This Site’s Views on Missionary Work
I’m afraid that I am far too well aware of the impact of missionary work on peoples and on their languages to be able to approve of it. My resources are not intended to support such work: indeed I would be dismayed if they were used to contribute to it in any way. Honest missionaries – as I trust the vast majority of you are – will respect my wishes and values, held as strongly and deeply as yours, and not consult my webpages.
Of course, I have no intention whatsoever of causing offence to anyone, and earnestly hope my comments on this issue will not be taken personally, which is not how they are meant at all. All the same, I do want to be very clear on this.
Please note also that the views expressed on this page are purely my own personal ones, and do not represent any official views or policy of any organisation which may at any time host this site or link to it.
Some people who feel broadly neutral about this issue may be surprised that I take such a strong stance on it. Aren’t missionaries generally nice people who are trying to do good? Of course, I know a number of them, and yes, that does apply to many of them. The real issue, though, is not whether they try to do good, but what their activity actually ends up doing to indigenous communities in reality. Like me, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise on this one…
If, like very many of the people who send in comments on my website, you support my position, you’ll doubtless find what follows self-evident. You might be interested to see examples of some of the effects of missionary activity in a village in the Andes or more generally on Indigenous Political Movements, or more specifically how missionaries are damaging work to promote the Andean languages – for this see Cerrón-Palomino (1992), particularly endnote 1. But otherwise your time would probably be better spent going back to the rest of my website.
In fact I sometimes wonder myself what on earth a debate like the one below is doing on a Quechua website. However, since I have had emails from occasional people who find this position of mine disappointing, and completely misunderstand me, thinking that I am not open to new ideas or to different viewpoints, I have been moved to justify myself to those people. So just in case you do get that impression, please do me justice and read what I have written below to explain why I hold to this position of mine so firmly.
For a first reality check, here is something that may come as a shock to many neutral readers, as it did to me when I first realised it. There is an organisation which calls itself the Summer Institute of Linguistics (sil, or in Spanish the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, ilv), associated also with a website that classifies the world’s languages, called the Ethnologue. The very names they have chosen for themselves are indicative of the fact that these two organisations deliberately misrepresent themselves – so much so that it took me several years to realise who they really were. They deliberately play down and even hide the fact that their fundamental goal is not linguistic research.
If you look hard enough though, you will find out what these two organisations are in reality. Essentially they are American evangelical missionary movements whose real goal is to translate the Bible into as many of the world’s languages as they can (the Ethnologue’s categorisation of languages includes notes of whether their speakers are or are not ‘evangelised’). Whatever you think of the merits or demerits of that goal is not even the real point here. It is the fact that these movements so deliberately avoid coming clean on who they are and what they are trying to do. Why on earth? This alone cannot help putting even the neutral reader at considerable unease. And this is not just institutional: I have also had first‑hand experience of a number of missionaries in the Andes who ‘did not speak their name’, and presented themselves simply as ‘linguists’, when in reality what they were there for was conversion, not linguistics.
Far, far worse accusations have actually been levelled at the so‑called Summer Institute of Linguistics. I have no idea about these, or whether they are true or not, and I have no comment to make on them at all. I know of them only because somebody put a link to this page of mine from the Wikipedia entry on the sil, which mentions some of those accusations (remember, anyone is free to edit Wikipedia pages, so you have to make your own mind up on what is said there).
First of all, note that I am generally very open to new ideas and to different viewpoints and cultures – otherwise I would hardly have spent much of my life travelling around the world to meet peoples of different cultures and to learn their languages, let alone produced this website. Indeed, it is actually precisely because this is so important to me that I cannot respect the self-appointed conviction of missionaries that they (hmmm, how come just them?) have some divinely-given right to meddle in cultures different to their own.
It is self-evident that everyone – including me, you, and missionaries – just happens to have been brought up in his/her own particular culture, within its particular set of beliefs. What makes any one of these, anyone’s particular set of beliefs, necessarily the only universally true ones, rather than those of dozens of other cultures and religions? Nothing does – however comfortable it might make certain members of each particular ‘clan’ feel to see the world in just those terms that make them think they are specially ‘right’. Of course it is not that they are objectively, demonstrably right, it’s just that they happen to think they are (or ‘believe’ so, as they might prefer to say).
How is it that they can convince themselves that they – how come just they? – just happen to be the lucky ones who know the ultimate truth, and that it is good and right of them to believe in that? It is only the preconceptions of their own upbringing, and the fact that of course it’s very convenient and comfortable to believe in a self-delusion when it helps reassure yourself that you, yes specially you, are divinely ‘right’.
