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Friday, 11 January 2019

Reflections on the missionary position

A gap of six months between blog posts looks sloppy. Of course I do have excuses: serious illnesses, house removal, furniture storage and limited internet access. In fact, I had almost decided to abandon this blog. However, weeks of sorting out and shelving boxes of books, some of them inherited and acquired by my family 70 years or so ago, some even longer, have got me thinking and writing again.

In these boxes, I came across language text books and primers for Hindi and Urdu, printed on fragile yellowed paper, nibbled by exotic bookworms and conscientiously annotated by my parents in almost indecipherable pencil. There were summaries of British colonial law and advice on Indian social habits dating back to the late nineteenth century and purchased from second-hand booksellers in the cities now called Kalkota and Dhaka. There were sacred texts of different religions and cultures, written in various languages, together with volumes of poetry, published diaries, travelogues and accounts of folktales and legends. My father's Bibles were among them: Hebrew, Greek and Urdu texts, again annotated in pencil, to be referred to not just in preparing sermons but when following the readings in church and even when providing extempore translations. Many of the volumes were so well worn that my parents had had them re-bound while they were abroad. Among the pocket Bibles were even some in Welsh, belonging to my grandparents and great grandparents.

Above all, however, the boxes contained eye-witness accounts, memoirs and biographies of missionary lives, dating from the early nineteenth century until twenty years or so ago, scores of them. Thousands of words written, not just about the India my parents experienced, but about mission posts and activities across Africa and China - and some nearer to home, in Wales - records of the lives of friends, colleagues, family members and communities.

I had rescued these books when my mother went through a destructive phase following my father's death. Asked to take them to the local Book Aid depot (my mother being under the illusion that ancient Urdu grammars were bound to be of interest abroad), I rebelled and, with her permission, returned to the Highlands with a boot-load of my father's life.

So, none of these books came as a surprise during unpacking. I welcomed them with affection as I lifted each volume and riffled their pages, releasing clouds of dust and fragments of paper. As I do periodically, I sifted through them, reluctantly whittling them down yet again to just the few which I cannot bear to get rid of. Four boxes when I was in Inverness have become one box in Dunbar.

Why is all this coming to mind just now?

Well, missionaries have been in the news - unusual for these days.

Shortly before Christmas, a young adventurer from the USA, John Allen Chau, was reported to have been killed by 'natives' on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands administered by India. Somewhat controversially, he was described in much of the media as a 'missionary'. He did not seem to have belonged to any well-established missionary society, nor have undertaken even the most basic training in his chosen calling. However, a religious outfit called All Nations seems to have been egging him on. Chau seems to have spent the last couple of years bumming around the world as young people tend to do these days - and good luck to them. Most backpackers, however, do not not make illicit landings on prohibited territory and risk the lives of all the inhabitants, as well, of course, as their own.

The Sentinelese are a protected tribe, and travel to their island is banned by the authorities. Too many previously uncontacted tribes in many areas of the world, have been wiped out by diseases inadvertently introduced by travellers. Ancient ways of life have been destroyed under pressure from newly introduced social practices. Tribes have been exploited for gain, both monetary and spiritual. All in all, few of us these days have much respect for those who deliberately choose to impose their values and beliefs on others living in regions such as Papua New Guinea or the Amazon - or the Sentinel Islands - who have very different cultures.

Yet, missionaries have not always been regarded as interfering busybodies. Contrary to popular belief, they were not part of British colonial machinery. Indeed, in many parts of the world colonial officers despised and resented them, for missionaries stood with the people. Like my mother, many missionaries wore local dress and all were required by their sponsors to develop high levels of language fluency, tested by means of demanding examinations.

This does not mean, of course, that the interactions of missionaries were always sensitive to, and respectful of local culture. Nevertheless, I think we have to be careful here of applying our current values to the actions of those living in the past. We should also avoid being sentimental. Not all cultural traditions are positive. The work to save newly born twins from being put to death in Calabar, started by Mary Slessor of Dundee, still continues in the work of local nurses. Human sacrifice has been difficult to eradicate from some African cultures where animism is still strong, has its roots in poverty and exists alongside the established religions of Christianity and Islam.

