Offering A Heart's Embrace: Putting an End to the Spirit of Colonialism

Offering A Heart's Embrace:
Putting an End to the Spirit of Colonialism

[All Africa Baptist Fellowship Partnership]

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility”
-Ephesians 2:13-14, ESV


The opening scene of the 1951 movie, “The African Queen,” which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, shows two British missionaries leading a church service in an African village set at the time of World War I. A sign, “1st Methodist Church, Kungdu,” hangs on the door of the thatched-roof, mud-brick dwelling. Missionary Rose Sayer, Ms. Hepburn’s character in the movie, is playing a pump organ and fervently singing, while her missionary brother is leading the African villagers in singing the Welsh hymn, “Bread of Heaven.” The conviction of the missionaries stands in direct contrast to the confusion on the faces of the villagers who do not understand what they are attempting to sing.
I frequently recall that scene because it reminds me of how not to practice missions on my overseas journeys. First, let me clarify that the opening scene in the movie provides a “snapshot” of missionaries in the practice of missions in that era. By missions, I mean “The activity of God’s called out, redemptive community, the church.” [1] Christian missions is essentially “God’s Mission” (missio dei). God became flesh to redeem the world (John 3:16). One part of the scene moves me deeply, because the song, “Bread of Heaven” refers to Christ who is the Bread of life! In Him we have our salvation (John 6:31-35). So, what could be wrong with this approach?
This question brings to my mind the famous fictional cartoon character from Peanuts, Charlie Brown, who once said, “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’” Any in-depth analysis of the issue would take much more time and space than we have in this brief column; however, my initial answer to the question is, “Nothing at all!" However, the problem has historically resided not so much in Christ’s mandate to take the gospel to the world, but in the church’s methods of application.
The message and actions that many people groups across the globe resist today stems from lingering effects of Western European and American missionary strategies that were in practice from the 19th to the mid-20th century. [2] The term is colonialism, and I believe this month, one where countless churches and organizations are sending mission volunteers abroad, provides us with an occasion to think more deeply about the moral confusion that our Western Christian presence may unwittingly create among those to whom we go to share and teach the gospel and ways to refocus our gospel efforts.
The meaning of colonialism
“Colonialism” refers to “that form of imperialism in which the stronger power imposes formal governmental control on a people and a territory, usually without having to resort to large-scale human settlement or colonization.” [3] The word points to the expansion of Western control over the non-western world. Consider Spain and Portugal in 16th century South America, or the British and European conquests of tropical empires across Africa and India in the late 1880s and early 1900s. The term loosely means the tendency of powerful nations to dominate and exploit the economy of “less powerful nations and people.” The definition aside, the practice has been evident throughout political, economic, and religious history.
Christian participation in colonialism
In many cases, but certainly not all, early Christian missionaries cooperated with those in political rule, often depending upon the governmental powers to maintain their own standing. For example, compare the 16th-18th century Portuguese, Spanish, and French empires. The Pope divided non-Christian lands around the world, whether discovered or yet to be discovered, between the monarchs of Portugal and Spain and gave them the responsibility to “evangelize the peoples of those lands, to establish the church, and to maintain it.” [4] Sadly, abuses of this relationship did occur. Missionary schools also assumed the superiority of European education, language, and ideas to that of local indigenous cultures.

