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10 myths about Christian missions in history

9 Dec

I hear these all the time in the secular academy.

From Dr. Brian Stanley:

As followers of Christ and adherents of the Bible, Christians are called to be a people of the truth. Thus, it is crucial that we seek to understand our tradition as accurately as possible. So consider these top ten historical myths about world Christianity.

1. Christianity is a Western religion.

It neither began in Western Europe, nor has it ever been entirely confined to Western Europe. The period in which it appeared to be indissolubly linked to Western European identity was a relatively short one, lasting from the early 16th to the mid-20th centuries. The church in China, India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is older than the church in much of Northern Europe.

2. Christian missions operated hand-in-glove with the colonial powers.

Sometimes they did, but frequently they didn’t. Missions were usually critical of the way in which empires operated, mainly because they conceived of empire as a divinely bestowed trust. True, they didn’t oppose colonial rule on principle, but then who did before the late 20th century?

3. Christianity was imposed by force on non-Western people.

If this were true, it would reduce non-Western Christians—even today—to the status of passive recipients of Western ideological domination. In fact, Western missions never possessed the power necessary to achieve such capitulation, even if they wanted it, which they did not.

4. Protestant missions began with William Carey in 1792.

John Eliot’s mission work among the Native Americans of New England began as early as 1646. The first Lutheran missionaries arrived at Tranquebar in South India in 1706. In his famousAn Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792) Carey insisted that he had many predecessors.

5. Missionaries destroyed indigenous cultures.

Indigenous cultures were not static entities: to suggest that they were is characteristic of Western modernity. Missionaries often displayed what we would term cultural blindness, but their message, once translated into the vernacular, acquired indigenous cultural overtones. Missionary contributions to the inscription and study of indigenous languages have helped to preserve or enrich such cultures.

6. The 19th century was the great century of Christian missions.

It was the great age of Western missionary expansion, but not the great age of indigenous conversion and agency: that was the 20th century. K. S. Latourette’s “great century” is a misleading phrase.

7. ‘Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization’ was an imperial creed.

It was essentially an anti-slavery humanitarian creed, associated especially with David Livingstone (though he didn’t invent it). For those reasons it often led to advocacy of imperial solutions. Fighting slavery actually led imperial expansion as humanitarians called for deeper commitment from Britain to root out the slave trade at its sources in the African interior.

8. We live in a post-missionary era.

No, we don’t. There are approximately 426,000 foreign missionaries in the world today. In 1900 there were about 62,000. The United States still sends something like 127,000 missionaries overseas.

9. We live in a post-colonial age.

We certainly don’t live in a post-imperial age. Formal colonial rule is usually a last resort adopted by powerful nations who run out of cheaper options of control. Decolonization can be seen as a return to informal means of control. Definitions of what constitutes colonialism are contested: what about the subject status of first nations people in Canada, aborigines in Australia, Tibetans, West Papuans . . . and even the Scots?!

10. To proclaim the unique saving value of the Christian gospel is to be intolerant of other religions.

This is to confuse a theological position with an attitudinal stance. Because of their understanding of the nature of truth, Christians can (should?) believe that others are fundamentally mistaken in their beliefs and still defend to the hilt their right to hold and practise such beliefs.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity.

Brian Stanley read history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and stayed on in Cambridge for his PhD on the place of missionary enthusiasm in Victorian religion. He has taught in theological colleges and universities in London, Bristol, and Cambridge, and from 1996 to 2001 was director of the Currents in World Christianity Project in the University of Cambridge. He was a fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, from 1996 to 2008, and joined the University of Edinburgh in January 2009.

Just a reminder to the disciples of Jesus: Give, because He gave

2 Dec

27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

From Acts 11

Should the church be involved in politics? Well, what is meant by politics?

7 Nov

From Greg Forster:

Growing numbers of Americans want pastors to talk about politics. A generation ago, we learned the hard way that when churches take sides in partisan and ideological disputes, the result is disaster. But there is a legitimate reason public demand for political theology is rising, and there are ways to meet that need without having pastors endorse candidates.

