222nd Meeting – Tuesday, May 14th  2002

'The Role of the Christian Missionary in Thailand'

A talk by John Butt  

The abridged text of John’s talk:

A friend, who has for many years been a Christian missionary in Thailand, mentioned that he thought it strange that I should be the one speaking here tonight on "The Role of the Christian Missionary in Thailand" because, he said, my being a "Christian" missionary was at least questionable and my interpretation and understanding of the Christian religion was erroneous and heretical. I hope he was being facetious but I must admit that he may have had reasons for his comments. I do not consider myself representative of the typical Christian missionary. My interpretation and understanding of the Christian religion is shared by a very small minority within the Thai Christian community and the foreign missionary community in Thailand, and, I suspect, within the world-wide Christian community as well.    

Nonetheless, I believe that the views I am going to express here this evening are based on and reflect what is best and most true in the Christian tradition. And I also believe that the popular understanding of Christian mission is a distortion and denial of true Christian faith.

Since missionaries are often thought to be propagators of religion, I would like to begin by considering how we should understand this term "religion".

I believe "religion", whether it be Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam or any other religion, to be a human phenomenon. Religion may arise in response to a divine revelation but it is not itself that divine revelation. God is not religious. God is not Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim. People, not God, belong to a religious faith. Religion is therefore not divine. It is a human response to what is experienced by people as Transcendently Ultimate. Christians usually call the object of this experience "God". Many other religious persons and groups, but not all, also label and think of the Transcendent as God. Some, like Thai Buddhists, do not.

There is no perfect, divine, absolute religion. People are imperfect and flawed, 'sinful' in Christian terminology, therefore, because religion is a human phenomenon, their religion and religiousness is also imperfect and flawed. Transcendent Truth may be perfect but our human understanding and responses to it never are. Thus, it behooves the missionary of any religion, including Christianity, when proclaiming their religion to others to approach them with humility and a sense of the shortcomings in their own faith and tradition. The missionary is not a purveyor of God's pure truth or of an unblemished divine revelation. They are more correctly a person proclaiming and attempting to share with others their, and their religious community's, partial experience of a particular, somewhat flawed, imperfect human response to Transcendent truth and revelation. This response to the Transcendent I call "faith". Let me emphasize here that 'faith' in the sense in which I am using it is not the absence of knowledge or naive and irrational belief. Rather it represents a person's and a community's total orientation and response to what is seen to be most important, most true, most real, most valuable, most good and most powerful in their life and in the life of the universe. The role of the missionary is to proclaim and share their faith but faith is not something that can be shared directly.  Faith arises from and is a response to experience. But just as faith cannot be directly shared, so it is impossible for another person to share empathetically the true quality of one's own unique experiences. All one can do, by telling or showing, is to share with others one's responses to what one has experienced as Transcendent. Sharing is itself a response to the experience of Transcendence. The missionary's past experiences inspire and compel them to share with others. It is, of course, the hope and aim of the missionary that this sharing will result in others also having similar, albeit new and unique, experiences of their own with God.

Why attempt to share with others one's experience of the Transcendent or God? For hundreds of thousands of years human beings were religious without apparently feeling that they must become missionaries to others. Insofar as any sharing did take place it was limited to one's own family, community, tribe, and nation. Still today many individuals and communities consider their religion to be a very private matter. Tribal religion, for example, was only for members of the tribe, not for anyone else, and certainly not for everyone. Over time some tribal religions were extended to include many different tribes and thus became national or regional religions. But these were still seen as applying only to a particular group in a particular locality. The Hindu religion was, and largely still is, an example of such a nationally defined and limited religion. To be a Hindu means literally to be Indian; to be born into an Indian or Hindu family and to adhere to the religious beliefs and practices found in the Indian sub-continent. In the past Hindus considered it strange or even absurd that a non-Hindu would want to or could become a Hindu. Far from being a missionary religion, the Hindu tradition forbade Brahmins from crossing a sea or an ocean, thus effectively confining their religious experience to the inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent and to a few parts of Southeast Asia. Only in very recent times, mainly as a response to the missionary stimulus provided by Islamic and Christian missions, has the Hindu religion shown signs of becoming a missionary religion.

