Friday, August 03, 2007

Nationals Versus Foreigners

I was reminded again this week of the division that exists between some national and foreign church workers. This schism has always been a part of the history of missions, but it seems to be growing. I don’t want to overstate the situation. Not all nationals have a negative attitude of foreigners and, in fact, those I work with treat me with respect and appreciation. However, there is an underlying tension among some national leaders who see foreigners as irrelevant and even unwanted. Sadly, some nationals have a racist and hostile attitude toward foreigners. Why? What’s the reason for this animosity of nationals toward foreigners?

HISTORY – Our missionary forefathers, for the most part, were noble God-fearing people. They went to the regions beyond for the express purpose of telling others about Christ, establishing schools and hospitals. Along with the expansion of the Gospel, however, was an attitude of paternalism. Many foreigners of the past, which is still prevalent in too many foreigners today, was the attitude that the nationals were uncivilized, dirty and lazy. The foreigners treated nationals as incapable and sometimes even as coolies for their ministries. The mistrust of nationals toward foreigners today is the result of age-old scars of paternalism.

POWER - When the marginalized become masters it’s not uncommon for them to wield power they were once denied. Money, land, decision making, prestige once held by the “white skins,” now are held by the brown, yellow and black. No longer must the nationals ask permission or beg for authority, they have it and they intend to use it. Sometimes power breeds disdain. For some nationals there is a sense of seeking justice for the wrongs committed in the past, and those with power often seek ways to even the score for the injustices of history.

In dealing with this issue of division between nationals and foreigners it’s important to look for balance as well as spiritual maturity. Neither paternalism nor nationalism can hardly be what Christ has in mind for His Church. The role of the national is and should continue to grow; after all, it is their countries. Foreign institutions need to actively release their paternalistic grip on fields they helped evangelize. Foreign missionaries need to learn their new role in today’s changing world and not act as though they are the final authority or indispensable in overseas ministry.

Likewise, the national church needs to recognize there is a role for foreigners in world missions besides just funding. Though nationals continue to berate foreigners it hasn’t deterred them from invading the foreign church seeking funding. The color white seems to be acceptable if green is involved. Foreigners can still play a vital role in missions, through technology, education and yes, even evangelism.

The tension between nationals and foreigners will remain a reality as long as man lives on this earth in his sinful and ethnocentristic state. Those who overcome these destructive attitudes understand that the Body is one and each member, though functionally different, is important for the cause of world evangelism.