Posted by: Titus Presler | October 11, 2009

NY Times stumbles into missionary stereotype on Fr. Damien

It was good to see the 11 October 2009 New York Times editorial on Damien de Veuster (1840-89) cite him as a missionary in its tribute to his remarkable work with persons affected by Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy.  The editorial went on to cite Fr. Damien’s canonization today by the Roman Catholic Church as a reminder that the struggle to overcome the stigma of the disease in a wide variety of cultures worldwide is ongoing and far from over.

An assumption in the Times’ opening sentences calls for comment.  The editorial begins: “Damien de Veuster was a young missionary from the 19th-century Belgian countryside when he went to work at the leprosy settlement in Kalaupapa, a remote peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.  Yet his approach was strikingly modern.  He did not see the sick as ‘unclean’ or afflicted for their sins.  He dealt with them as fellow humans whose ailment was physical, not moral.  They ate, sang and worked together for 15 years, until he died of the disease in 1889.”

The little word “yet” betrays an erroneous view that it was despite his being a missionary that Fr. Damien ministered as he did.  In fact, solidarity with the suffering is central to the gospel and to the missionary impulse.  It is true that the term “solidarity” is a modern coinage that many of us have adopted for missiological ends, but solidarity was central in the incarnation, in the New Testament’s view of what God was up to in Christ Jesus, in the outreach of the first Christian communities, and, arguably, in the mission movement as a whole over the last 2,000 years.  There are tragedies and travesties of mission in that history, but Fr. Damien’s deep identification with those whom he served is an especially vivid instance of a theme that is representative of the Christian mission movement, not an anomaly in its history.  So also it is not especially “modern.”  Fr. Damien was exemplary in decoupling disease from moral failure, but even there it would not be accurate to think that even most of his missionary contemporaries held otherwise.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the question, Jesse. You’re referring to a review of Jeffery Scheler’s book, “Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren.” I agree with you that the comment erroneously equates being a missionary with being bent on converting everyone and then removes emphasizing Christ’s love from the domain of a missionary’s work. Quite an intensification of the negative stereotyping of missionaries!

    Yet the author acknowledges without criticism and with approbation the very forthright door-to-door outreach through which Warren built his church: “He rushed through seminary to complete his divinity degree, then set to work, walking door-to-door to attract people to the high-school auditorium that constituted his first place of worship. Before long, word began to spread about his warm preaching style and remarkable ability to talk about God to people skeptical of organized religion.” That kind of evangelistic work makes it clear that Warren certainly has the faith-sharing side of missionary identity, the faith-sharing side that the author initially slams with the stereotype of trying to convert others.

    Altogether, the review is an instance of how the term “missionary” becomes, in confused and distorted ways, the repository – a kind of trash can – of people’s negative views of religious outreach.

    Btw, in a forthcoming article in “The International Bulletin of Missionary Research” I will be noting how the mission statement of Warren’s Saddleback Church distinguishes ministry and mission in a very fruitful way.

  2. Is this a mis-use of the term “missionary”? (http://www.slate.com/id/2233184/pagenum/all)

    “Although not a missionary bent on converting everyone in the world to his views, Warren does believe that the Gospel’s emphasis on Christ’s love can bring peace where strife has reigned.”

    I’m a missionary and I believe the latter, that a emphasis on the message of Christ’s love can bring peace where strife has reigned.


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