However, it was in India that the first truly worldwide missionary religion arose. In the middle of the first millennium BCE there appeared on the Indian sub-continent a religion based upon an experience believed to be valid not just for one individual or group or tribe or nation but for all human beings everywhere.

The discoverer of this insight was a wandering Indian mendicant named Siddharta Gautama, now known throughout the world as the Buddha. He and his enlightened disciples appear to have been the first to act upon the belief that one person's experience of Transcendent Truth and Wisdom, Power and Compassion and vision of life could be universally significant and meaningful for all people in all times and places. The Buddha and his disciples, and later the entire Buddhist community, sought to share their experience with others far beyond the tradition limits of Indian caste, clan and nation.

The Buddhist religion presented a new phenomenon in the religious history of humankind, a religion that was by its very nature, missionary. Soon the Buddhist religion spread from its birthplace in what is now northeast India to every region of the Indian sub-continent. Within a few centuries its missionaries had reached Southeast, Central, and East Asia, and even Mediterranean countries. Today Buddhist wats are found not just in Chiang Mai, Yangon, Kandy and Kyoto but also in London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sidney and in every other great city in the world. The Buddhist religion was the first great missionary religion, and it was soon followed by Christianity and Islam.  

Although the ancient religion of Israel also had very clear universal and missionary tendencies, that eventually erupted in the Christian religion, it remained for the most part like the Hindu religion, a national, one-people religion. Judaism was a religion of and for the Jews. Although some missionary activity occurred around the beginning of the Common Era among a few Jewish groups like the Pharisees, most Jews continued to see their religion as more or less exclusively their own.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian's Old Testament, there is an enduring tension between those who understood their religion in terms of a narrow nationalism and those who saw it applying to all humankind. The universalistic and missionary tendency within the Jewish faith finally triumphed in the Christian religion. Indeed, the Christian religion is perhaps best understood as the missionary wing of the Jewish religion.  

Originally the Jesus movement was one sect among many within Judaism. But within a few decades it became transformed into an independent religion no longer tied to Jewish nationalism. This transformation did not occur without an intense and difficult struggle. The most prominent leader in this struggle appears to have been the Apostle Paul.  Many of Paul's letters in the New Testament focus on this struggle and reflect its intensity and bitterness.  Other New Testament writings, such as the Acts of the Apostles, purported to have been written by Luke, also document this conflict between those Christians who saw their faith as particularistically Jewish and those who viewed it as universal. 

Paul and those associated with him believed that the Christ-event; the life, death and triumph of Jesus, had universal significance, that is was an experience of Transcendent Power and Truth applicable to all humankind. They refused to limit their ministry to the Jewish community and soon extended their preaching and teaching beyond the confines of the Jewish synagogue out into the Gentile world, to Greeks and Romans and all people everywhere. These early Christian missionaries believed that the Divine love and grace that had been revealed in the life and death of Jesus, was the means whereby all people might become saved. They had personally experienced in their own lives such salvation through their faith in or commitment to Jesus, whom they recognized as God's Anointed Human Representative. They believed that the experience with God that both produced and resulted from their faith in Christ was the key to transforming human beings and the world into a better place, into what they called the Kingdom of God. It was this conviction that motivated and empowered their own missionary activity, and that would in turn inspire the missionary activity of the Christian church in the centuries that followed. It was also in large part this conviction that lay behind the coming of the first Roman Catholic Christian missionaries to Siam in the sixteenth century and the first Protestant Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. And it is this conviction that continues to inspire and provide the motivation for most Christian missionaries to Thailand still today.

I approve of the motivation that lies behind such Christian missionary activity.  For the same reason I also approve of Buddhist, Islamic, and more recently, Hindu religious missions. Each of these missionary religions is attempting to share with others an experience of Transcendence that has been supremely meaningful and significant for its participants.  It is an experience that the participants in those religious communities believe to be of ultimate value and benefit not just for themselves alone but for all people everywhere, regardless of their race, culture, society or current religious beliefs.

