By Jodi A. Shaw
There’s a knock at the door. You answer it and find a stranger standing on your doorstep. You say hello. They ask you if you think world peace is a good thing. Of course, you reply. From there, it’s a smooth transition to “Your belief system is misguided and incorrect. My religion is the true religion, and I am here, answering a call from God, to save you by selling, I mean, sharing my religion with you.”
Missionaries: A member or a religious group or organization on a mission to convert those who do not share the missionary’s faith. Most of us have met one; they’re on-task and going to show up at our doors whether we like it or not.
But what about when the missionaries travel to second and third world countries offering aid — materials and labour to build houses, schools, churches; clothing, toothbrushes, and toys; and a little Christianity on the side? A co-worker of mine went off to Africa recently with a group of people from his church to meet the families they’ve been sending money to for years. Oh, and to do some missionary work.
I had to bite my tongue. Africa needs help, I won’t argue. Poverty and disease have left too many people in a state of despair. Those that can help, should. However, I don’t think what Africa needs is a Christian God sugar daddy.
Missionaries, as we know them today, have been showing up on Africa’s doorstep since 1859. Hand-in-hand with the European desire to set up new colonies and establish trade, the London Missionary Society opened its first missionary station in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and began its work. Indigenous beliefs were interpreted by the missionaries as evil, immoral, inferior, and in need of “correction.” The missionaries knew “correction” would not be easy — and so instead of simply trying to replace traditional religion, they sought to wipe the slate clean. Of culture.
Met with resistance, the missionaries did not give up. To this day they continue to travel to Africa and spread the word. Currently, of a total population of 922 million, an estimated 325 million Africans are Christians, 123 million of those Catholic. On the other hand, traditional African religion is practiced by approximately 15 per cent of the population, or 138 million, often in smaller communities.
By homogenizing populations, by devaluing local culture, missionaries deliver more than just new creeds — they rob Africans of their history, traditions, and values, and the right and ability to pass them on. Holding clothes, food, and Bibles in one hand, they pick Africans’ pockets with the other.
And while I’m sure many missionaries are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the people they “help,” their good intentions can have disastrous consequences. Take Pope Benedict XVI, who recently addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, saying “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”
AIDS has killed more than 25 million Africans since the 1980s. In the sub-Sahara, where the epidemic is centred, approximately 22 million are infected with HIV, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Meantime, condoms have been scientifically proven to significantly reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, and a recent study by the Human Sciences Research Council indicates that South African teenagers have been heeding advice to use them. While many still have multiple sexual partners, the number of new infections reported each year is falling.
And yet the Pope and Catholic missionaries preach abstinence and discourage the use of condoms. This is a clear demonstration of religious doctrine taking priority over the lives of the Africans. These are good works?
I thank anyone and everyone who travels to second and third world countries offering aid. Those who actually do good are wonderful. But their assistance shouldn’t be an excuse to slip religion in through the back door. Africans don’t need our religion — they need our help. And the two aren’t, and never have been, synonymous.