My Missionary Position

A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition of Byzantine art at the Royal Academy in London. It was the tops.

Amongst all the shiny stuff on show was a set of six icons originally from the Sinai, brought together for the first time in a long time, two of them having been removed to Russia some time previously. They were very old, from six hundred and something, but they were also in very good condition.

They were a remarkable sight to see. What struck me most about them was that even by six hundred and whatever Jesus had become a blue-eyed white guy with blonde hair. Which, if he actually existed to look like anything at all, and if so being from Palestine, was probably not what he looked like – at all.

“Jesus was a black man. No, Jesus was Batman.
No, no no no, not at all, that was Bruce Wayne.”
Kelly’s Heroes, Black Grape.

These icons were made as propaganda tools of an expansionist religion that started out in a village on the shore of Lake Galilee and ended up – still, bizarrely, even in this day and age – holding in its thrall Rome, London and even Washington (In God We Trust? What became of the Land of the Free-thinker?)

Once the white man and woman were converted to this new-fangled religion – which he and she took as their own and re-made in their own image – they set out to convince the black, brown, yellow and even red man and woman to join their self-righteous nonsense-crusade.

In Myanmar Christian missionaries came up against a well-set Buddhism that they found very hard to budge. Whilst there are Christian communities in most towns and cities and a good few churches, some of them chunky, it was in those areas of the country that Buddhism had already failed to conquer, in the mountains and border regions where animist religions held sway, that they had most success.

In Chin state the Baptists led-out by Pastors Judson and Carson succeeded in persuading whole communities that the white man’s religion was a superior and truer path to salvation than the animal-god-bullshit-worship that had served them adequately enough for longer than history records.

The result is towns and villages where everyone calls themselves Christian, where denomination matters so much that your house is most likely labeled with the name of your church, where if young people leave it’s most likely not for University but for bible college in Yangon or in India (before returning to carry out missionary works of their own) and where the shops close and no buses run on Sundays.

There is a level of devotion to Jesus and to worship that Canterbury and even Rome can only marvel at, an unquestioning blind loyalty to faith and an unknowing confusion at even the idea of atheism. “No God? Really?”

“Really.”

It’s a fractured market. Thirty plus Baptist off-shoots compete for business amongst themselves and with the Roman Catholics and others. The offering of inducements to transfer, in the form of rice or other provisions, is not unheard of – probably a trick picked up from Carson and Judson.

But scratch below the surface here and there – with difficulty in Falam, more easily in Hakha – and it’s possible to find people who acknowledge that the passage of time, the physical opening up of Chin state giving easier access to its surrounding world of influence and a younger generation more interested in motorcycles, Manchester United, Korean movies, Mandalay Rum and hip-hop, mean that whilst no-one is going to call themselves an atheist, or even not think of themselves as a Christian, very many of them are nominal Christians, very many are – only – what they call ‘Christmas Christians’.

While in Hakha I was ‘lucky enough’ to attend a worship held as part of the 41st convention of one of the Baptist splinter groups. That Sunday morning over 1500 people came to hear a sermon delivered by one of the four Texan missionaries who were in town for the weekend.20140413-074325.jpg

For over an hour Pastor Kim Sharp rattled on with ever increasing excitement (on his part, the crowd seemed to drift) about the need for the church to be more simple because a ‘complicated church’ is not ‘what God wanted’. Several times he lost his thread without ever ceasing to speak and repeated and contradicted himself so often it’s a wonder the locals kept up with him at all. You had you feel sorry for the translator.

Kim’s three point message was simple – he did promise I would never forget it.

1. Love thyself.
2. Do not covet (not sure what happened to the neighbours ass).*
3. Whatever the third one I can’t remember is.

Oh yes, ‘Go ye unto the world’. Do the missionary thing. Be prepared to die for Jesus. That was it.

Pastor Kim told those gathered, subsistence farmers most of them, about ‘a restaurant we have in the United States. McDonalds; you’ve probably heard of it’.

Never mind that there is not an outlet within a thousand miles or so, Pastor Kim thought that the ‘complexity’ of the Maccy D’s menu would resonate with the locals as a simple metaphor for his narrative about the complexity of the modern church.

For the (two) atheists in the crowd this resonated only as a food-processed-stomach-churning reminder of the white man’s sense of superiority in imposing his world-view, his god-illusion upon people who never needed it and who don’t need it now – but whose lives are dominated by it.

For me Pastor Kim was preaching the same racist claptrap as that propagated by whoever painted that age old icon back in the day when even the Sinai did not have a McDonalds.

My missionary position is simple. Missionary go home. And take your tin-pot god and your tin-roofed church with you. You never should have come here in the first place. Leave people to their own delusions – if they want them – just as they should have been left to them when Judson and Carson trailed their misogyny and moralising here on the coat tails of imperial colonialism. The delusions of others are no less worthy than your delusions. Your delusions are no more worthy than theirs.

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It’s mad enough that anyone believes in their local voodoo. That whole towns are converted to some other person’s (not so local when you think about it) voodoo is one of the maddest, saddest things I’ve seen.

Because no religion illusions are worthy of the attention of twenty-first century humans. It’s time we – all – moved beyond this medieval nonsense, time to be breaking down religious barriers (perhaps especially in Myanmar with its rising tide of Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim violence), certainly no time at all to be seeking to reinforce them.

The – many – drunks on the streets and in the back room drinking dens of Hakha did not seem to be living a particularly ‘Christian’ lifestyle but three cheers for them. Whatever the route taken towards it, the rooting out of colonial Christianity (let’s leave the Buddhism-parasite for another time) from these and other parts would be a good thing and I’m hoping these all-day drinkers and street-stupor-sleepers are the wobbly-of-foot soldiers of change; an Unsalvation Army.

In each of the places I visited in beautiful Chin state I met lovely people – with the odd exception – who did not let their faith or my lack of it get in the way of starting to form a friendship. I can’t deny that some missionaries, Christian ‘teachers’ and others working in the name of their Lord do good works. In times of crisis or great need the positive outcome of an action can outweigh the negative input of its motivation. But while on the one hand these people may be lovely people, may be well-intentioned (you know, like Christian Bush and Blair going to war in Iraq), on the other hand they are all deluded loony tunes that you should not trust with your cat (let alone your kid’s education).

In Falam, Hakha, Mindat and Kanpetlet I saw one or two filthy, taggle-haired lone outcasts wandering the streets begging and ‘howling at the moon’. They were probably the sanest people in town.

* As I left the church a woman coveted my bag, wanting me to give it to her as a present. Was she not listening?

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One thought on “My Missionary Position

  1. For you, Stephen, and folks who buy into your ramblings as some sort of wisdom. The below is not directed to any Myanmar.
    “… all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. … they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:18-22). “​​​​​​​The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”” (Psalm 14:1a)

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