The colonial experience-3: The missionaries

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is well known that in the colonies conquered by the Europeans, the Bible and the gun went hand in hand. Soon after a country was militarily overpowered, missionaries were often the next group to go in under their protection, even before merchants and traders. These missionaries were the first to establish a permanent presence in many areas of the country, setting up rudimentary medical facilities, classrooms, and churches. Although they did have the backing of the military, the missionaries were often personally courageous and even humane people, taking aid and a strange message to the remotest parts of a distant and foreign land and often having to deal with an initially suspicious and hostile population, and by doing so, winning souls for Jesus. Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart gives a good description of this process at work in Nigeria.

Many of the missionaries with their schools and hospitals and social work represented the kinder, gentler face of colonialism, the velvet glove hiding the iron hand, and thus masking the basic exploitative nature of colonial rule. By preaching about Jesus, they sought to replace local religious myths and totems, that often represented local interests, with Christian myths and totems that were common to a larger group. They thus tried to create allegiance to a larger political entity than the village or tribe, and to get the local people to identify with the values of the colonists.

Many of the missionaries in Sri Lanka had the same attitude towards the locals that the administrators of the Indian schools in America had, that what was best for the Sri Lankan people was to suppress as much as possible local language and custom and have them adopt western ways. So successful were they that this attitude persisted long after the British formally left. Missionary schools taught by foreign priests and nuns continued to exist after we gained independence, and punishing students for not speaking English was also common in some Sri Lankan missionary schools.

Even during my own education, long after independence in a school set up by Anglican missionaries, the chaplains and some of the teachers were English, but they were generally progressive people who genuinely seemed to have the interests of the Sri Lankans at heart. (At least they seemed so to me when I was a schoolboy. It could have been the case that they were simply good actors. But I doubt it. To be really effective as a missionary, you have to be a true believer, convinced that you are truly serving god by converting the locals. While such people are misguided, they are usually incapable of willful deceit.)

By preaching Christianity with its idea that what happens in this world is not important, that what really counts is the health of your soul and that your reward is in heaven, they promoted a message of acquiescence to colonial rule and thus sought to blunt the appeal of those who argued for revolting against the occupiers. That dynamic has always been there, with religion undermining the message that redressing injustice and exploitation in this world is an important goal and that people should unite to overthrow their oppressors whether they be their own people or foreign rulers.

We saw that same thing happen with the slaves in the US. Their adoption of Christianity probably resulted in greater acceptance and endurance of their suffering under the slave owners. The slaves were encouraged to seek consolation by looking forward to their rewards in heaven and not seek justice on Earth, thus blunting the efforts of those who argued that they had a right to a good life here and now and that slavery was an abomination.

I have written before about how Christianity has been systematically used as a cover for political and economic exploitation. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote “When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible” captures accurately how religion served the interests of the colonial powers.

Next in the series: The economic transformation created by the colonists.

POST SCRIPT: I don’t get Twitter

Although I signed up for a Twitter account a long time ago to see what it was all about, I have never used it. But I get messages that people have signed up to follow my “tweets”, as the messages (limited to 140 characters) are called. I completely share Tom Tomorrow’s bafflement as to why anyone would want to follow me, or anyone else for that matter, on Twitter.

Jon Stewart doesn’t understand the appeal of these new networking crazes either.

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  1. Chris says


    Have you ever read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a fictional account of a family of missionaries in Africa. The father is the only true believer, and he drags his wife and four daughters along, much to their dismay. Your post today reminded me of this book.

  2. says

    Thanks, as always, for the fascinating insights. I’ve often wondered what the colonists thought about what they were doing. Did it bother them that they’d just traipsed in other people’s territory and start usurping their resources and pushing people out of the way. Or did they genuinely feel that were somehow more civilized and could justify their actions by trying to imprint their own culture on the “unenlightened” local populace. It sounds like they felt quite justified. Perhaps that’s always the case when we see different people as “other.”

    You’re right that Twitter’s not for everyone, but as a Web designer/strategist/marketer I find it helpful. I often use it to share links to helpful articles, interesting blog entries and such as well as to discover such things from the people I follow. In fact I just Tweeted the link to this series.

