How have missionaries changed the world

HörPunkt: On a mission - Missionaries had less influence than you think

Where does the idea of ​​the mission actually come from?

Andreas Heuser: The "missio", Latin for "sending", is a common term in the New Testament. The great missionary movement - in the sense of "advancing into unknown territories" and spreading Christianity - did not take place until the 19th century. The core passage to which everyone refers was discovered in the Gospel of Matthew as a mandate: "Go into all the world - and teach and baptize people so that they may follow Jesus."

You grimace, something about it doesn't seem to please you?

As a mission scientist, I have a positive view of my own subject. It has achieved a great deal and has de-provincialized church life. What I actually don't like about this Matthew passage, however, is when it is used as a strategic method to dissuade others from their convictions. For me, mission is first and foremost a teaching command: Teach others - and teaching is a dialogical process.

The missionaries of yore left with the idea of ​​converting “pagans” - but quickly discovered that nothing would work without cooperation with the “pagans”. This is also shown by the latest science. But the image of the missionary imposing their faith on the "Gentiles" persists.

There are different perspectives: One is that the mission worked with colonialism. Unfortunately, this became widely accepted in German-speaking social and cultural studies in the 1960s and 70s. This has to do with a wave of secularization, according to the motto: Get rid of old braids - this also included the church.

From a scientific point of view, this perspective has changed: Those who work on mission history today, secular historians and ethnologists, have a new view of mission. You should finally notice that.

Incidentally, missionaries themselves never saw themselves as heroes. The pioneer missionaries may have baptized only a handful of people in their entire lives - precious little compared to the decades of struggling. The missionaries had no power to force anyone. That would also imply an objectivity of the “receiving society” that did not exist.

And the third perspective is that of the missionaries themselves: especially when it comes to the Basel Mission, in West Africa, for example, there is simply no criticism that is voiced out loud. If so, then in subordinate clauses - and that revolves around the “paternalistic attitude” of the former mission before independence.

One should have the courage to say goodbye to these stereotypes of mission history, then the way will be free for new questions related to mission history.

Which questions?

For example, what exactly happened in this first encounter. And not only on the side of the local society, but also with the missionary himself: How has he changed, through the contact and the conversations about different religious ideas.

Did only Christians do missionary work - or did other religions as well?

There are missionary elements in every religion. There are missionary circles in Buddhism as well. Far Eastern spirituality has not arrived in the West for nothing. Interestingly, however, these circles are not met with skepticism.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram slaughters people and sees this as a mission. Among other things, this has led to American missionaries now also moving into the country and using the situation to vehemently preach against Islam. Is the term “mission” going wrong again?

Yes. Above all, this underpins the opinion of agnostics and those who say that religion in itself promotes war and has no business in a free society.

I am not happy with these fundamentalist movements. As far as the American missionaries are concerned, I will come back to my reluctance to face the “great missionary command” from the Gospel of Matthew: In the United States, it is considered a key phrase for missionary strategies. The motto behind it: We have a basic Christian idea, and we have to implement it, regardless of the respective culture.

Understanding and dialogue: these are the new magic words in missiology. But isn't it ultimately about pulling the others "on board"?

No not at all! This is a complete misunderstanding. If we have a dialogue today, we don't know what the end result will be. Example: An English bishop lived and worked in Cairo and placed great emphasis on understanding the local majority society. That's why he often went to the mosque. That means: Who listens and understands, changes. You learn a lot more about your own terminology, for example on the questions: What does theology mean? What does it mean to pray? That is the value of dialogue. Because the same process takes place on the other side.

Andreas Heuser

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Andreas Heuser (born 1961 in Herborn / Germany) is professor for non-European Christianity at the University of Basel. His research focus is, among other things, the religious, church and mission history of Africa.

HörPunkt: On a mission

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The Basel Mission celebrates its 200th birthday. On this occasion we ask: What were the motives of the missionaries in the 19th century? Who is on a mission today - not just a Christian one? The answers will be available on April 2nd in Hörpunkt on Radio SRF 2 Kultur and in our web special.