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.
The point here is not to chastise missionaries for their inability to see beyond the contexts in which they operated. Our concern relates to the present and the future. At what points are people whose faith tradition includes a missionary imperative blind today? Can missionary efforts be pursued in healthy, constructive, and noncoercive ways? These questions loom large in a world where the world's most powerful political and military power, the United States, is predominantly Christian. They are not rhetorical in a world where substantial numbers of Muslims with enormous fiscal resources believe Islam has been subjugated for centuries and should n now reassert its role as the preeminent religious and civilizational system in the world.
Missionary activities informed by absolute truth claims that define sharply who is "in" and who is "out" continue to shape the landscape. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, specifically targets Jews, Hindus, and Muslims in the United States during their most holy days each year. Tens of thousands of zealous believers seek to convert Jews during Yom Kippur, Hindus during Diwali, and Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Mormons, Christian Scientists, and others are also considered legitimate targets in this version of spiritual warfare. The orchestrated campaign falls somewhere on the spectrum between irritating and deeply offensive. Most people I know are less than thrilled when Bible salesmen or Jehovah's Witnesses appear on their doorstep or telemarketers call during dinner.
One can easily imagine how most Christians would respond to an intrusive missionary house call form a sincere devotee of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam on Easter Sunday or Christmas Day. Well-meaning Southern Baptists might benefit from the wisdom of Jesus as articulated in the Golden Rule: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12).
In many Muslim countries, a far more oppressive system is in place, with severe restrictions placed on citizens. It is illegal, for instance, for non-Muslims to proselytize Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam's two most holy sites, Mecca and Medina, people of other faiths are not even allowed to worship in any public way. There are heartrending stories of Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere whose conversion to Christianity resulted in a death sentence, or at the very least complete abandonment by their family.
The way forward is not blocked. Christians and Muslims need not and should not abandon their core commitment to sharing their respective versions of God's good news with humankind. As intimated above, they should remember that converting others is not their responsibility. First and foremost, mission is a matter of bearing witness. Guidance on how best to bear witness is found at the heart of both traditions. The New Testament and the Qur'an both emphasize that the love of God is manifest in the ways people relate to others. Both traditions teach that human beings will be accountable on the Day of Judgment. The sacred texts include strikingly similar passages about the criteria for judgment. Jesus' teaching indicates that many will be surprised on the Day of Judgment when the Son of Man separates people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The separation is based on how people responded to others who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).
Similarly, vivid judgment scenes in the Qur'an make clear that each person's life will be fully revealed and the wealth and power on earth will provide no benefit. Those who "were not careful to feed the poor . . . [have] no advocate this day" (Qur'an 69: 13-35). Social and ethical injunctions throughout the text emphasize the importance of compassion toward the most needy and marginalized-widows, orphans, and the poor. While belief systems are important, the focus in the end is more on [practice] than on orthodoxy.
Many of the problems with missionary activities are tied to issues of power. One can often find healthy models for mission in settings where Christians and Muslims are minority communities. The ecumenical work between U.S. churches and the churches in the Middle East during the 1980s often centered on meeting the kinds of human need Jesus talked about in Matthew 25. In my experience working as a liaison between and among these churches, I discovered that Christians in the West could learn a great deal about mission from Christians in Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. People in these churches seek to meet human needs in the midst of war even as hostilities are sometimes directed at them, and their presence and witness are far more powerful than the street corner evangelism propagated by many Western Christians to this day. For many years, with the help of U.S. churches, the Middle East Council of Churches provided food, shelter, medicine, clothing, and other services to all people who were victimized by the horrific, multisided civil war in Lebanon. It was the only organization trusted by the various Christians, Muslims, and Druze who were fighting one another. The Christians with whom I worked in Lebanon took seriously the call to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Many visibly tried to live out the Golden Rule.
Muslims engaged in prison ministries in the United States provide another compelling model for responsible mission. Christian clergy and chaplains in various denominations openly acknowledge that their Muslim colleagues have been far more successful in drug and prison rehabilitation programs. Reaching out to people in dire need and providing a nurturing community for the path back to responsible life in society is a powerful form of missionary activity.
Unfortunately, many non-Muslims in the United States see only glimpses of this dimension of Islam through popular books and movies, such as the story of Malcolm X. A better understanding of the positive manifestations of Islamic mission can help offset the media propensity to focus on what is most violent and sensational. It can also help non-Muslims appreciate one reason Islam is rapidly emerging as the second largest religion in the United States.