    The 140 character limit can be infuriating, but I’ve come to learn that quite a bit of info can still be communicated in this format. It also helps me draw new readers to my blog as I’ve set up to autopost the headlines and links of my new blog entries automatically to my Twitter account.

    Twitter makes for an interesting social dynamic. It takes longer to get to know people through short Tweets than it does via blog comments, but connections are established nonetheless.

    That said, I’m a Web nerd, so for me Twitter is a must-use service in my ongoing quest to keep up with trends in social media. -- @hacool

    p.s. Looking forward to the new book. Do you have a publication date yet?

  3. says


    Although I think the rank-and-file missionaries were true believers, I think the imperial governments were coldly calculating in the way they encouraged and supported the missionary program.

    My book will be coming out in October

  4. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    At the risk of “derailing” the discussion somewhat, I’d like to focus
    on two claims that you are making here: (1) that Christianity with its
    idea that what happens in this world is not important, that what
    really counts is the health of your soul and that your reward is in
    heaven, and [consequently] (2) the adoption of Christianity probably
    resulted in greater acceptance and endurance of [slaves] suffering
    under [their] owners.

    In this case you are essentially summarizing a more general argument
    of the kind that you have made before, this notion attributable to
    Karl Marx that “religion is the opiate of the masses” and that without
    religion, people in general would be significantly less inclined to
    tolerate injustice and would be more inclined to work actively against

    I have to say that to me, on the whole, it seems to me that the historical
    evidence to support such a claim remains rather uncompelling.

    While I will be the first to agree that religion in general and
    Christianity in particular has been used as a devastating weapon by
    powerful aggressors against all kinds of native peoples, I would point
    out that those in power general will, as a rule, use anything they
    have at hand to protect and expand their power. Religion, economic
    systems, education, media, and science.

    Regarding Point (1) above, whether or not this concept was emphasized
    in the past, today the idea of having a reward of eternal life in
    heaven as a central component of Christianity has been rather
    de-emphasized, at least within mainline denominations. The importance
    of “saving the soul” and a focus on eternal life in heave is really a
    dominant theme only in more fundamentalist/charismatic/evangelical
    traditions, I believe. And of course there are many non-Christian
    religious viewpoints where the idea of an afterlife is pretty much
    ignored altogether.

    But more importantly, even if I granted you point (1), if subsequent
    point (2) of your argument were true, I would expect that history
    would demonstrate that societies where religion of all kinds were
    discouraged and/or removed would be the most liberal and free of all
    societies. But I see no historical evidence to support this
    conclusion. It seems to me that in the past century of world
    politics, the removal of religion as a major component of social life
    has not made people from Russia to Tibet to Iraq any less vulnerable
    to the imposition of tyranny than anyone else.

    Further, if your argument were true, I would expect that as a rule
    those who lead the most successful movements to push back oppression
    would also be individuals would be those who have disavowed religion
    and those who promote such a disavowal. But history continues to
    demonstrate that the seeds of effective resistance are often planted
    by those who are motivated by their own religious viewpoints and those
    who make religious arguments to defend their efforts. If religion
    really promotes this idea that things that happen in this life are
    “not important” then why do all of these struggles against oppression
    seem to arise from people with strong religious convictions? From the
    Abolitionists to MLK, from the bishops of Nicaragua to monks of
    Myanmar, it seems to me that we see many examples of religious
    viewpoints being used to publicly motivate and defend resistance to

    In the case of slavery, for example, you argue that the adaption of
    Christianity “probably” resulted in greater acceptance and endurance
    of their suffering under the slave owners. It seems to me that you
    may be inverting cause and effect, here. The slaves endured the
    harshest of treatment by their owners who certainly established every
    kind of mechanism to keep slaves from gaining their freedom. The
    adoption and significant adaption of Christianity by slaves and their
    decedents may indeed have provide “hope for the hopeless” but not
    simply as an argument that they should put up with injustice now
    because of a promised afterlife. When you are put into a painful and
    impossible situation, you will look for ways to cope. Christianity
    for the slaves was a means for coping and struggling against an
    otherwise hopeless situation. A careful examination of Christian
    tradition among slaves shows many examples where songs and worship
    forms that were used to encourage resistance and to encourage their
    own theology and hopeful visions of real liberation — a vision that
    could not be realized immediately whether they had wanted to or not, a
    vision that I think persisted and strengthened the slave communities
    despite the conditions that they were forced to endure and that they
    were physically powerless to change.