The Pew Foundation reports that the number of Americans who want pastors to talk about politics has risen to 49%, rising six points in the last four years. A full 32% want pastors to endorse specific candidates. It’s not clear how many of them are aware that churches are (rightly) forbidden to do this as long as they are tax-exempt entities.

There are a lot of reasons for churches to be wary of getting involved in elections and public policy. It discredits the gospel; 6003555815_f4a2434100_zwhen the stewards of the gospel message advocate political programs, people naturally get the idea that the gospel message is a political program. Pastors often compromise moral standards in order to forge alliances with the least-imperfect of the very imperfect candidates available. And it prevents the church from being the “church universal,” the place where everyone meets on equal terms.

Moreover, politics is simply not an area of giftedness for religious leaders. Unscruplous politicians are very skillful at manipulating well-meaning pastors. That seems to be their area of giftedness.

We saw all these lessons in the debacle of the Religious Right movement. However, that was not just a one-time event. Throughout the last century, American churches became the dupes of cynical politicians time and again. Richard Nixon was caught on the Watergate tapes discussing how to manipulate evangelicals, saying things like “you have to give the nuts 20% of what they want.” Billy Graham, who had done a great deal for Nixon, wept when he heard those tapes.

Does that mean churches should steer clear of anything political? Actually, it depends on what you mean by “political.”

The hunger for churches to speak into politics is perennial for a good reason. Every area of life needs a moral purpose and clear ethical boundaries, and no area of life needs it more desperately than this one. Where no one is casting a profound vision for the transcendent meaning and purpose of an activity, that activity quickly descends into shallow narcissism and brutal exploitation. And because politics involves the use of coercive power, it descends into brutality more quickly than most activities.

For the last century, we’ve been caught in a vicious circle. Churches keep getting drawn into politics because people are desperate for a moral vision that can humanize politics and point it toward its proper end: justice. Then, churches take sides in elections and ideological disputes, resulting in disaster. So churches withdraw from politics, and the cycle begins anew.

I think we might break out of this cycle if we rethink what we mean by “politics.” This word comes from the Greek polis, which simply means “city” – that is, the civil community. The deepest level of politics concerns the way the public business of the civil community is structured. As the editors of the journal First Thingsonce put it, politics in the profoundest sense is “free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together?”

The “politics” that really count in America is not who wins the election. It’s whether we will remain a nation dedicated to what have been our central political commitments: religious freedom, constitutional democracy, the rule of law, recognition of the household as the central social building block, equal dignity for women, an entrepreneurial economy based on opportunity and hard work, and a special concern to extend opportunity to the poor and the marginalized. Are these commitments just? Do we even remember what they mean? Those are the real political questions of our day.

If you think these commitments are just platitudes – so obviously right that they can be taken for granted and don’t need strong champions to speak out for them – you aren’t paying attention. I don’t think we need pastors to pick candidates or debate the tax rate. I do think we need pastors to remind us that the purpose of politics is justice, and to remind us of what justice requires.

This is exactly what the pastor is supposed to be doing anyway: helping people interpret the meaning of their lives and understand what God requires of them in all areas of life. Human beings are political creatures, and a gospel that has nothing to say about politics (in the sense of the polis) is a gospel that doesn’t renew the whole human person for Christ. If pastors learned to preach about public justice effectively, there would be more public justice – and, therefore, less demand for pastors to pick candidates.

TPC_GregForster_bioGreg Forster  has participated in previous Public Squares on capitalism and religious trends.

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/missionwork/2014/11/politics-in-the-pulpit-yes-and-no/#ixzz3IOZXDEjv

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/missionwork/2014/11/politics-in-the-pulpit-yes-and-no/#ixzz3IOZICijc

Christianity is a natural prop for liberal democracy, Chinese communists are continuing to learn

8 Oct

As history shows (Western Civilization; South Korea, predominantly Christians nations in Africa and South America; America itself) and as research empirical research has shown, the internal logic of Christianity tends towards liberal democracy, even a constitutional republic.  China is finding this out these days (excerpt)…

The involvement of Protestants and Catholics in Hong Kong’s protest movement is an added concern for Beijing, which on the mainland has put in place an elaborate bureaucracy of agencies and state-approved religious bodies to monitor and control religious groups.

