Rosalind I. J. Hackett, ed., Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets, and Culture Wars, Equinox, London, 2008. 480 pp. $36.76. ISBN 9781845532284.
“We have shown you the mountain, and now it is up to you to climb it.” So spoke Commissioner Murray Sinclair as he and the other Commissioners made their preliminary report at the close of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) last June. There was a sense that this was an unveiling, a revealing of a mountain that had dominated the landscape for so many indigenous peoples in this land but had previously been hidden from the view of the rest of Canada. There was in the Commissioner’s invitation a sense that non-indigenous Canadians would need to practice keeping this mountain in view if we had any hope of climbing it. It is in fact this task of shifting perspective that is so critical in the work of decolonizing and pursuing just and right relationships. Proselytization Revisited provides an international lens through which to look at some of the Calls to Action set forth for the church by the commissioners, particularly the recommendation that asks all faith groups in Canada to formally adopt and comply with the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation. For evangelical and post-evangelical faith communities, this may prove to be one of the most challenging of the recommendations. Hackett’s book helps to stretch non-indigenous paradigms for engaging this path for reconciliation and gives global context for the concerns of indigenous people here and abroad.
The focus on proselytism in this book is an examination of a method gone wrong. The authors choose to focus on proselytism, rather than conversion, in order to look at the methods that are employed “to bring about a significant change in the pre-existing religious commitments, identity, membership or lack thereof of others” (77). Proselytization is the term used in human rights conversation to delineate where sharing one’s own beliefs comes to infringe on the rights of another person or group.
The three questions I believe will serve the discussion in the church regarding the adoption of UNDRIP are: How does religious freedom play out in situations of unequal power? What are the circumstances that can cause evangelism to become coercive? And finally, what might be the markers of a decolonized and authentic evangelism?
While religious freedom has been promoted in the West as a basic tenet of democracy, it is experienced by many in other parts of the world and those on the margins in the West as an arm of Western imperialism. Jean-Francois Mayer raises the issue that the US promotion of religious freedom, especially in South America, has been perceived as an ideological invasion aimed particularly at undermining the struggle for indigenous social justice. Religious freedom in other contexts is not seen as a pluralistic freedom so much as a privileging of Christianity and Islam over traditional or non-evangelistic spiritualties, as raised by De Roover and Claerhout in their examination of the context in India. This concern seems to be at the root of the protection of traditional spiritual practices in the UNDRIP. The issue is even more poignant when we consider the Canadian context of the churches’ collusion with the state in order to erase cultural identity and ties to the land through the residential school project. These authors encourage us to ask the question of how power and privilege are playing into Christians’ desire to “share the gospel.”
Another aspect of power potentially corrupting evangelistic practice within Christianity is the issue of coercion. Kao and Elisha raise important questions about what those inside of Christianity would call “holistic mission,” where one could argue that the gospel is preached not only with words but also (and perhaps more importantly) with actions. Kao and Elisha elucidate the potentially coercive nature of this sort of mission work where there is power inequity and the withholding of benefit based on required adherence to an ideology, set of behaviors, or participation in religious activities. Further, Elisha raises a concern that “faith-based activism has the potential to reinforce hegemonic conditions in particular social contexts.” He bases this concern on observations regarding language around missionaries’ work in situations of poverty. “Welfare activists talk about the ‘transformed lives’ and ‘softened hearts’ of welfare clients, evoking the conversionist language of evangelical revivalism, rather than dwelling on the systemic roots of poverty as they might do when speaking before liberal audiences” (450). His issue is not with revivalism but with a reluctance to challenge systemic oppression by spiritualizing the problem and the solution.
The longstanding history of colonization in Canada has created inequities of power and has institutionalized a deep racism that perpetuates these inequalities. Such realities then require serious work around decolonizing our attitudes and structures. Much will need to shift in terms of power and control. On this topic of shifting power, the book offers some global encouragement as well.
As Africa and India are not only decolonizing (explored by De Roover and Claerhout) but also recovering their precolonial history as birthplaces of early Christian movements (Freston), and as the site of sending missions is shifting to the global south (Freston and Kovalchuk), there seems to be a new dynamic emerging. These shifts mark a return to the early Christian reality of a message coming from the grassroots margins, which then speaks into the seats of power rather than the other way around. With the exception of Kao’s chapter, in which she raises concerns about some culturally unreflective forms of Pentecostalism emerging in South America, the general sense is that this shift will serve Christianity better than its colonial/imperial forms.
This book triggers important questions that we need to consider in Canada: What would fully contextualized indigenous forms of following the Jesus Way look like? What if Indian Country finally was the sending site of Christian mission rather than the perpetual mission field? What might the non-indigenous church in Canada have to learn from loving our indigenous neighbors as those neighbors are asking us to love them rather than how we think they should be loved? The mountain is ours to climb.
Jodi Spargur lives as a guest on the unceded Coast Salish Territory known as Vancouver, where she works as an urban farmer, furniture mover, pastor, and justice seeker.