Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reflections on The Poisonwood Bible-- Part 3

The main purpose of The Poisonwood Bible is to bring to light how the domination of Western culture and political forces in the colonial times, and even today, has degraded the dignity and hope of Africans, particularly in the Congo. I am grateful for books like this one that help us to see history from new perspectives and hopefully help us to learn from our mistakes. While not the main message, the book does contain secondary messages that call various aspects of Christianity and the missionary life into question. I have recommended this book to other missionaries for that very reason and will continue to do so. I think it is important for us to be intentional about what we do or don’t do, to examine our own motives, and to see how our beliefs might be misinterpreted, or worse, twisted in ways that hurt others.

At the same time, missionaries already suffer under the weight of stereotypes, and I fear that this book might reinforce those stereotypes. Stereotypes typically have a grain of truth. There are numerous stories of missionary families like the Price family who have done extremely harmful things in communities in the past. Even in the present, I have encountered well-intentioned projects that didn’t really hit the heart of the need and weren’t sustainable. There are times when missionaries get sidetracked by their own agendas and forget to really listen to the people around them. I have seen missionary money create dependencies and lasting problems in communities.[1] I have encountered missionaries who saw the world in black and white, who came to teach and to show people how to live and believe rightly, but could never figure out how to work within their host culture. They left disillusioned and bitter, spewing venomous words towards the people in their host country and towards other missionaries living there. There is some truth in the stereotype. And yet, the stereotype leaves so much out…

In 2000, Robert Woodberry began to study the link between Protestant Christianity and democracy as a graduate student of sociology at University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill. He traveled around the world collecting data, and he discovered something remarkable. He observed that countries that were open to missionaries had better health outcomes and better access to democracy over time. Woodberry knew his research was controversial, so he continued to add variables such as climate, health, location, accessibility, natural resources, colonial power, and disease prevalence into the statistical model, but the connection between Protestant missionary work and global democracy remained significant. In 2005, Woodberry received a half-million dollar grant, hired fifty research assistants, and set up a database at the University of Texas. The results remained consistent: “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.” He submitted his research to American Political Science Review in 2010. The editors were skeptical of his findings, so they asked for more evidence. He provided 192 pages of supporting material. His research was published by American Political Science Review in 2012 and won four major awards. So far Woodberry’s discovery has been supported by over a dozen studies conducted by other researchers.[2]

It turns out that even Congo, the setting of The Poisonwood Bible, had missionary advocates. Two Baptist missionaries, John and Alice Harris, took pictures of the atrocities in Belgium Congo described in The Poisonwood Bible and smuggled the photos out of the country. They then traveled around the United States and Britain raising awareness and creating public pressure to end the violence. Many missionaries throughout history have become activists against injustice.

There are many cross-cultural missionaries throughout history that I admire. I am equally inspired by the many local Christian leaders who daily show love to those around them, and I am truly grateful that in many cases the role of missionary has shifted from leader to partner in ministry. I love the growing diversity among missionaries. And I pray that as the world continues to become more and more of a global community, churches can unite together to fulfill our call to “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

[1] A great book on this topic is “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

[2] Much more information about Woodberry’s research can be found at The article Woodberry wrote can be found at

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