In some countries, missionaries supported and encouraged the native population in their struggles for self-determination. The independence movement in Malawi was nurtured in the mission stations of the Church of Scotland and those of its Free Church compatriots. My own parents loathed the Raj, were shocked by the arrogance of many British colonial officers and their wives and appalled by the millions of deaths during the Bengal famine shortly before their arrival, a direct result of actions by the British government. Inherited 'benefits' such as the railway network, designed for the easy extraction and transportation of raw materials for shipment to the 'mother country', can never be considered sufficient excuse for the rape and exploitation of entire continents. No wonder that many colonial officers were suspicious of missionaries' motives and activities.

Memorial to John Adam, a Scottish colonial officer who rose through the East India Company to become Governor General of India. Buried in a colonial graveyard in Calcutta.

Missionaries established hospitals and local clinics. They founded schools, which was more than the colonial authorities did. The number of government secondary schools in existence in British colonies and protectorates by the 1960s when African countries gained their independence was minimal - often just one or two schools and a teacher-training institution per country. None had universities. If it had not been for the mission schools, few of the local population would have developed the knowledge and skills required to take their countries into the future. Here is a picture of the student hostel in Dhaka of which my father was warden when he first arrived and while he was learning Bengali and Urdu.

I was born in Chandraghona, in a hospital established and still run by the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), delivered by a local midwife from one of the indigenous hill tribes, trained by a British doctor. One of my cousins worked there as a doctor many years later. I wasn't supposed to be born in Chandraghona, in those days quite a remote place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, near where the Royhinga refugee camps are these days. The only hospital near my parents' mission station at the other side of what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was government run and had a poor reputation. My mother was supposed to cross the border to West Bengal in India for her delivery. However, this was just a couple of years after Partition and the border was closed. Riots and massacres were taking place all over India and East and West Pakistan.

My father was desperate. The situation was volatile and he feared for the safety of his family. Shortly before I was due, he managed to get my mother, my brother Christopher and our ayah to the port of Sadarghat in Dhaka, using local public transport. There he paid for passages on a steamer which took them across the Bay of Bengal to Chittagong.

Sadarghat today
Modern ferry at Sadarghat










 From there, my family travelled by local boat (I think) up to Chandraghona.










Chandraghona was neither a general hospital nor a maternity hospital. It was, and still is, a leprosy hospital, one with an impressive reputation across the region, not just in Bangladesh. It did and does, however, also run clinics for ordinary medical treatments, hence the midwife. I was the first white baby born in the area, apparently, and caused much interest.











My father did not remain at the hospital until I was born, however, one of the reasons why I ended up with a somewhat idiosyncratic birth certificate. It was, after all, Partition and his duty was with the school of which he was Principal, and the mission community in Barisal. So he left, retracing his passage. He had got us to Chandraghona just in time. By the time of his return, people were being killed all along the riverbanks. The boat was overrun by terrified locals, who forced their way into the cabin which my father was sharing with a High Court judge, physically grabbing hold of their clothes in an attempt to keep themselves safe.

How do I know all this? Many years later, when my father was very ill in an English hospital, he grabbed my arm and, in his delirium, relived the events of that terrible time, sobbing 'I didn't know what to do! I didn't know what to do!' But he did know what to do, although he didn't realise it at the time. His family all survived, which is more than can be said for thousands of the local population. Partition was a decision made by the British colonial authorities.

Missionaries have been attacked and killed in many places over the centuries. The Anglican Bishop James Hannington was killed in Buganda in 1885, though having expressly disobeyed the instructions of the Kabaka. When I was growing up, the story of five US missionaries led by Jim Elliot and his pilot, who were speared to death by Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956 became a worldwide sensation. As with Chau, many at the time questioned the appropriateness of Elliot's brand of evangelicalism.

Many more missionaries, however, avoided unnecessary confrontation and suffered or even died of hard work, disease or accidents. Graveyards across the continents are filled with dead missionaries, who gave their lives to the cause to which they were devoted and, more questionably, imperilled those of their wives and children. The American Baptist preacher Adoniram Judson died in his bed in 1850, but as a long-term consequence of the imprisonment and torture he suffered at the hands of the Emperor of Burma. His wife also died, as did his child. Scottish Presbyterian Alexander Murdoch Mackay from Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, who taught carpentry and farming, died of malaria in Buganda in 1890.

William Carey of Serampore, like many missionaries, came from a very modest background and was self taught, one of the reasons, perhaps, why he and others insisted on educating children from all castes, including girls. He worked for 41 years without a furlough, his first wife dying after a terrible mental breakdown: sacrifices could be too great for family members. A BMS missionary, Carey translated the Hindu classic, the Ramayana, into English, and the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit. The breadth of his cultural understanding and linguistic skills was impressive.

