A Privileged Position
Posted on: 12th May 2020
Former CMS missionary Greg Anderson is Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of the Northern Territory. Here he uses his personal experience to reflect on how and why CMS is so committed to approaching mission with humility.
One of the obvious things about my ministry in the Northern Territory is that my skin colour is the same as that of a lot of people, and my skin colour is different from that of many others. That’s evident, yet as I thought about and wrote that first sentence, I felt uncomfortable. I have been trained to believe and know that skin colour doesn’t make any difference. To even mention skin colour seems shameful. It might imply that skin colour is ‘a thing’.
Yet in some parts of the world—including where CMS people are sent—not only skin colour but a range of cultural distinctives are very much a ‘thing’, along with other ‘things’ like perceived wealth, education, freedom and distinct values. For better or worse, Westerners are often seen as ‘patrons’; others are often seen as ‘clients’.
Patrons and clients
The unwelcome reality is that ‘whitefellas’ (which includes many of our ministry team working with Aboriginal people here in the Northern Territory) are almost inevitably seen as patrons, with all the implications of ‘white privilege’ that this can bring.
To be a ‘patron’ means being associated with the power and wealth of white or Western culture. If people habitually treat me—or someone from an organisation like CMS—as though we are their patrons and they are our ‘clients’, this raises the question of how to deal with this as Christians and as a mission organisation.
One problem is that if all the other people who look like me are in fact patrons, it will take a lot of work for me to convince others that I am not. The same perceptions will apply to CMS as an organisation.
For better or worse, Westerners are often seen as ‘patrons’; others are often seen as ‘clients’.
One possible remedy is to explicitly raise the issue of patronage and talk with local Christians about it. Is it seen as a good or bad thing? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How do they see it displayed in the Bible? Is patronage only ever in one direction, or are there ways that it can be reciprocated? And if a person or a mission organisation is to be a patron, are there good local models of patronage that can be followed, at least until there are more opportunities to display vulnerability?
Being aware of how we are seen—including how many of us are literally seen because of our skin colour—will be helpful for good relationship-building in the long run.
How we’re different
I have recently written a six-part series (on the CMS website1) about some of the differences that CMS missionaries can face as Westerners in mission locations. Having considered skin colour, let’s think about two other areas: money, and freedom. We want to consider how CMS missionaries (and those who support them) might approach these areas as Christians with a joyful yet humble desire to see a world that knows Jesus.
Many Australians I know not only don’t see themselves as being rich, but also wouldn’t want to be seen as rich by others. This would certainly apply to the sort of people who are keen supporters of the mission of CMS, who seek to be deliberately sacrificial in their approach to money and material things. Perhaps this corresponds, in part, with the Australian suspicion of tall poppies. And yet it might be that in some other parts of the world, people accept that others are wealthier. This can lead to opportunities for tapping into that wealth rather than resenting it. The reality is that if a missionary is rich in a relatively poor location, they are almost certainly going to be viewed as (at least potential) patrons.
What is a good response from a missionary or from supporters of those missionaries? One way forward is to understand how patronage works in a particular context. What are the obligations on both the patron and the client as this culture sees it? There might be a biblical critique to be brought to the system (as Paul offers in Philemon), but if we don’t understand the system we can hardly engage in the critique.
I remember an Australian missionary colleague being challenged by the apparent relative opulence of missionaries from a different country, but becoming aware that on the whole people from that country stayed on location longer than other missionaries. Perhaps they had worked out how to be good patrons, using their wealth to bring blessing to their new community. It was a cultural challenge for my friend because his own default settings were anti-wealth. That challenge can also be felt keenly by supporters of mission. Yet as this individual observed, in some cases that relative wealth can add to the ability of the missionaries concerned to minister long-term—and long-term focus is a feature of biblical mission that CMS is deeply committed to.
As we wait for the Lord to return, there may also be ways that I or others working for mission organisations can be players in changing the system for better over time, not just reiterating what is good in the current arrangements. As a missionary, finding ways to discuss openly with trusted local Christians what this might mean in practice is better than acting unilaterally. What we missionaries then do with our relative wealth (or relative poverty) is part of the discipleship that we are seeking to model as well as encouraging others to follow.
The aspect I am reflecting on here is the level of freedom that missionaries have compared with local people.
So for example, missionaries have been able to travel from their old home to their new home. Except in emergencies such as the current Coronavirus crisis, people are not simply stuck in the same place for their whole lives. But the ease with which people like me can generally move around would be the envy of many.
Missionaries express freedom of movement, money and time in being able to have holidays and (I hope) regular rest days. In the Western worldview, such things are regarded as necessary for sustainable ministry, not a luxury, but there are many parts of the world where local people have less flexible lifestyles. The Sabbath rest mandate is relatively rare in the world.
There are other freedoms that Western missionaries may have relative to local people. These include the ability to escape from difficulty, whether it is political, military, medical, the consequences of natural disaster or terrorism.
There are more subtle freedoms, such as the freedom that comes with wider knowledge of the world situation, achieved through good standards of education, communication and theology. There is the freedom of not really having to conform to local social mores because the missionary always remains to some extent an outsider (not to mention more powerful). In teaching my first class at Nungalinya College in 1995, I was kindly told that I would have already been killed by one of my students if I had been in his part of the world, because I had inadvertently trespassed on his land by hanging my washing out on what I wrongly thought was a communal clothesline! I had the (unconscious) freedom to not be bound by that restriction.
Mission with humility
How can missionaries serve in effective, humble mission in contexts where, for some or much of the time, they may be in a position of ‘patron’, with greater freedoms and greater resources?
A first step will be to recognise this reality for what it is. Speaking personally, I have learnt that we must be honest and acknowledge the tension of the position without being too hard on ourselves. A mission organisation like CMS must do likewise. It is very likely that at least some of the time, we will see our own cultural ways as superior to those who are different. At the same time, those we live and work with (who are different) may well see our ways as inferior, wrong (or at best ignorant), even ugly.
Undercut the idea that Christianity is Western
Second, we must undercut the idea that Christianity is Western. The reality of ministry across the world today is that Christianity is usually associated with the West (still). As a missionary, or as part of an organisation like CMS, I must ask what steps we are constantly taking, and what extra steps we need to take, to work against that view. This is so that people are not rejecting Jesus because Christianity is Western, or desiring Jesus because Christianity is Western. I find it an ongoing challenge and stimulus that Paul lists ethnic diversity in Colossians 3:11 – Jew, Greek, ‘Barbarian’, Scythian – and then says that Christ is all as well as being in all.
Insist that each person is in the image of God
Thirdly, all Christians must continue to bear witness to the fact that each person, regardless of their ethnic origin or identity, is made in the image of God, is loved by God, and has had the way of salvation through Jesus opened up to them.
Above all, as we trust the gospel for our own salvation and the salvation of others, we must pray that God will use CMS missionaries, and CMS as a family of supporters in their weakness (and in the weakness of our supposed strengths!) to bring many people into his kingdom.
Ministry across cultures requires gospel commitment and sensitivity to local people and conditions. If you have such qualities, speak to your local CMS branch about opportunities to serve.