Hong Kong churches have long tried to spread Christianity in China. Protestant pastors based in Hong Kong have helped propagate the evangelical brands of Christianity that have alarmed the Chinese leadership in Beijing with their fast growth.

A religious group gathered in Hong Kong’s Admiralty area, a focal point of the pro-democracy protests, on Wednesday. Paul Beckett/The Wall Street Journal

About 480,000 Protestants and 363,000 Catholics live in Hong Kong, a city of about 7.2 million, according to government figures from 2013. Buddhists and Taoists make up the vast majority of the city, the government says. Many Hong Kongers have been educated through large networks of Catholic and Protestant schools.

That includes some protest leaders. Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old who is a public face of the rallies, was educated at one of the top Protestant-backed private schools in the city. Now in college, Wong was a 15-year-old student at United Christian College (Kowloon East) in 2012, when he led a movement called Scholarism that defeated the Hong Kong government’s plan to introduce patriotic education classes in schools.

Occupy Central leader Chu Yiu-ming is a Baptist minister, while founder Benny Tai is also a Christian. On Thursday, Mr. Tai declined to discuss his faith in detail, but he did call himself a “part time theologian” and said he could “write a thesis” on the topic of Christianity and the protests. “My faith is in the streets,” Mr. Tai added.

Wendy Lo, 21, was born in China’s Guangdong province but grew up in Hong Kong and became Christian after attending an Evangelical secondary school. The University of Hong Kong linguistics major says her bible study group this past weekend discussed how to interpret a biblical story in light of the protest movement. The chapter they read was about Queen Esther daring to approach the king without his permission.

“The story made me think about speaking up for myself,” said Ms. Lo. “If Hong Kong residents don’t speak up for ourselves, who will?”

Full Article

Why does America, both its Christians and the left, neglect the plight of Arab Christians?

15 Sep

From Ross Douthat (excerpt):

WHEN the long, grim history of Christianity’s disappearance from the Middle East is written, Ted Cruz’s performance last week at a conference organized to highlight the persecution of his co-religionists will merit at most a footnote. But sometimes a footnote can help illuminate a tragedy’s unhappy whole.

For decades, the Middle East’s increasingly beleaguered Christian communities have suffered from a fatal invisibility in the Western world. And their plight has been particularly invisible in the United States, which as a majority-Christian superpower might have been expected to provide particular support.

There are three reasons for this invisibility. The political left in the West associates Christian faith with dead white male imperialism and does not come naturally to the recognition that Christianity is now the globe’s most persecuted religion. And in the Middle East the Israel-Palestine question, with its colonial overtones, has been the left’s great obsession, whereas the less ideologically convenient plight of Christians under Islamic rule is often left untouched.

Photo

Farida Pols Matte, 80, in Ankawa, Iraq, with her family and other Iraqi Christian refugees. They are among the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. CreditLynsey Addario for The New York Times

To America’s strategic class, meanwhile, the Middle East’s Christians simply don’t have the kind of influence required to matter. A minority like the Kurds, geographically concentrated and well-armed, can be a player in the great game, a potential United States ally. But except in Lebanon, the region’s Christians are too scattered and impotent to offer much quid for the superpower’s quo. So whether we’re pursuing stability by backing the anti-Christian Saudis or pursuing transformation by toppling Saddam Hussein (and unleashing the furies on Iraq’s religious minorities), our policy makers have rarely given Christian interests any kind of due.

Then, finally, there is the American right, where one would expect those interests to find a greater hearing. But the ancient churches of the Middle East (Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronites, Copt, Assyrian) are theologically and culturally alien to many American Catholics and evangelicals. And the great cause of many conservative Christians in the United States is the state of Israel, toward which many Arab Christians harbor feelings that range from the complicated to the hostile.

