Do Christian Missionaries Destroy Native Cultures?

Chau - Christian missions

John Allen Chau, presumed dead at age 26.

With the recent killing of an American “adventurer and missionary,” the legitimacy of Christian missions is being questioned again. The missionary in question, John Allen Chau, illegally made his way to an isolated island off the cost of India, to share the message of Jesus with the island’s inhabitants – one of the world’s last “uncontacted” tribes. The Sentinelese tribe, known to be hostile and violent toward outsiders, reportedly killed Chau and buried him on the beach.

Anthropologists and activists are concerned that contact with Chau himself, as well as contact with any outsiders who may wish to recover his body, could endanger the survival of the Sentinelese tribe by introducing pathogens against which the tribe would have no immunity. There is abundant historical precedent to warrant such concerns. In addition, raging within secular culture are philosophical concerns that raise a number of interesting questions:

Do Christian missionaries destroy indigenous cultures?
Do they impose, forcibly or otherwise, western beliefs and values on indigenous people?
Do they operate from a position of assumed superiority, culturally, religiously, or racially?
Do they threaten, or do they enhance, the physical survival and well being of indigenous peoples?
Is it fundamentally arrogant, or even immoral, for missionaries to assimilate with
“unreached” people groups with the ultimate intent of sharing a foreign, spiritual
message with them? Shouldn’t isolated people groups instead be left undisturbed?

There is no question that, historically, missionaries have often been wrong-headed in their approach to sharing their messages. One sorrowful, infamous example is the case of Catholic Franciscan priest and bishop, Fray Diego de Landis. As a Spanish missionary to the New World, whatever good he did was eclipsed by his harsh and coercive methods against the Mayas. His most infamous accomplishment may have been the burning of the entire Maya library due to the books being filled with what he believed to be “superstition and lies of the devil.” Only 3 Mayan documents survive – a great loss to our understanding of Mayan culture.

Having said that, let us not imagine that the committing of cultural and racial atrocities has exclusively been a religiously motivated pursuit. For nearly a century, Darwinian evolution widely held that dark-skinned people were less evolved than Caucasian people. As recently as the late 19th century, some 5.000 to 10,000 (Australian) aboriginal graves were desecrated, and “specimens” shipped, to British museums. In some cases Aborigines were murdered to obtain parts for study. (See David Monaghan, “The Body Snatchers”). As late as the early 20th century, targets for eugenics and forced sterilization included dark-skinned races.

Thankfully, both theists and atheists, religion and science, have come a long way since then. The modern missionary movement is smart and sensitive. There is nothing innate to the whole of scripture to justify the earlier missionary atrocities.

When Worldviews Collide
Nonetheless, there is certainly a clash of worldviews at play here, and that’s not going to go away. Secularists will continue to think that Christian missionaries have no business “invading” the lives of isolated people groups for the sake of “spreading a myth.” Followers of Jesus will continue to consider it a compassionate act to introduce isolated peoples to their universal Creator. What is different now is that both groups are concerned with respecting and retaining indigenous cultures and protecting the health and survival of these people.

One fact both sides can agree on is that isolated tribes are vulnerable to a number of modern threats, and that their existence is fragile. Missionary author Don Richardson claims that in the past 75 years, more than one tribe per year has disappeared from Brazil, from an estimated population of 4 million. Richardson claims thousands have been gunned down, blown up, or poisoned. The fact that the Sentinelese warriors have been observed firing their stone age weapons at a helicopter shows that they have no idea what they are up against.

The view of the modern missionary movement is that leaving tribal people undisturbed is not an option in the 21st century. It insists that it is better that missionaries get to remote peoples first because they value them as human beings created in God’s image. There are a host of potential outsider contacts who have no qualms about cheating, exploiting, and contaminating tribal people groups, and they are not asking permission: farmers, lumbermen, land speculators, minors, hunters, military leaders, road builders, art collectors, tourists, and drug dealers.

In thinking about indigenous cultures, there tends to be a halo effect around the way secularists view tribal people groups; as though their existence is peaceful, free, equitable, and humane. But all human beings are broken, and there is no ideal culture. Tribal cultures believe in the supernatural and are bound by strict beliefs about what their gods require. Critics of missionaries must grapple with the question of whether acceptance of an indigenous culture means acceptance of such practices as inter-tribal warfare, slavery, female genital mutilation, cannibalism, and other oppressive or self-destructive behaviors.

