Mission: Self Sacrificial Service or Imperialistic Conceit? (Part 1)

I imagine that for most readers the word “mission” evokes positive connotations of self-sacrificial giving and heroic exploits of missionaries of a by-gone era. Early Protestant missionaries to the Middle East established schools, hospitals, and churches that continue to impact society for good. Some risked their lives against fierce opposition. Today Christian mission, alongside its evangelistic concerns, is active in education, relief and development. It is right that we celebrate the good fruit these efforts have borne.

Nevertheless, there is another point of view. I was struck recently in reading Artillery of Heaven by Ussama Makdisi (Rice University Arab Historian) by how starkly different the other perspective is. Makdisi relates the martyrdom of As’ad Shidyaq—the first Protestant convert from the Maronite (Roman Catholic) community of Lebanon. Shidyaq died in confinement in a monastery in Mount Lebanon. Protestant missionaries celebrated him as the first Protestant martyr. Makdisi’s view, however, is that the Protestant missionaries’ reckless inability to understand the culture and worldview of Middle Eastern Christianity led to Shidyaq’s tragic and pointless death. In fact, he locates the impetus for the early missionary zeal of the Protestants in their relentless efforts to Christianize native Americans. He underscores “a fundamental conceit of mission work: those to be saved were the objects of unilateral transformation, their culture disparaged, their history ignored, their equality consistently denied” (Makdisi, 2011, p 57). Makdisi’s perspective is that American Protestants, having failed to civilize native Americans, turned their conversionary zeal abroad and engaged in a worldwide mission with the same reckless disregard for other peoples and cultures.

old globe
Flickr user Ryan Harvey

Which is it? A noble history of self-sacrifice in the service of God and humanity or the imperialistic conceit of religious bigots?

I confess it is grueling to listen to the critique of Makdisi. I am deeply invested in the pursuit of Christian mission in the Middle East and the Muslim world broadly. Nevertheless, I want to hear what he is saying. I want to consider his critique, asking myself and you if we need to make significant changes.

Makdisi is not the only voice criticizing Protestant mission. More sympathetic voices are also coming to the fore. One is Michael Stroope’s book Transcending the Modern Mission TraditionStroope dives deeply into the history of “mission” and proposes that there are serious flaws including an enmeshment with political exploitation, military occupation, and colonialist assumptions. He suggests that the word “mission” must be abandoned. It is irredeemable and can no longer represent the global church of Christ in her pilgrim witness to a crucified and risen Lord (see this summary and response from Martin Accad).

Supposing the global church listens to this critique, what could we do differently? Is stopping our global witness the only alternative? Sending all the cross-cultural missionaries home? Given Jesus’ great commission, throwing in the towel is probably not the best course of action. But what do we do? How do we pursue our witness in the Middle East and the Muslim world?

Before attempting to answer that question, consider the season of precipitous change that the region, even the world, is passing through. First, the church itself is now global and multi-cultural. If we are thinking of mission as originating in the West, we’re already decades behind the movement of God’s Spirit and likely stuck in a colonialist mindset. The voice of witness from this global church is as likely to originate from Korea, Brazil, or Nigeria as from the UK, US, or Canada, a fact that has led scholars of world Christianity to declare that mission is now polycentric—from everywhere to everywhere. In fact, as the Western church declines, developing world nations are revitalizing the global church.

Secondly, Muslim nations are also going through paradigm shifts of historic proportions beginning with the dissolution of the Caliphate by Ataturk in the early 20th century. Since then, Muslim nation states have battled to gain independence, cast off occupiers, and fought among themselves. An attempt to resurrect the Caliphate has failed. Though the Arab Spring has faded, the yearning of the Arab youth remains unrequited. Regressive religious movements compete against a global media incursion bringing societal tensions to a boiling point. Sunnism and Shiism are increasingly at odds. In the midst of it all, Muslim clerics voice their opposition to militant and Salafist (reformist) expressions of faith, even inviting Christians into a dialogue centered on the two great commandments of Jesus (A Common Word)! In today’s Muslim world, it appears the only thing that is constant is change itself.

Third, there appears to be a unique response to Christ’s gospel by Muslim peoples in diverse settings. David Garrison’s A Wind in the House of Islam documents movements of new followers of Jesus in the Muslim world. In historical terms, these kingdom movements of simple, reproducing churches are unprecedented. It may be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the gospel’s spread to the nations.

This post first appeared as “Rethinking Christian Mission Witness in the Middle East” which was posted on the ABTS blog on March 11, 2021.

About Mike Kuhn

Mike is a Christian author and educator who spent most of his adult life in the Middle East and now lives in the U.S. More writings and presentations can be found on his personal website.

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