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by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 31, 2000
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2: 1-12
“After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the East. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’”
The three wise men symbolize the revelation of Christ to the world and represent the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation, the appearance of light in the darkness, and this festival expresses our conviction that the truth revealed in Christ is neither a merely private experience, nor a culturally confined phenomenon, but a universal claim and opportunity. First the Jews, in the form not of scholars and but of shepherds, then the foreigners, scholars and wise men, come to worship him. Immediately, therefore, we know that Jesus is for the world, or rather for the universe, since even the stars get into the act, not to mention the angels. Locals and foreigners, astral bodies and heavenly beings acknowledge him as Lord. The Gospels put the event of Jesus’ birth in the broadest framework imaginable, and so must we.
That has never been an easy thing to do, and is perhaps harder in these times of globalization than it has ever been. Now we know the whole world and we know the ambiguous nature of the impact of Christianity on the world, and consequently many believe that Christian mission is at best a mistake and at worst an insult to other religions and a destroyer of good and beneficent cultures. Christian mission, on this view, is an expression of a deep arrogance that formed Western culture, from the first days of old Yahweh, the grumpy God of Moses, through the bloody victim of Calvary, to the ferocious prophet of Mecca. In the name of this one God we Westerners have trashed the cultures of the world.
So goes one rather fashionable line of criticism, and were we to heed it we would not celebrate Epiphany. Instead we would admit that Jesus is not God incarnate for the whole human race, but rather a Jewish prophet of love and the end of the world, whom we happen for reasons of history and taste to prefer to Allah, or Yahweh, or Sidhharta, or Kali, etc. They are all good and marvelous in their own ways and in their own cultures, and should not be criticized. Jesus is the tribal prophet of the Christians, one group among many, who should have better taste than to imply, let alone actively promote, the idea that all the world should worship Jesus, and would be better of if it did. In short, we should ignore the primary message of the story, that the wise men were foreigners who came a very long way to worship Jesus, and focus our interpretation on the incidental detail that they gave him gifts. The point for us then becomes that we, like them, should give gifts to each other; an altogether unexceptionable teaching. No one could possibly be crucified for such an uplifting message. I want, however, to suggest that the point of the story is not the gifts but the givers, not the gold, frankincense, and myrrh but the foreign scholars and seekers themselves. The important thing the wise men gave was their worship and themselves.
In this they represent you and me. They came to Jesus from an alien culture, let us assume with the tradition that it was Persian by ethnicity and Zoroastrian by religion, and acknowledged him as Lord. We and all the nations come to him in the same way, bringing the gifts of our alien cultures and our special capacities. They came from the far East we come from the far West; they seemed strange on their camels and their accents were unfamiliar; we are strange in our SUV’s, and our accents are just as odd; but for all of us Jesus is the star by which to set our spiritual and course.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “All the world would be Christian, were not Christians so unlike their Christ.” This telling epigram is the motto of a new book on the history of the London Missionary Society, On the Missionary Trail, by Tom Hiney (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000). I was immediately interested because as a schoolboy I had been taught that the LMS had been a very bad influence in South African history, indeed one of their pestiferous missionaries had actually married a black woman, and they had always interfered in the relationship between master and slave. Eventually their crowd back in England had influenced Parliament enough so as first to outlaw the trade in slaves and then to abolish slavery in the empire altogether. As a young contrarian I surmised that if the LMS was so irksome to the writers of our textbooks they must have been doing something right and interesting.
The LMS is the oldest English Protestant Mission society, founded in 1792 by private, lay Christians, most of them Congregationalists who had experienced evangelical conversions, that is, had been “born again.” They felt called to spread this evangelical form of Christianity around the world. They were not the first Christians to launch missions to the heathen, the Roman Catholic Jesuits were centuries ahead of them and much more numerous than they ever became, but they were the first Protestants to try to carry this explicitly life-transforming version of the Gospel around the world. The book in question is based on the diary of a two-man inspection team that in 1821 visited the 30 or so stations in Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, China, India, Madagascar, and the Cape of Good Hope. The trip took more than five years, and one of the inspectors died of exhaustion in Madagascar.