A Case Study
Richardson tells the story of the Wai Wai tribe of Brazil, which had been reduced to its last 60 members less than a generation ago:

     This was due largely to foreign diseases and the Wai Wai custom of sacrificing babies to demons in attempts to prevent these diseases. Then a handful of UFM missionaries identified themselves with the tribe, learned their language, gave it an alphabet, translated the Word of God, taught Wai Wai to read and brought modern medical care.

      Far from denying the supernatural world, the missionaries showed the Wai Wai that a God of love reigned supreme over it and had prepared a way for them to “stay right” on a deeper level than they had ever dreamed. The Wai Wai now had a rational, even delightful, basis for not sacrificing babies to demons. The tribe began to grow, and today is fast becoming one of Brazil’s more stable tribes. Wai Wai Christians are now teaching other dwindling groups of Indians how to cope with the 21st century through faith in Jesus.
(Perspectives, “Do Missionaries Destroy Cultures?” – Don Richardson)

The world is now filled with such stories of positive change. Jesus was not “white,” and His message was never to promote Western culture. Relational unity with God transcends all cultures, and can be expressed through all cultures.

Find Out More
If the topic of missions interests you, I would recommend a 15 week long class called PERSPECTIVES. The class takes students through the biblical, historical, cultural, and strategic aspects of “the world Christian movement.” All of the issues discussed above are thoroughly addressed, and much more. It’s a great way to learn about what God has been doing throughout human history, and how you can participate.

Mollie and I took the course in 2018, and loved it. Perhaps my favorite part was hearing a different live speaker every week. Most of the speakers are, or have been, missionaries in the field, with stories and insights to share. The course includes a workbook and a 750 page reader composed of articles by 150 scholars and practitioners.

PERSPECTIVES is a bit of a commitment: the cost is $250, and there is reading homework between weekly meetings. There is usually a $50 early bird discount available. If you’re unsure about committing, you can attend the first two classes for free. Attendees choose between 3 levels of participation, the least committal being the “key reading” level, the highest being the college credit level.

PERSPECTIVES is an inter-denominational event hosted by various local churches. For more information click here for the WEBSITE. Click here to see a short PROMO VIDEO.


11 comments on “Do Christian Missionaries Destroy Native Cultures?

  1. Patrick John Sokoll says:

    Great thoughts Scott!

  2. All good points you raised and good questions asked.

    One additional question one might ask is, what makes anyone think that an indigenous tribe doesn’t want to change? Of course, some may not, but it seems to be an assumed premiss, asserted without evidence or argument, that indigenous tribes want to remain undeveloped or backwards technologically or socially. And this same premiss is usually asserted by the same people who fancy themselves “progressive” and want to see Western Civilization overhauled or destroyed by multiculturalism. It’s the same kind of cognitive dissonance experienced by feminists who believe that western women who opt for traditional motherhood and marriage are oppressed and stupid for submitting themselves to “the patriarchy” and then turn around and defend Islam’s oppression of women because “that’s their culture.”

    I’m also conflicted about the destruction of the Mayan library. In the Old Testament, leaders of Israel were considered good when they tore down altars to idols and all such items related to paganism. So while I understand it may be considered a loss from a historian’s subjective point of view, the only real crime was that they destroyed that which did not belong to them, i.e., one can’t destroy another’s private property simply because it promotes false or evil ideas.

  3. Hi Frank,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m inclined to agree with you about cultures voluntarily changing. Who is to say what is innate to a culture? I’m aware of a number of stories where it appears that God had built prophetic signs into the old customs and mythology of a culture. The message of Jesus turns out to be the fulfillment of culture in many cases. Also, apparently a great many, (perhaps most), Muslim “converts to Christianity” abroad experience Jesus appearing to them in dreams and revealing truth in accordance with the Bible.

    But as for the Mayan library, I don’t think theocratic Israel is a valid comparison to a Spanish priest in a foreign country burning books. The fact that Fray Diego de Landis records that the Mayans were distraught over the loss of their library shows that the act was a form of coercion/oppression. Had the Mayans chosen to burn the books themselves, I would feel differently. At any rate it’s impossible for us now to make a judgment about the content of the books one way or the other.