The lists go on for ever, many, but not all of them, household names such as the Scot David Livingstone. Robert Moffat, a Congregationalist and father of Mary, Livingstone's long-suffering wife, was born in Ormiston, East Lothian. Trained as a  a gardener and farmer, he spent his life in what is now South Africa sharing practical skills in building, carpentry, printing and as a blacksmith. He even translated the Bible into Setswana before unromantically dying in Tunbridge Wells. The Cornish explorer George Grenfell worked for the BMS in Cameroon and Congo, dying of blackwater fever. More recent missionaries, such as Constance Hornby who introduced girls' education to Uganda, have been fortunate enough to die in their beds following long years of service.

And it was not just in the nineteenth century that missionaries demonstrated determination and heroism. Gladys Aylward worked for the China Inland Mission and then the Chinese government, dissuading families from binding the feet of their baby girls. She went on to save the lives of 100 Chinese orphans during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s.

Many missionaries have been awkward, obstinate, opinionated characters, perhaps inevitable if one considers the strength of mind and purpose that is necessary for them to carry out the tasks they have set themselves - or which 'God' has set them - in the contexts in which they have worked. The controversial Alsatian theologian and musician, Albert Schweitzer, who trained as a doctor and set up the hospital at Lambarene, in what is now Gabon, was not afraid to challenge authority.
Oh, this 'noble' culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different colour or because they cannot help themselves. This culture does not know how hollow and miserable and full of glib talk it is, how common it looks to those who follow it across the seas and see what it has done there, and this culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights...
I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people made subservient to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic 'gifts', and everything else we have done... We decimate them, and then, by the stroke of a pen, we take their land so they have nothing left at all...
Criticised for his paternalistic attitudes and the inadequacies of medical practice in his hospital compared with more modern expectations, Schweitzer nevertheless articulates some of the conflicting elements at the heart of the missionary experience, among them selflessness, bravery and resilience.

My final example of the tensions at the heart of the missionary position was brought to my attention by another of my cousins, herself born on a Congolese mission station run by the BMS. Her father, a doctor, had had to leave his clinic in Xian, China, after it was destroyed by Communist fighters. Her elder siblings had been born in China.

My cousin and I had been discussing the contradictions and pressures of missionary life and its impact on children. My parents' decision to leave East Pakistan was based on their concerns to avoid separation from my elder brother and to protect the life of my yet unborn younger brother. My parents, Christopher and I had all been near death at various times, because of the combination of acute malaria and dysentery and risks arising from local epidemics of smallpox and cholera. There were also tensions within the European missionary communities which could be difficult to deal with. Whereas my mother was absolutely certain that leaving was the right decision - it was in fact her decision - my father never came to terms with leaving India and what he regarded as his vocation: God had called him to India, but God had not called him back.

It was my cousin who recommended an interesting and moving book by Prudence Bell and Ronald Clements: Lives from a Black Tin Box which I have just finished reading. It recounts the history of members of her extended family on her father's side from the family's origins in St David's in Wales to their terrible deaths in 1900 in Shanxi Province in China during the Boxer Rebellion.

Chinese suspicion and resentment of foreigners, particularly the British, had its origins in the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century. European colonial powers had put pressure on the Chinese government to let them to set up trading stations. In one of the most disgraceful episodes in colonial history, the British forced the Chinese to accept the importation of opium from British India. America was also involved. Both British and Americans made huge fortunes.

The conflict weakened the Qing dynasty, resulted in millions of Chinese in the coastal cities and beyond becoming addicted to opium and a large section of the poverty-stricken population becoming coolies for the British. China, which had been one of the biggest economies in the world until the early nineteenth century, was forced to open up treaty ports and provide western countries with preferential trading conditions. Researchers have said that ten years after the second Opium war, China's GDP had fallen by a half. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the privileged status of westerners was resented.

In 1860, after the second Opium War, Christian missionaries had been given the right to preach anywhere in China and to buy land on which to build churches. Thus the ground was laid for the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, an anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising. Boxer rebels, groups of nationalist martial arts fighters with magical spiritual beliefs, massacred Christians throughout northern China. Cixi, the Empress Dowager of China, one of the last of the Qing dynasty, ended up supporting the fighters and declared war on all foreign powers. Government troops joined in the slaughter. Many missionaries tried to leave, supported by local Christians who tried to hide them and suffered the consequences. In all, 136 Protestant missionaries and 53 children were killed, 47 Catholic priests and nuns, 30,000 Chinese Catholics, 2,000 Chinese Protestants, and 200 to 400 of the 700 Russian Orthodox Christians. 

