Early models of Christian evangelisation pre-supposed the disintegration of the cultures into which the Gospel was introduced. The world was perceived to be evil and unredeemed. Outside the Church, it was seen that there was no, or at least little chance of salvation.
Given this belief, evangelisation was not merely a nice thing to do, it was an overwhelming moral imperative. The alternative was to leave people in their sins, and eventually, to torment in hell.
The first evangelisation of Latin America took place in the context of conquest, domination, and destruction of ‘the other’. Some statues of the early missionaries in Latin America depict them with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.
The following are extracts from the journals of early missionaries to this continent:
“Unless you hear the divine words…God who has already begun to destroy you for your sins, will finally exterminate you altogether”. The first catechism developed on the continent between 1510 and 1521 opened with the revelation of “a great secret, which you have never known or heard: that God has made heaven and hell. In heaven are all who have been converted to the Christian faith and have led a good life. And in hell are “all of your dead, all of your ancestors, your fathers, mothers, grandparents, relatives, and all who have existed and departed this life. And you shall go there as well, unless you become friends of God, and are baptised and become Christians, for all who are not Christians are God’s enemies”.
This is followed by gruesome descriptions of hell, and idyllic ones of heaven, with the object of persuading the Indians to embrace the Christian faith. The early Jesuits in Brazil testified:
Our experience is that it is very difficult to convert the lndians by love. But as this is a servile folk, fear accomplishes all”. As a Jesuit missionary testified, “some come to ask health, others to beg that we not cause them to die, out of fear of us, as it has seemed to them that we indeed cause persons to die”.
I was living and working here in Peru at the time when Latin America was celebrating 500 hundred years since the arrival of Christopher Columbus. In order to celebrate this milestone, Pope John Paul II visited the country.
One group not so pleased by the visit of John Paul II to their country at this period of time, was comprised of indigenous people who, at the celebration of 500 years of Christianity on the continent, were lamenting the destruction of their religious beliefs and culture. This group handed a letter to the Pope and extracts were published in the biggest newspaper in the country. It read:
We the Indians of the Andes and America, have decided to take the opportunity of this visit by John Paul II to return him his Bible. In five centuries, it has bought us neither love, nor peace, nor justice. Please take your Bible, and return it to our oppressors. It is they rather than we who have need of its moral precepts. Since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, a culture, a language, a religion of Europe, have been imposed on America by force.
Upon returning to Australia at the time of our bi-centenary in 1988, I encountered similar sentiments being expressed by groups of indigenous people who were attempting to come to terms with the ongoing implications of European settlement for their cultures and religious traditions.
An Alternative Vision
God’s Reign is broader than the Church. The two are not equivalent or identical. Even though the Church strives to fulfil and reflect the Reign of God, there is an incompleteness in the relationship.
At its best, the Church is a sign and instrument of the Reign of God; witness to the way God acts in respect of the world. It is not the centre but rather, the servant of mission. The Church exists in order to do in history or the world what Jesus did in his lifetime. It is ‘mission’ which defines the Church, not vice versa.
The starting point for Christian mission and evangelisation is the truth that God has been present and active in every culture, even before Jesus and the Christian era. It is never about proselytising or convert-making. Mission is offering Christian meanings and the eternal message of God’s love, not the preservation of traditional cultural forms.
The Gospel of evangelisation is the final and fundamental substance of the Christian message, offered freely and without coercion, that has the capacity to enhance the knowledge and experience of God’s presence. The Gospel sheds light on deep human, existential and spiritual questions faced by all cultures throughout history.
This message must be free from many of the cultural accretions that, no matter how indispensable the evangeliser may find them, are not part of the essential Gospel message of love, inclusion and compassion.
…evangelisation loses much of its effectiveness if it does not consider the reality of the people to whom it is addressed…if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete lives.’
– Pope Paul VI
Evangelisation means bringing the Gospel to bear upon culture. It is culture that makes the Gospel understandable. The Gospel is ‘enfleshed’ or ‘embodied’ in a people. As dialogue happens, the Gospel takes on the flesh and blood of the culture being evangelised. It is not a church being expanded, but of the Gospel being born anew in each new context and culture.
Under most historical models of evangelization, the person being evangelized was required to give up former religious beliefs and embrace Catholicism.
Conversion does not require rejection of one’s religious belief system. Conversion is turning towards the priorities of Jesus in a radical way, accepting responsibility for the bringing of the Reign of God.
Many years ago, I attended a lecture that had a profound influence on my vision of Church and mission. The speaker was a Canadian priest who had worked in Africa for 30 years.
He said that after being ordained a priest in Canada, he immediately boarded a ship bound for Africa. He was met at the dock, given a short period of time to get his bearings, and sent to a village to begin work. As the dominant model of mission in those days dictated, the entire measure of the success or failure of his work was how many conversions / baptisms he got.
He lived with this group of people for a period of years. They loved him and he loved them. They cared for him when he was sick and struggling to come to terms with life in his new home. He told them his stories of Jesus. But at the end of five years, when he and his bishop were assessing the success of his ministry, he realised that he had very few formal conversions to Christianity.
He decided that he was perhaps in need of a move if he was going to be successful in ministry. The local Bishop agreed and organised a move for him. When he told the people of his impending move, they were very sad that he was leaving. What they said changed his whole concept of Church and ministry.
They said words to the effect of, ‘Father you should know our culture pretty well by now. You should know that for thousands of years the teaching authority and wisdom in things related to religion and spirituality, come down through the Elders. Father, you are a very young man!’ And they also said to him, ‘Father you know that in our culture a man is not considered a man until he has had his first son. Father, you don’t even have a wife!’ The priest said that hearing these and similar things from these people whom he loved and respected, marked a real Copernican change in his thinking about his ministry in this culture.
He realised that if the message and truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was going to take root in this culture, it was perhaps going to have to let go of many of the cultural trappings that came with being European or Canadian, Australian or Irish.
In Africa or anywhere, the essential core of the message of Jesus Christ is relevant and has transformative power. However, responses to this Gospel and possible subsequent expressions of Church, were necessarily going to look different from the type of Church that he had come to Africa hoping to establish. After reassessing the criteria laid down to assess his success or failure, the priest stayed on in that village for several years.
To have roots is not to be root-bound. It is the content of Christian faith, not the form in which it was originally or has been traditionally expressed, that is sacred. Specific beliefs and practices are vehicles that should be assessed, altered and, if necessary, updated, to ensure the preservation of this transmission.
Theologian Lloyd Geering maintained that the relationship between the tradition of faith and cultures has always been characterised by fluidity and dialogue:
…Jeremiah and Augustine and Martin Luther didn’t have the same beliefs at all, but they’re all people of faith, great faith, and they belong to a tradition of faith. That is why the Judeo-Christian tradition which is now some 4,000 years old, has a continuity in it, running through it, and yet it is changing to meet the needs of the cultural environment through which it is passing.
Referring further to the tradition of faith in varying contexts of time and culture, Geering uses the analogy of a river running through the fields of time gathering things from the banks as it’s going along and also dropping things and so on. What is permanent is simply the continuity of the river rather than what is in it. With the flow of the river, the water even changes.