    • The only comparison I made to Israel was to the fact of destroying pagan artifacts for the purpose of ridding the land of any evil influence. The significant difference of course is that the Spanish priest, unlike Israel’s leadership, had no authority to destroy the library of another country, which is why I noted that “the only real crime was that they destroyed that which did not belong to them.” In such a case, I entirely agree with you that it was a form of oppression.

  4. Author’s note:
    ‘Just wanted to share this comment from my Facebook page. (Sometimes the best comments end up there, rather than here on the actual WordPress site). This is from my Australian online friend, Rod Lampard:

    “You’re not wrong 🙂 In his book, ‘The Lamb Enters the Dreaming’, atheist Robert Kenny discusses and presents some very detailed research on his part, about how Christian mission in Australia saved the Indigenous people, preserved their language by translating it into the Bible and provided an alternative view (Imago dei) to the growing Social Darwinians in the “secular” (religious humanist) world. He noted that most secular humanists who exchanged theory with dogma, when it came to evolution, believed that we should let them die out, because it’s natural selection taking its course. Christians pushed back against this view and became a shield – a conserving and reforming force – in favour of the indigenous people. As for the America’s, friar Bartolomé de las Casas fought hard with the powers that be to stop the abuses.”

    • (…and my response, because it gives me a chance to add some things I edited out of the OP) :

      Thanks for confirming from a closer perspective than from where I sit. And yes, due to space considerations I made the story of Fray Diego de Landa more one-sided than it actually was, apparently. His harsh methods were questioned by his superiors and he was sent back to Spain to stand trial. He was eventually cleared of all charges and returned to Yucatan, but one could argue that the episode shows that Spain was at least grappling with the issue of how to be humane with the natives.

  5. “New world” – what “New” world? We only have one Planet earth(world) .. The immigrants to Turtle Island must stop using this term to describe present day North America… If the Indigenous ppl went to England I wonder . . . would they say “New world” … Hell no!

    • Nishnaabe nini ,
      Thanks for sharing your concern. Of course you have a valid point in that there were already people living here when Europeans arrived; so it certainly wasn’t a “new world” to those indigenous people.

      On the other hand, “New World” is a historical term used to distinguish North and South America from the “Old World” hemisphere including Africa, Europe, and Asia. This is how I used the term. I guess I should have at least put the term in quotation marks to underline your point.

      I could easily refrain from using the term to avoid giving offense, but the concept will remain part of the unchangeable history of the world. I’m not sure how else to refer to places like New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, etc. I would welcome your suggestions.

  6. October says:

    One of your defenses is, “If you’re going to criticize missionaries, aren’t you going to criticize tribal slavery and genital mutilation etc. etc.?” Yes. You can criticize both of them. But only one of these things happens on a global scale and affects multiple other societies and cultures and threatens to wipe them out or has already done so. So that one’s a bit more pressing.

    Another defense is, “Some missionaries have done really good stuff too!” Yeah, sure, and that’s plenty nice. But for every missionary effort that has preserved a language or the artifacts or customs of a culture, there are a hundred others that have either outright destroyed those things, or “encouraged” them to be left behind with no preservation effort whatsoever. I also feel it’s important to note that you can do good things without turning it into a mission of conversion. You can feed people just for the sake of feeding them; you can build houses for the sake of helping others. It is not a necessity to convert your beneficiaries. In fact, it is preferable to just help people without the ulterior motive of conversion, in my opinion.

    I’m not saying you’re not allowed to share your beliefs; if someone asks about them, then by all means, share away. But no, it is not a particularly positive thing to go into an impoverished nation and dangle medicine and food in front of the natives’ faces and say, “I’ll give you some crumbs if you convert to my beliefs. We’ll build you houses, but oh, wouldn’t it also be grand if we built a good, clean church on top of your heathen altar? Your previous way of life is what brought you this suffering, so it’s best to leave it behind. If you roll over for us very well, we will record your customs in our journals and take them back to our Church library to neatly sort away, for the sake of saying we have ‘preserved’ your culture.”
    It all comes across as mildly grotesque.

    I’d like to ask what you’d think if the situation were reversed. Imagine, say, Hinduism was the largest religion on Earth and that Christianity, or your branch of it, was fairly niche. Imagine a series of Hindu “missions” where they persuaded small Christian communities to convert to Hinduism.