The LMS was strongly opposed by the Church of England, the English East India Company, and the whaling interests in England and New England. The Church of England at that time, described by one historian as preaching virtue and prudence rather than salvation and judgment, made the strikingly familiar argument that it is wrong to interfere in other people’s cultures. The East India Company did not want interference in its exploitation of native peoples, and the whalers simply objected to the fact that after the missionaries arrived the women on the tropical islands were less pliant than before, and this affected morale. They were also tea-total and that made for an even duller time ashore.
The story of the LMS missions is heroic and pathetic at the same time. On the one hand they gave the world great names, like David Livingston, a missionary explorer of Africa who was a hero of my boyhood dreams, and is buried alongside kings and generals in Westminster Abbey, chiefly because of his relentless exposure of the Arab slave trade in East Africa in the late 19th century, what he called “the open sore of Africa,” until Britain led the world in extirpating that trade and closing that wound. On the other hand, the missions broke the spirits of missionaries and corrupted the lives of the tribes. How shall we judge them today?
Many who have never believed anything deeply enough to consider persuading others of it, and many who consider such persuasion presumptuous or simply in bad taste, take the position of the Church of England in 1792, that such missions should not be undertaken, and that they were a mistake then, as their history proves. I am not among those who think I can judge them. I honor the faith of those missionaries and I listen to their stories with respect. Here are some of them.
After the LMS stated work in Tahiti and the surrounding Society Islands the practice of infanticide stopped, and soon the islands rang with the sound of children laughing, especially girl children, of which there were few when the missionaries arrived. The evidence of suttee, the burning of widows on the pyres of their husbands, collected surreptitiously by the missionaries in India, influenced the British Parliament to compel the English East India Company to allow the missionaries into their territories, where the Raj eventually outlawed the practice. In Hawaii, human sacrifices to the shark gods stopped. On all the islands the incidence of venereal disease, introduced by the whalers, decreased as the Christian practice of monogamous, exclusive marriage caught on, and missionary medicine made a difference.
Now let me tell you of a more recent and less interested account, in case you think that all these success stories are missionary propaganda. Two years ago at Emory University I heard an anthropologist report on work in Papua-New Guinea on the subject of witch hunting. His tribe believed that nobody died by chance, but only by the evil will of a witch. So when a death took place a witch hunter was summoned to read the signs and smell out the witch, who was then put to death. The anthropologist played tape recordings of the chants sung by the witch hunters and the dirges intoned over the dead. This research was conducted in the early eighties. He went back in 1996 to see if things had changed. He found that the village had been physically transformed and witch hunting had stopped. The songs they now sang were, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” and “Amazing Grace” because, yes, the village was now 90% Christian. After the presentation a professor of cultural studies stood up and said that it was a sad and terrible thing to hear how this wonderful traditional culture had been destroyed by the Christians. At coffee afterwards, with my usual tact, I asked her if she favored the murder of witches, or merely hated Christianity. I won’t tell you how that conversation progressed but it drew quite an audience.
I don’t suggest that the evidence I have cited so briefly justifies these kinds of mission beyond question. The proper way to mediate Christ to the world is an ongoing challenge to us Christians, especially those of us who think the Gospel is also about salvation and judgment and not only about virtue and prudence. We can give up the miraculous core of the Gospel, namely its claim to be the power of God for salvation from death, judgment and hell, and settle for a prudential endorsement of the best sentiments and convictions of the best people. I, however, cannot give up the miraculous core, and so I am left with the challenge of Epiphany, to mediate to the whole world the fullness of Christ, who is both savior from sin and death and moral teacher, both incarnate God and prudential guide. What’s the best way to do that in our time and in this place?
I shall return to this subject next week to take up a proposed answer to this general question gien by Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in SF. Lerner makes some interesting suggestions for the mediation of spirituality to our world of work and leisure, and I would like to evaluate them with you. The challenge remains; how shall we present Christ, whom we believe to be the essence of true spirituality, to a post-modern, global, new world, and to the much larger old world of tribal hatreds, witch hunting, and war that goes on and on without much change?