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In our efforts to be culturally sensitive, we may shy away from the verbal proclamation of the gospel message of Jesus and instead focus on humanitarian aspects of mission such as provide food, housing and clean water for those in need. While these things are good and appropriate for missionaries to participate in, our guilt over past atrocities committed in the name of Jesus may cause a hesitation in identifying ourselves as Christians who believe the message we have is needed by all. Western guilt can drive much of what exists in Christian missions today but it doesn't have to be that way.
In a recent article for Christianity Today, Bishop Hwa Yung challenges Western missionaries to not be driven by unhealthy guilt but to be compelled by the gospel of Christ. A highlight:
"We've witnessed many conquests and imperial expansions throughout world history. Many of these were done in the name of religion. But I am not aware of a society that has self-critically developed a guilt complex as deep and extensive over past mistakes as today's West. One can easily name a number of non-Western societies and nations that have practiced territorial expansions and various oppressions in the name of religion or national interests. In which of these do we find serious wrestling with guilt? I am not saying those from other cultural and religious traditions aren't able to develop guilt complexes. I am saying that, outside Western culture shaped by a Christian history, I do not see evidence of such a complex on a similar scale.
The point is this: The very fact of Western guilt may be one of the supreme evidences for the enduring validity of the gospel in the post-Christian West. For it shows that the gospel has the power to shape the conscience of a culture, even when its propositional claims have been forgotten or largely rejected by that culture. Seemingly, despite being abandoned by many Westerners, the gospel continues to simmer in an unquenchable manner in a society that once acknowledged Christ.
What do we conclude from this? That yes, Western guilt should lead to repentance for presumptuous, insensitive, ethnocentric, and triumphalistic missions. The wrong conclusion, however, is to suggest that we must forgo Western missions because such missions have lost integrity. The very guilt that troubles the Western conscience over past failures points to the moral power and enduring validity of the gospel. Without this burden of guilt, which the Spirit imparts, this world would be far more cruel, heartless, unjust, and oppressive than it is. Only when our hearts and our cultures have responded to the call of Christ and experienced the work of the Spirit can such a conscience develop on the sort of scale that we find in the West. Thus, the Western guilt complex properly understood is also a profound call to humble confidence and boldness in mission."For sincere missionaries not seeking to convert others to their own culture but to simply introduce them to a God that makes Himself known in all cultures, Yung's words are a comfort. Many missionaries have confused their calling and attempted to force new believers to adopt the culture of the missionary. A good missionary knows that the gospel of Jesus does not exist in just any one culture or people group but it has the power to flourish and prosper within any culture on the planet.
Though the gospel message should never change, how it gets expressed and how it gets delivered should always adapt to the culture in which it is being lived out. It is possible to celebrate and appreciate my own culture while, at the same time, celebrate and appreciate the culture of others. The God of the Bible is not limited to any one culture but He expresses Himself in all cultures. I need not be ashamed of my culture nor should I presume it upon others. As a missionary, my calling is to introduce others to the Jesus of the Bible and to step aside so that that same Jesus can make Himself known within that individual's life and the culture in which they live. There is no need to feel guilty when that is my motive.
To read the complete Christianity Today article please click here.