Protestant Colonialist Legacies

It would be quite evident, even to anyone ignorant of Vietnam’s history, that the country had once been under French colonial rule.

In District 1, the boulevards lined with tall trees at regular intervals, all radiating from a roundabout, indicated an infrastructural mind of the Parisian mould.

park near Benh Than Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)Co-opted by communism, the parks with their wide promenades became communal spaces for group activities.

Just before my trip, WT and I were discussing the differing consequences of British and French colonial rule. Common wisdom had it that countries under British colonial rule fared better than ones under French rule, she’d said.

This paper, Comparing British and French Colonial Legacies: A Discontinuity Analysis of Cameroon found that households [in Cameroon] on the British side have higher levels of wealth and are more likely to have access to improved sources of water (a locally provided public good)[than households in post-French Cameroon].

The authors, Alexander Lee and Kenneth A. Schultz, hypothesized that the British advantage was a combination of “hard legacies” (lack of forced labor, more autonomous local institutions) and “soft legacies” (common law, English culture, Protestantism).

Whereas Césaire described French colonialism, in his Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le Colonialisme),  as a relationship based on “forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.”

playing the flute in a park near Benh Than Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Christianity Today’s The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries was careful to avoid any triumphalist crowing, but noted:

Few [missionaries] were in any systemic way social reformers,” says Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. “I think they were first and foremost people who loved other people. They [cared] about other people, saw that they’d been wronged, and [wanted] to make it right.

While missionaries came to colonial reform through the backdoor, mass literacy and mass education were more deliberate projects—the consequence of a Protestant vision that knocked down old hierarchies in the name of “the priesthood of all believers.” If all souls were equal before God, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language. They would also need to know how to read.

“They focused on teaching people to read,” says Dana Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. “That sounds really basic, but if you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty. Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can’t have democratic movements.”

And so the old issue that troubles many a thoughtful missionary:

  1. what saves people, ultimately, is the gospel;
  2. pure social action must not be the goal of the church. A social gospel is concerned with attempting to alleviate suffering only in this world – a myopic mission. This world will soon pass away, and all who have not trusted in Christ, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, will face God’s wrath;
  3. yet how can any Christian claim to love another person but share only the gospel with them, not tending to their poverty or sickness or the injustice of their imprisonment?
  4. but surely resources (time, energy, money) are limited, so it would be better to focus on the gospel and their eternal salvation than the here-and-now;
  5. still, who will listen to the gospel being thrust in their face, when a missionary has not shown himself/herself to be a friend in need (…is a friend indeed)?

 

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)Western imperialist graffiti

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