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An Unforgiving Mirror

Reading Kathleen Lodwick’s How Christianity Came to China (Fortress Press 2016) was disturbing for two reasons.

As I mentioned in my Gospel Coalition review of the book, Lodwick’s selective juxtaposition of facts about the China missionary experience paints a picture that verges on caricature. Among Lodwick’s questionable suppositions:

  • “It is clear that women missionaries went to work in overseas missions largely to escape the limitations of careers open to them in their home countries” (p. 65).
  • The practice of speaking in tongues may have originated “with the influence of Chinese missionaries who had failed to learn Chinese” (pp. 87-88).
  • Most converts to Christianity came from among those who were alienated from society, such as those who belonged to vegetarian sects. “Nanjing was one of the centers of vegetarianism groups, so perhaps there was some overlapping membership, as the city became a major center of Christian activity” (pp. 135-36).

Readers who have more than a passing knowledge of China’s complex mission history will likely be uncomfortable with Lodwick’s selective descriptions and peculiar conclusions.

The second reason why the book is disturbing hits much closer to home.

Lodwick pulls few punches as she details the cultural faux pas on ample display in the missionary community. Some of the offences included:

  • Taking full advantage of the privileges accorded by the unequal treaties to advance into China, secure property, and protect their rights.
  • Using the extraterritoriality provisions of the treaties to operate outside Chinese law and, in some cases, shielding Chinese converts engaged in illegal activity.
  • Prioritizing individual conversions in a collective society.
  • Whether verbally or through their actions, advocating Western traditions and customs as superior to Chinese culture.
  • Holding on to power and control of resources rather than releasing these to emerging Chinese Christian leaders.
  • Complicity in the opium trade (although Lodwick acknowledges missionaries did play a major role in attempting to have it outlawed).

Most foreign Christians serving in China in the post-Mao era would be quick to distance themselves from the egregious errors of previous generations of China workers. Yet the impact of their collective example still clouds popular perceptions of Christianity in China today.

More disturbing is the recurrence in recent decades of some of the same tendencies Lodwick sharply criticizes. Some foreign workers still commonly stress individual faith decisions while ignoring the complex relational networks that form the fabric of Chinese society. Feelings of cultural superiority die hard, no matter which culture one comes from. Leveraging the privilege and power related to one’s citizenship can cause feelings of resentment, and may result in a political backlash. Letting go of authority and empowering local believers remains a struggle for organizations committed to a certain way of doing things and for individuals whose sense of identity may be unwittingly tied to their ability to remain in country.

However well-meaning and culturally astute today’s generation may be, the “unintended consequences”—as Lodwick describes them—of cross-cultural interaction may say more about the motivations and values of foreign workers than these workers would care to admit.

Image credit: Reflection in Rounded Mirror by Christopher via Flickr.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource.  Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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