Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of jokes. One of his favourites goes something like this: "When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. And then they said, 'Let us pray'. But when the prayer was over, and we opened our eyes, we found that we had the Bible and they had the land!"
Missionaries have for a long time now had something of a bad name, though in most places the opprobrium which attaches to the activity no longer involves the threat of death to which eight Western aid workers are now being subjected in Afghanistan, where their trial has begun on charges of promoting Christianity.
Quite what the eight – four Germans, two Americans and two Australians who work for the German-based Christian relief agency Shelter Now International – are supposed to have done remains unclear, like so much else about their secret trial under the Taliban's shadowy version of Islamic sharia law in a Kabul court to which Western diplomats are being denied access. But then so much about the aid work of Christians in foreign lands has always been ambiguous – and in recent times has grown more so.
In the old days it was all pretty straightforward. The first missionaries, in the modern sense of the term, were despatched in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, who in three papal bulls divided the New World between Spain and Portugal and authorised them to subjugate it by sending "wise, upright, God-fearing and virtuous men who will be capable of instructing the indigenous peoples in good morals and in the Catholic faith".
In the centuries that followed, the cross and the sword moved together across the continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia, with great competition between Catholics and Protestants to convert more and more of the heathen to their particular version of the Christian truth. In almost all cases the efforts of the missionaries were welcomed by both traders and colonial administrators. Indeed, some missionaries perceived an overt relationship between the interests of Church and empire.
"I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity," the explorer David Livingstone told an audience at the University of Cambridge in 1857. Only by introducing legitimate commerce, he insisted, could the slave trade, and African collaboration in it, be stamped out. Which was the rationale missionaries used when they became increasingly directly involved in trade.
In Uganda they brought about the introduction of cotton through the Uganda Company, which they controlled. In West Africa, they played a key part in the introduction of cocoa-farming. In East Africa, they bought the slaves in order to liberate them and then established them in church-owned plantations.
Others later cast doubt upon the integrity of the relationship between the commerce and the Church – and upon the idea that the colonists saw themselves not simply as exploiters of the Third World's natural resources, but also as purveyors, in the words of J K Galbraith, of "some transcendental moral, spiritual, political or social worth".
Yet always the missionaries saw it as their task to stamp out local cultures, which they regarded as the work of the devil, and replace them with a religion in which Christianity and the cultural values of Western Europe were inextricably intertwined.
It is this apparently impregnable Western cultural and economic fortress which riles so many Muslims in the modern world. Fundamentalism is their response to this Western hegemony. And nowhere is its contrariness more manifest than in the intractable form of Islam through which the ruling religious elite in Kabul asserts itself. The trouble is that it is as behind the times in its reaction to the notion of Christian proselytising as it is in everything else.
With the decline of empire, missionaries – especially of the Catholic variety – developed a new strategy. They called it "pre-mission" – which meant working first to prepare non-Christians "to receive the Gospel". There were two arms to this: a range of caring activities – such as running hospitals, orphanages and homes for the blind and elderly – and a new emphasis on education, to enable people to read the scriptures and raise the general intellectual level of their understanding.
And where there were not the resources to both preach and teach, then – in the words of an emissary from the Pope to a group of bishops in Dar es Salaam in the 1920s – they were told to "neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools".
The successors to this approach today are the aid agencies. In many respect, aid workers are the new missionaries. Some are overtly so. In the early days of the great burgeoning of the aid industry in the 1970s, many American evangelical groups, who became known as the Rice Christians, would only give out cereals in Asia to those who would agree to enter Bible schools.
But in more recent years many church aid agencies engage in "pre-mission" work in health, education, community development and strengthening the skills and capacity of local people and organisations in a way that is completely indistinguishable from that of secular aid agencies. Indeed personnel move effortlessly between the two, with many aid workers motivated by a religious faith working in secular aid agencies and with staff driven by humanist altruism working for church agencies.
But what if those who are motivated by their Christian faith take their Bible with them to the land they have set out to help? Does that make them a missionary? And can that be sufficient to allow a group like the Taliban, with its skewed vision of reality, to proclaim it has "strong evidence" that Shelter Now's foreign staff were involved in trying to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity? Especially when Taliban officials admit that they have no proof that any conversions were actually made and Shelter Now says its staff are told not to proselytise? Where are the boundaries between mission, pre-mission and just helping people?
There is one other factor. Experience on the ground changes people. James Mawdsley would describe himself as a human rights campaigner, not a missionary. And yet he set off for Burma spurred by a desire to find a way to live a more Christian life and to help do his bit to redress the injustices perpetrated by the military regime there.
Originally he went there to teach displaced people in the refugee camps in rebel-held areas of the country. It was only when he got there that he realised that he had nothing to teach and that all he could do was stand alongside the ordinary people in their experience of repression, unlawful imprisonment and torture.
It may well be that the modern missionaries of Kabul did no more than that. It could well prove enough. In the end, the fact that the Taliban consider this to be a hanging offence may tell us more about their distorted notion of Islam than it says about the ambiguity of the missionary endeavour.Reuse content