Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Not To Do Missions

A particular Central Asian country with a religious population made up, primarily, of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, constitutionally allows Protestant and Evangelical Churches to register with the government and operate free of charge. No fees and no taxes are to be levied. Corrupt government officials, however, demand bribes from these Churches for registration, as well as other rights and privileges. With little money and high moral standards, the indigenous Evangelical Church refuses to pay the bribes, trying to influence the government to follow the constitution and allow the Church to do what they have every political right to do, i.e., to register and operate freely.

A particular missions-minded, non-Central-Asian Evangelical Church is doing Church planting in the aforementioned Central Asian country. These missionary Church planters are paying the unconstitutional bribes demanded by the corrupt government officials as they organize and operate new Churches. The corrupt government officials now believe that the Evangelical Church is able to pay a bribe and will, eventually, violate their moral standards and do so. The indigenous Church leaders are told that the missionary Church planters are paying the bribe and so they can/should/must, as well. The actions of the non-Central Asian missionaries are having a hugely negative political impact on the indigenous believers, resulting in even more hardships than those they already have to bear.



tech.samaritan said...

Just a side cultural note: when a government official demands fees for something that does not require fees, it is extortion, and the corruption is not in the extorted, but the extortionist. This is not bribery.

While it rubs our Western cultural sensibilities the wrong way to pay unnecessary and unfair fees, sometimes our stubbornness against culturally acceptable indigenous practices is seen as pride and arrogance, not moral purity. Yes, it is humiliating to submit to unfair practices, but not wrong. Is it not more Christian to accept such unfairness for Christ's sake than fight against it?

eric O said...

Point taken about the difference between bribery and extortion.

Nonetheless, it is clearly a violation of Biblical and general ethics to practice extortion. The indigenous believers realize this and, in an attempt to encourage their government to follow its own laws, allowing them to freely register and operate, have taken a stand against the corruption. It is absolutely praiseworthy for them, on the basis of their own convictions and for the moral progress of their own government, to refuse to participate in the extortion. They are being a witness in their culture that there is a divine moral standard by attempting to abide by it.

That said, I put no blame on the indigenous believers who do participate in the extortion. As you state, the blame is on the shoulders of the corrupt government officials for the extortion. Sometimes the extortion is so great that it is impossible to live without participating in the extortion. Governments can be that corrupt.

My point, however, was that while the indigenous believers were taking a Christian, moral stand against the corruption, non-indigenous missionaries entered the country and undermined their attempts to take such a stand by giving in to the extortion. This caused the corrupt government to ignore the praiseworthy, political stand of the indigenous believers and extort them all the more. Far from blaming the indigenous believers for "rubbing my Western cultural sensibilities the wrong way," I blame the non-indigenous missionaries for thwarting the efforts of the indigenous believers to be salt and light to the world. The indigenous believers were trying to politically influence the world for good, the non-indigenous missionaries pulled the rug out from under them.

Finally, it is one thing to endure unfair practices, it is another thing to attempt to influence local government officials to abide by their very own constitution when it is in your power to do so. If the extortion was built into the political system the story would be different, although still not void of the possibility of political activism. But the state government theoretically allows for the free exercise of religion (good), while the local officials practice extortion (bad). The believers are fighting against it. The temple was instituted by God to facilitate proper worship (good). The money changers in the temple in Jesus' day had turned worship into a business (bad). Jesus fought against it. Paul was a Roman citizen and had the right to a fair trial (good). The Roman soldiers in Acts 22 were about to torture him without a trial (bad). Paul fought against it.

I think it perfectly Christian for the indigenous believers in the Central Asian country to stand for the lawful application of their constitution, which is honorable on the point of religious freedom. I think it a shame that non-indigenous missionaries have compromised that indigenous stand.