I see nothing commendable in making the ‘leap of faith’ – the idea that it is a good in itself just to ‘believe’, in something which can’t be shown to be true. I find it particularly telling, and distasteful, that these are almost always beliefs which, most conveniently for those who do ‘believe’, just happen to give them a sense that they are in some way specially ‘right’, or ‘chosen’ to know the absolute truth, not revealed to other poor people who are unenlightened, gone astray, or just wrong. (Missionaries have even coined a special word to describe such poor people: they are the ‘unevangelised’ peoples.)
Most responsible, respectable people rightly condemn self-delusions like this as unjust and potentially dangerous and evil. It is precisely the same sort of readiness to believe in something unsubstantiable and self-flattering that leads to such ‘beliefs’ as racism, sexism, and so on. It is only religion, though, that has, most disingenuously, managed to elevate this self-flattering delusion into a virtue, the one it calls ‘faith’. (Well it would, wouldn’t it, otherwise it couldn’t perpetuate itself.) The same faith that enables fanatics to justify to themselves the most horrendous deeds that have gone with religion through the ages, and still do today.
Now of course I’m hardly suggesting that the average missionary is an unjust fanatic. The vast majority of missionaries I have met are clearly genuinely and deeply concerned for the well-being of the people they are trying to convert or ‘shepherd’. But I cannot find in any way laudable their conviction that their religion is more ‘right’ than that of the people they try to convert – no more so than any other unsubstantiable, self-flattering ‘faith’ such as “my skin colour is better than yours”. Above all, I cannot see that missionaries’ personal and quite unsubstantiable beliefs give them some special right to interfere, as if they and their way of living were necessarily better than other people who therefore need their help and need ‘converting’. The self-righteous arrogance of such convictions is simply mind-boggling to the rest of us.* I for one am not going to argue that modern Western evangelism is an all-round more laudable way of living than traditional Andean culture. Indeed, in my experience the most genuine, honest, ‘good’ people I have met in the Andes have typically been those in the remotest villages, thankfully untouched by evangelisation of any sort, and remaining closest to the instinctive solidarity and reciprocity that were once so deeply engrained in native Andean culture.
Now of course it wouldn’t bother us so much if all that missionaries achieved was to substitute one set of religious beliefs for another. But while that may be all that they themselves intend to do, the problem is that whether they want it or not, in practice that is very far from the only consequence of what they do. Missionary activity has always, throughout history, ended up accelerating the erosion and eventual destruction not only of indigenous religious beliefs, but of indigenous culture and identity much more widely, including their languages. Missionary activity is just another brick in the wall, and can have a much wider psychological impact on indigenous peoples than missionaries seem to realise, destroying more of their own culture and hastening complete assimilation to mainstream, imported Western culture.
It is hardly a set of beliefs that originate in the Middle East several thousand years ago, and that were brought to the Andes by the Spanish conquistadors, that will help Andean peoples to a stronger sense of respect for their own culture and identity.
Missionaries would also do well to bear in mind the realities behind what they see as their ‘success’ (counted in converts). For this is achieved in a context where they too are exploiting the relative weakness and lack of self-confidence of indigenous cultures when faced with socially dominant and more prestigious cultural traits brought in from outside (of which religion is one). Why do so many missionaries prefer to leave Western countries, where there are still plenty of people whose “souls they could try to save”? Because people at home are harder to convert, because they’re already wise to the missionaries’ real objectives, and don’t come from a culture that is of relatively weaker standing than that of the missionaries, and therefore less able to resist the pressure and attractions of an outside culture. (Don’t forget, too, that U.S. evangelists in particular come armed with sometimes hefty financial support from donations from home, which can represent very significant sums of money in the context of a poor Andean village.)
For an example of some of the effects of missionary activity in a village in the Andes, click here.
I would call on all missionaries to think long, hard, and not self-centredly about this: how come it is just you, and your particular brand of religion, that happen to be right, rather than all the myriad others in the world? And I would call on them truly to respect other cultures, and beyond going to see what you can learn from them, don’t try to change them to be more like you, and just leave them alone. (If you think I’m being unfair and you really want a debate on the ‘right’ to seek to change other cultures, click here.)
