A New Mission Theology

Buhoma Church

I was recently sent a link to this NY Times Op-Ed Documentary, called the Gospel of Intolerance.

It outlines the link between American Evangelicals and the anti-Gay movement in Uganda. This is a link that I, as a United Methodist, saw play out at the world gathering of United Methodist Leaders in Tampa last year.  The African contingent was taking direct guidance from the American conservative elements of the church, to create a voting bloc too large to counter. Thus, when the vote for clergy and marriage equality came up for vote, it was struck down.  Though, it wasn’t until a great lecture at Foundry UMC, in Washington, D.C.  that I understood the link between Evangelicals and mission theology in Africa.

The lecture outlined the theology of missionaries that has almost always been more conservative and frequently paternalistic.  (See the great book by Barbara Kingsolver, “The Poisonwood Bible.” though the character Rev. Nathan was also delusional)  Furthermore, with the continued influx of missionaries the theology has not changed much from the early days.   The missionaries I overheard in Kampala were working to put orphans through school and provide adequate healthcare. They were doing good work, giving people opportunities that perhaps they wouldn’t have without the legions of Americans giving money.  What I struggled with was how some spoke to the Ugandan’s as if the American’s were wiser, more developed persons bringing them material and spiritual salvation.  I understand that they did come to help, but the tone and the language they used was telling.  These same missionaries exploit the image of the poor African child to garner further support.  While there has been push back against this stereotype by both Africans and aid groups, the unfortunate thing is that this stereotype does bring more money.

As the African minister asks in the video, how can we reconcile the fact that these Evangelicals are bringing money, and aid to the people, with the abuse of power that further colonizes African thought and theology.  Given that new groups are making inroads in Africa to try and reverse this Gospel of Intolerance, I would caution against further dictating what is “right” theology.  African theologians are thinking about this, as they too struggle against the intolerance that is plaguing their own nations, which some see as first imported from the whites.  (See De-Colonization extended to African Theology by Richard Shadreck Maposa.) The power we westeners have simply because we have more money than our African brothers and sisters is inadvertently used to subjugate true partnerships.  The concern is that if we (Ugandan’s) don’t agree with our donors, will they stop bringing us money and opportunity. The power we have, because of the perceived and actual access we have to opportunity, is being used to create an imbalanced relationship.

There is a great quote from Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was debating the mission of African Command (AfriComm) of the US Military in Africa. The mission broadly states, “African solutions for African problems.” Secretary Clinton’s addition was, “African solutions for global problems.” Partnering with African theologians and activists to struggle against the theology of paternalism and of intolerance is an experience that will have global consequences. Reconciling the conservative theology of some aid groups and the good work they do, will also need to be further addressed. We saw what the theology of abstinence until marriage did to the global AIDS fight. It is important for us to keep a check on how our theology plays out when visiting and partnering with our brothers and sisters abroad.

In my next few posts I will focus on other complications of aid, development, corruption, and ethics and how we can reconcile the seeming inconsistencies.