Sometimes my most difficult Facebook arguments aren’t with nonbelievers—they’re with Christians.
A case in point: The other day I posted a link to an article with the title, “Startled Amazon tribesmen pictured jabbing their spears as they see an airplane for the first time.” It carried photos of some nearly naked men at a crude grass shelter in a jungle. They were part of a 200-member tribe in Brazil’s Acre state that so far has had no contact with the outside world.
The only observation I offered was this: “There are still peoples who haven't heard the good news. . . .” For Christians who believe in the Great Commission, it’s an obvious point—one hardly worth making. But I did it anyway, partly because I like to have a good mix of topics on my Facebook page, and partly because I have always been a missions advocate.
For several days, the link sat there, unremarked upon. I wasn’t surprised. Most of my Facebook friends, as far as I can tell, are believers. What I said was noncontroversial, a truism in my community.
The other day, however, I got a clarifying reminder in how other people view this “noncontroversial” issue. In response to my remark, “There are still peoples who haven’t heard the good news,” one of my friends posted a snarky completion to my sentence: “. . . and need to be colonized!”
I was startled. The commenter was someone with whom I have worked in publishing. You might even say he works for a Christian publisher, though not an evangelical one. Not sure if this friend was taking the well-trod path of denigrating missionaries because of the well-known actions of some in cooperating with colonial powers, I wondered if he supported “the decision of the anthropologists to keep [these groups] in their ignorance and poverty.”
(Many government anthropologists in South America, and international groups such as Survival, strongly oppose the work of missionaries, saying this destroys their habitats and cultures. Survival estimates the presence of 77 isolated groups in the Brazilian rainforest, including about 600 individuals in four groups in Acre. According to Survival, “Some . . . are nomadic hunter gatherers constantly on the move, able to build a home within hours and abandon it days later. . . . Here they live in relative tranquility in several demarcated territories which are largely untouched.” Of course, what the anthropologists don’t say is that the people in these tribes have shortened life expectancies, enjoy no access to healthcare, and live in fear.)
“Wow! Amazing,” my friend rejoined. “You're probably right . . . what they really need / would want would be to work in a garment factory 10 hours a day and watch reruns of American television. They would love the freedom, wisdom, and material blessings.”
I protested that I was talking about sharing the good news of Christ and giving these people—who are human beings, after all—the choice of how to live their lives. You see, I have met some men who have come out of this kind of life and who were more than glad to have heard the good news, however imperfectly communicated.
“It's easy to be snarky,” I reminded this friend, “when you have plenty of food, healthcare, a warm, secure shelter at night, and so on.”
He was unfazed in his anti-missionary ideology. “Missions and colonization have tended to go hand in hand,” he said. He conceded that the people he is defending from the depredations of missionaries don’t enjoy the luxurious life he has—“but they also have no concept of it either; they have nothing to compare their lack of luxury to. But, we could change all that for them.”
Like the anti-missionary anthropologists, this friend apparently wants us just to observe these people—as if they are animals in a zoo, not human beings created in the image of God and therefore worthy of our help, and able to teach us as well. That mindset reminds me of the priest and Levite crossing to the other side of the road.
I asked, “So [we should just] leave them in spiritual and material poverty?” After another round of exclamations of “amazing,” my friend clarified his position: “They are only in poverty from your perspective.” My perspective?
That would be news to the apostle Paul, who said of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross for sinners, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). According to God’s word, apart from a saving knowledge of Christ, we are all poor. Perspective has nothing to do with it—unless we’re talking about God’s perspective, as found in the Bible.
“I'm going to trust that they are in God’s care,” my friend said, employing his own truism, “and that Jesus' faith is sufficient so that we don't have to destroy their lives in order to save them.”
Yes, we can trust in God’s care for all human beings. As John 3:16 so famously says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” But we must never forget the solemn words that come just two verses later, in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
We simply must tell them.
And regarding my friend’s underlying premise that missionaries have “destroy[ed] their lives in order to save them,” I pointed him to the great new article in Christianity Today, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries,” by Andrea Palpant Dilley, who highlights the groundbreaking research of sociologist Robert Woodberry. Far from the persistent stereotype of the missionary as colonizer and exploiter of native peoples, here’s what Woodberry found:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
No doubt my friend has a point about missions and colonialism, but only to a point. As I told him, “Every movement staffed by human beings has its mistakes, warts, and sins. I don't deny the link between missions and colonialism. But the answer for bad missions work is not no missions work; it is better missions work.”
As with most Facebook arguments, my friend and I parted in disagreement. Still, I can’t help hoping that perhaps the next time he sees a news report about impoverished human beings who have never heard about Jesus, he will choose to say a prayer . . . for them, and for the missionaries called to reach them.
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