Spreading the Word

Posted January 4, 2007

Categories: Articles

The foreign teachers at the Chinese university were frank. Teaching English and computer science was a means to the end. They wanted to save souls.

In 1998, I spent a day at a university tucked into the corner of northeast China. The evangelical Christians who built the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) catered to both Chinese and ethnic Koreans in this area bordering North Korea. Local Chinese officials and upwardly mobile parents eagerly sent their children to the university for training in skills they considered a ticket to the global economy. Indeed, local Chinese officials looked the other way at some of the informal proselytizing that went on privately – not in the classrooms – as long as their children could attend the school.

While they went about their daily business of teaching young Chinese, the teachers and administrators kept their eye on the Holy Grail: their mission was to bring the word of God over the border to North Korea. Once a leading center of Christian education, the northern part of Korea had been largely religion-free for the six decades of communism. For Korean-American evangelicals and their fellow travelers, there was no greater spiritual achievement than to return North Korea to the religious fold. The Yanbian region of China, since it was a haven for North Koreans in search of food, jobs, and sometimes passage to a third country, was a good starting place for missionaries hoping to get a foot in the door.

The staff at the Yanbian university were quite open about their aims when they were talking to me. It was probably because I, too, at the time was a missionary. I was officially registered as a missionary in Japan in order to more easily acquire temporary residency for my work as an international representative for a Quaker organization. So although I did not evangelize – which would have been unlikely work for a Jewish atheist – my affiliation with a Christian organization put the Yanbian staff at ease. Also, they might have glimpsed a deeper connection between our respective activities. I wasn’t proselytizing from religious texts. But like many of my colleagues in international civil society who focused on peace, democracy, and human rights, I did my fair share of evangelizing.

The missionary activity in and around North Korea occasionally makes it into the press and into films such as Seoul Train. But its larger impact on policy toward Pyongyang is rarely assessed. Indeed, surprisingly little has been written more generally on the impact of missionaries on foreign affairs. Yet, missionaries have been in the thick of global transformations for several centuries. They have served as the handmaidens of intelligence gatherers and the adjuncts of corporate penetration. They have also fought against dictatorial regimes and borne witness to corporate exploitation. For better or worse, they have been bearers of ideas that transcend their specific theological messages, ideas that have proven both liberating and disruptive.

At one time it seemed as though religious missionaries had been overtaken by the secular missionaries who travel to other countries clutching not the Bible but Adam Smith or the American constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the end of the Cold War has brought a resurgence of religious fervor. In many parts of the world, religious movements have rushed in to capitalize on the collapse of communism. Korean missionaries in Iraq, American evangelicals in Sudan, Wahhabi adherents in Central Asia, Mormon proselytizers pretty much everywhere: traditional missionaries are still among us.

The religious messages of such missionaries are clear: the conversion and salvation of individual souls. But what else do they want to transform? And are they standing with the powerful or the powerless?

On the Side of the Powerful

When the United States invaded Iraq, many evangelicals cheered. Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham and Marvin Olasky, a former advisor on faith-based policy for the Bush administration predicted that the invasion would create new ways of proselytizing among Muslims. “American foreign policy and military might have opened an opportunity for the Gospel in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” opined an article in the Baptist Press news service. Immediately after September 11, Bush uttered the word “crusade” in discussing U.S. response, but then just as quickly backed away from the word. Still, the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq took on the character of a crusade in certain respects, with tyrants, terrorists, and “Islamofascists” substituting for the “infidels” of past centuries.

Missionaries have aligned themselves with the interests of the powerful from early on in the Christian tradition, but particularly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. Although one part of the Christian tradition has emphasized solidarity with the poor and the disenfranchised – exemplified by the “social gospel” of the 19th century or the “liberation theology” of the 20th century – another part focuses on pursuing whatever means necessary to fulfill the commandment in Mark 16:5, “Go ye to all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Sometimes this preaching took place by the persecuted among the persecuted. But often the Word spread with the help of the institutions of state and army and nation. During the colonial era and the Cold War, for instance, missionaries frequently lined up on the side of the powerful in order to achieve their prime directive of saving souls more rapidly.

