Christian Missions: An Attempt at Reappraisal

THE good churchmen who are building the Cathedral of St. John the Divine all unwittingly have rendered in stone an ironic comment upon the modern position of the Church. In this great pile they have placed nineteen figures, symbolizing the completed centuries of the Christian era. Up to the fifteenth they are practically all ordained servants of religion. The representatives of the eighth to the eleventh centuries are churchly warriors. But after the sixteenth century, which finds a questionable incarnation in Cranmer, not a statue depicts a man whose first interest was the Church. The representative man of the last century was not even a member of a church! In truth, the very stones cry out.

A recent effort to sketch church history by the ‘high-spot’ method has impressed upon me the growing sterility of Western church life. The book was to avoid details; to treat only the formative events. What were these in the last century? There was but one, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species — something that happened to the Church, not within the Church. (The Salvation Army and papal infallibility were too restricted in significance for inclusion.)

The plain case is that the clearest evidence the modern Church can show of its continuing right to a place among the world’s moulding factors is not in the part it is playing in so-called Christian lands, but in its foreign missions. Its foreign missionary enterprise is the contribution of the Western Church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the making of the twenty-first. Some day the Church may contribute a social gospel, substituting service for reward as a motive for society; but this is still no more than a hope. Christian missions are established, and they are affecting the structure of the world.

Then where is the Church in the West, left, if its missionary programme withers? If the Church no longer furnishes the leaders of the West, if it. lives at home in an atmosphere of small fireside concerns, what fate lies in store if this last commanding adventure loses its power?

To many it. will sound like nonsense to suggest any failure of Christian missions. If the growth of the Church continues at its present, rate in India, they will tell you, within one hundred and twenty-five years that empire will be at least nominally Christian. That is much less time than it. took to win the Roman Empire! The Protestant churches claim to be increasing in membership at a more rapid rate in China than in any other part of the world. And the missionary societies, as they appeal for funds, explain that their needs are the result of success and not of failure.

Yet at this moment, when missionary statistics tell their most encouraging story, it is idle to deny an increasing dissatisfaction. If the percentage of increase among Chinese Protestants is large, it is pointed out that it does not equal one new church member per paid worker per year. If there have been large accessions in India, it is admitted that there are ten men deriving inspiration from the life and message of Jesus for one who joins the Christian Church. And the suspicion of, and even opposition to, Christian missions to be found in the West is not wholly to be interpreted as lack of sympathy for the goal in view.

As an example, take the case of W. Somerset Maugham. In a single season Mr. Maugham has staged East of Suez, inspired Rain, and published On a Chinese Screen. In each will be found an observer’s derogatory reference to certain phases of Christian missions. It is not enough to accuse Mr. Maugham of antimissionary prejudice. His accusation is, in essence, that Christian missions, like the Christian Church in the West, have come to occupy themselves with the nonessential. And that accusation, if it could be supported, would spell doom. Fortunately, except in unrepresentative cases, it cannot be supported.

I think it can be proved that the work of Christian missions in the past has been well done. From the time of Saint Paul to that of Livingstone, the men who left home to ‘preach the Gospel’ saw of the travail of their souls and were satisfied. Of course they were satisfied, for preaching the Gospel was precisely what the situation demanded.

(Perhaps it should be said, by way of an aside, that when these missionaries of the past found their path blocked by unusual conditions, they did not hesitate to turn from a direct preaching to other tasks. It is astonishing in how many cases this took place, from Ulfilas and Cyril with their alphabetmaking, to Livingstone with his exploring and his fight against the slaver.)

What was this Gospel that these pioneers preached? Simply expressed, it built on three truths. It taught a universe ruled by a Father-God, with love as its unifying element. It taught that the welfare of every human is of supreme importance to this God. And it taught that freedom from all that is base and life on the highest conceivable level become attractive and possible through the worship of this God as He has been revealed in Jesus.

To teach these truths Christian missionaries found it necessary to give battle to the conception of a universe ruled by numberless nonethical deities, to the conception of society that refused dignity to every human unit, and to irresponsible standards of living. That was the first job that needed to be done. Preaching was the direct means to doing it. Men went out, as Vachel Lindsay says, to

. . . slay the subtle gods of Greek delight,
And dreadful Roman gods, and light the world
With words of flame.

