It is no accident that the world's two largest and most widespread religions include a missionary imperative. Unlike faithful Hindus, Jews, Taoists, and practitioners of Shinto, Christians and Muslims are expected to carry the Good News and the Islamic call to faith, respectively, to the far corners of the world. Although they disagree on the precise nature of God's revelation and the paths to the ultimate goal, adherents in both traditions agree that their faith incorporates a missionary mandate. Far too often in both traditions, however, a narrow understanding of mission has combined with cultural imperialism and military power in ways that destroyed any witness to God's love and mercy.
Examples of missionary-related abuses abound. The history of the spread of Christianity and Islam in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas (for Christianity) is a checkered one at best. Pick a continent and study the behavior of those who came in the name of these two religions. Raw power and conquest sometimes dominated the process.
Conversion by force is often intertwined with moving stories of people whose faith and courage changed them and their communities in many positive ways. Certainly missionaries made life-changing contributions, making possible greater opportunities in health care, education, and the economy, but celebrating the positive doesn't tell the whole story. When missionary zeal is informed by absolute truth claims defining who is "saved" and what is acceptable, the propagation of religion frequently includes sinister dimensions.
The California mission system (1769-1834) as founded and developed by Father Junipero Serra exemplifies the problem. Serra's piety, courage, and commitment to evangelize Native Americans have been affirmed by his critics as well as by those who advocated for his beatification in 1988 (a formal step toward canonization as a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition). A professor of theology, Serra left Spain for the mission field of the new world in 1749. By the time of his death in 1782, he had walked some 24,000 miles through Mexico and California and established 21 Franciscan missions.
However noble his intentions, his methods and close cooperation with Spanish government and military officials were cruelly devastating to the indigenous people. The mission was, in fact, part of a larger strategy of colonization and conquest. Serra and his fellow missionaries traveled to new territories with Spanish military contingents and apparently understood themselves as agents of both God and the civil government.
Serra and others like him viewed the native population as savage heathens who had to be disciplined as children. Their version of discipline would warrant state intervention and charges of child abuse in California today. The Franciscans were convinced that cultural conversion was a prerequisite to conversion to Christianity. With righteous determination, "they went about the task of dismantling what they regarded as the backward traditional life ways, social structures, mores and values of Indian peoples." Missionaries destroyed towns, separated families, instituted slavery and economic exploitation, applied religious coercion ruthlessly, and carried out various types of corporal punishment.
George Tinker, a Native American seminary professor and pastor to Lutherans and Episcopalians in Denver, closely examines Serra and three other highly respected historical missionary leaders and concludes that they were naïve and possibly unwitting partners in genocide. Without question, the California mission is part of a larger pattern beginning with the subjugation of Aztecs and other native peoples in Mexico. Franciscans, Augustinians, and Dominicans carried the enterprise north into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Despite provisions for "protected peoples" within Islamdom, limited economic opportunities and strong social pressures proved to be compelling for many subject people over time. Like the conquering Muslims, many people were moved deeply by the message of Islam and interpreted the dramatic worldly success of this civilizational system as a sign of God's favor.