Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cultural Circumcision

If you are a subscriber to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, you probably read it for its focus on mission history. I am particularly fond of the section “My Pilgrimage in Mission.” Everyone has a story; everyone has a pilgrimage that is interesting. For me, after thirty-four years of mission ministry, many of these stories are eerily familiar.

In the most recent IBM quarterly Howard Kurtz shares his life’s passage in missions. Though he preceded me to Africa by twenty years, some of his reflections on his naiveté, his lack of proper training, failures and re-tooling for the task is a story in which I can relate.

Kurtz, like myself, had been a pastor in the U.S. prior to going to Africa. Having pastoral experience, indeed, any ministry experience (something that is lacking in many people going to the field) CAN BE a plus. The problem with Kurtz and myself was, because we had no missiological training, our efforts in Africa were an overlay model of our home culture. Because we had no clue of worldview, clan/lineage dynamics or even a cursory study of animism, we carried on our work as though our norm was a universal given. Kurtz, admitting that forcing the Ethiopian’s missionary compound church to look and behave as his model from Oregon was a bad idea, “Through eyes of the New Testament, I was a Western-world circumcision party.”

Interesting metaphor. The Judiziers of Paul’s day insisted that Gentile converts follow the Mosaic Law, including circumcision. Paul, the first to espouse indigenization and contextualization, refused to make Jews out of Gentiles. Sadly, it was not a lesson colonial missionaries learned and even today missionaries from America, Korea, and Philippines are still a great big circumcision party, in the name of evangelism and church planting. The greatest circumcisers are denominationalism who insist that their brand of Christianity be overlaid on Hindu’s, Muslims and every other religion and people group they encounter. Though I am not anti-globalization, I cringe whenever I go to church service in the bush of Kenya or the rural areas of India and hear the same old tired English hymns and the praise ditties of the West. Short-term missionaries also contribute to the circumcision of culture as they teach subjects from a western hermeneutic without even the slightest understanding of the host culture.

The moral of the story is that in the path of pilgrimage there is a difference between a conqueror and a sojourner. One travels knowing he is just passing through; she treads lightly, but with a sense of purpose knowing that one can influence, even transform the natives of the land. The other invades with an agenda to convert. It matters not what the locals think, they must be circumcised, cut off from the old and made to bow to the new. The challenge is knowing how best to walk the journey.