    Christians frequently seem to panic at the idea of Christianity “dying out,” but they virtually never extend the same courtesy to other systems of belief. To the point where they actively contribute to wiping out those other religions and manage to convince themselves it’s a positive thing.

    And yes, I know that my opinion isn’t going to convince many (if any) Christians that their “missions” often do more harm than good, because I understand that from Christians’ points of view, they are doing the ONLY good that they can; they are “bringing people to Christ.”
    I know that, aside from their own relationship with Christ, this is their greatest joy and achievement.
    The concept that missionary work is “good” relies on the belief that “God is Good” and God is the GREATEST “Good,” and therefore converting as many people to him as possible is “good,” regardless of what “lesser” religions and cultures and traditions are lost along the way.

    In other words, most missionary Christians can never be convinced that their missionary work does more harm than good unless their fundamental understanding of God and what God wants changes. And let’s be real, that’s about as likely as Anton LaVey being golf buddies with John the Baptist.

    But I still wanted to share what I thought.

    • One could address many of the issues you raised point by point. However, there’s something much more fundamental that requires addressing, i.e., the ontological ground of your theory of ethics which informs all of your comments and criticisms, without which one has to ask about the relevance or importance of your comments.

      To clarify, your entire post is predicated on some vague notion you hold in your mind as to what is or is not harmful or good. But on what objective ground do you predicate your notion of “good”? Are you just telling us you don’t like missionary work of one sort or another? If so, why is that any more relevant than my saying I don’t like canned spinach? Is canned spinach evil or something to be avoided simply because I personally happen to dislike it?

      And if you can’t predicate your notion of “good” on something more substantive than your personal predilections or some other arbitrary criteria (e.g. utilitarianism, relativism, etc.), why should anyone give your comments and criticisms any serious philosophical consideration?

    • October,
      Thank you for taking time to comment. I’m glad you felt free to share your thoughts.

      Mostly I want to answer the the direct question you asked me. But first I want to clarify some things as you have mischaracterized what I have said. I actually agree with pretty much everything you’ve objected to. The difference is that I contend that you are not describing the modern missionary movement.

      You write, “One of your defenses is, “If you’re going to criticize missionaries, aren’t you going to criticize tribal slavery and genital mutilation etc. etc.?” Yes. You can criticize both of them…”

      Actually, you missed my meaning here – that wasn’t a “defense”. I was referring to the idealization (by secularists) of tribal people groups. My question was, “Does accepting an indigenous culture mean accepting its cruel and/or oppressive practices?” (recognizing of course that our own post-modern culture has its own cruel/oppressive practices). If anyone, secular or religious, seeks to alleviate suffering/injustice that stems from a people-group-belief within an indigenous culture, aren’t they interfering with that culture? So hands-off and let them die out? (See the example given farther down the post). I think it’s a question worth thinking about.

      As to your question:
      “I’d like to ask what you’d think if the situation were reversed. Imagine, say, Hinduism was the largest religion on Earth and that Christianity, or your branch of it, was fairly niche. Imagine a series of Hindu “missions” where they persuaded small Christian communities to convert to Hinduism…”

      I would think pretty much what I think now, but my lifestyle would be less comfortable, and I and my family would live at risk of physical danger. We don’t have to imagine such a scenario. I am in regular contact with missionary friends in India and Nepal where the situation is pretty much what you describe. For me the key question is: “Is conversion VOLUNTARY”? Hindu and Muslim states are notorious for passing anti-conversion laws, making conversion to a “non-native religion” an illegal, punishable offense. In other words they make it illegal to voluntarily change your mind.

      I happen to think that Jesus has nothing to lose by being scrutinized in a fair, free marketplace of ideas, (or even in an oppressive theocracy or an atheistic State). I’ve long examined the basis for my beliefs and would welcome any conversations attempting to persuade me.

      You continue, “…Christians frequently seem to panic at the idea of Christianity “dying out,” but they virtually never extend the same courtesy to other systems of belief. To the point where they actively contribute to wiping out those other religions and manage to convince themselves it’s a positive thing…”

      I can only speak for myself, but I would see the “dying out” of a religion called “Christianity” as a positive development, in favor of seeing people embrace of the person of Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus did not come to establish a religion called “Christianity”; He came to restore relational unity with God, and to ultimately unify all of creation (Eph 1:7-10). Just like any indigenous person on the planet, you are invited into communion with your loving Creator, and you are also free to reject the invitation as nonsense.

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