Saturday, March 21, 2020

When Good News is Bad News

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When I was in my teens I heard about a book called Through Gates of Splendor which was written by Elisabeth Elliott the wife of one of five missionaries who were killed in the jungle of Ecuador in 1956. I was intrigued by this story of bravery and determination to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the dangerous Auca people of the region. The men were seen as Christian martyrs. Betty Elliott and the other widows were also symbols of courage having left their comfortable North American lives for this important work.

Back then, not even twenty years after the deaths, it didn't occur to me for a moment that they probably shouldn't have been there in the first place and that their zeal was a form of arrogance and religious imperialism. This may sound harsh, but may Christian denominations and organizations have done serious soul-searching in recent years, often repenting for the ways in which the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ became bad news in so many ways. Records from the past often include references to the "savages" and the senseless determination to expunge the spirituality of the peoples because it was considered satanic. 

In the case of the Auca people, now known as the Waorani, the incursions of missionaries begun with these families led to collaborations with government and resource extraction companies which resulted in disease, displacement, and death. It was arguably a form of genocide which continues to this day. 

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A couple of months ago I read Five Wives, the recent novel by Joan Thomas which imagines this ill-fated 1956 venture from the perspective of the women, some of whom continued the missionary work after the death of their loved ones. It is not a kind perspective, yet it recognizes the conviction of those involved, as misguided as it may have seemed.  

Sadly, this isn't just a disturbing note from the past. I read the other day about an American evangelical missionary organization which is determined to reach a Brazilian Indigenous group which has remained relatively isolated.even though this is prohibited.They have brought disease to other isolated groups and the introduction of COVID-19 could be catastrophic for these people. We we can only hope and pray that international prohibitions on travel with thwart their efforts.

Over time I've spoken with people from various cultures around the world who are grateful for the benefits of health and education brought to their countries by missionaries, as well as Christian faith. Some of them have been pastors and priests themselves. 

So,  am I opposed to sharing the gospel today? I'm not, but it must always be in the context of respect and reciprocity. We are realizing that respect for the Earth and simplicity are values which are embedded in our Judeo/Christian tradition but often ignored. We have a lot to learn. 


In today's Groundling blog I share Wendell Berry's comforting poem, The Peace of Wild Things

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