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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Pearl Buck received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938.

“Is There A Case for Foreign Missions?”  That was the title of a speech delivered by the writer, Pearl Buck, for a packed gathering organized by the Presbyterian Church in November 1932.  Buck, in summarizing four decades of experience as a missionary kid, wife and teacher in China, was grappling with the deeply problematic inheritance she had received- namely, the notion that Christian missionaries were righteous purveyors of civilization, charged with enlightening a backwards Chinese people.

Pearl bore witness to what she had seen: “I have seen the missionary narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant.  I have seen missionaries…so lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving, so scornful of any civilization but their own, so harsh in their judgments upon one another, so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people, that my heart has fairly bled with shame.  I can never have done with my apologies to the Chinese people that in the name of a gentle Christ we have sent such people to them.”

Years earlier, when Pearl had been asked to give a talk to missionary trainees in Nanjing, China, she had given advice that remains deeply relevant for the missional church in our time: “‘Don’t mistake a psychological complex for religious emotion or divine leadership…Don’t mistake a wish of your own for the will of God, nor hurt vanity…for a call of duty to persist in your own way.'”

Instead, Pearl advised her students, in the words of biographer Hilary Spurling, “to cultivate a sense of humor and proportion; to recognize the notion of a single, fixed, unalterable truth as superstitious absurdity; and never to be deluded into operating on anything less than an absolute equality: ‘We simply cannot express the Gospel with any force if we have hidden within us a sense of racial superiority…We are no better than anyone else, any of us.'”

We are no better than anyone else, any of us.

Pearl’s cautionary words here are a helpful antidote to the most subtle displays of religious chauvinism, whatever the “mission field” (be it a faraway land or right here at home). The whole “proud-to-be-a-Christian” mantra that can accompany more aggressive displays of evangelicalism in my own country is deeply suspicious.  One need not be ashamed of one’s faith in order to recognize the slippery slope here.

In an article four years later, titled “Is There a Place for the Foreign Missionary?,” Pearl concluded that missionaries’ often summary dismissal of Chinese philosophy and culture made their position “untenable” (Spurling’s term): “More insidious in its pessimism is…the question of whether anyone has the right to impress upon another the forms of his own civilization, whether these forms are religious or not.”

Wise and prescient words from someone qualified to deliver them.

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