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Seeking True Repentance for Western Christians’ Colonialism

Editor’s note: the following column may contain material that could be disturbing to some readers.

“I’m not a fan of Gandhi,” an Indian academic visiting the United Kingdom from Bangalore told me recently. “And I think that the complicity between colonial authorities and missionaries in my country’s history has been overrepresented.”

He is not an apologist for empire. He’s a senior academic developing a thoroughly Indian theology of mission.

He’s passionate about proving that there is nothing Eurocentric or un-Indian about Christianity, and you’d expect him, perhaps, to be the last person to defend the missionaries of the past.

But he does. Not absolutely, not uncritically, but passionately.

Here in the basement of an Oxford college, in the bowels of an archive dedicated to Baptist history, he holds the journal of William Carey – the actual journal, handwritten by the father of modern Protestant mission in 1793 – and he beams. He is holding a piece of his own history.

He is not alone. And as a white South African living in Britain and working for the organization Carey started, I certainly don’t want to speak for my Indian friend or pretend to speak for indigenous people or their churches.

But I think my surprise at his views on Gandhi is instructive as we consider colonialism and mission.

One of the reasons he disagrees with Gandhi is because Gandhi has been criticized, with some justification, as an apologist for the caste system.

Colonial authorities throughout the British Empire’s reign in India found the caste system useful in their quest to dominate and extract value from India and her people.

Colonial missionaries (not all missionaries, not universally, but significantly) wanted to challenge the caste system. To champion those under its heel.

It would be wilfully naïve to pretend that colonialism’s missionaries were all social reformers, immune to the temptations of power and exploitation inherent in colonial domination of indigenous peoples.

Mission agencies such as mine made grave errors – ethical, theological and spiritual – in allying themselves with the project of empire.

But they also brought the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. They often opposed the injustices inherent in the project. And they often brought glimpses of the kingdom of God, despite their sin.

When you travel to central Africa today, you will meet millions of Baptists who trace their heritage as churches to Baptist missionaries who came out with the colonial exploiters.

And they are grateful for the sacrifices of the missionaries who came and died, and came and died, and came and died, and did not stop coming until the gospel had taken root.

The same is true in Asia and parts of Latin America. Colonial-era missionaries are honored in thoroughly post-colonial contexts for their contributions to education, to social reform, to ending slavery and injustice.

Does this mean, as some people suggest, that the colonial project “wasn’t that bad”? No. Absolutely no. It was that bad. And worse.

And our faith and missions often were complicit. And the fact that God used something terrible to bring about something good does not change the fact that colonialism generally brought misery and destruction to human beings made in the image of God.

To suggest that the growth of the church that came from this means that colonialism was somehow acceptable is akin to suggesting that, since the crucifixion gave us salvation, governments torturing innocent people to death is “not that bad.”

For me, personally, it’s pretty close to blasphemy.

The oppression, enslavement and exploitation of people based on race or military vulnerability is never the way of the God of justice.

And the Western Christian world collectively must repent for our complicity in atrocities and national sin.

The countries we’ve made weak as we’ve enriched our own must be served, now, in mission that works in real partnership with indigenous people and their churches.

We owe them dignified financial support. We owe them whatever expertise they might ask for. And we owe them our people, again, but this time in a spirit of Christian servanthood and love.

Because colonial mission does not only exist in the past.

As globalization brings us a new imperialism of profit, colonies of multinational influence and new systems of exploitation, our mission work must be careful to learn from the past and distance itself from the destructive dynamics and behaviors they set up, always being a prophetic response to the culture of our systems and the gods of our age.

The world church is the church today. It owes its existence, to an extent, to colonial mission. But it owes the former colonial churches no debt.

We who benefit in myriad ways from colonialism’s past owe it to our sisters and brothers in the global south and the majority world not just to send our best and make a kind of restitution through sustainable and respectful development work.

We owe them our humility and our willingness to repent, to learn, to listen.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (Aug. 9). Other articles in the series are:

Why Canadian Baptist Group Apologized to Indigenous People | Terry Smith

Jonathan Langley

Jonathan Langley is Head of Creative Content at BMS World Mission and editor of Missions Catalyst magazine.