Which brings us to Ted Cruz…

Read the rest

The death of Christianity where Christianity has always been – Mosul

12 Aug

From Philip Jenkins:

The ancient Christian history of the Middle East has become agonizingly relevant. Cities central in that history appear in headlines in the context of fanaticism and mass destruction. The State Department’s maps of the latest atrocities coincide with the most venerable landscapes of Eastern Christianity.

The city of Damascus in Syria needs no explanation in terms of its role in the Christian story, and late Roman Gaza likewise produced some pivotal thinkers and theologians. Both cities are also featured in the Old Testament. But what about Syria’s Hama, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in that country’s civil war? The Byzantines knew it as Epiphania, home of the historian John, who is a prime source for the Roman-Persian wars of the sixth century. Hama’s Great Mosque stands within the readily identifiable remains of the Byzantine basilica church.

The first Syrian provincial capital to fall under rebel control in the current conflict was Ar-Raqqah, which historians of Chrisian monasticism know as Kallinikos, a haven of learning and piety from the sixth century. Latakia was once Laodicea, where the bishop was the often vilified heretic Apollinarius. Homs, another frequent Syrian battlefield, was fifth-century Emesa, where a beloved shrine claimed the head of St. John the Baptist.

Syria can scarcely compete historically, however, with neighbouring Mesopotamia, the land we presently call Iraq (future maps might bear different names). Over the past summer, the city of Mosul has been the centre of global attention, following its capture by the forces of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

ISIS then went on to proclaim a revived caliphate, an office dormant since 1924, and promised to lead its followers against Christendom, even to the gates of Rome. It also launched a brutal reign of terror against both Shi’a Muslims and fellow Sunnis. Before the new self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, first addressed the Islamic world, his minions had murdered the city’s leading Sunni clerics. Although the so-called Islamic state may have stirred up too many enemies to prove an enduring presence, it naturally terrifies surviving members of other religions, especially Christians.

That story has been prominently reported, but few reports have paid much attention to the identity of those Christians and their spiritual culture which now seems on the verge of extinction. For Westerners, those local Christians face an easy choice: Why don’t they just leave? If they do, though, they will be abandoning a Mosul that in its day occupied a central place in Christian thought and development. Would Christians happily forsake Assisi or Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury or Cologne, if threatened with a similar situation? Would they not be held back by centuries of Christ-haunted memory and tradition? The story of Mosul is at least equal to that of any of these later upstarts.

Mosul was originally a centre of the fearsome Assyrians, and that connection attracted the attention of Jews, Christians and Muslims. All three faiths esteem the prophet Jonah, whom God sent to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Ancient Nineveh itself was once separate from Mosul but has now been absorbed into the metropolitan area that the region’s Christians call Nineveh rather than Mosul. Under its Arabic name of Nebi Yunus (Prophet Jonah), the prophet’s grave was a pilgrimage destination for millennia – although reports suggest that ISIS thugs are in the process of demolishing the shrine.

Mosul was an early centre of Jewish life and learning, where a Christian church emerged no later than the second century. It became a key centre for the Church of the East, the so-called Nestorian Church, which made it a metropolitan see. Also present were the so-called Monophysites, today’s Syrian Orthodox Church. These churches used Syriac, a language close to that of the apostles, and the Mosul area still has some Syriac-speaking villages.

Mosul was at the heart of a network of very early monasteries. Within 30 miles of the city are St. Elijah’s and St. Matthew (Mar Mattai), which date from the fourth century, Rabban Hormizd and Beth Abhe from the sixth or seventh, and many others: Mar Behnam, Mar Gewargis (St. George), Mar Mikhael (St. Michael). The greatest of these yielded nothing to such legendary houses as Monte Cassino or Iona. At its height, Mar Mattai was one of the greatest houses in the Christian world, with thousands of monks.

Around 850, Bishop Thomas of Marga described the lives of famous Syriac monks and holy men in his Book of Governor, which gives us a tantalizing picture of this lost spiritual world. Although his main interest was his own house of Beth Abhe, he mentions in passing dozens of small religious houses in the Mosul region, most of which we can no longer locate. The remains of many presumably survive under Iraqi village mosques.

