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Working through ‘What’s wrong with Western missionaries?’

Have you seen this article doing the rounds? Aside from the assumptions that missions is (a) to unreached people groups and (b) that those unreached peoples are poor, Nik Ripkin raises some super important issues that can be considered beyond the immediate context he is addressing, which is persecuted Christians in Muslim countries.

The TL;DR version is that this guy interviewed a stack of persecuted Christians in Muslim countries, and one thing he asked them was about Western missionaries: what do they do well? poorly? etc. People were very reluctant to answer, but when pressed, they were able to tell of a missionary they loved. This missionary divested himself of power and wealth, to the point where he had to borrow money from those around him in order to go back home when his father died. The people liked it that he needed them, because it made them feel like he was genuinely one of them. The author then uses this to say that humility is vital for cross-cultural mission; we westerners must give up the arrogance of being the ones who ‘meet needs’ and recognise that we are part of a body. Creating a situation in which we are somewhat dependent on others is a way of living this out.

These questions of vulnerability are ones we’ve considered in the past, and we are rethinking them again in our new context. Ripkin’s call is basically what CMS Australia sets its people up to do. The word CMS uses for its workers’ living standard is ‘modest’: for us in Tanzania, we’re wealthier than most Tanzanians, but at the bottom rung of the white people. We’re discovering that this is the space inhabited by the Wahindi. Although we live at a higher standard than your average Tanzanian, CMS then encourages us to find ways to make ourselves vulnerable, both receiving in some way, and pursuing humility in terms of being taught by them. This is one reason for why Arthur and I have dedicated ourselves to learning, including how we may need to change our theology.

However this approach, as reflected in Ripkin’s article and our practice, makes me quite uncomfortable.

First, I’m not convinced that our approach is consistent with what the people in Ripkin’s interviews say they want. The example they give is of someone who was materially poor and needed material help. Yet Ripkin’s concluding examples of need are of coming as a brother and peer, and of allowing local people to lead. These are great things, and ones that testify to needing local people and being humble among them, but they don’t seem to be related to material wealth.

The CMS approach is similar: CMS provides for our material needs, and we look for other ways in which to ‘need’ local people. There are good reasons for this. One is that we soft westerners are used to comfort! We often don’t have the capacity to live at the same standard as those we live among without psychological damage. This provision of material needs allows us to stay long-term without burning out or employing ‘hit and run’ tactics.

And yet, I wonder whether this is precisely the thing the people Ripkin interviewed are criticising. When we look for non-material ways to make ourselves vulnerable, are we kidding ourselves? Especially in Tanzania, where friendship and money can’t be divided as they are in the west, does this merely satisfy our consciences while continuing to be deeply insufficient for those we live and work among?

These are difficult questions to get an answer to. We’ve definitely questioned Tanzanian friends about our higher standard of living compared to them. Generally they don’t seem bothered by it. Some say, “We know you are not used to living like us, and we do not begrudge you your standard of living; we are just glad to have you here”. Others say, “What matters is not how much you have but what you do with it,” that is, that we must share what we have.

However, I want to ask if their responses are dodging the question! Are our Tanzanian friends just being polite, or not wanting to offend? After all, who would say, ‘Actually, I do think the standard you live at is outrageous, and you should live more like us’, or even, ‘Yes, I would feel more connected to you if you called on me for money’?

Another question is how all this works in a benefactor culture. As an egalitarian Australian, I am used to thinking that having the same status or position as someone is a means of camaraderie and involvement. In a benefactor culture though, does involving yourself come about by acknowledging your wealth and using it for others? Ripkin uses Paul’s poverty and need as his example, but he doesn’t acknowledge the way Paul at times uses other resources that were available to him and not others, such as his status as a Roman citizen. Can I therefore use my status as an Australian citizen if I need to be evacuated, but up to that point ought to act as if I do not have greater resources at my disposal? That would seem a somewhat pharisaical interpretation of Paul’s example (and one I am by no means implying Ripkin advocates.)

Two of Arthur’s colleagues re-posted this article on social media. Both are African but neither is Tanzanian. In other words, both are ‘missionaries’ to Tanzania, but neither are ‘western missionaries’ and both have been on the receiving end of western missionaries. I am hoping in the coming days to discuss this article with them, and ask them these questions.

Categories: Culture Mission Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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