stories and lessons
Kai (Sarah) Ngu wrote an interesting and thoughtful essay for the Collegeville Institutes’s Bearings called Postcolonial Faith: Grappling with the Legacy of Missionaries in My Family.
She describes thumbing through Methodist missionary magazines looking for a photo of a woman her grandmother described. This woman, according to her grandmother, had saved the family spiritually and physically. The ensuing essay is about Ngu’s complicated feelings toward this women and her impact on Ngu’s family. It is nuanced and important, as it opens the way for dialogue about how Christianity has been used to invade and dominate, and about how Christianity has blessed and uplifted. From this kind of dialogue, people can then learn and change.
I read an article for a class at Fuller about the issue of empire and mission in the book of Matthew, written by an African female scholar. It came from her book, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, by Dr. Musa Dube. She, too, bluntly addressed the domineering and imperial way Christianity invaded her country. I didn’t agree with all of her points*, and would argue that while this is the way many Christians have certainly behaved, it is not what Jesus modeled, taught, or intended. Reading from her perspective though, is important.
A specific and useful example is that when translators began putting the Bible into the local language of her people in Botswana, there was no local word for “demon.” So they used the word that meant ancestor. This, then, meant that every time Jesus cast out a demon in the book of Matthew, the Bible actually said he was casting out “ancestors.” Imagine the cultural complexity, confusing, and frankly erroneous and hurtful conclusions people might hear in those stories!
Learning these things forces me outside my own boxes and gives me new questions, different angles, and fresh perspectives. It also helps me appreciate the audience to whom the Bible was written and the people with whom Jesus associated. They were a colonized, oppressed people. Jesus’s life and teachings were radical and were directed to people whose lives looked little like mine does today.
What does all this mean?
Something I appreciated about Ngu’s essay is how she recognized the good things Christians had done for her ancestors, and that she was also able to call out and honor her ancestor’s (not her demon’s!) strength of character and courage, too. Neither needed to be exclusively denigrated, but both read within the context of the other, noticing the impact and noticing the ongoing footprint in her own life. She acknowledges that she feels both anger and gratitude toward the woman who changed the course of her family’s life.
We cannot ignore history but we don’t have to repeat it or feel indebted to it. Those of us with different histories, and on different “sides” of history, can learn from history by listening to people from all sides of it, and we learn from them what faith can look like after invasion. We let them show us new questions and fresh perspectives.
Even if you are not a person of faith or do not engage in “mission”, do you live in a country that is a former colony? Have you ever asked your friends there about their experiences or understanding of that time period, and about the impact it may or may not continue to have? How do these conversations go? What do you learn?
*I am well aware that the mere title of her book will cause some to question my faith and education. We read broadly and we read to discover, debate, and engage. We do not read only what we already think or know or agree with and we do not always change our minds by what we read. But we read.