March 13, 2009
The colonial experience-3: The missionaries
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
It is well known that in the colonies conquered by the Europeans, the Bible and the gun went hand in hand. Soon after a country was militarily overpowered, missionaries were often the next group to go in under their protection, even before merchants and traders. These missionaries were the first to establish a permanent presence in many areas of the country, setting up rudimentary medical facilities, classrooms, and churches. Although they did have the backing of the military, the missionaries were often personally courageous and even humane people, taking aid and a strange message to the remotest parts of a distant and foreign land and often having to deal with an initially suspicious and hostile population, and by doing so, winning souls for Jesus. Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart gives a good description of this process at work in Nigeria.
Many of the missionaries with their schools and hospitals and social work represented the kinder, gentler face of colonialism, the velvet glove hiding the iron hand, and thus masking the basic exploitative nature of colonial rule. By preaching about Jesus, they sought to replace local religious myths and totems, that often represented local interests, with Christian myths and totems that were common to a larger group. They thus tried to create allegiance to a larger political entity than the village or tribe, and to get the local people to identify with the values of the colonists.
Many of the missionaries in Sri Lanka had the same attitude towards the locals that the administrators of the Indian schools in America had, that what was best for the Sri Lankan people was to suppress as much as possible local language and custom and have them adopt western ways. So successful were they that this attitude persisted long after the British formally left. Missionary schools taught by foreign priests and nuns continued to exist after we gained independence, and punishing students for not speaking English was also common in some Sri Lankan missionary schools.
Even during my own education, long after independence in a school set up by Anglican missionaries, the chaplains and some of the teachers were English, but they were generally progressive people who genuinely seemed to have the interests of the Sri Lankans at heart. (At least they seemed so to me when I was a schoolboy. It could have been the case that they were simply good actors. But I doubt it. To be really effective as a missionary, you have to be a true believer, convinced that you are truly serving god by converting the locals. While such people are misguided, they are usually incapable of willful deceit.)
By preaching Christianity with its idea that what happens in this world is not important, that what really counts is the health of your soul and that your reward is in heaven, they promoted a message of acquiescence to colonial rule and thus sought to blunt the appeal of those who argued for revolting against the occupiers. That dynamic has always been there, with religion undermining the message that redressing injustice and exploitation in this world is an important goal and that people should unite to overthrow their oppressors whether they be their own people or foreign rulers.
We saw that same thing happen with the slaves in the US. Their adoption of Christianity probably resulted in greater acceptance and endurance of their suffering under the slave owners. The slaves were encouraged to seek consolation by looking forward to their rewards in heaven and not seek justice on Earth, thus blunting the efforts of those who argued that they had a right to a good life here and now and that slavery was an abomination.
I have written before about how Christianity has been systematically used as a cover for political and economic exploitation. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.
It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote "When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible" captures accurately how religion served the interests of the colonial powers.
Next in the series: The economic transformation created by the colonists.
POST SCRIPT: I don't get Twitter
Although I signed up for a Twitter account a long time ago to see what it was all about, I have never used it. But I get messages that people have signed up to follow my "tweets", as the messages (limited to 140 characters) are called. I completely share Tom Tomorrow's bafflement as to why anyone would want to follow me, or anyone else for that matter, on Twitter.
Jon Stewart doesn't understand the appeal of these new networking crazes either.