For instance, as the age of colonialism dawned, missionaries often prepared the ground for later waves of colonial agents. The Jesuits who traveled to Asia in the 17th century introduced governments there to the products that would later form the basis of trade between East and West. Church representatives often accompanied the great colonial outfits. “We have annihilated the political importance of the natives, stripped them of their power, and laid them prostrate, without giving them anything in return,” observed a chaplain of the British East India Company before proposing something very specific to offer as part of the unequal trade.1 Missionaries were also useful in reconciling colonial subjects to the requirements of submission. As the archetypal colonialist Cecil Rhodes once told a missionary mother: “Your son among the natives is worth as much to me as a hundred policemen.”2

From the beginning of the U.S. history, Christian workers among the Native Americans and African slaves served a similar function, urging the new converts to await heavenly rewards rather than fight for earthly equality. Later, when the United States belatedly joined the imperial game at the end of the 19th century, Christian missionaries turned the evangelical spirit of American politicians – God “has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world,” argued Albert Beveridge said in a famous 1900 speech – into a global enterprise.

The Cold War served to divide the allegiances of missionaries in ways similar to the colonial age. Having decided that communist governments were the greatest barrier to evangelism, some missionaries gravitated toward militant anti-communism. Perhaps the most intriguing story involves the Wycliffe Bible Translators and their Summer Institute of Linguistics, which today employs over 5,000 linguists cum missionaries who have undertaken the study of an astounding 1,800 languages. In addition to translating the Bible into native languages, they signed on with various governments (Magsaysay in the Philippines, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Ydigoras in Peru) to fight communist insurgents.3

As described by Gerald Colby and Charlotte Dennett in their book Thy Will Be Done, the missionaries of this evangelical outfit also helped, in some cases unwittingly, in the conquest of the Amazon. They were often the first contact with remote Amazonian tribes. They lived with the remote peoples, learned the language in order to translate the Bible, and gathered a wealth of information about indigenous culture. This information often found its ways into the hands of outsiders bent on seizing the land, extracting resources from beneath it, and razing the rainforest above to build cattle ranches and plant crops. One of the chief beneficiaries was Nelson Rockefeller.

“The missionaries came in on the cultural, social, and political side of the conquest, their leader influenced by Rockefeller philanthropies and a counterinsurgency network shaped by Nelson Rockefeller’s development goals,” write Colby and Dennett. “Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) was hired by military dictatorships and civilian governments, often headed by Nelson’s allies, to pacify the tribes and integrate them into national economies increasingly being brought into the North American market. SIL used the Bible to teach indigenous people to ‘obey the government, for all authority comes from God.’”4

But it all depended on the nature of the government. During the Cold War, some missionaries threw their lot in with anti-government guerrillas in order to achieve the higher purpose of defeating communism. In Mozambique, for instance, some vehemently anti-communist missionaries became literal soldiers of God to fight the government of Samora Machel. In the 1980s, a group called Frontline Fellowship became a key religious backer of RENAMO, the notoriously ruthless guerrilla movement seeking to overthrow the Mozambican government. Claiming that the government was persecuting Christians, Frontline Fellowship worked to counter claims of RENAMO as a human-rights violator. Similar groups married anti-communism and evangelism in El Salvador (Paralife Ministries) and Nicaragua (Christian Emergency Relief Team).5

While missionaries tend to be Christian in the public mind, other religions have sent out their emissaries to convert the unbelievers. The proselytizers of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, for instance, have built up the same kind of educational infrastructure in other countries that was previously the sole domain of Christians. Funded by the Saudi government, the Wahhabi sect has established madrassas, charities, and mosques throughout the Muslim world as well as in Europe. According to the teachings of the founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, followers must pledge allegiance to a Muslim ruler, a pledge that holds as long as the ruler leads according to the laws of God. With the same intensity as anti-communist Christians, Wahhabi proselytizers have targeted states that they believe have departed from the laws of God, in the Muslim world and in the West. And yet, as with Christian missionaries, Wahhabists are often torn between siding with the powerful (the Saudi government) and the powerless (the most marginalized and suppressed).

On the Side of the Poor

When the Korea Times recently released a list of the top dozen most influential foreigners in Korea, George Ogle came in at number seven. Outside the circles of Koreanists, George Ogle and his wife Dorothy are not household names in the United States. South Koreans, however, hold them in very high regard for the work they did during the grimmest days of the authoritarian era.

