End Missions Imperialism Now!

by Hugh Vernon White

Hugh Vernon White was for many years an official of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

This article was published in the Christian Century, February 14, 1934. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Missions shares a struggle with the whole Christian fellowship; but there are certain points at which it is more immediate and concrete for the missionary, and for that reason the consciousness of the church is focused in his efforts. Three such issues have emerged today and demand the mature and responsible thought of the churches: (1) the relation of Christianity to other religions, (2) the relation of Christianity to the national state and (3) the relation of Christianity to the economic order.

The missionary movement has arrived at maturity, and there is urgent need that the churches as well as the missionaries take account of it. It is not that we are wiser than our fathers, but that developments of recent times have revealed the true nature of the forces which play upon the life of man. The church has expended much time and energy and more than once fought battles in the realms of belief and conduct. But all this has taken place within the limits of Christian tradition whose main features have been generally accepted, thus leaving the struggle and dispute to secondary things. But today it is those main features of the Christian faith which find themselves confronted by really challenging forces; it is the fundamental issues that are now joined, and the time has come when Christianity must become aware of its own intrinsic nature and the part it should play in the stress of elemental forces.

Missions shares this struggle with the whole Christian fellowship; but there are certain points at which it is more immediate and concrete for the missionary, and for that reason the consciousness of the church is focused in his efforts. Three such issues have emerged today and demand the mature and responsible thought of the churches: ( 1 ) the relation of Christianity to other religions, (2) the relation of Christianity to the national state and (3) the relation of Christianity to the economic order.

A century ago the missionary went out with a Christian ethic of personal and social life which was so clearly superior to many prevailing practices in non-Christian lands that those practices had to yield. Polygamy, suttee, foot-binding (I wish I could add slavery) and the cruder superstitions were evils which Christian missionaries could assail with full confidence and for which they had the remedy. But alas, today the missionary has to face ethical and intellectual demands for which there is no ready answer. Christianity must work out its strategy while it fights; it must determine its true ends and principles in the midst of struggle. The larger issues are no longer concealed behind lesser ones with only the prophetic eye to see them.

Everybody is aware of a marked change on the part of missionary leaders toward other faiths. This new attitude found expression at the Jerusalem meeting: "We rejoice to think that just because in Jesus Christ the light that lighteth every man shone forth in its full splendor, we find rays of that same light where he is unknown or even is rejected. We welcome every noble quality in non-Christian persons or systems as further proof that the Father, who sent his Son into the world, has nowhere left himself without a witness." There are tremendous implications in this frank statement; we cannot stop with it, but must go on to develop its meanings and applications. Religious bodies are prone to rest their case with verbal formulas, sometimes intentionally ambiguous in meaning, and resist any efforts to carry through to valid interpretations and application of them.

One virtue of the report of the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry is that it tries to work out explicitly the implications of this statement in both theory and practice. It may have taken the right line or it may not, but in any case it does define a meaning. It is a case of the lay mind versus the professional, the latter seeking a formula which means different things to different groups, as a basis of common action; the former saying that common action now calls for a more precise definition of principles. If anyone should seek to make such a definition authoritative, it would destroy co-operation, but to admit the need and to work with open mind toward it ought to produce far more real and deep-going unity of effort.

At any rate it is now plain that the new rapprochement between diverse religions makes it important that the church find a way to understand and even co-operate with other religious groups and individuals that will not be ambiguous and will preserve due respect for the distinctive things in Christianity. It is not mere politeness that we need, but candor and mutual respect as regards real differences.

The rise of nationalism makes acute the right relation of Christianity to the national estate. The church is confronted with the necessity of finding what that relation is and then seeking to realize it. The Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant theocracies identified Christianity with the state. Until recently the doctrine of the separation of church and state has been a fairly satisfactory one so far as the institutions of politics and religion are concerned. But beneath this formal separation has remained the fact that it is the same people, at least in part, who constitute the citizenship and the church membership. Or, more important still, religion and government both claim supreme authority over the same persons, and the Christian citizen as an individual and in fellowship with other Christians must find the principle for the adjustment of these two authorities.

Now one of the objectives of Christian missions today is the development of an "indigenous" Christianity in each country. As expressed by Kagawa, "We want Jesus Christ to take out his first and second naturalization papers in Japan." Great satisfaction has been found by missionary leaders in the national Christian churches in the orient. Yet Christianity is a universal religion; that is one of the basic reasons for the world-wide mission. Indigenous Japanese Christianity and indigenous Chinese and Indian Christianity, while being expressed in the forms of thought and culture that are Japanese and Chinese and Indian, must be something more; and so it is with American Christianity. What is that "something more," and what does it imply as to tension between the Christian fellowship and the state? An American Christianity that is not consciously something more than American cannot give any help to the younger Christian groups which are being tossed and buffeted by the surge of nationalism in Japan, China and India.

