The Missionary Stereotype Rebuttal

desmond tutu

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land.  They said, “Let us pray.”  We closed our eyes.  When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.  Desmond Tutu.

I first heard that quote back in 2000 from a professor I had just asked to be on my doctoral dissertation committee.  I told him I was a member of a Christian missions organization and my research was on cross-cultural adjustment in missionaries.  He responded with Archbishop Tutu’s quote and questioned the value of such a study.  Even though this wasn’t the first time I had run into the negative missionary stereotype at the university, I was a bit surprised at this professor’s immediate, overt hostility toward missions.  I didn’t expect an educator to throw out a popular but unsupported negative stereotype.  However, an endorsement of Tutu’s inflammatory accusation that missionaries were opportunists who tricked an entire (really really big) continent of people into giving away their property in exchange for Bibles didn’t seem to be a problem for him.

At least part of the reason the stereotype remains unchallenged involves the ongoing media portrayal of missionaries as well-meaning yet misguided culture destroying hypocrites.  Ouch.  The stereotype is alive and well.  I’m sure you can’t help but wonder how much of the stereotype is true.  I will offer you an insider’s perspective on the good, the bad and the ugly of missionaries.  For twenty-three years I’ve seen this group of Christians at their best and their worst.  In all that time, I have never seen the stereotype played out in reality.  I’ve just seen real people with real problems and real struggles working under difficult and hazardous conditions.  I’ve seen much more courage, sacrifice, faith and honesty than cowardice, self-promotion and deception.   After countless hours spent with missionaries telling me how they really feel about what is happening in their ministries, I remain in awe of my colleagues and the Lord Jesus Christ’s activity in their lives.

Wallace G. Mills, St. Mary’s University historian, offers a rebuttal to Tutu’s famous statement in his lecture entitled The Role of Missionaries in Conquest :  “Missionaries were not a uniform group, especially in regard to ideas and opinions; thus, making generalizations difficult because there are usually lots of exceptions and contrary examples. It is far too common for scholars to adopt a rather simplistic stereotype and caricature of the missionary.  In our increasingly secular age, religious people and especially missionaries are not understood or empathized with.  Only recently have more rigorous scholarly and social science methods begun to be applied to the study of missionaries themselves. Thus, much of the stereotype is ignorance.  Evaluating the role of the missionaries requires that exaggerated images, whether positive or negative, be set aside. Especially, we should avoid minimizing their diversity by the reductionism of stereotypes and caricatures.”  Good answer, Dr. Mills.

Oh…and by the way…also contrary to Desmond Tutu’s appraisal…Africa still does not have the Bible in every language.  As a matter of fact, of the known 1,127 living African languages, only 2 in Nigeria and 22 in Central Africa are considered to have adequate Scripture. Wycliffe is currently involved in active language programs in 103 of the Nigerian languages and 207 of the languages in Central Africa.

I just wanted to set the record straight.

Have a great stereotype free fortnight.  And remember:  Just cuz a famous person says it…don’t mean it’s true.

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