George Ogle arrived in South Korea in 1954 to find a country devastated by the aftermath of the Korean War. Poverty was widespread, jobs were scarce. After the military coup of 1961, the country descended into authoritarianism. The “economic miracle” that strongman leader Park Chung Hee initiated was anything but miraculous for the tens of thousands of workers laboring in horrific conditions. In response, George Ogle established the Urban Industrial Mission, which ministered specifically to the sweatshop workers. The UIM had an unusual requirement: the ministers had to spend a year working in the factories to understand firsthand the experiences of their flock. It also enabled the UIM to provide highly detailed reports on the sweatshop conditions that both domestic and foreign campaigners could use to confront the South Korean government.

Despite prohibitions on what he could and couldn’t do – “As a foreigner, I was not permitted to interfere in Korean politics”– Ogle and his fellow missionaries couldn’t help but get involved in the ongoing human rights violations of the South Korean government.6 When the Park regime accused eight men of being the ringleaders of a “People’s Revolutionary Party” and sentenced them to death, Ogle and other missionaries in his circle decided to speak out about what were clearly trumped-up charges. For this and other acts, the South Korean government deported Ogle and his family. (In 2002, the South Korean government belatedly exonerated the eight executed men.)

These, then, were the religious activities of the missionaries. They bore witness to government violations. They expressed concrete solidarity for the victims of these violations. And they provided a safe space where local people could talk freely about their lives and their aspirations. In the South Korean case, foreign missionaries played an instrumental role in helping bring about the country’s democratic revolution. They saw their mission as standing in other people’s shoes, as empathizing as a first step to action, as engaging seriously with other worldviews and not simply imposing one’s own. As such, those who stand with the poor are missionaries of the ear, for they begin by listening. Those who stand with the powerful are missionaries of the mouth, for they begin by speaking.

During the colonial era, many missionaries likewise opted to side not with the powerful, but with the powerless. For instance, missionaries and Christian activists played a key role in the anti-slavery movement. As Adam Hochschild relates in Bury the Chains, “Planters usually loathed missionaries as meddlesome do-gooders. If, as the preachers wanted, slaves went to church on Sundays, they would soon be demanding other time off for cultivating their small vegetable gardens, and where would that slippery slope end? The planters also feared that missionary chapels would prove handy meeting places for plotting rebellion. On that score, they were entirely correct.”7

Chapels were not the only meeting places for such plotting. Many schools established by missionaries also became the centers of anti-colonial activity. And the teaching of literacy enabled people to read more than just the Bible. “There is no doubt that the spread of literacy and knowledge of other languages both widened horizons at many different social levels and greatly enhanced the ability of ordinary people to question or subvert traditional attitudes as well as imperial and colonial assumptions,” writes Andrew Porter.8

A Kinder, Gentler Colonialism?

Of course, most of the missionary activities came up against a conceptual limit. In building the first schools and hospitals, by offering technical training and language instruction, through launching various social reform projects, missionaries were often opposing not colonialism itself but only the more aggressive versions of colonialism. With their kinder, gentler, Christian colonialism, missionaries still hoped to reshape societies in their own images.9 In Africa, for instance, even if they opposed slavery and the worst forms of economic exploitation, missionaries continued to think of themselves as bringing the light to the darkness and, in the words of one scholar of the missionary movement, “kept the myth of African ‘savagery’ alive.”10

This tradition lives on in the activities of the Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), which has brought its infamous “Jesus film” to the furthest reaches of the globe. It has been translated into 1,000 languages and, according to CCC, been seen by 5 billion people. The link between the word and the image is deliberate. CCC is the carrier of modernism to the periphery. Like the earlier missionaries, today’s emissaries are bringing literacy by way of the latest inventions such as DVDs, solar-powered audio players, and an IPod-like contraption called the Bible Stick. CCC brings technology and progress to the benighted. But it doesn’t promote empowerment so much as accommodation – to the requirements of modernity and the dictates of Scripture. CCC was one of the first missionary efforts to enter Iraq after the U.S. troops, eagerly picking up the “crusade” refrain dropped by the Bush administration. Moreover, with its Military Ministry, CCC is both evangelizing within the U.S. military and also using the converted soldiers as missionaries in arms. As the related organization Military Missions Network puts it, these organizations hope “to build a global network for the purpose of reaching the world through the military of the world.”

