Sunday, July 29, 2007

missionaries? volunteers? the future?

The Chosun Ilbo has a "timeline" article chronicling the current hostage crisis in Afghanistan. Very telling is the fact that the article does not refer to the hostages as missionaries but as "short-term volunteers."* I suspect that the media have not given us a clear view of who these hostages are and in what capacity they were traveling, but many people in the blogosphere have leaped to the conclusion that these were all missionaries out to proselytize. Perhaps they were, but I prefer to suspend judgment until we know a bit more.

This doesn't absolve the hostages of their own heedless conduct (one remark I heartily agree with is: "They thought they were still in Korea," a familiar critique of Korean behavior when abroad), but does oblige us to avoid rashly jumping to conclusions.

If the hostages are indeed committed missionaries who knew the grave risks, they have little place begging for help. Death is always a risk in spreading the gospel, especially in a place like Afghanistan. But that's a big "if," because we still don't know to what degree the hostages actually knew what they were getting into. With so many conflicting reports, it seems best to suspend judgment for now and to focus our hopes on the safe return of these people.

Much blogospheric discussion has turned to questions of the future. Will Korean missionaries still go to Afghanistan if the rest of the hostages are killed? I wouldn't be too quick to answer "no" to this: after all, many early missionaries to Korea ended up being killed, but Korean Christianity is now one of the two largest religions on the peninsula.

For a very long time, discussions about mission work have focused to a greater or lesser degree on Western imperialism. The idea is that Western culture has spread outward to the Third World through the work of Western churches. Christianity is on the wane in "post-Christian" Europe, but it is burgeoning in the Third World, targeting much the same demographic as Islam.

Now we see that one of the most strongly missionary forms of Christianity in the world, Korean Christianity, is making headlines in Central Asia, whether justifiably or not. Islam is itself a strongly missionary religion; I'm watching with some fascination as Islam finds itself face to face with an aggressively proselytizing strain of Christianity that hasn't directly sprung out of the West. Perhaps wave after wave of Korean missionaries will wash over Afghanistan, changing the religious landscape there over the coming decades. This isn't as unrealistic as it sounds: Christianity has always thrived under conditions of persecution; the psychology underlying its theology is tailor-made for the oppressed.

Both Christianity and Islam share the religious theme of struggle, which means they will both cling hard to whatever beachheads they establish. Both religions have a strong sense of in-group versus out-group, and the majority attitude in both religions is exclusivistic. The ancient rivalry between these two traditions is far from over.

*Granted, this term may be a euphemism for mission-related volunteer work. While I am trying to suspend judgment on this, my own suspicions lean toward the idea that these hostages were not merely in Afghanistan for the narrow purpose of giving medical aid to the Afghan population. It's more likely that some members of the group were there with explicitly missionary goals, while others were volunteers with who never had any intention of proselytizing, but who went on the trip because it was sponsored by a church or religious organization. I elaborate a bit on the fine distinctions in a comment at Malcolm Pollack's blog. I also grant that the Taliban would not be concerned with such fine distinctions.



Anonymous said...

As you know, it has been my stance from the beginning that these short-termers were regular laypersons, not trained and ordained missionaries. It's good to see the media finally coming around to the truth.

This still leaves the question of whether they were out to proselytize, and judging by what I've seen in comment threads elsewhere, this is apparently a very important question to some.

So I figured I'd offer my take on the issue (consider this a part 2 to the comment over at Dr. Hodges site). I know you are aware of this, but for the record I have participated in two short-term Korean missions trips to Mozambique (once as team leader), so I have some experience in this area.

The quick answer to were they proselytizing or not: yes and no. The goal of every short-term missions trip is to proselytize, but that proselytization generally occurs indirectly. The main reason for this is that the short-termers are rarely able to speak the local language and thus must go through the missionary or local Christians.

What is done specifically varies from team to team and church to church, but non-verbal proselytization can occur through (from most direct to most indirect) skits, what is called "worship dance" (choreographed moves set to worship music), and even Taekwondo presentations. Often the sole function of such performances is to gather a crowd of the locals so that the missionary or other local Christians can preach.

Considering where these short-termers were, I am guessing that they did not engage in any of these activities. And as best as I can tell from the media, they weren't in Afghanistan long before they were kidnapped, so they might not have done much of anything at all.

But were they there to proselytize? If by "proselytize" we mean "to further the spread of the gospel of Christ," then yes, they were there to proselytize. There is no doubt in my mind of this. How they were planning on accomplishing this I do not know, but I can tell you some of the activities that we engaged in. In Mozambique, many children have parasites living in their scalps (among other places), so we brought along shavers and special shampoo. We would go to a small village or settlement, gather the children in an open space, and then cut their hair and shampoo their scalps. No preaching was done at any time by the missionary, the local Christians, or ourselves. People invariably asked why we were doing this, and we told them who we were, but that was it. We also visited hospitals for critically ill children (children with AIDS, etc.) and tried to brighten their day a little just by being there--making them laugh any way we could, sharing fruit and candy, etc. Again, no preaching was done.

The ultimate goal of these activities, though, was to further the spread of the gospel of Christ--by living that gospel the best we could. On a practical level, although our team was only there for a few weeks, the people we interacted with would remember us and be more open to the missionary should he visit the settlement or village at a later date.

I could go on, but I think that's enough for our purposes. The short-termers were probably not going to preach while they were there, especially considering the locale--their primary mission was most likely to help the missionary any way they could. But to say that the goal of the missions trip was something other than spreading the gospel of Christ would be like saying that you are going to a strip club for the music (if you will pardon the use of "Christ" and "strip club" in the same sentence).

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed your take on South Korea during my stay here, and I was wondering if you talk to your students about the futures of North and South Korea or with adults about the possibility of reunification? It seems that the South Korean gov't. is purposely withholding much of the truth from them. Here is a good link to some startling documentaries:

Number 4 made me particularly sick to my stomach after realizing how much complaining I did growing up in the U.S. with my lower middle-class lifestyle. With food, a free education, the freedoms to choose whatever job or lifestyle that interested me.

South Koreans who are younger, or who have been living abroad, seem more open to discussing the ills of the world with open minds. However, I can't get many to many older students (30+) to understand that the world is much bigger and complex than just this little corner of Asia.

Maybe you can write about the goals, dreams, and aspirations of those that you have come to know and teach in an upcoming blog.

John from Daejeon