In Africa, the missionary tables have turned

Hey, the Africans are trying to impose their culture on us!

That's what Episcopalians in the United States are saying about last month's summit in Tanzania, where global Anglican leaders urged Americans to bar homosexuals from becoming bishops and to stop blessing same-sex unions. As The New York Times reported, Episcopalian leaders – who now face a Sept. 30 deadline to comply – condemned "meddling" foreigners for "imposing their culture and theological interpretations on the American church." (The US Episcopal Church is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion.)

In a sense, the Americans are right. Episcopalians in this country shade to the left, in theology as well as politics, while their African brethren tend to be more conservative. So it's not surprising that the African leaders would oppose gay marriage, or that they would demand that the entire Anglican Communion do the same.

But here's what is surprising, in light of history: It's the Africans who are imposing on the West, not the other way around.

For nearly 500 years, Christians from Europe and the Americas tried to foist their own language, culture, and religion upon Africa. But in the past few decades, the tables have turned.

To understand why, we need to return to the era immediately following World War II. As anticolonial movements swept Africa, sympathetic Western missionaries began to question the arrogant and ethnocentric assumptions that had marked so much Christian effort on the continent.

Decrying prior campaigns to "civilize" the Africans, liberals from the West substituted the language of culture. Every people had a culture, the argument went; no culture was inherently better or worse than another, hence Westerners should take special care to respect and even defend the cultures they encountered in Africa.

But how could you preserve African culture, even as you converted Africans to your own religion? For some missionaries, the answer lay in new syncretic forms of worship that fused indigenous traditions to Christian doctrine. For many Western liberals, however, the rise of the culture concept cast the entire missionary endeavor into doubt.

"We questioned what right we have to intervene in the education of people of another culture, and what our motives are in desiring to intervene," wrote two Catholic missionaries in 1973, whose letters I unearthed during research for my recent book on America's overseas teachers.

"Do we want to 'domesticate' the people in one way or another, make them like us, convince them to adopt our culture?"

The question contained its own answer. To shed their ethnocentric baggage, indeed, liberal Americans increasingly abandoned the term "missionary" itself. One mission renamed its project "overseas service"; other missionaries simply called themselves volunteers, echoing the Peace Corps and other secular agencies. "The very word 'missionary' calls up notions of superiority," explained another missionary who appears in my book.

And in an era of culture, that was the one thing nobody wanted to be. Into this breach stepped a confident new generation of conservative missionaries, seeking to convert new souls to Christ. Conversant with African history and traditions, they did their best to couch their message in culturally appropriate terms. But they never wavered from the message itself: Jesus is Lord and Scripture is literal Truth.

Today, scholars estimate that between 80 and 90 percent of Westerners who call themselves "missionaries" hail from a conservative or evangelical church. And they have done their job well. That's why African Christians stand so far to the right of their brethren in the West, on a host of religious and cultural questions: abortion, gay rights, female priest ordination, and more.

And that's why they're starting to evangelize the West, to the chagrin of many. The battle inside the Anglican Communion is only the first of many struggles that we can expect in the next few years, pitting conservatives from the developing world against liberals in the West.

For almost half a millennium, many Christians from the West told the rest of the globe how to think, behave, and believe. Now, for the first time, they are becoming the target – not the source – of missionary efforts. For liberals, especially, it might take some getting used to.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century." This piece first appeared in the New York Post.

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