In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Many of us remember the first line of the rhyme about Christopher Columbus we learned as children. Teachers often used it as a stepping off point for lessons from the textbook, which told of a noble explorer who set sail from Spain and “discovered” the New World. As the story goes, he encountered peaceable native people, traded goods with them and single-handedly commenced a dignified and virtuous campaign of exploration that paved the way for the creation of the modern Western world.
Of course, neither rhyme nor teacher nor text mentioned anything about the genocide and ethnic cleansing that decimated the indigenous population of the present-day Americas. They failed to include even a single anecdote of violence, instead censoring all accounts of carnage. Things like the incident in which Columbus’s men decapitated two young Arawak boys—for the fun of it—didn’t make the curriculum.
As children in school, what we were taught about Columbus was not toward the goal of learning historical facts, but rather so that we might learn something far more essential and foundational to the dominant culture: mythology.
Missionary Mythology is Born
The word mythology may conjure up images of muses and monsters. The term tends to hold negative connotations, implying falsity or a lack of legitimacy. But fundamentally, myths are stories that guide a culture and explain how the world works. Mythology is a bit like a filter through which a particular culture sees the world, creating group cohesion and a common identity.
What we were told about Columbus functioned to help concretize the myth of white, Western, Christian supremacy. And the church was instrumental in establishing this mythology.
Following the return of Columbus from his first voyage, the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Alexander XI, wrote a document known as a papal bull, declaring that foreign lands not inhabited by Christians were free to be “discovered” by Christian rulers on behalf of their European monarchs. He declared “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”
This document was one of the centerpieces of the Doctrine of Discovery, which established a theological rationale for colonization. The church responded to Columbus’s exploits in the Americas with spiritual support. Indigenous brown and black-skinned people across the world—anyone who was not Western, white, and Christian—were theologized into uncivilized, uncultured, and regressive nonpersons and labeled enemies of Christ. White, Western, Christian supremacy began to be cemented into the order of the world.
As the decades and centuries passed, the colonial project would spread to every corner of the globe. The push by European nations to expand their overseas claims went hand-in-hand with the expanding Catholic and Protestant mission societies. Foreign mission societies were thriving during this period. Missionaries were being sent across the world to convert and “civilize” native people. So began an epoch of global mission growing up alongside colonialism.
The Never-Ending Story
As Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past, as Faulkner intuited, is continually resuscitated in the present in contemporary forms.
Myth always comes back to narratives, as we saw earlier, that animate and guide and create an identity within a particular culture. This mythology of white, Western, Christian supremacy has not died. Colonialism itself isn’t just a history. It is a story, a story that is lived out in the present. It is a story that takes away dignity and crushes the image of God within people. It is a story of the control of bodies and consciousness, of land and resources, of social and economic domains. Colonialism is a story of death.
And missionary mythology, like it was centuries ago, is a story washed in the pseudo-glory of white, Western, Christian supremacy. The lodging of this missionary myth deep in our psyches can be traced back to its embryonic beginnings in the year 1492. Though it began a long time ago in a place far away, it is a story we continue to tell and live, usually without realizing it. So we don’t analyze history as much as we interrogate a myth.
Since mission and colonialism were partners in a five-hundred-year-long project, it is a story written into the psyches of missionaries perhaps more than anyone else, a story that we must read closely and carefully. To know the narrative thoroughly and honestly is to see the present state of global missions more clearly.
Theology: A Thief or Abundant Life?
As we saw, the power of the myth lies in its ability to create a sense of belonging and core identity. And that is what animates and breathes life into a particular culture. Contemporary American evangelical culture—which is heavily invested in global mission—particularly evangelizing the so-called unreached, is rooted in missionary mythology.
As Gustavo Gutierrez, father of Latin American liberation theology writes, theology is “critical reflection on historical praxis.” To reckon with our Christian past, our inheritance fertile in blessing and prolific in sin, is to reflect theologically, which we must do, since flawed theology provided the foundation from which the sins of colonial mission grew.
In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Theology can be a thief that kills, such as what occurred as a result of the Doctrine of Discovery. And theology rooted in modern missionary mythology is certainly a thief, even if it does not lead to overt acts of violence; naming Westerners “saved” and others “lost” is its own form of violence. Savior complexes steal dignity and miscarry the opportunity to serve people from a place of humility. Being captive to myth obstructs the gospel invitation to life to the full, which Christian missionaries are called to name, discern, embody, and birth in whatever context they are in, locally or globally.
Having Salvation and Wholeness in Common
Nothing interrogates missionary mythology more than a commitment to looking at ourselves and our woundedness, brokenness, and “lostness.” No one escapes the human condition, not even missionaries.
The interior process of owning our pain and knowing ourselves allows us to engage with others from a stance of mutuality. In this space where suffering meets suffering, there is the potential for transformation to be born. Mutually we are hurting, and mutually we are being transformed.
Holding our gaze on the woundedness of ourselves as well as others allows us to go out into the world as wounded healers, not as invincible white saviors. We enter into various local and global contexts as people who have known what it is to suffer, and therefore can offer our wounded selves. This “exquisite mutuality,” spoken of by Father Greg Boyle, goes far in tearing down the staircase of hierarchy that continues to harm the personhood of the so called “whole” and “broken;” “saved” and “lost”—dualistic categories that have have their roots sunk into the colonial soil.
As we wrestle with the missionary mythology that white evangelical culture has been captive to, we may be able to cross boundaries of geography, culture, and ethnicity carrying the message of Jesus, incarnating his message of the availability of abundant life for all.
We may just be able to embody the gospel across cultures in more beautiful, life-enhancing ways if we collectively shifted to posture that includes mending and being mended, healing and being healed.