It hardly needs to be said that the task of the Christian missionaries of the past is still of basic importance to the world, and a long way from completed. And there can be no theory of Christian missions, in the twentieth or any other century, that does not include this familiar form of effort.

Any reappraisal of Christian missions, therefore, does not ask whether the preaching of the Gospel in nonChristian lands is a task that must be attempted, but rather whether it is the only task, and whether it is the task that the missions most need to do. It is trite to talk about a new era and a new world. I cannot see, however, that the Christian churches or their agencies, the missions, have more than an academic appreciation of this changed situation. If they had, it is certain that they would be readjusting their programmes to easily discernible facts.

The chief of these facts is this, that the increase of the acknowledged Christian community is being held back, not by any lack of attention to the preaching in non-Christian lands, but by a lack of evidence that the Gospel can be, or is being, applied to the ills that threaten the life of the world. An intelligent native of a non-Christian country is more often than not ready to admit the high ethical level of the Christian Gospel, while he holds Christians either blind to denials of those ethics, or actively engaged in flouting them. And he stands aloof from Christianity until it meets the ancient test, ‘Physician, heal thyself!’

Mohammed Ali, the leader of the nationalist Moslems of India, not long before he became a prisoner was talking with a bishop friend of mine.

‘I have nothing against missionaries,’ he said. ‘I have nothing against Christian preaching. It is only the “Amen” to which I object!’

Naturally the bishop asked what he meant by the ‘Amen.’

‘Why,’ explained Mohammed Ali, ‘I mean the gunboat that points its cannon ashore while the missionary is preaching, and at the end says, “Boom — Amen!”’

The last century has contained instance after instance, in the Far East, in the Near East, in Africa, and in the islands of the sea, in which the preaching of the Gospel has seemed to the natives only preliminary to political or economic outrage. Sometimes the two have gone hand in hand. Not soon will educated Chinese forget that the charter under which the Christian missionary operates in his land was a part of that same Treaty of Nanking that legalized the importation of opium. So it is that these peoples wonder in bewilderment why the bodies that proclaim their devotion to the setting-up of the rule of God can be content with the individual type of missions, while sins that give the very Christian concept of God the lie grow luxuriant.

The sins that Christianity must face to-day are not only the sins of Greece and Rome. The old sins are still with us, but there are sins, international sins, so pervasive that they cannot be dealt with on any limited, individual scale. So long as these sins survive, any talk of success for Christian missions is clear futility. What are they?

There is political injustice. It is a sad story, this tale of the political relations of West and East. The deeper you go into it, the more sordid it becomes. And if any American thinks he has reason why he may stand erect in the presence of English or German or French or Russian publicans, and thank God he is not as other men, let him read again the conclusion to which Tyler Dennett comes after writing 707 pages of evidence on Americans in Eastern Asia: ‘No nation has escaped the valid charge of bad faith. The guilt of all parties being clearly proven, it has seemed profitless to continue the discussion of guilt with a view to determining the relative degree of wickedness. Each nation, the United States not excepted, has made its contribution to the welter of evil which now comprises the Far Eastern Question.’

Two or three years ago an American official of the Young Men’s Christian Association revisited his former field of service in Shanghai. A public reception testified to his popularity. The following morning the first premier of the Chinese Republic, American-educated but not a Christian, told that he had asked the guest of honor: ‘How do you explain the fact that it remained for a “heathen” nation to refuse to sign the most immoral treaty in history?’

Then there is economic exploitation. The ruthless manner in which the ancient handicrafts of India were destroyed to favor the mill-owners of England is a matter of parliamentary record. And the tale of the developing industrial life of India, China, and Africa is being written in blood. Western business demands, and secures, all sorts of governmental exemptions and favors to ensure its profits when it goes abroad. And again and again, when there, it follows a policy of inhuman hours and starvation wages that is sowing the wind against the future.

It is probable that the West thinks of Sir John Bowring — when it thinks of him at all — as the man who wrote

In the cross of Christ I glory
Towering o’er the wrecks of time.

But the East remembers him as the indefatigable diplomat whose labors contributed so much to the legalization of the opium traffic in China.

Surely, he did what he did at the behest of his Government and probably in opposition to his own desires. And his Government moved at the behest of the opium merchants of India.

