Postcolonialism and Missions

I’m for missions, OK? Don’t hate on me because I’m giving people a gut check on missions, but I’m a little surprised that we as evangelicals push hard for global missions without bringing up the tendency of orientalism. Put simply, orientalism is “the unconscious, untouchable certainty about what the Orient is. Its basic content is static and unanimous. The Orient is seen as separate, eccentric, backward, silently different, sensual, and passive.” It exoticizes and objectifies those persons of the “target group.” I know there is training on evangelism and storytelling and other techniques, perhaps some language training and whatnot. But I perhaps wonder isn’t the most disorienting aspect of global missions in this decades the sense that the West is no longer the best? that America is not without blemish, and that what we do for others is not without a sense of persuasion or obligation? I’m surprised that history is not a part of our training — that in some sense, we have little self-awareness as missionaries, or that if we do, it is earned through tough lessons on site with many bridges burned and opportunities to form healthy churches compromised.

What do you think of this word from Jeremy Bouma?

How exactly does missions look from a post-colonial posture? If we are to do missions in a postmodern context from a post-colonial perspective, we must first recognize that the Other does not need to conform to our Western morals, values, and customs.

It’s strange to think of the U.S. as needing to recognize its post-colonial posture, no? It’s not as though we had colonies, but pretty much since the end of World War I, there is little question that the world has been under a Pax Americana. And it is that seat that has given us an intrinsic posture of power, of hegemony, and influence. That is great if you’re establishing a global business franchise. It’s great if you’re seeking to earn a table with powerful people, but if you’re interested in conveying a story of a God who sent his Son to take away the sins of the world and to usher in a kingdom that seeks true worshippers; that challenges the piety, hierarchy, and economy of the world, then perhaps a seat of power is not so good, not so helpful. Lesslie Newbigin points to the West and says that now the real test of missions has begun when the church has to testify to the power of the gospel not from a position of strength, but of weakness. In some ways, post-colonialism is a blessing, but not unless you are aware of it, because our lack of self-awareness in the missionary process, we could still assume that to be Christian is to be Western, American, or like us, when in actuality, the call is for them to be like Christ, which is far better.

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About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come. View all posts by David Park

3 responses to “Postcolonialism and Missions

  • ToddHiltibran (@ToddHiltibran)

    You make a good point, but the only problem I see is that I haven’t met many missionaries who are trying to reproduce ‘America’ wherever they are. I was taught (and experienced) that leaving my culture to work in another culture helps me to be an objective critic of my own culture. It helped me to see what was cultural rather than biblical in the local church I grew up in as well as speak for that in the culture where I serve.

    We missionaries have been doing the ‘missional’ thing for years, asking questions like, “What is the essential, biblical form the local church should take in this context?” We’re not all perfect and you might have met a few who are trying to ‘colonize’ or ‘franchise’ the local church, but I haven’t met any who lasted longer than 2 years unless they had a very powerful US church keeping them in place. Maybe that’s who you target was all along?

    Regardless, thanks for posting something that gets my blood moving. =)

    • David Park

      Todd,
      I’ve been doing some more thinking about this and I know that missionaries do have good intentions and certainly the sense of “otherness” teaches missionaries more about contextualization of the gospel than it teaches pastors in seminary stateside. But I wonder if our materials for worship, discipleship, even the ways we dress and attitudes, how do we not project them on the mission field? Isn’t it difficult when they want our materials, dress, and worldview? When I look at a country like Korea, I feel like they’ve swung very hard from their roots. While it may be a good thing in terms of revolutionizing the country for Jesus, it also has created a cultural amnesia of sorts and now their worship services, dress, even their theology is adopted to the point where there was no self-reflection, little indigenization of the gospel. So in recent times, over a hundred years since the missionaries really experienced revival in Korea, there is a backlash against Christianity and the churches it has formed. Granted, it’s a small movement, with a lot of war and Japanese occupation in between, but still, there is pushback that I didn’t expect from a country that wasn’t “colonized” per se, but voluntarily wanted and subscribed to Westernization. What do you think?

  • David Park

    thanks for the comment Todd. I’m sure that i’ve set up a straw man here, but i suppose i’m thinking of a scale greater than just individual missionaries. in my perspective, i’ve only heard the call to continue to raise up missionaries to go to the uttermost parts without any reflection about changing the posture of how so, or even the representation of diversity in our missionaries and what that would communicate on the field. because of the absence of that conversation among evangelicals, as a minority from one of those “missionized” countries, i found myself a little skeptical and wanted to voice it here. Because even in the ‘missional’ conversation here in the States, there really is a lack of self-awareness (ethnically and socio-economically, at least at the outset) so that “missional” is primarily a discussion among white middle class evangelical males instead of incorporating diversity from the beginning. Does that make sense?

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