The Church of the East that Thomas knew persisted for centuries, incredibly successfully considering it never enjoyed a close alliance with the secular state. Successively, the region was controlled by Zoroastrian Persians and by Muslim Arabs, but still the monasteries endured and flourished. In the histories of the thirteenth-century polymath Gregory Bar Hebraeus, the Mosul region appears as one of the hubs of the Christian universe. (Gregory himself was buried at Mar Mattai.)

Hard times arrived in the later thirteenth century with the coming of the Mongols. Facing growing intolerance in their old seat of Baghdad, the patriarchs of the Church of the East based themselves at the house of Rabban Hormizd. Christian life persisted there and in the surrounding religious houses. We get a sense of this from priceless Syriac Christian scriptures like the Cave of Treasures, which is preserved in the British Museum. It was copied in 1709 by the learned priest Homo, the son of the priest Daniel, who lived in Alqosh, near Mosul.

Mosul retained its Christian significance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Western Catholics arrived to bring those ancient believers into submission to Rome. The missionaries enjoyed some success. The ancient Eastern Church was split into pro-Roman factions, known as the Chaldeans, and the sturdily independent resisters, the Assyrians. In the long term though, those once bitter divisions would not matter too much. Both groups still exist – on a sadly diminished scale.

The fall of Christian Mosul loomed in the beginning of the twentieth century. Kurdish raids and bandit attacks repeatedly hit the monasteries and devastated their libraries. During World War I, the Ottoman Turks inflicted on local Christians the same attempted genocide they directed against the Armenians. By the 1920s, the once transcontinental Church of the East was reduced to about 40,000 survivors in the Mosul area. The church’s patriarch today is based in Chicago.

But even then Christians did not forsake Mosul. The population included Assyrians, Catholic Chaldeans, Syrian Orthodox and Orthodox Arabs, who hoped to benefit from the state secularism promised by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime. If their ancient glories were long past, they hoped to remain unmolested in the land of the prophet Jonah and of the great patriarchs and abbots. The Ba’ath regime was shaken by the 1991 Gulf War and then overthrown in the 2003 invasion led by the United States, which brought Islamist resistance to the fore. The ISIS campaign will presumably spell the end of a Christian presence.

We often read of the birth and growth of churches, very rarely of their deaths. In Mosul, however, we may be seeing the end of an astounding example of Christian continuity that lasted nearly two millennia.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Co-Director of the Program on Historical Studies of Religion at theInstitute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University. His most recent book is The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Copyright 2014 by the Christian Century. “Leaving Nineveh” by Philip Jenkins is reprinted by permission from the 20 August 2014 issue of the The Christian Century.

Must evangelicals side with Israel? If so, it should be because of justice, not eschatology

8 Aug

In the current controversy between Israel and Hamas, I tend to side with Israel. I side with Israel recognizing that they are not innocent, that they have made mistakes, that they have overreacted at times, that they can let their anger best their better judgment on occasion. I side with Israel not because Israel is God’s chosen ethnicity or nation-state (as classical dispensationalists argue), obligating every nation, especially America, and Christian to love and favor the nation of Israel in a special way above all other nations. No, I tend to side with Israel because I think their goal, supported by most of their actions, in this conflict is the peaceful, mutually beneficial, coexistence with the Palestinian people. I side with Israel because I believe the goal and actions of Hamas are fundamentally, unswervingly, and quite explicitly (see the Hamas Charter) different, desiring not peaceful coexistence but the obliteration of Israel and the Jews therein, using every agreement, every compromise, every concession, every cease fire, every financial gift, not as an opportunity to build peaceful relations aimed at improving the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis but to build bigger more devastating bombs (or tunnels, as it were) to kill Jews and drive Israelis into the sea by orders (as they see it) from Allah. Eschatology does not determine my favor of Israel in this conflict. The laws of justice and nature’s God do. If the religious factions were reversed — if the Israelis were attempting by action or statement to eradicate Palestinians forever instead of peacefully coexisting with them and if Hamas was only seeking peaceful coexistence instead of extermination — then my support would be completely reversed as well. The Christian is under no particular theological obligation, I’d argue, to support Israel, but is under the eternally binding moral law of God obligating him/her to support righteousness, goodness, justice, among the nations wherever it can be found. And on that score, the Israelis have made the better argument compared to Hamas in my judgment.