Among the 'martyrs' of the Boxer rebellion were the Dixons, part of my cousin's extended family. Shortly before their deaths, they had left their four children in England, to be brought up in boarding school and lodged with foster parents. Undoubtedly, this decision had saved the children's lives. My cousin and I, however, had discussed the morality of missionary parents bringing children into the world and then sending them back to Britain to be brought up by other people, an issue which I had discussed with my mother. The Dixons, however, were doing significant work, running a clinic with an impressive reputation. They had set up a school for girls and embarked on a programme of unbinding women's feet. They were doing the work which they believed God had called them to do. Their work was quite separate from the political activities of the British government.

When the rebels moved in, the Dixons and some of their fellow BMS and Chinese colleagues tried to flee, but too late. After various vicissitudes, they were captured and imprisoned. Despite being promised their freedom, they were accosted on their way out of the city. Elizabeth Dixon was stripped completely naked and beheaded before her husband and the rest of the group, her attackers taking several strokes to complete their act. Her husband, Herbert, and their companions were then also murdered. Their children became orphans.

It is difficult to know what to do with stories like these. They raise so many issues about the relative importance of family ties, religious belief and parental responsibilities. The children of missionaries can sometimes be damaged by their childhood experiences: the separation from their families, the intensity of the religious beliefs among which they are raised and the 'selflessness' of their parents which may sometimes involve sacrifice of their children. How can parents avoid their children developing a sense of 'superiority' in a context in which 'doing good' is the raison d'etre for their way of life? How can children make real choices for their own lives when most people they know, at least in their family network, are missionaries, where being a 'missionary' is regarded as a 'normal' career choice? It is not just the Moffat/Livingstone family in which family member after family member has been drawn to the missionary life.

And finally, of course, there is the major issue about the 'right' of missionaries to change aspects of other people's countries, particularly their beliefs. There, surely, is a degree of arrogance in assuming that Christianity is a superior religion to other forms of belief (see the words of the hymn From Greenland's icy mountains recorded below). By the time my parents went out to East Pakistan, however, missionaries like them did very little overt evangelism. Unlike John Chau, they shared real practical skills. They set up and ran schools and hospitals in an attempt to convert by example but also, of course, because 'doing good' is the right thing to do.

I think we have to accept that trying to change things for the better in other people's lives is a normal - and admirable - aspect of being human. No one, for example, questions the proselytising activities of political and social activists. It is the religious aspects of missionary activity, their usually unquestioning faith, which make people uncomfortable, because they are so different from our own more wishy-washy attitudes. Finally, it is the potentially sacrificial aspect which we also find difficult, particularly when it involves others, like their children, who do not have a choice.

I am still uncertain how I feel about the missionary position. What I do accept, however, is my respect for most of those who adopt it.



All Nations

John Allen Chau: US missionary killed by tribe on North Sentinel Island 'may not have acted alone', Adam Withnall, Independent 29 November 2018

Killed for Christ in the Amazon, BBC Witness, 28 November 2018

Lives from a Black Tin Box by Prudence Bell and Ronald Clements

You may also be interested in these other posts:

Promoting girls' education in Kigezi

Following the Scots to Cape Maclear, Malawi

Making connections, changing lives: Stone Town, Zanzibar

Polygamy, Christianity and the Royal Family of Buganda

In memory of my mother



Addendum
In 1819 a royal letter was sent to all parishes of the Church of England authorising a collection to be taken to aid The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands (SPCK). Reginald Heber was asked to write an appropriate hymn. Twenty minutes later, he produced the words below, part of my childhood worship. When he wrote it, Heber didn't know that India did not have coral strands, nor did he realise he would soon be appointed bishop of Calcutta, India, where he would later die. 

From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand;
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.

What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft on Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile;
In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen, in his blindness,
Bows down to wood and stone.

Can we, whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high;
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learned Messiah’s name.

Waft, waft, ye winds, His story;
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till, like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature,
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign

2 comments:

  1. Hello Elisabeth,
    Glad to see you posting again. I hope you are feeling better.
    Tim

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good to hear from you again, Tim. Yes, writing again. I am also considering setting up a new blog to reflect my new life. Thank you for the good wishes!

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