Missionaries, Wife Beating, and Culture Change

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

It is sometimes claimed that missionaries are imperialistic colonizers who arrogantly try to change other cultures and impose their own.  There’s lots of misunderstanding, misinformation, and over-generalizations packed into those claims but the one I want to focus on in this article is the claim that missionaries try to change other cultures. 

The assumption behind this claim is that all cultures, together with their values and norms, are equally valid and that all truth claims are relative. Therefore, Westerners who (supposedly) advocate for the superiority of their own culture(s) in other parts of the world are narrow-minded and arrogant. They have no right to tell other cultures what they should and should not do or value. Of course, this slam against missionaries is disingenuous because Western secularists have no problem promoting their own Western secular values, such as abortion and LGBT “rights”, in parts of the world that traditionally oppose such things. Even if they sometimes call evil good and vice versa, even they know that there are some things that are universally right and universally wrong. They see the value in promoting what they believe is good and right even in other cultural contexts where such values get an icy reception.

This brings us back to the charge that missionaries try to change other cultures.  Undoubtedly, there are some ways in which missionaries have tried to change other cultures when they shouldn’t have. In the past, “Christianizing” and “civilizing” were often intertwined in the minds of many Western missionaries. But on some matters, the Bible is clear about what is right and what is wrong, and missionaries have opposed many wrongs in other cultures even though those practices represented embedded cultural values.

William Carey in early 19th century India opposed widow burning. 

Missionaries in China opposed foot binding.

John Paton opposed wife beating in the South Pacific.

Here’s what Paton had to say about his attempt to change the local culture of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu):

“Leaving all consequences to the disposal of my Lord, l determined to make an unflinching stand against wife beating and widow strangling, feeling confident that even their natural conscience would be on my side, I accordingly pleaded with all who were in power to unite and put down these shocking and disgraceful customs. At length, ten Chiefs entered into an agreement not to allow any more beating of wives or strangling of widows, and to forbid all common labour on the Lord's Day; but alas, except for purposes of war or other wickedness, the influence of the Chiefs on Tanna was comparatively small. One Chief boldly declared, "If we did not beat our women, they would never work; they would not fear and obey us; but when we have beaten, and killed, and feasted on two or three, the rest are all very quiet and good for a long time to come!” I tried to show him how cruel it was, besides that it made them unable for work, and that kindness would have a much better effect; but he promptly assured me that Tannese women 'could not understand kindness.' For the sake of teaching by example, my Aneityumese teachers and I used to go a mile or two inland on the principal pathway, along with the teachers' wives, and there cutting and carrying home a heavy load of firewood for myself and each of the men, while we gave only a small burden to each of the women. Meeting many Tanna men by the way, I used to explain to them that this was how Christians helped and treated their wives and sisters, and then they loved their husbands and were strong to work at home; and that as men were made stronger, they were intended to bear the heavier burdens, and especially in all labours out of doors. Our habits and practices had thus as much to do as, perhaps more than, all our appeals, in leading them to glimpses of the life to which the Lord Jesus was calling them.” (excerpted from James Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides, Christian Focus Publications: Ross-shire, 2009, p.70-71)

Other examples of missionaries trying to change culture could likely be given, including modern anecdotes about ending sex trafficking. But the examples above, including the “confession” by John Paton are sufficient to sustain the charge that missionaries do try to change other cultures. And sometimes that is a good thing.

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