    I think that most black people who were brought up in the church and
    who understand the role of Christianity in the black experience of
    resistance to slavery and then racism in America would bristle at the
    notion that their religion has made them more docile and vulnerable to
    oppression. Quite the opposite, I suspect that most blacks with an
    appreciation of the role of the black church in enabling the movement
    for freedom and justice, particularly during the civil rights
    movement. The KKK knew exactly what it was doing when it targeted
    black churches for burning in the 1960’s.

    In the past you have argued that the religious convictions of people
    like Martin Luther King Jr. and others who advocate for the oppressed
    do not “count” because these are convictions that are in opposition to
    the “establishment religion”. Yes, the religious and political
    viewpoints of those who would act to right injustice are often
    viciously attacked by other religious leaders who are allied with
    powerful interests. But this does not discount the reality that the
    arguments and motivation of people like MLK are in fact religious.
    Such a religious viewpoint, even if it in the “minority”, is still
    religious. Blaming all of religion for the social injustice
    perpetrated in it’s name by those in power is sort of like accusing
    all American citizens of being self-absorbed war-mongers, or all
    physicists of being tools of the military-industrial complex. It’s a
    kind of guilt by association, painted with too wide a brush.

    Indeed, it has been argued that the most “authentic” kind of
    Christianity is one which stands clearly and cleanly in solidarity
    with the poor and the oppressed, and against the status quo. Of
    course the lessons of Jesus are subject to interpretation, but over
    and over again it seems we see examples of Jesus standing in support
    of the poor, the sick, and the hungry and against established
    religious and civic authorities and the wealthy. So the argument
    could be made that the religious viewpoints of the “minority”, for
    example liberation theologies, could be consider more properly
    “Christian” than the viewpoints advocated by institutions that
    correspond more closely to what would be called “the establishment

  5. says


    I wasn’t blaming religion for all of society’s ills. And it is true that some religious people did oppose oppression. But that does not negate my point that powerful people will use all the tools at their disposal as weapons of oppression and religion has undoubtedly been a powerful one.

    Why is it that the colonial powers actively encouraged and protected the missionaries in their activities? Why is it that slave owners tolerated churches and religion while clamping down on other places for slaves to congregate? Why is it that MLK had to fight back in his letter from Birmingham jail at the pastors who urged him to not struggle for equality and to ‘wait’?

    When people are oppressed they will also use whatever means that have to fight back and the tolerance of slave owners for the churches meant that those could be used by some for subversive activities, just the way the religious institutions in Islamic or communist countries were often centers of opposition. And those fighting their oppressors would use the tools available to them to try and rally support to their cause and religion was one such argument.

    But that is not a sign that these were institutions of liberation. They were often merely the places where people could meet without arousing suspicions, that’s all.

    Look at France where the Bishops were in power with the kings. Did the church act on behalf of the poor? No, they were colluders in the oppression. Look at the countries of the Inquisition where these awful practices were part of the state aparatus.

    And what about in Latin America in those countries where the rulers were supposedly Catholic too. Did the Pope and the Catholic Church demand social reforms and threaten revolt when those Catholic rulers unleashed terror on the population? No, the religious people who fought the injustices were not only fighting the oppressors, they were also fighting the church. Liberation theology was disowned by the Catholic Church, including the present Pope.

    Looking at the historical record, can you really claim that religious institutions (as opposed to this or that religious individual or small group) have been consistently on the side of the poor, except in terms of lip-service and promising them rewards in heaven if they turned the other cheek on Earth?

  6. Paul Jarc says

    Looking at the historical record, can you really claim that religious institutions (as opposed to this or that religious individual or small group) have been consistently on the side of the poor, except in terms of lip-service and promising them rewards in heaven if they turned the other cheek on Earth?

    It seems to me that this supports an argument that institutions with power will collude against the powerless for mutual benefit. But I don’t see how it supports an argument that religion is any worse in this regard than other power structures, or that religion tends to be oppressive, when considered independently of the institutional power structures surrounding it.

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