Is It Presumptuous to Be a Foreign Missionary?


‘Do you mean to say you think it is right to go to China to make Baptists out of Buddhists?’ This was the question put to me the other day by a new acquaintance with more wit than many. But wherever I go I see the same puzzled expression in the eyes of the people I meet, and find the same very human and friendly effort to understand the workings of my oddly grouped brain-cells.

Now this attitude on the part of my compatriots can but fill me with wonder and hope. It is as if these children of Christian America were saying to me, ‘Inasmuch as re recognize our own sins and the sins of our country, how can we dare to point out the shortcomings of the Asiatics?’ And it is splendidly inspiriting to discover that, although our commonwealth may have many notable irregularities to be deplored, our people is, after all, redeemed by a very becoming modesty. Surely this in itself is a most Christian virtue.

But sometimes my mind is troubled by doubt and a disconcerting analogy keeps coming into my head. I am entering the house of a well-to-do Chinese lady to make a formal call. I have just passed through the inner courtyard where the magnolia tree blossoms, white and glorious, against the graceful gray tilework of the wall. At its feet lie old heaps of decaying vegetable-matter and broken pieces of pottery filled with stagnant water. My hostess is saying to me, ‘My house is so dirty and yours is so clean.’ Now if I had come to China recently and had not heard this remark before, I should be much embarrassed to know how to answer it. As it is, I smile politely and reply, ‘On the contrary, it is your house which is clean and mine which is positively filthy.’ This I do, knowing that a lie is a lie only when it is intended to deceive; and that this whole conversation passes not the least judgment on the relative condition of the two houses vis-à-vis to a broom. It is merely a national form of courtesy to decry one’s own possessions and praise those of others, regardless of what the actual circumstances happen to be.

The real explanation seems to me to lie in this: that America is presumptuous enough to claim Christianity as its own particular little courtyard, that it shows such an arrogance of possession that it can afford to be modest about its religion. It takes it for granted that missionaries go out to teach a kind of spiritual Americanization to the Chinese.

To me, America is not in any way identical with Christianity. I am an American of the Americans, born in Chicago of New England stock. But with due respect to the ‘land of the Pilgrims’ pride,’ I must say that in all my wanderings on the face of the earth I have never yet met an American whom I could have suspected of the ability to invent the Christian religion. It is not in our line. I had almost said, it is contrary to the nature of our American genius. Not only was the Founder of Christianity an Oriental, but He expressed Himself in the terms which could best be understood by an Oriental audience. That such a religion could have been able to naturalize itself so thoroughly upon this alien Western shore that our people have begun to feel coy about it, is the most astounding testimony to its universal human appeal.

Sometimes it happens that Chinese living in America become Christians without the mediation of the foreign missionary. Once a young Chinese student in one of our universities, a man of great social position and influence in his native city, where I have been living, wrote home to his family that he had been baptized into the Christian faith and urged them to attend the mission church to learn this doctrine. He could not explain very well by letter how this had come about and it caused considerable surprise among the missionaries.

When I came to America this year I took pains to meet this young man and question him about his experience. ‘How is it,’ said I, ‘that after seeing the social injustice, the religious incongruity, and the moral laxness of America, you are yet able to recommend our religion to your family?’

Answered this Eastern sage: ‘After investigating carefully the human conditions in this country, I have discovered that the only force which prevents it from slipping into rapid and unmitigated ruin is the Christian religion which still keeps a strong hold on the people. If therefore even Americans can be inspired by this religion, how much the more will our cultured Chinese be profited thereby?’

That seems to me to be a valid point of view, although not especially self-abasing. I wonder if I may thereafter in common justice be allowed to boast just a little about America? Seeing the evils of our country and having a predisposition to extreme statement, we have all too easily formed the habit of disparaging our own institutions. But have we seriously considered the boarding-house as an emblem of our national culture? I had never devoted much thought to that prosaic convenience until I happened to mention it one day to a group of Chinese ladies. Immediately they were all attention, plying me with question after question.

‘Do you mean that in America a private family can rent furnished rooms to strangers? Don’t the boarders carry off the bedding and other fixtures? Don’t they steal the goods from the other rooms? Can you allow them to open the front door and come in late at night? Do you say a widow with grown daughters can carry on such an enterprise without the family’s losing every vestige of reputation for decency?’

Very suggestive those questions, very indicative of the practical working out of a non-Christian society. It made me glad I came from a land where the humble boarding-house is an unquestioned daily miracle.

Whether America would have been better or worse than China if our ancestors had not become Christians, I cannot say. I rather think — worse. It is possible that a wise Providence left their conversion to the last because they did not need it so badly. And when China has become Christian, as we believe it will, whether it will be better or worse than Christian America, I also cannot say. I rather hope, better.

It is not a matter of making Buddhists into Baptists, or even into Episcopalians, which happens to be my own personal penchant. And yet we do both of these things. We cannot teach either religion or arithmetic without a form. The important thing is that we are making these people into disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. And we may well leave it to them — and Him — to work out in due Oriental leisure the final form of the Chinese Christian Church.