Because of the failures of the state, of development models, and even of secular NGOs, faith-based organizations have moved into the breach to provide humanitarian assistance in conflict-ravaged and desperately poor regions of the world. Their willingness to work on behalf of the poorest of the poor has won accolades from the secular intelligentsia. Writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “the wave of activity abroad by U.S. evangelicals is one of the most important – and welcome – trends in our foreign relations. I disagree strongly with most evangelical Christians, theologically and politically. But I tip my hat to them abroad.”

There is no question that evangelicals, as Kristof points out, have followed the colonial tradition of building hospitals, schools, and orphanages in places where they either didn’t exist or were destroyed by war. But this evangelical enterprise takes place at the same time that the U.S. government in particular has been squeezing international agencies and pressuring governments to privatize their social services. It is a poignant echo of the East India Company chaplain who recognized that the Word was the only thing left after the great powers and large mercantile outfits took everything else away from the “natives.” With neo-colonialism has come neo-evangelism.

Both Sides Now

In some cases, the distinction between standing with the powerful and the powerless is not so clear. For instance, American and South Korean missionaries are breaking laws to help North Koreans escape to safe havens in South Korea and elsewhere. On the one hand, they are standing with the powerless, for who can be more abject that a North Korean refugee? At the same time, however, when they work for regime collapse inside North Korea, such missionaries are heirs to the older, anti-communist tradition of Wycliffe, Frontline Fellowship, and others.

South Korean missionaries are no small movement. At 17,000, they are second only to the United States in terms of numbers. They’ve been involved in hostage crises in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ve evangelized throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. But it is in North Korea where they promise to have the greatest impact.

To spread the Word and undermine the North Korean regime, South Korean evangelicals have sent Bibles into North Korea by balloon and floated Christian messages in by sea. They have smuggled mini-Bibles across the border from China for use in underground churches. South Korean missionaries have evangelized among North Korean refugees, including those who return to North Korea, putting them at much greater risk. “Many martyrs, perhaps dozens, have spilled their blood in the North,” reports Reverend Joseph Park, the mission director of the Christian Council of Korea. The risks are high for the missionaries too. For instance, the case of Kim Dong Sik, a South Korean missionary who moved to the Yanbian area in 1999 and was likely abducted by North Korean agents, remains unsolved. According to scholar Andrei Lankov, Kim died after interrogation by North Korean officials.11

Not all evangelicals are on the outside pushing for an inside transformation. In 2007, a new university opened in the North Korean capital: the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. It is the sister institution to the university over the border in Yanbian, China. The evangelicals that I visited in 1998 had finally reached their goal of establishing a toehold in North Korea itself. The North Korean leadership was not being bamboozled by religious leaders pretending to peddle English language and computer science courses. Nor had the notoriously repressive regime seen the light and taken a more forgiving stance toward religion in general.

Rather, both the evangelicals and Kim Jong Il had made a practical decision. They each have something the other wants. So they’ve struck a hard-nosed bargain that recalls the earlier decisions made in the history of missions. China wanted the knowledge that the Jesuits brought. Amazon countries wanted the information the Wycliffe translators promised. Such agreements can, of course, be broken. In the mid-1990s, Ghana kicked out its Mormon missionaries. In 2005, after televangelist Pat Robertson urged the U.S. government to assassinate Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader suspended permits for foreign missionaries. But it’s hard to keep out a determined missionary.

The colonial age is over, and the Cold War is more-or-less history as well. Missionaries still serve as the emissaries of economic penetration. They still work to undermine the remaining communist governments. And they still stand with the poor in many parts of the world. Increasingly, however, missionaries will line up along a new divide, this time civilizational. As the Iraq War demonstrated once again, religion is an integral part of the American overseas project. Which side will the 21st century missionary stand on: with the United States against “Islamofascists” or with those who resist the neo-colonial and neo-imperial projects of the great powers?

FPIF, December 19, 2007

Leave a Reply