I am delighted to get emails from people all round the world, it’s one of the great pleasures of my running this website. But not from anyone who thinks he/she – or anyone – has some God-given right to meddle in other cultures. If you do, then I simply cannot share your premises, which for me defeat the whole object of being open to others. Some people have emailed me to try to change my views, but if you don’t share the ground rules in truly respecting the diversity in cultures and views that I love, and not trying to change them to yours, then I’m afraid there is simply no point in my reading emails from you. It’s just not worth either my time or yours, so I might as well delete straight away any emails from missionaries (and others who share their outlook) … and so I do.
I repeat that of course I mean no offence to anyone: that too would be counter to what I stand for. Nonetheless, I simply cannot consider worthy of respect missionaries’ self-centred self-assurance that they have a ‘divine right’ to do what they do, and that they are somehow right, when the rest of the world isn’t – and all this not because they actually are demonstrably right, but just because they personally happen to believe they are.
Answers such as I’ve had from missionaries in the past, such as “I know I’m right to do this because it was Jesus himself who told me to”, hardly convince the rest of the world’s population. For a start, we do not share missionaries’ belief in who Jesus was. And it is only missionaries who are so arrogant and self-deluding as to believe that they are so special as to have some privileged access to Jesus, and that Jesus has specially chosen them. For the rest of the world, what’s really going on in the missionaries’ minds is pretty obvious to us: they are suffering from a self-flattering figment of their own imagination, but one that’s very convenient because it helps them feel like they’re special and real do-gooders. We just wish all those genuine and nice people would just snap out of it and stop contributing, however unwittingly, to the accelerated destruction of Andean culture and identity.
I have personal experience that this is the effective impact of missionaries’ activities in the Andes. However well-meaning they may be, I simply cannot accept or respect the premises on the basis of which they set out in their self-appointed ‘mission’. Experience of conversations and emails with missionaries has shown me that if we can’t agree on the premises, then unfortunately debate is effectively futile; my time is much better spent on expanding and improving the content of my website, so if you’ll excuse me I will now go and get back to doing that.
An Example of the Effects of Missionary Activity in a Village in the Andes
The only reassuring aspect of the missionaries’ ‘success’ is that as often as not it’s actually them that are being taken for a ride instead. Many of their converts are not daft, and are happy to change the religious ‘club’ that they nominally belong to if it can get them some tangible practical benefits. Catholicism, this brand of Evangelism, that brand of Evangelism, what do they care? It is not unusual to see tiny towns in the Andes with churches for a panoply of half a dozen different evangelical sects or more.
Still, the dangers are very real, not least the dangers of fragmentation. Go to Incahuasi (Inkawasi), one of very few last endangered bastions of Quechua in northern Peru, and speak to the locals there. As soon as they heard that I was a linguist, their response was “Ah, you mean a missionary?” Why did it take me so long to persuade them that I really wasn’t? Why could they not simply just take me at my word and trust me? Because they were too used to people arriving and deliberately, misleadingly describing themselves as linguists, but who eventually revealed their true colours as missionaries.
If missionaries’ motives are so righteous, why do they feel they can’t be open about them? And this is hardly an isolated case. I came across this same suspicion repeatedly throughout the Andes. Indeed such disingenuousness, bordering on dishonesty, is all but institutionalised in some missionary organisations, as far as I can tell. Take the Ethnologue and the associated so-called Summer Institute of Linguistics (sil, or in Spanish the Instituto Lingüístico de Verano, ilv). Among linguists these organisations are well-known for deliberately trying to play down and even hide the fact that their fundamental goal is not linguistic research – for them that is but a means to their real goal, which essentially bible translation and conversion. Their funding, likewise, seems to come essentially from religious organisations.
Once I had finally overcome the suspicion that the locals in Incahuasi had learnt from the missionaries, to gain their trust that I was simply telling the truth, there came an outpouring of laments about the impact of missionary activity in their village. The missionaries had succeeded in converting a fair proportion of the population, and by doing so had shattered its cultural unity and identity (desperately needed in the face of the very real threat of the extinction of their language). One significant result of the missionary activity, for example, had been to subvert and undermine the traditional village fiestas, frowned upon by the Evangelists missionaries because they involved drinking. And this in a village with – up to now – one of the most unique survivals of any aspect of indigenous Peruvian culture: the takiy, a ritual song some of whose verses are in the Mochica language, extinct for many decades and living on only in the lyrics of this song. Neither language nor religion can be treated in isolation from the larger question of indigenous culture and identity. The more you assimilate one or the other, the more likely the rest is to follow.