The spread of communism has forced another issue which had already begun to trouble the consciences of sensitive Christians, although we cannot say that the church as a whole has even yet taken any serious account of it. Just now Christianity is in danger of being identified with capitalism in its opposition to communism. When we are told that "communism and Christianity are in actual fact two competing systems offering to reconstruct China . . . they are two antithetic and contrasted systems, either of which will affect the whole political, social and spiritual life of the people," the question at once arises: What are the Christian correlates to the communist economic system and social practice? For communism is not only a faith and a philosophy; it is a detailed system covering all the social and economic arrangements of life. If we seek for the corresponding aspects of a Christian "system," an examination of the practices of Christian people and groups would have to answer in terms of the dominant capitalism, for it is under that system that most Christians live.

It must be said with frankness and finality that such an answer is intolerable. Capitalism is not Christianity. The opposition of Christianity to communism is not unqualified and complete. Christianity has far more affinity for some of the basic principles of communism than for the corresponding principles of capitalism. It is very easy to refute the materialistic philosophy of communism and to oppose its atheism. But a truly Christian judgment will condemn even more severely the practical atheism and materialism of a capitalistic order.

Christianity is not an economic system, but it has a faith and ideal which puts upon any system the demand that it honor rather than exploit human personality, that it operate as a technique to provide for the material well-being of all the people and not for the exploitation of the weak by the strong. We urgently need an interpretation of Christianity that will cut across both capitalism and communism and press for practical embodiment of its own reverence for personality. More important by far than an assault upon the theory of communism is the vigorous working out of Christianity’s criticism of capitalism and the development among Christian people of a Christian judgment and conscience in economics. Tomorrow on the mission field will be a happier day if this is done.

Both churches and mission forces need to see more clearly what they are primarily out to do in the work of missions. Increasingly the various boards are working together, forming common programs and uniting institutions. The list of union schools, hospitals and seminaries is already long and is growing longer. Closer consultation and co-operative planning, partly forced by the economic conditions but really expressing a trend of purpose, are making it possible to speak of a Christian world movement.

Now this does not mean agreement in theology. Such agreement does not exist, and probably never will. The co-operative effort in modern missions is significant precisely because it does bring together in common action groups which hold different doctrinal positions. From the standpoint of such cooperation the only heresy is the denial of the right of others to hold to their beliefs and share in the common task. Those who do share in it have thereby renounced that heresy.

But it does mean that there is agreement of purpose, at least in some major part of the purpose of Christian missions. What that purpose is, it is not hard to determine. Jesus reiterated it, and the life of every truly Christian missionary exhibits it. As man himself is the object of God’s love, so all things are instrumental to the service of man. Even the Sabbath, which epitomizes institutional religion, "was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." Peter’s ardent declaration of love for Jesus was thrice turned toward human service "Feed my sheep." The final criterion of judgment is: "Inasmuch as you did it [or did it not] to these my brethren, you did it [or did it not] to me." And this goes even for those who do not consider themselves his followers. Here is the boldness of the Jerusalem message: "We find rays of that same light where he is unknown or even rejected." The first Epistle of John sounds the same note: "If a man say, I love God and hateth his brother he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen." It is not necessary to multiply instances of the clear expression of this dominant principle of Christianity, but it is important to see clearly its relation to Christian missions.

It means that the central aim and purpose of missions is to serve men. All other things are accessory and instrumental to this end. The church was made for man and not man for the church; doctrine was made for man (and by man) and not man for doctrine; Jesus held himself to be the one who came to minister and not to be ministered to. The great and familiar verse John 3:16 declares the order of things in the mind of God to be the same: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son." The only mission that has a place in the world today is the mission chiefly intent upon serving men. This does not settle questions of method or theology, but it does provide a regulative principle and affirms that all the developments of church order and doctrine, as well as forms of educational and other service, are means and not ends and might be modified or abandoned without giving up the central aim of the Christian mission.

The Christian churches and missions, by adopting such an objective, will thereby renounce all exploitation of the peoples of the world in the interests of a religious system, church or doctrine and completely free themselves from the charge of religious imperialism. Such a purpose is really the unifying agreement which has been drawing together the various denominational groups; it now needs to be clearly held and announced, and the churches should throw their full and enthusiastic support back of the programs which seek to embody it.

Maturity of the missionary movement calls for an adult mind on the part of the churches in their attitude toward missionary work and results. If the indigenous church in each land means anything it means that there are likely to emerge forms and expressions of Christianity which we would not recognize as such. Are we prepared to welcome this? Can we summon devotion and enthusiasm for a sowing of the seed of Christian faith and life in other lands which does not guarantee a fruitage of doctrine, forms of worship and practical outworkings like our own? It is such a challenge that is given to our Christianity today. We must mean deeply what we say about indigenous Christianity and have a faith in the inherent power of the spirit of Christ and in the people of other lands that will prompt the most hearty support of a movement which will, when it becomes fully autonomous, produce new and differing results.

And it also means that we must throw away the time schedule. It will take centuries, not decades, to get the Christian gospel deeply into the mind and heart of China and India and Japan, as well as Africa and other parts of the world. The kind of results we want are not going to come until that gospel has found its way into the deepest springs of thought and action and has had time to grow its own forms of conscience and culture, a process which is by no means complete in our own country. We must stop asking for statistical proofs that the Christian mission is succeeding and even be a little suspicious of such proofs. We must be neither too much elated by apparent success nor depressed by apparent failure, but steadfastly seek the clearest line of human service in the spirit of Christ and the most sincere testimony to Christ himself and leave it to God to give the increase.