was going on with missionaries in places like Africa and China because they were, you know, "smart."

H.L. Mencken, champion of the “smart set” in the 1920s. Like Mencken, the “smart set” understood what was going on with missionaries in places like Africa and China because they were, you know, “smart.”

H.L. Mencken?  He regularly wrote things like, “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.”  Hey, that’s clever, H.L.  It’s also a fine example of a statement that does not give careful consideration to clear thinking, honesty, fairness and the love of truth.  Mencken regularly reached for ammunition rather than illumination when it came to areas of religious faith.

Those social scientists in the 1970s?  Recent research has shown that the “missionary position” story is an academic myth.  There is not a shred of evidence that any missionary anywhere ever said or did anything like this.  We can, however, trace the story to speculation by social scientists in the 1940s.

Twain, Mencken, the social scientists and Kingsolver are not the causes of missionary stereotypes.  Due to twentieth-century cultural, theological, and social forces (hey, that all sounds exciting and clear, doesn’t it?) the stereotypes would have emerged from others anyway.   And they did, in fact.  The point is that missionary stereotypes permeated the twentieth-century American establishment.  As I hope to show in the next post, there are important reasons why these stereotypes need to go.

Oh, and my former student at that freshmen mixer at Northwestern?  She asked the guy what he knew about the world and he explained that he had a good awareness of the world.  His parents actively supported international organizations that promoted family planning around the world.

“Why then,” she said, “are my parents considered cultural imperialists and yours are not?”  He did not have a good answer.


James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Missionaries and World Christianity

James Bond, missionaries, and world Christianity?

You may be thinking that I have a topic that really does not fit in my contest about which individual we should be more interested in.  You may be thinking that because I have written a book about missionaries and world Christianity, I am looking for a cheap way to turn the topic back to my interests. You may be thinking that I am playing a literary bait and switch here, using James Bond to hook your interest in something totally different.

You may be right.

But then, again, you may not be.

Granted, the nature of James Bond films compels me to shift the point a bit.  I can’t have a sensible contest based on the question of how world Christianity plays out in these thoroughly secular films.  There is, however, a closely related topic to world Christianity.  What happens when the Bond films cross cultural boundaries?  What does cross-cultural engagement look like?

Let’s just say, not great.  Bond films exude an aura of British superiority.  This ethnocentrism, apparently, was even stronger in the Ian Fleming books.  In fact, the whiff of British exceptionalism was so strong that some storylines had to be revised when the books were made into movies for American audiences.  I guess American audiences don’t like to be depicted as inferior.  Who knew?

It gets worse, however, when dealing with non-Anglos, particularly in the books and early films.  The villains are often nonwhites and they are often deformed.  Furthermore, nonwhites just don’t have the brains, the sensibility, the skills, or the enlightened rationality of the Brits (or the Americans, for the film versions).  In “Dr. No,” Bond enlists the help of a Jamaican assistant to investigate Dr. No’s hideout, but this black guy, like the other

The dragon: ha, ha, it’s just clever technology, folks.

Jamaicans, is deathly afraid of the rumors he has heard about a dragon that inhabits the island.  The “dragon” turns out to be a flame-throwing tractor with big teeth painted on the front.  The foolish, superstitious and cowardly Jamaican assistant gets killed in the ensuing battle, but the film viewers are not supposed to care because, like the villains, his life doesn’t seem to matter much.  (It should be noted that even though they are evil, none of Dr. No’s scientific assistants are black.  His hideout displays a level of intelligence that blacks do not seem capable of achieving.)

The Jamaican assistant’s fear of the “dragon” emerges from a common depiction of race and religion that comes straight from the 18thcentury Enlightenment thinker (and Brit) David Hume.  According to Hume, less rational people, particularly those who have not been blessed with civilization, believe in irrational religious beliefs that express themselves in superstitious behaviors.  Enlightened and rational people, on the other hand, build sophisticated, morally superior civilizations that progress beyond the ignorance of previous

Build your own “Dr. No” Lego dragon! Pretend you are intimidating inferior people!

ages.  “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites,” Hume wrote in Essays, Moral and Political.  “No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences.”  Most people easily spot the racism in Hume’s thinking.  However, his claims about religious faith, which masquerade as rational truth, still infect much of the western world today

Samuel Sharpe, who lived half a century after Hume’s death and more than a century before the first James Bond film, would seem to qualify as a superstitious and naturally inferior “species of men.”

But here is where world Christianity helps expose fallacies in Hume’s and Fleming’s brand of Enlightenment thinking.  Sharpe’s relationship with the missionaries brings out point.  The leaders of this 1831 Jamaican rebellion (as well as a similar rebellion eight years earlier in Demerara, on the north coast of South America) were deacons and evangelists.  Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries from Britain had been ministering among the slaves for the previous decades.  Slaveowners, in fact, complained bitterly that the missionaries were spreading radical and subversive ideas about equality and abolition among the slaves.  (Hume, who believed that evangelical religion led to social disorder, political radicalism, emotional derangement and psychological delusion, would have agreed).

The missionaries, however, did not promote, plan or lead the rebellion.  In fact, they warned the slaves not to plan any resistance, they downplayed the possibility of emancipation getting passed in Parliament, and they did not even know of Sharpe’s rebellion until right before it occurred.

In other words, this movement took off without missionary leadership, in ways they did not expect and could not control.  That is usually what has happened when a movement of Christianity emerged and grew after it had crossed cultural boundaries.

There is also a theological point here about cultural blind spots.  Although they were generally favorable to antislavery ideas, British missionaries preached a simple evangelistic message and stayed away from topics of abolition.  The slaves who had converted to Christianity, however, saw implications in the gospel that white Christians were slow to recognize:  the Exodus story indicates that slavery is not God’s plan for the world.  The same held true for Christian slaves in the American South.  On Sunday mornings they might hear a white minister preach on the text, “slaves obey your masters,” but on Sunday nights, in the privacy of their separate worship, they heard slave preachers draw conclusions about freedom from the Gospel.  And they wrote and sang scores of spirituals with themes of being released from bondage in Egypt and entering in the Promised Land.

These slave spirituals could get emotional, a point that Hume would have looked on with distaste.  The slaves could not boast of “ingenious manufactures” or cool Bondian technology.  They did not display the marks of a “civilized” people.  But they understood truths unknown by rational philosophers like Hume and clever writers like Fleming.

That’s interesting.



James Bond      2

Samuel Sharpe  3

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.