Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Missionary?

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Missionary?

By Sanjena Sathian


Because … free speech?

By Sanjena Sathian

Tim Head knows how to run triage on an international crisis from afar. He gets word of troubles from all corners of the world: a 19-year-old American girl jailed in Mumbai, an overnight raid on a home in Jordan, an acquaintance gone missing in Yemen.

He is experienced. He, after all, was once detained himself, some 15 years ago, in a Nepali town — for proselytizing. But in the jail cell, Head, an erstwhile missionary, talked his way to freedom, having lengthy conversations, over several days, with the police chief. They discussed what caused his arrest — the Bible — and his insistence on spreading its word. The chief eventually let him go; Head figures it was more a power thing than a religion thing, and in his telling, the chief was open and willing to chat. If we believe Head, it was a free exchange of ideas — not a bad outcome. 

Bribery can be in the eye of the beholder.

Some 400,000 Christians are deployed every year on missionary work, according to a 2010 report from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. But their work isn’t always popular. A 2011 Pew report found that almost 60 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that are pretty unfriendly to conversion, proselytizing and, yes, missionaries. Take Nepal, where a newly drafted constitution last year banned Christian missionaries, or China, where conversion attempts are illegal; Indian Hindus often talk of similar bans. 

My plea: I’m in favor of a free market for ideas — including religious ones — and suggest that those who fear the missionaries back off, removing restrictions on proselytizing. After all, there are few things as guaranteed to up the popularity of a book or idea as banning it. And if we imagine the religious marketplace as a buzzing, busy bazaar, then it would make sense that the most attentive, persistent and convincing shopkeeper would — and perhaps should — win. I don’t imagine the end-of-days street preacher or the annoying, persistent Hare Krishna winning the game there, but rather someone who seems sane, collected and, well, at peace.

Decriers of foreign missionaries have some real concerns. Many in China consider foreign promoters of Christianity part of a “broader Western assault” against a national identity, says Xi Lian, professor at Duke Divinity School. Stateside, some argue that any religious conversion smacks of coercion. More tenable is the idea that religion is intimate, and no one should have their personal faith bubble violated. I get this, but I also wonder how one is meant to learn if no one offers you a 101 in a new religion, a story of why it matters to them, a book to go along with it. 

There are, of course, malpractice charges. Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda, recounts horror stories: missionaries dressing up as Hindu swamis in India; missionaries orchestrating disasters, inducing kids to pray to Jesus, then miraculously fixing the situation. These are obviously not Ten Commandments–sanctioned. The most common complaint Goldberg and others have is that of bribery: missionaries provide schools, health care, food — making the illiterate, poor and downtrodden, Goldberg says, “more susceptible to being taken in and treated well by another group.”

That’s kind of my point, though, and Head’s too. As he puts it, “bribery can be in the eye of the beholder.” If someone does good unto you, and says that’s part of their faith, well, that’s a nice sell. Especially when no one else is showing you the love — for example, low-caste Indians who might be mistreated by their neighbors and fellow Hindus. It’s a lesson those fighting Muslim extremists would do well to keep in mind too. 

So it follows, as Lian explains, that many “missionaries” still operate in China, precisely because “the line is not always clear between open evangelistic work and sharing personal stories.” If you can’t beat ’em, compete with ’em: Maybe letting missionaries roam free would inspire others to send their own do-gooding, storytelling squadrons out there to enter the competitive marketplace of ideas.