MRN: “Why it may be time to stop using the word Missionary”

Arotahi Mission Formation Resources: How can an organization named Mission Resource Network even consider stopping their use of the word "missionary"? And why would they want to do so? Read their 4 future-focussed considerations.

1. Calling people mis­sion­ar­ies can com­pro­mise the safety of global workers in high-risk con­texts. To quote someone on MRN’s staff, “If we don’t change our lan­guage, we are going to get someone killed.” On a gov­ern­men­tal level, being a mis­sion­ary is a for­bid­den career in many coun­tries. Even casual use of that lan­guage can lead a gov­ern­ment to refuse to grant or renew a visa. It can lead to depor­ta­tion or, in some cases, impris­on­ment. It can make cross-cul­tural workers the targets of violence.Cultures around the world have much longer mem­o­ries than we do in the United States. We are very future-ori­ented and are too quick to dismiss issues from the past. The sins, wounds, and mis­takes of mis­sion­ar­ies from pre­vi­ous cen­turies still touch the present among cul­tures with longer mem­o­ries. While bad actors among mis­sion­ar­ies were not the norm, and most workers in former years were noble-hearted people who meant well and did much good, the unin­tended neg­a­tive con­se­quences of some of their work linger. More sig­nif­i­cantly, the way that eco­nomic and gov­ern­ment inter­ests from the 16th century onward were inter­twined with mis­sion­ary activ­ity still looms large in the minds of gov­ern­ment leaders around the globe. Workers in these con­texts are careful not to use the ‘m’ word (as they some­times call it). If we want to asso­ciate with these workers moving forward, we must be even more careful.

2. The legacy of western impe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism has created a neg­a­tive impres­sion of mis­sions and mis­sion­ar­ies in both the non-Chris­t­ian west and through­out the world (e.g., The Poi­son­wood Bible). I alluded to this above, but it deserves a cat­e­gory of its own. “Mis­sion­ar­ies” are viewed on a range from sus­pi­cious to dan­ger­ous among non-Chris­tians, and they are not uni­ver­sally seen pos­i­tively inside church culture, even in coun­tries with reli­gious freedom. If you want to see an example, just start a Google search for “mis­sion­ar­ies are …” and see the top responses Google sug­gests. Likely they will include “… col­o­niz­ers, … bad, … the worst,” etc. The fol­low­ing quote is var­i­ously attrib­uted to leaders from around Africa, includ­ing Desmond Tutu. However, it seems to have come orig­i­nally from the former prime min­is­ter and then first Kenyan Pres­i­dent and anti-colo­nial activist Jomo Keny­atta: “When the Mis­sion­ar­ies arrived, the Africans had the land, and the mis­sion­ar­ies had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land, and we had the Bible.” The words we use carry mean­ings we don’t intend. We don’t get to control the under­stand­ings and emo­tions that are attached to the words we employ. Using a word that is asso­ci­ated with cen­turies of colo­nial­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, western supe­ri­or­ity, white supremacy, eco­nomic exploita­tion, and all the emo­tions related to those real aspects of the behav­ior of western nations and some of their past mis­sions oper­a­tions creates unnec­es­sary bar­ri­ers to God’s mission today. Expand­ing Jesus’ kingdom and serving others in ways that demon­strate his love should never be done in a way that trig­gers the under­stand­able specter of past abuses.

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