I knew a student once, in China. Her English name was Circe. She chose her own name. She was a bright, brilliant star. Every morning she lit up my classroom with her smile.
She was 12. Most of my students were high school freshmen. A couple were seniors. None of them were confident in their English.
I wasn’t even as confident in my English as Circe. I could barely speak in front of my students, I was so shy.
She pronounced her name Kirk. I loved her more for it.
I went to China with an ideal in mind – Gladys Alyward. Here’s a wall of text about her life. Gladys was a true pioneer of the Christian faith. She unbound the feet of Chinese women (a cultural practice that should not be praised or continued). She adopted Chinese culture and lived among those she loved in order to spread the faith she followed.
There are many good and valuable things about Alyward’s life. But I no longer agree with the nature of missionary work. Not as it is preached about from a colonialist Christian pulpit.
There’s a story in the news right now about a young man who wanted to take a particular brand of Christian religion to a particular tribe of humans (who, as it happens, have chosen to remain separate from the chaos of the modern world).
He made three attempts to reach their island. They warned him twice. On his third attempt, they killed him. This man is not a martyr.
Ally Henny says it very well. Much better than I could ever say it:
My heart has been troubled by the story about the young man who was killed during his efforts to spread Christianity to an isolated society in India.
I am saddened by the fact that this young man lost his life, but I am even more angry at the system that gassed him up to think that this colonialist endeavor was a mission from God.
I am a Christian, and a minister at that. I wish that everyone knew Jesus Christ as their savior, but cannot endorse that young man’s foolhardy and misguided endeavor.
I do not wish to unpack all of my reasons for why I disagree because what I think doesn’t matter.
I do want to say that I find much of the discussion around this topic to be problematic. There are a heap of issues with this discussion. I want to call out a few things:
• Christians cannot assume that people don’t know Jesus just because a society isn’t colonized and there’s no record of western missionaries there.
• I’m frustrated with the hypocrisy of wanting people to respect our borders, but thinking its okay for a missionary to break the law to cross borders. How can protecting borders be the “Christian” thing to do when it’s America, but crossing borders illegally be right when it’s “spreading the gospel” elsewhere?
• I’m appalled at all of the colonialist rhetoric that I’ve heard from some of my fellow Christians, especially supposedly “woke” Christians. We need to examine and deconstruct our paradigms for missions because there is so much that is unhealthy and wrong.
• I’m saddened that people would joke about the loss of life. The young man has a family and people who love him. I don’t think this should be a joke right now.
• I’m annoyed by people calling him a martyr. That word doesn’t mean what you think it means.
So much of this story touches me on a personal level because I was once very much like this young man who died. I would have crossed all boundaries, legal, national, emotional, and physical, to spread the gospel of Christ as I knew it at the time.
And I would have been wrong. Circe taught me that.
Circe’s feet weren’t bound. Her mother was a doctor. Circe wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. And a gymnast. And an actress. And she had the freedom to dream those dreams. She had more freedom than I did.
She had the freedom to bring a complete stranger into her home and offer her tea and a nap. I was honored to be her guest. I was honored to teach English in China. I was honored to be a tourist in Beijing and Yantai.
At the time, the honor overwhelmed me. I could not reconcile the goodness of the Chinese people with the urgency of my “calling” to rescue them from their supposed destitution.
China saw the shattering of my faith – the bursting of the bubble that I had lived in my whole life. It was such a shock to my system, and I was so poorly prepared, that China saw my first (aborted) suicide attempt.
I am still learning lessons from my visit to China. I remember Circe and the tea she gave that warm afternoon in her home. The blanket she offered me as we rested on her couch and watched gymnastics before we had to return to the campus for the evening events.
Circe taught me that not everyone needs the Christian brand of salvation. She taught me that there is more than one way to live a good life. I don’t need to force my beliefs on anyone. I don’t need to spread a gospel.
What I need to do is learn. What I need to do is open my mind and take in all the wonderful culture and vibrancy this world has to offer. What I need to do is respect boundaries and not get so caught up in my ego as to think the whole world needs to hear what I have to say.
Circe helped me break free of a closed-minded, narrow way of thinking. It was a hard, painful thing to do. But I am grateful.