In the Buddhist religion the experience of Enlightenment has two major components; truth or wisdom plus compassion. Both are necessary for full Enlightenment. To experience wisdom alone might possibly result in living a narrow, parochial, selfish life that has little or no regard for others and their welfare. But the experience of compassion precludes such an attitude and such behavior. Compassion requires that one take others into consideration. It compels one to share with others the Truth that has been discovered by or given to oneself. 

In like manner, in the Christian case, the experience of the Truth of Transcendent Divine Love compels one to respond to that experience by telling others about it and by attempting to share that experience with them and multiply its benefits in their lives. When missionary activity is understood and practiced in this way, I see such activity as legitimate and indeed obligatory. Not to share with others would be an act of selfishness, a repudiation of the religious experience itself. 

There remain, however, the issues of what happens when two or more missionary religious communities meet, as is the case here in Thailand where there are Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. How should these religious communities relate to one another?  What should be the goal of their missionary activity?  And how should it be conducted?

I shall now try to give some answers to these questions from the perspective of the Christian community. You may be pleased to notice that I've finally gotten around to my assigned topic for tonight:  "The Role of the Christian Missionary in Thailand".  Although I'm now going to focus on the Christian missionary, I believe that what I shall say is also pertinent for Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu missionaries as well.

Let me begin by emphasizing that the missionary aspect of Christian faith is not an unimportant peripheral matter. One sometimes hears critics of Christian missions remark that Christians should leave other people alone. It is suggested that the religious beliefs and practices that they already have are sufficient and that Christians should not disturb them with talk of new experiences and new ideas and practices. 

It should already be clear from what I've said thus far that I strongly disagree with those who would recommend such a course of action.  Not only do I disagree, I believe that it is impossible for Christians not to engage in mission.  Christians cannot be or remain Christians without becoming involved in mission. It is not enough to think or say that the Christian community or the Church "has" a mission. The Church "is" mission!  The missionary task is not merely one among many functions of the Christian Community; it is the primary and essential reason for that Community's existence.

The missionary nature of the church mirrors what Christians understand to be the nature of the Transcendent or what we have traditionally called "God".

The experience of Jesus by his disciples and early followers convinced them that his life reflected and revealed the Transcendent Ultimate Reality; "God". They believed that Jesus was the human Image of that Divine Transcendence.  And what was most important was that the Divine Image they saw in him was an Image of gracious, compassionate, merciful, caring, and self-sacrificing Love. This was the nature of the Transcendent and experiencing that Transcendent Reality meant that they too now felt called and inspired to share the nature and attributes of that Reality in their own lives. They were driven by the experience of Divine Love. Just as Jesus had reflected and revealed the Image of God in his life, so now they too must mirror that Image in their own lives. Just as God had reached out to them in gracious love, so now they must also reach out to others in the same way. 

This was the compelling mission and the new purpose of their lives. This was the "good news" that they now sought to share with others.  The Ultimate Transcendent Reality of the universe that had been revealed in and experienced through their faith in Jesus was not something horrible and terrible, but more like a caring, merciful and forgiving parent.  It was not a Truth to be feared but a Reality to be loved, adored, and obeyed. Their experience showed them that the ultimate destiny of human beings is not destruction and annihilation but salvation and fulfillment.

Who is the Christian missionary?  Who are the ones commissioned and responsible for taking this news to others? The answer is All Christians! The missionary task of the Christian community is not the job of just a few professional church workers.  It is the calling of every Christian.

Essentially the Church is neither a congregation of saints or sinners, though all Christians qualify as both, but a body of missionaries.

In order to become equipped for their missionary task, Christians must meet two requirements. 

First, they must have a thorough understanding of the message they are to convey to others.  This amounts to more than knowing how to quote Bible verses or spout pious gibberish about their religious experience. It involves knowledge of the meaning and significance of their faith. It is unfortunately true that Christians let loose without such knowledge often do more harm than good.

