Make Disciples of All Nations
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
May 18, 2008
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, to the close of the Age.” — Matthew 19-20
This is the climax and conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel; this is the “so what” of it all; this is the “bottom line;” and it is mightily unpopular among Christians today. Making all nations disciples of Jesus is “politically incorrect” in the most serious way possible, because it challenges the religious assumptions and cultures of others and suggests that the Christian faith is the best spiritual opportunity available to humankind. Jewish groups judge statements of the churches mostly by whether they even hint that the Jews should be given the opportunity of Christian conversion, or that the Christians have a duty to Christ to obey this commandment with respect to the Jews. The Canadian courts ruled some ten years ago that certain churches were guilty of cultural crimes for enrolling American Indian children in Christian schools and laid those churches open to ruinous lawsuits. Last month the Prime Minister of Australia apologized in Parliament for his ancestors’ attempts to Christianize the aboriginal inhabitants.
Some years ago at a conference at Emory University I heard a report from an anthropologist who five years prior to the report had done ethnological work in a Papuan-New Guinea tribe, and then five years later, just before this report, had returned to see how they were doing. When he first went there they practiced witchcraft as follows; when somebody died a witchdoctor was summoned to smell out who had caused the death, and when he had done so by appropriate rituals the identified culprit was put to death. So there was never only one death, but always at least two. The village was filthy, the people fearful, and the atmosphere unhealthy and violent. Returning five years later he found the village spick and span, the witchdoctors out of work and the people in their new school learning to read and write, and singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” During a break a local academic woman asked me whether I was able to stand this tragic destruction of beautiful native culture by the Christian missionaries. I answered her question with a question: “Do you favor witchcraft and its superstitious murders of the innocent?” She then accused me of being rude to her and a loud argument broke out. Apparently for her it was not socially acceptable, even in an academic forum, to question the politically correct cruelty of such superstition. The missionaries I averred had done the people the great favor of enabling for them faith in Jesus, the expulsion of the spirit of murder and squalor, the opening of schools where they might learn to read, speak and write English and so enter the world, (not some rare and precious language that would compound their isolation). The position taken by my progressive academic interlocutor was one I often heard from the champions of Apartheid in South Africa under which comic opera regimen I grew up. I remember that one of the very first things the Afrikaner nationalist architects of Apartheid did was close the Christian Mission schools, so that the state could dominate education.
The point is not that Christian missions bring better mental and physical hygiene, better education (virtually all the post colonial heads of state in Africa were mission educated) etc, which in fact they do, but that is not the point: the point is that this Jesus whom we are to give all the nations the opportunity to follow as disciples, by our preaching and teaching and general witness, is the way the truth and the life, and who are we to withhold that from anyone. We must offer it by all means at our disposal, because our Lord commands it. That better social etc conditions follow conversion is a fact and stands to reason, because people turn from falsehood to truth (more or less, that is, and that explains why these changes are not uniform nor manifestly miraculous, just discernibly better than the alternative, excepting in the eyes of ideologists, romantics and idiots).
I think it must be the difficulty of being the bearer of conversion to others that prompts so many Christian missionaries to give up on Jesus and substitute good works for eternal life, bring community development rather than salvation, public health rather than spiritual wholeness, education rather than confession, all this-worldly goods, so that when the governments become strong enough to take over they can expel the missionaries without loss. The stories of the Irish missionaries who re-Christianized Europe after the fifth century, – when the faith fled northern Europe along with the Roman Legions and left the dark forests to the cruel gods of the hairy old Germans and the smooth, modern Nazis, – these stories are instructive about mission. St Columbanus for instance sometime in the sixth and seventh century turned up on the outskirts of a Frankish village named Luxeuil and sat in a cave for ten years. He first had to expel a legendarily ferocious bear from the cave, which got the villagers attention, and then wait them out. Eventually, they came to ask him what he was all about and when he left, there was a flourishing church in the town. Other Irishmen joined him, St Gallus, for instance, who fell ill on the journey westward from Luxeuil and was left behind to die by the sturdy Columbanus, but was fed by bears and established the city of Berne (Baren) the present capital of the Swiss Federation, the city of St Gall, and then joined Columbanus at the monastery of Bobbio in Northern Italy, which the latter founded, and which became the crown of the Christian presence among the barbarians.
Because of these Irishmen Europe is Christian and industrial, – the first is the important thing, the second a corollary, – and since the Europeans are becoming ashamed of Christ and less willing to bear children, Europe’s Christian identity is fading and soon the flag of the prophet will wave from the Elysee Palace.
The true Christian missions now are few; perhaps Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity is one of the last. Now, even the good among us say, “What a waste of enterprise this is, simply to pick up the dying from the streets of Calcutta so they might know that in this life there was at least someone who cared about them, if fleetingly, nevertheless sincerely and to the end!” A reptile name Christopher Hitchens has written a lampoon of Mother Theresa called, “The Missionary Position.” I long to see Hitchens without the benefits of Christian culture under the tender mercies of the Prophet and his jihadis.
The most sinister betrayal of the Christian mission, however, is not Hitchens and his sophomoric moralizing, but the one that substitutes democracy for Christ, and loads democracy, also called freedom, with the rhetoric of the Gospel. If you listen to Bush and his erstwhile Rumsfeldtian generals you would be excused for thinking that the USA was bringing to the benighted Middle East the light of Christ (read freedom and democracy). The hypocrisy of this is rank and rotten, not least because we know that this gentle persuasion by force of arms is part of a tradition in which the military and diplomatic services of the state are devices for getting the children of the poor to die for the commercial interests of the not so poor; – why we even calls our diplomatic and military establishments abroad, “missions,” and if you think our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has mostly to do with democracy I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
But all of this treachery is doomed; when the USA is a pile of moldering rubble, like the Roman empire of old, we, the churches, will still be preaching Jesus Christ to the nations, as light and life and joy and peace, baptizing all who confess in the name of the Holy Trinity, and teaching people the truth. That mission is the only enduring force of life in this world of death and desperation. So let’s witness that Jesus is the One and only, and proclaim him wherever we have opportunity, because the One we represent has all authority in his hands, and is with us until the end of the world. Why therefore should we be anything but “in your face” cocky and full of joy and good hope?