An Example of the Effects of Missionary Activity on Indigenous Political Movements
On a general level, one of the few strengths of indigenous communities that has allowed them to hold their own in the Andean countries has traditionally been their unity and common sense of identity and purpose (as evidenced, for example, in communal work traditions such as mink’a). It is widely recognised (certainly not just by linguists!) that missionary activity typically ends up shattering this unity and common identity. This is because the each community ends up split into two groups, those who do convert to the missionary’s beliefs (any of a large number of minor evangelist Protestant denominations), and those who don’t, and stick to the beliefs they grew up with (normally this means – at least nominally – Catholicism, though often actually mixed to a greater or lesser extent with what survives of original Andean beliefs). As just one example of how this weakens the indigenous voice in their native countries, here’s a quote from the leading French newspaper Le Monde (13th July 2006, page 17 – my translation from the original French).
“Religion is one of the problems facing the indigenous people”, explains Carlos Chimborazo, director of La Prensa, the Riobamba daily newspaper. “It’s one more divisive factor on top of a number of others, like regional differences or ideological choices. Pachakutiq [the main indigenous political organisation in Ecuador], for example, represents more the Catholics. They tend to be more radical than the evangelicals, who usually look more for compromises and alliances.”
“La religion est l’un des problèmes des indigènes, nous explique Carlos Chimborazo, directeur de La Prensa, le quotidien de Riobamba. “C’est un facteur de division qui vient s’ajouter à d’autres, comme les différences régionales ou les options idéologiques. Pachakutiq, par exemple, représente plutôt les catholiques. Ils ont tendance à être plus radicaux que les évangélistes, qui ont pour habitude de rechercher davantage les compromis et les alliances. ”
For a more specific example of how a single indigenous community has its unity shattered by missionary activity, see the next section.
Does Anyone Have a ‘Right’ or Justification to Seek to Change Anything in Another Culture?
Some missionaries have taken me up on these points about the self-righteous arrogance that is inherent in the ‘missionary’ conviction, and about the attempt to change other cultures, since they assume – mistakenly – that I would reject the right of anyone to seek to change anything in another culture, even if simply by persuasion. So, here is my view on the vexed question in the title above. I set this out so principally that no more missionaries write to me on the crazy assumption that if I don’t share their beliefs it must be because I haven’t even thought about these issues. (Another classic missionary self-flattering arrogance: “if other people don’t think like me it must be because they don’t care and haven’t thought about ethical and religious questions deeply enough.”)
Firstly, yes, of course, a case can well be made for claiming some ‘right’, or at least justification, to go campaigning to change patent evils like wanton sadism, murder and genocide. (But you don’t need any religion to make that case.) In any case, there are thankfully not many cultures in the world that are based on these. That said, let us not forget that (like plenty of other ‘cultures’ through history) European colonialists and their white descendants in the USA did indeed all but institutionalise some of these evils against native populations.
A case can also be made, though, for campaigning against injustices that some people claim do indeed have cultural and religious roots. The hottest among these for most readers of this page is no doubt the position of women under fundamentalist Islamic regimes; for a Latin American context, though, how about the institutionalised ‘slavery culture’ that the Spaniards imposed on African and indigenous American peoples, and that was conveniently justified by Christianity at the time? And some people think that they can still help people in the Andes to become better people by replacing their culture with Christian beliefs…?
The point is that it’s hardly as though we desperately need some religion in order to oppose patent injustices – much less a very formal religion based on one particular set of stories from the Middle East many thousands of years ago (yes, I do mean Christianity). There are far better justifications, and ones that work for far more people in the world, than just ‘Jesus said not to’. Indeed, on the contrary it’s the distortion of religion that is so often used to make convenient excuses to allow for the injustices in the first place, just as the Spaniards used religion in Latin America.
Above all, there is indeed an enormous difference between on the one hand people who campaign against specific purportedly culturally-rooted injustices or evils like slavery or female circumcision in Africa, and on the other hand the missionary’s aim of replacing a community’s entire belief-system for theirs, even though there is absolutely no objective evidence or justification whatsoever for the one that they happen to want to export. Indeed, the beliefs of Christian missionaries themselves include plenty of things that other peoples from different backgrounds consider very weird, and indeed evils and injustices. For example, fundamentalist Christianity tends to have plenty of views on sexuality that to other cultures seem prudish or just plain weird (try searching for Leviticus 21:19-21 in an online bible – is this really what people in Andean villages need translated into Quechua?). It is revealing too that Westerners tend to campaign much less against male (rather than female) circumcision, because the former is generally considered far more acceptable in their Judeo-Christian tradition than it would be to other cultures, to which it seems an extremely weird ritualistic thing to do (as indeed it is if you look at it objectively and without the distortion of religion and upbringing).