Africans would realize, however, that the translation of the Scriptures into their own languages showed that in God's eyes they had value and dignity inherent to all humankind. Confidence in their own culture soon followed. Liberation movements (and theologies) were born as a result of this realization that God loved and accepted them (I will enlarge upon this point a bit later). [5] Even so, obstacles to effective global gospel proclamation still linger.
Beliefs and practices that hinder gospel expansion
I liken hindrances to effective gospel mission as a lingering “spirit of colonialism.” It is evident in not-so-subtle ways. Anecdotally, I spoke in 2019 at a conference in Africa where several hundred people were in attendance. I heard a commotion toward the back of the room. Some people seated there were loudly protesting that a “White man” was teaching them! It was then that I became more fully aware that there are lingering concerns people groups across the globe have with the way the gospel has been presented to them. I also frequently encounter academic literature and attend conferences where decolonization is the theme of presentations and passionate discussions. Briefly, a spirit of colonialism is evident in three areas.
Paternalism. Colonialism has given way in some cases to paternalism. Mark Shaw writes, “Some critics claim missionaries' zealous belief in Christ's lordship made them almost incapable of seeing anything positive and valuable in the life and culture of the African.” The "Christian" civilization of the Western world, they argue, “deepened the missionary's sense of cultural superiority.” [6] Furthermore, some mission work in Africa sought to establish its own church with its own clergy who would in turn evangelize the continent.
The goal was to create an African elite which would produce the desired society and economy. This led to an attitude that Africans were inferior and could not produce the desired leadership. Leaders would be Europeans. Such paternalism thwarts development and strips people made in God’s image from their rightful dignity. [7] However, I am quick to state that the White man is not the only one who has been afflicted with the spirit of colonialism. “In most African countries," according to Richard Dowden, "the elite grabbed the postcolonial state for themselves and boarded it up against the people. They embraced all the repressive colonial laws and changed very little except the size of their bank accounts.” [8]
Racism. The notion that a people group is “inferior” holds deep moral implications for life’s sanctity and human dignity. I recall Peter’s claims to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile with whom he was sharing the gospel. He said that God does not play favorites, which is a sign of pure divine justice. However, in practice, Peter did not always stay true to the script, and neither do we (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Gentiles were the victims of racial discrimination. They were considered to be inferior. God set the record straight, yet we continue to fall prey, as did Peter, to racial (and religious) blindness.
Flawed mission. It is quite easy for us to preach, teach, and sing that love for all of creation emanates from our holy God. We also rightly proclaim that sharing God’s love is a key characteristic of His true children. What is difficult for many folks is to take a Bible text like Acts 10 and apply it. My thesis is that there is often a disconnect between God’s mandate (Acts 1:8; 10:15) and our Christian mission. In Peter’s case, the disconnect was between Peter and the Holy Spirit, and there is evidence of the same with us today. The Spirit directs the entire process of events, as He did in Acts 10, but we do not see evidence of the Spirit’s direction, as in Galatians 2:11-14, or in many of our contemporary mission endeavors. Justice Anderson writes, “The place and purpose of the Holy Spirit must be emphasized in a theology of mission.” It should impact the appointment, training, and ongoing guidance of missionaries. Also, it should be an evident link in the connection of those who are sent with those who receive them. [9] Our engagement with people around the globe, both in this season and year-round, should be characterized by Spirit-guided humility. Where may we begin?
Practice genuine embrace
I do believe that the path toward mutual engagement in our global mission endeavors begins with what Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theology professor and writer, has termed a “theology of embrace.” His journey toward healing began when he realized his unwillingness to embrace (forgive) the Chetniks who had severely persecuted Muslims and Croatians in World War II. He called to mind the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The father in that parable gave himself to his estranged son and received that son back into his household. Our Heavenly Father does the same with us through his Son, Jesus Christ! He does not deny us, who are “lost” and “dead” in our sins, His heart’s embrace. Volf knew that he needed, in his case, to discover the will to embrace even his enemies. It is the will to embrace the “other” as a person created in God’s image that becomes a step in right direction for our ministry to those who have yet to receive Christ.


People with whom we do not share anything more than our common humanity in need of redemption become our brothers and sisters in Christ when we are willing to offer our embrace. Somehow, in doing so, Christ’s sacrificial suffering breaks through and God pours His peace into both hearts. Then the Lord builds redeemed communities out of our relational catastrophes. This practice of sacrificial embrace is what I have come to believe is the biblical goal of the mission of God at work in His Church.
Larry C. Ashlock

1. John Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson, eds. Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1998), 10.
2. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1981), 192-205. (A more recent edition of Perspectives was published in 2009.)
3. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, s.v. “colonialism,” 239.
4. R. Pierce Beaver, “The History of Mission Strategy,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1981), 192.
5. For example, see Philip Irving Mitchell, “Christian Missions and Colonialism” [Dallas Baptist University]. See also Brett Yardley, “Colonialism’s Impact on Missions” [Columbia International University]. See Mark Shaw, “Link Essay: Great White Father,” in Christianity Today, 1997.
6. Mark Shaw, “Link Essay: Great White Father,” in Christianity Today, 1997.
7. R. Pierce Beaver, “The History of Mission Strategy,” 202. Similar things happened in India in the 1880s. Compare also James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Volume 2, 2d ed. (North Richland Hills, Texas: D & F Scott Publishing, 2001), 543-544.
8. Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, 2009), Kindle ed., 69.
9. Justice Anderson, “An Overview of Missiology,” in John Terry, Ebbie Smith, and Justice Anderson, eds. Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1998), 11.