Missionary, a dirty word?

Some words, like missionary*, will never be neutral. Missionary, in fact, comes with centuries of baggage.

I’ve heard missionary spat out like a dirty word by friends who advocate for Aboriginal rights here in Canada.

And how can I disagree when the association they make is to abuse in residential schools and generations of children robbed of their innocence, parents, language and culture. And all in the name of Jesus.

Missionaries are, historically and sadly currently, guilty of so much evil. And they’ve made so many mistakes too.

But so much evil has also been done in this world by non-Christians, by atheists and those from other religions alike. My point being, missionaries are human too. Capable of the same horror. Sinful and self-serving. Many of them saying they believe in the message of love, grace and peace that Jesus preached. But too few actually following it.

The word missionary should never be used as a justification or a smoke-screen.

So I propose we look to people’s actions and lifestyle to see if they deserve to be called a missionary, instead of letting them abuse the use of that title.

Those who caused or cause bloodshed, cultural genocide and countless other tragedies are to me, misguided, even intentionally evil, human beings hiding behind the convenient title of missionary. The same kind of people who hide behind other titles like president, CEO or even sometimes parent. Does a father who is abusive, controlling and doesn’t have his kid’s best interests at heart still deserve the title of father? No.

In the same way just because someone calls themselves an activist for social justice doesn’t mean I’ll believe them if their speech, lifestyle AND ACTIONS don’t match. And I would never consider someone who says they are my friend to actually deserve that title if they act like my enemy.

Titles like friend, father, leader and missionary should only be attributed to those who, to the best of their ability, embody their true characteristics.

So what is a Christian missionary then? How can we spot the real missionaries amidst a sea of historical tragedies?

First of all, you don’t have to go to Africa or remote Pacific islands to find them, though they are sometimes there. Technically all Christians are missionaries when they, out of love for and a relationship with God, serve others and seek justice.

Being a missionary means doing God’s work, which according to the Bible is quite simply, “Love your neighbourgh as yourself.” (Mark 12:31). And quite poetically, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).

There is also the evangelism component, which many non-Christians are opposed to. And if you’re concept of evangelism is someone trying to aggressively coerce you into believing, threatening fire and brimstone, then I’m in total agreement with your opposition. Or worse, if you think evangelism means taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability, then yes, you’re right, that is reprehensible.

What is evangelism really supposed to be like? Let me offer this definition by Christian writer and (actual!) social activist, Shane Claiborne:

“The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. […] I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion. […]  The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name.” 

Real evangelism is like your best friend wanting you to take yoga with her because it “changed her life.” My experience with God – though not always with the church or other Christians – has been of one of unconditional love, of forgiveness and of learning to serve others and not myself (imperfect as my attempts are.) Evangelism just means wanting to share the awesome thing you’ve found with others.

And evangelism should also stop where another person chooses to stop listening. The same way your friend should know to let the yoga thing drop when you’re clearly not interested. Hey, maybe you will be in a year or two. This is the kind of evangelism missionaries should and do practice.

That is my two cents on missionaries. I hope to be like the many, many missionaries who do glorify God’s name through their actions and speech, who make missionary a good word and not a dirty one. I hope to be like the many missionary families I grew up being friends with in Africa. Or like Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar who was among the first to lobby for native rights and the abolition of slavery in the Spanish colonies.

What are your thoughts on what being a missionary means?

* I’m using missionary here to mean, specifically, Christian missionaries although it can be used to mean any person from a religious order sent to do evangelical work and/or aid work

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