"And so Mr Brown came to be respected even by the clan, because he trod softly on its faith. He made friends with some of the great men of the clan and on one of his frequent visits to the visiting villages he had been presented with a carved elephant tusk, which was a sign of dignity and rank. [...] Whenever Mr Brown went to that village he spent long hours with Akunna in his obi talking through an interpreter about religion. Neither of them succeeded in converting the other but they learned more about their different beliefs."
"Mr Brown's successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr Brown's policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness. He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and about wheat and tares. He believed in slaying the prophets of Baal." (Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, p128, p132)When the uproar about the ESV's re-wording of Genesis 3 was at its most uproarious, a counter-argument that kept doing the rounds went along the lines of "if only the energy being wasted on petty arguments over one English translation of the Bible was put instead into translating it into the X world languages that still have NO Bible".
Well...yes. Yes in the sense that we English-speakers are not exactly short of choice (I counted 56 available for free online just on Bible Gateway). Yes in the sense that ('native'-) English-speakers are not exactly blameless of the charge of Anglo-centrism and linguistic imperialism. Yes in the sense that, if you believe the Bible to be a valuable-enough life resource for verse-level accuracy to matter, then you absolutely should care about the fact that many people don't have the opportunity to access it at all.
But also...no. No in the sense that the priorities informing English translations inevitably inform the translations that we export into different languages and cultures. And that's a frightening thought. If the pre-commitments of translators have the power to affect how the English-speaking world, with cultural familiarity with Christianity and access to alternative translations, understand God and His relationship to humankind, how much more power do they have to dictate to "unreached" groups a particular "reading" or agenda if immense care isn't taken?
Even Christian mission at its most well-meaning, truly-good-news-sharing, kingdom-living, personhood-respecting, diversity-celebrating best is still necessarily about overturning prevailing cultures with an entirely new way of seeing and being. Are we treading softly, like Achebe's Mr Brown, or going in all proof-texts blazing, like Mr Smith? Are we allowing the same good news to constantly re-interrupt our own culture and our comfortable conformity to it? Just because neoliberal consumerism arrived in the West after Christianity doesn't mean that it is a true product of it, nor even compatible with it; it is no exaggeration to say that the degree of uncritical assimilation in the UK church frequently frightens me.
These anxieties were already vaguely astir in me when I picked up Things Fall Apart – a book which shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the Christian church's contribution to white Western colonialism (in all its violent, exploitative, culturally imperialistic 'glory') in nineteenth century Nigeria. Interestingly, Achebe's portrayal of Christianity itself, though deservedly critical, is not straightforwardly dismissive. Aspects of it even resonate positively. His description, for example, of the appeal of the gospel to those marginalised within their village communities chimes with much of what most moves me about Jesus' own life, message and commission to his followers...
"These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that it was possible that they would also be received. And so one Sunday two of them went into the church. There was an immediate stir [...] The whole church raised a protest and were about to drive these people out, when Mr Kiaga stopped them and began to explain. 'Before God,' he said, 'there is no slave or free. We are all children of God and must receive these our brothers.' 'You do not understand,' said one of the converts. 'What will the heathen say of us when they hear that we receive osu into our midst? They will laugh.' [...] And they told him what an osu was. He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo for ever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born. He was in fact an outcast [...] How could such a man be a follower of Christ? 'He needs Christ more than you and I,' said Mr Kiaga." (p114)During Jesus' earthly ministry – and since – multitudes devalued and downtrodden by the world have recognised in him a recognition of their full and worth-full humanity. Back then, for example, were among them women, children, widows, people with disabilities, people in poverty, religious ‘noncomformists’, 'sinners’, the ‘ceremonially unclean’ — these were his friends, his dining companions, the recipients of his often miraculous blessing … and they were right at the heart of his status-quo-usurping teaching ministry. And this emphatic welcome to the so-called 'least' appears to have characterised the first churches: Paul says of the Corinthians "not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." (1 Corinthians 2:26(b)-28). For critics of the church this became material for ridicule – according to Origen, second century Greek writer Celsus dismissed the growing Christian movement as being full of (as he saw it) "foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children" (Origen, Contra Celsus, Chapter 59).
Jesus' invitation into wholeness speaks and has spoken powerfully to a huge diversity of people in different times and places – people who are aware of and burdened by our own non-wholeness. However out of favour the idea of 'proselytising' has fallen, I can't not want to see that invite shared – and to take a part in sharing it. So I couldn't not be moved by Achebe's account of the osu receiving that invite themselves. But that didn't lessen my appal (indeed, it heightened it by its incongruity) at his depiction of the simultaneous collusion of the Christian missionary endeavour with the oppression, cultural suppression and colonial plunder of Western power structures on the individuals and villages in the novel and on whole nations and continents in the history it partially storifies.
I don't have anything like an answer to any of this. What has been is not OK, and cannot and should not be erased, and I haven't squared how I feel about contemporary mission (or humanitarian intervention, for that matter) with my concerns about neocolonialism and cultural imperialism. But I did shortly after read another book which re-awoke my hope that maybe, after all, there is a "more excellent" way.
