Faith Ministry

Chinua Achebe and The Ethics of Missions

Chinua Achebe died on March 21 at the age of 82. The news of his death echoed across the world because even though he was considered the ‘grandfather of African literature,’ his writing crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries like few before him.

I had not heard of Chinua Achebe before a friend recommended his most famous novel “Things Fall Apart” (1958) to me as I prepared to move to rural Uganda this past winter. I was not aware that the novel had been translated into more than 50 languages and was regarded by many as one of the “most important books of the 20th century.” I knew it was good, but I did not know it was a book that helped change the way the world looked at Africa – and the way Africa looked at itself.

Achebe was the first to write about the arrival of European missionaries from an African perspective that reached Western ears. In “Things Fall Apart” Achebe tells the story of a man and a culture struggling to deal with aggressive European missionaries around the turn of the 18th century. With a title like “Things Fall Apart” it is not surprising that Achebe offers some telling criticisms on the ambitions of 18th century European missionaries – criticisms that we need to be reminded of today.

I read the first two-thirds of the book with modest approval. It was an interesting story of rural life in Africa, but it did not grab me; it did not ring with the label of one of the most important books of the 20th century. That was until I read the final third of the book where everything came full circle and the true consequences of an aggressive Western missionary approach came to light.

At risk of spoiling some of the book’s richness, I am going to quote in full the last paragraph of the book so that we can understand the ethical dimensions that are sometimes hidden in Western missionary pursuits. All you need to know to put the quote in relative context is that the District Commissioner, the propagator of European colonialism and mission work, found the book’s protagonist, Okonkwo, hung in a tree after Okonkwo’s life and society had essentially “fallen apart:”

“The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.” (208-209)

To compose an ethical framework or theology of missions around one passage is most certainly ill-advised, but I do think this passage provides us with a good starting point and in the end probably gets us most of the way there:

  1. Do not confuse the gospel with culture or civilization or technology.

This seems an obvious warning because the gospel is obviously not a set of customs or technologies. However, I want to point out that we are probably not as different from 18th century Western missionaries as we think. For example, look at the similarities modern day missions has to the London Missionary Society (LMS), a prominent interdenominational evangelical missionary society in the 18th century. The LMS sought to “Christianize” people and cultures around the world that did not know the gospel of Jesus Christ. This meant that they brought English customs as well as the gospel to foreign cultures. They worked with the assumption that the English had established a culture that was beneficial to the flourishing of the gospel message. At the height of LMS’s mission work by the late 18th century, England was becoming a dominant world power because the industrial revolution brought many new technologies that encouraged the English to feel as if they were the privileged and “enlightened” dispensers of truth. Unfortunately, this positive impetus was coupled with a negative feeling towards other cultures, which resulted in England imposing democracy and it’s customs on much of the developing world, like Achebe’s Nigeria.

What is most unnerving about the LMS is how similar they are to a lot of missions work today. Like civilized culture in the days of LMS, we are often very quick to provide the developing world with our privileged technologies with the hope that our generosity will help to ‘win’ people to Christ. This is a well-intentioned hope, but it also reeks of imperialism and proselytism. We are not called to technologize the untechnologized world just like the English were not called to civilize the uncivilized world. Technology is good and we are meant to be generous with it when it promotes freedom and justice, but technology – like political or social liberation – is not the gospel nor a platform for the gospel. At best technology is a reflection or outworking of the gospel. So then, what is the gospel? The person of Jesus, no more no less.

  1. Go with a posture of service and an attitude of learning.

Unlike the District Commissioner who did not want to attend to “undignified details” so that it would not “give the natives a poor opinion of him,” we must be willing to become undignified as King David himself became undignified (2 Samuel 6:22). We must be willing to serve and to learn, not just to teach and to preach. This means that we must be willing to dialogue with those who are different from us. John Stott notes that “Dialogue is a token of genuine Christian love, because it indicates our steadfast resolve to rid our minds of the prejudices and caricatures which we may entertain about other people; to struggle to listen through their ears and look through their eyes so as to grasp what prevents them from hearing the gospel and seeing Christ; to sympathize with them in all their doubts, fears and ‘hang-ups.’” (122, Christian Mission in the Modern World) If you were not already convinced of the need for proper dialogue, Proverbs 18:13 makes its necessity abundantly clear: “He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.”

  1. Do not treat people as illustrations or anecdotes for a book or for supporters back home.

This is the point that I felt most strongly convicted about when I first read “Things Fall Apart.” As a writer, it is easy to fall into the trap of viewing people as illustrations or anecdotes for a book or an article that I have stirring in the back of my mind. It is easy to “cut out the details” of people’s lives that do not fit my story or my argument. And unfortunately, when we cut out the details we often end up cutting out a person’s life entirely – as the District Commissioner did so flippantly with Okonkwo.

So, how do you approach people without making them into an illustration that remains subservient to our own story or our church’s story? I believe that this is not an issue that can be resolved, but it is an issue that we must wrestle with. For although we will never be able to do justice to a person’s life when we speak about it with others, we must be willing to do hard work to learn about the people we serve. This, however, takes time. If you are not prepared to be in it for the long haul, be very humble about the message you preach. This is especially true for short-term missions. The life of Jesus cannot be explained by quoting a few scripture verses – it must be explained by the substance and witness of our lives. This does not mean that we do not continue to preach to those who have not heard the good news of Jesus, it just means we must also be willing honour Jesus with our life, not just our words. This is the true ethic of the Christian life and the true ethic of missions.