Sadly, for some evangelicals, Israel can do no wrong. Not because a review of its actions or history shows that it has not, but because they have embraced a rigid and poor eschatology requiring them to embrace Israeli actions in a virtually unqualified unconditional way. After all, if the modern nation-state of Israel is God’s chosen people (a view that is not, in my view, supported in scripture), then you will tend to see everything happening there with colored glasses. That is, for me and several other Christians, the question of who to support in this conflict is fundamentally open because we want to be on the side of justice. But for many Christians, the question is essentially closed, because they simply want to be on the side of Israel, God’s chosen nation-state. So to help, a group of evangelical scholars in 2002 wrote an open letter to evangelicals who rubber stamp Israeli actions for all the wrong theological reasons. I think it is still relevant today.

Excerpt:

An Open Letter to Evangelicals and Other Interested Parties:
The People of God, the Land of Israel, and the Impartiality of the Gospel

Recently a number of leaders in the Protestant community of the United States have urged the endorsement of far-reaching and unilateral political commitments to the people and land of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citing Holy Scripture as the basis for those commitments. To strengthen their endorsement, several of these leaders have also insisted that they speak on behalf of the seventy million people who constitute the American evangelical community.

It is good and necessary for evangelical leaders to speak out on the great moral issues of our day in obedience to Christ’s call for his disciples to be salt and light in the world. It is quite another thing, however, when leaders call for commitments that are based upon a serious misreading of Holy Scripture. In such instances, it is good and necessary for other evangelical leaders to speak out as well. We do so here in the hope that we may contribute to the cause of the Lord Christ, apart from whom there can never be true and lasting peace in the world.

At the heart of the political commitments in question are two fatally flawed propositions. First, some are teaching that God’s alleged favor toward Israel today is based upon ethnic descent rather than upon the grace of Christ alone, as proclaimed in the Gospel. Second, others are teaching that the Bible’s promises concerning the land are fulfilled in a special political region or “Holy Land,” perpetually set apart by God for one ethnic group alone. As a result of these false claims, large segments of the evangelical community, our fellow citizens, and our government are being misled with regard to the Bible’s teachings regarding the people of God, the land of Israel, and the impartiality of the Gospel.

In what follows, we make our convictions public. We do so acknowledging the genuine evangelical faith of many who will not agree with us. Knowing that we may incur their disfavor, we are nevertheless constrained by Scripture and by conscience to publish the following propositions for the cause of Christ and truth.

1. The Gospel offers eternal life in heaven to Jews and Gentiles alike as a free gift in Jesus Christ. Eternal life in heaven is not earned or deserved, nor is it based upon ethnic descent or natural birth.

2. All human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, are sinners, and, as such, they are under God’s judgment of death. Because God’s standard is perfect obedience and all are sinners, it is impossible for anyone to gain temporal peace or eternal life by his own efforts. Moreover, apart from Christ, there is no special divine favor upon any member of any ethnic group; nor, apart from Christ, is there any divine promise of an earthly land or a heavenly inheritance to anyone, whether Jew or Gentile. To teach or imply otherwise is nothing less than to compromise the Gospel itself.

Read the rest
Other helpful resources on the nation of Israel and the people of God:

Mike Horton: The Church and Israel

Ligon Duncan: What is Dispensationalism and what are its chief errors?

Craig Blaising, a progressive dispensationalist, explains how even if we find in scripture a future eschatological fulfillment of earthly promises to the nation-state of Israel, that doesn’t tell us what to make of the present nation-state of Israel and the Christian’s duties/affections toward it.   See his article here

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