Bruchko tells, in his own words, the story of a white American Christian's life among the Motilone people of Venezuela and Colombia. A gifted linguist and a passionate convert, Bruce "Bruchko" Olson – at the age of just 19 – felt prompted to seek relationship with this particular ancient tribe who, until that time (the 1960s), had little (and predominantly violent) contact with an outside world whom they (pretty accurately) perceived as intent on appropriating their land and obliterating their way of life. After a scandalously reckless and frequently life-threatening search for Motilone settlements in the jungles bordering the two South American countries, Bruce finds a village – persevering to earn their trust in the face of an understandably violent reception – and makes himself completely vulnerable and pretty much 'degradingly' dependent on them in his determination to stay. He not only respects but enters into their culture, submits to their leadership and societal organisation, fathoms their language and develops a written form for it – over time (years rather than months) introducing some of the advantages of modern medicine through friendship with their witchdoctors, and using his knowledge of the outside world to help them advocate for the protection of their land and customs. It is half a decade before an opportunity arises to tell them about Jesus ... and when he does, he does it in their language, using their metaphors, their history, their own legends:
"How could I explain the gospel to them? How could I explain that God, in Jesus, had been like them? Suddenly I remembered one of their own legends about a man who had become an ant. He had been sitting on the trail after a hunt and had noticed some ants trying to build a home. He'd wanted to help them make a good home, like the Motilone home, so he'd begun digging in the dirt. But because he was so big and so unknown, the ants had been afraid and had run away. Then, quite miraculously, he had become an ant. He thought like an ant, looked like an ant, and spoke the language of an ant. He lived with the ants, and they came to trust him. He told them one day that he was not really an ant, but a Motilone, and that he had once tried to help them improve their home, but he had scared them. The ants said their equivalent of "No kidding? That was you?" And they laughed at him, because he didn't look like the huge and fearful thing that had moved the dirt before. But at that moment he was turned back into a Motilone and began to move the dirt into the shape of the Motilone home. This time the ants recognized him and let him do his work, because they knew he wouldn't harm them. That was why, according to the story, the ants had hills that looked like Motilone homes. As the story flashed into my mind, I realized its lesson for the first time: if you are big and powerful, you have to become small and weak in order to work with other weak beings. It was a perfect parallel for what God had done in Jesus. [...] So I took the word for "becoming like an ant" and used it for incarnation. "God is incarnated into man," I said." (Chapter 17)I love this story for so many reasons. I love that cultures all over the world have histories and mythologies that resonate with Jesus. I love that the truth of the Bible isn't static – that translation itself is an enriching and enlightening two-way process that brings out "new treasures as well as old" (Matthew 13:52). I love how the Motilone canon re-draws the particular mystery of the incarnation – of God self-emptying to live among frail humanity – in a way that makes Bruchko and his Western readers, including me, re-appreciate it afresh. I love that Bruchko wasn't just explaining incarnation to them but, well, incarnating it in his own relationship with and witness to them – living amongst them, humbling himself before them, identifying with them, genuinely and self-costingly abandoning 'privilege', immersing himself in their language and values until he was able to think and speak in their words, their stories, and so render a truly true translation of the words and stories he had on his own heart. I am reminded of Paul:
"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)The book is, of course, somewhat problematic in that it is Bruchko's own account, but to the extent that it may be trusted there seems no sense of appropriation or of cultural imperialism – quite the opposite: he proactively engages in helping them to advocate for their rights and best interests. And yet, there is no denying that his intervention into their lives does bring disruption. Very many of them (Wikipedia estimates 70%) become followers of Jesus – mostly through the witness of his adoptive brother Bobarishora, who is one of the first converts – and this changes their priorities. According to Bruchko, they cease warring with enemy tribes and seek to tell them about Jesus; they begin to move away from individualism and engage in real help and care for one another; they become open to the ways that some aspects of 'outside' expertise (law, medicine, agriculture) can help improve their communal quality of life.
Bruchko doesn't mention the negative repercussions of his involvement in Motilone community. I recognise that he can't realistically be trusted to see or report them. I can only hope that his story is as authentic as it struck me on reading it; it suggests the possibility that the 'good news' can, after all, be shared in such a way that it remains good news. There is a deep and tragic irony to seeing Christianity – and/or the precepts, ideals and requirements associated with particular expressions of Christianity – imposed upon people, or hijacked by authoritarian agendas; it seems so fundamentally at odds with the self-emptying incarnational invitation that Jesus modelled in his person and ministry. What better way – indeed, what other way – to communicate the message of incarnation than by incarnating it; ourselves becoming self-emptying. As somebody (possibly Rowan Williams but I can only find an indirect source), quote-ably said: "the most important translation is the translation of our lives".
N.B. This post is the third in a sort-of series prompted by the latest edits to the ESV. See part 1 here and part 2 here.
 One especially uncomfortable example for me is that of Franklin Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse. As a teenager, I spent a couple of winters enthusiastically sorting shoeboxes in an Operation Christmas Child warehouse. Had I known then what I know now about their president's beliefs and attitudes around gender, sexuality, Islam, war, asylum, American exceptionalism, political leadership, personal financial remuneration, dot dot dot ... well, yeah, enough said, really.
[Thumbnail image cc. from wwarby on Flickr].