Even more devastating is racial prejudice. The man who thinks this issue just a stalking-horse for Oriental politicians is of all men most deceived. We may try to cover it with a ‘whiteman’s-burden ‘ sentimentalism or a Nordic-great-race pseudo-science, but the tinted races are determined to stand erect in our presence. If we plant a ‘model settlement’ in Shanghai, let us not think that we can make the exclusion from public parks of Chinese and animals not on leash a part of the model, without paying a penalty.

A writer in the Manchester Guardian shows how this affectation of racial superiority is storing up trouble in India. On the railways he found plenty of examples of the young Englishman ‘suffering from swelled head,’ who ‘thinks swagger and bad language will enhance his importance in the eyes of the coolies he is dealing with.’ ‘These young foremen, just out from home, they’ll ruin all,’a veteran testified. ‘They think themselves God Almighty, and they think the natives are all coolies, though there are men all round’em that could put’em in a bandbox and hush ‘em to sleep there.’

Finally, there is the devotion to material standards of success. The nonChristian lands have not all been, nor always been, contemptuous of the material. Witness China. But they have been becoming profoundly suspicious of the materialism of the West, and the war has confirmed them in their suspicions. The distrust of Japan, where Western materialism has most conquered, by other countries of the Orient is of vital significance.

The ‘New-Tide-of-Thought’ movement proclaims this from the housetops in China. Gandhi personifies it in India. That leader of three hundred millions is reported to have declared: ‘If I could say the word that would make India free to-morrow, and have her under the same sort of civilization that England has, I would keep silence.’

This is the sort of international sin that most grievously besets the future — political injustice, economic exploitation, racial discrimination, material standards of success. Christian missions, if they mean to make the world truly Christian, must deal with these.

To deal with these sins will require an entire change of missionary method. It will cost enormously, compared to the cost of the present type of missionary enterprise. If funds lack, it may be necessary to leave the work of preaching almost entirely to the native churches, which have already shown promises of power. That might not prove the catastrophe it at first glance appears. But the piercing requirements of the larger task to which the missions would then be committed would go far toward cleansing and reviving the inner life of the churches of the West.

For they would then take the best of this magnificent young life, which they now attempt to enlist for the old type of work, and send it out to the world’s spots of need to locate, describe, and checkmate these international sins. Organizations would be established for study of world conditions that would far exceed in scope and rigor the foundations that have been established by private wealth. The sins of the nations would be detected and denounced while being committed, and the call to repentance would be made without regard to nationalistic fetishes.

It is impossible to think of Christians carrying this huge undertaking to success as hundreds of unrelated units. They might try; they could not succeed. Some method of surmounting denominational distinctions would have to be found. So the benefits of this new type of missions would not be confined to non-Christian lands.

Will the churches consider any such radical readjustment of their missionary programmes, giving as much attention to checkmating international sins fostered by supposedly Christian lands as to seeking converts in other hemispheres? Not without a struggle. If a canvass of Church leaders could be taken this year, I do not doubt that they would almost unanimously vote against any such suggestion. But events may force the change.

The young Christians, who must man the missionary army, are not content with the old programme. The inside story of the way in which important elements in the last International Student Volunteer Convention showed their impatience with the ‘old reliable’ leadership is not yet told.

The Christians of these other lands are not content. ‘ What chance is there to win Tientsin to Christ,’ asked a Chinese pastor, ‘while troops from a Christian nation remain in possession of a part of the city illegally seized?’

Thinking Christians are not content. Sherwood Eddy used to spend his time preaching individual conversion to individual sinners. He did it in every land, and he was called a leader among Christian missionaries. Now he spends a large part of his time preaching international conversion to international sinners. And he does this because he actually has become a leader among Christian missionaries.

Unescapably the fact looms up that Christian missions will make this shift of objective, or they will just peter out. They are doing this in many countries now. Not Christianity — but Christian missions. Time was when Duff’s schools in India, and the mission schools of Korea, Japan, and China were the controlling schools of those lands. It is not so now. Time was when the mission doctors were the unchallenged leaders in the medical profession. Not now. Time was when the commanding Christian preacher was the missionary evangelist. Not now. Christian missions, the method by which Western Christians contribute to the world’s salvation, will pass; we watch the process.

This readjustment to a new campaign is not a minor matter. For either the churches of the West will make the readjustment, and find themselves once more engaged upon an enterprise of vigor and significance, or their bid for a place among the world’s moulding forces will end in a formal sterility.