Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Black Ops for Jesus?

Jeremy Courtney's CNN opinion piece on mission in 'hostile' countries is challenging and thought-provoking. He argues that those involved in mission to places where missionaries are not welcome should be 'transparent' and not 'duplicitous'. Here is the target of his irritation:

In order to get inside these "closed" countries, some missionaries pose as aid workers, teachers and business owners. Under the guise of work they think a hostile government or population will find valuable, they sneak in, concealing their true aim: to convert as many as possible to their religion.

He argues that such an approach to mission is fundamentally dishonest, undermines the cause of religious freedom, and puts a target on the backs of local Christians. Many of the points Courtney makes are good, arguing that, for instance, missionaries shouldn't lie and that they should 'show the world there is something worth living -- and dying -- for'.

But there are some serious problems with Courtney's argument:

  1. Though there may be some truth in Courtney's picture of the covert missionary, for the most part it is a caricature - a straw man set up to make his argument sound more convincing. It would certainly be no surprise if there are missionaries operating under the modus operandi he paints. There are all sorts of people involved in all sorts of activities under the banner of mission. Much of it is commendable; sadly some is nonsense and some even plain wicked. But to paint much of what missionaries do in unwelcoming countries as 'spycraft', and 'covert missionary interventionism', explicitly comparing it to the operations of the CIA, is either grossly dishonest or just plain ignorant.
  2. Courtney is operating under a fundamentally flawed paradigm of 'religion' and 'conversion'. He argues for 'religious freedom' and that is good, as far as people in the West generally understand such a concept. But he assumes that such an understanding is shared globally. It is not. And it is surprising that someone who has lived and worked in the Middle East for a decade does not seem to appreciate that. What circles is Courtney moving in? Must followers of Christ really tell Muslims or Hindus or whoever that they want 'as many of them as possible to convert to their religion'? Clearly, when people equate 'Christianity' with Western decadence as exemplified by Hollywood, that is the last message we want to give. 
  3. Courtney's willingness to be 'transparent' about his work is hardly surprising given that is to provide 'life-saving heart surgeries for children'. Such a work is indeed commendable and what society or government is going to oppose it? But what if you are convinced, under the force of the Bible's teaching, that such work is inadequate to lead someone to salvation? What if you believe that the only way someone will get spiritual heart surgery is if they hear that Christ is the only mediator between God and man? Then you are going to go beyond medical work, aren't you? And that is the rub. You don't have to tell people to join your religion to get thrown out of a country. Simply sharing the story of Jesus and inviting people to submit to his lordship in order to be right with God might earn a visit from the secret police or even a bullet in the head. We are instructed in Scripture to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. That may mean that we withhold some information about ourselves to prevent our untimely departure. I was once asked by a secret policeman in Nepal whether I 'preach'. I asked him what he meant. He said, 'Do you pay people money and tell them to join your religion?' 'Certainly not!' I replied. And that was the end of it. It was not duplicitous. You don't have to engage in 'spycraft' to disabuse your interrogator of his misconceptions. But you may need to be very careful that your words don't get you into trouble. And if you are a teacher, you better be the best teacher you can be. Sadly, though, many live as enemies of the gospel. That may be enough to get you kicked out of a host country. Your task is to ensure that, as far as it depends on you, you don't get kicked out for any other reason.