Christians in order to be faithful to their calling as Christians and as missionaries must have an ever increasing and deepening understanding of their Christian experience and faith. This is an absolute requirement if they are to be successful in their ministry to others. Such an understanding should not be passive, accepting, and uncritical, it should be intellectually rigorous, discerning, and critically reflective. 

Our experience with the Transcendent should continually be subjected to critical reflection and intellectual reformulation.  Otherwise, the experience soon becomes at best an irrelevant and meaningless memory, or at worst a pious idolatry that shields us from experiencing the Transcendent in the here and now.  It may also become the cause for others misunderstanding or failing to experience the true nature of that which is Ultimately Transcendent.

Although our knowledge and understanding of our religious experience and faith certainly has an intellectual component, it also entails more than just intellectual or theological masturbation.  Equally or more important is the existential understanding that comes from ever renewed commitment to and new experiences of the Transcendent.  These two sides of religious understanding, the intellectual and the existential, must both be developed together because they complement each other.  Faith must seek understanding, and understanding must produce a new revised and revitalized faith.

The second requirement for the Christian missionary is to know and understand not just their religious faith and tradition but also the contemporary situation in which they live. True, it is necessary for the missionary to have a profound knowledge of the contents of the Old and New Testaments, and perhaps to be conversant on the fine points of Calvinistic, Lutheran or Thomistic theology.  Understanding one's religious experience and faith and knowing one's religious tradition is important, but the missionary must also be able to speak and understand the language of those to whom they are sent.  Communication involves not only knowing what to say but also being able to say it and knowing how to say it.  Language is as important as theology.  I must comment that I have observed that unfortunately here in Thailand many of the missionaries who are best in language are often poorest in theology, and vice-versa.  This is not always the case, but it is frequently so, and this is distressing.  On this score, I might add, I consider myself a complete or at least nearly complete failure as a missionary.  Those of you who have heard me speak Thai know what I'm talking about.

But communication involves not just knowledge of how to speak and understand and write the language of those with whom one is trying to communicate.  It also involves an appreciative understanding of their life; knowing and understanding how they think and feel about things, about what they consider important and unimportant, and perhaps most important an understanding of their religion. 

The religion of a people reflects their faith, their orientation to others and to the world, their views of society and nature, and most important the way in which they understand Transcendent Reality and their relationship to it.

Thus, if the Christian missionary is to succeed, they must study and know the religion of the people with whom they are trying to communicate.

Let me stress that the sole reason for studying another's religion is to learn from it and become appreciative of it. Sometimes Christian missionaries embark on the study of another religion in order to discover its weaknesses and defects, so that they will be more proficient in attacking and destroying it. Their motives are similar to those of a boxer studying the moves of his opponent prior to meeting him in the ring in order to learn where they will be most vulnerable. Such motives are unworthy and, I believe, unchristian.  According to what we have learned about the Transcendent from our Christian experience, God does not deal with us in that way, and we should not treat others that way either.

Several times tonight I've used the phrase "to succeed" in referring to the work of the missionary.  I have just said that I do not approve of those Christians who view the encounter with other religions in ways similar to the encounter of opponents in a sporting event, and who identify success with their victory over the other religion. I find far more abhorrent, however, those who would compare the encounter with another religion to combat on a field of battle or in a war. In their eyes success is measured by their triumph over the other religion and its total defeat and annihilation.

What then does it mean for the Christian missionary "to succeed"?  How are we to define and understand missionary success?  What is the Christian missionary's goal?

Perhaps here is where I disagree most with the majority of current Christian missionaries.  Most Christians and most missionaries would say that their missionary goal is to evangelize and convert others, meaning to baptize them, get them to become members of a Christian church and have them publicly reject their old religion and the culture related to it. 

In other words, their aim is to proselytize.  This means taking Buddhist, Muslims, Hindus or Animists and changing them into Christians.  It means removing them from their former religious community and traditions and initiating them into a new religion and a new culture; a Christian one.

Success for those holding this view of the missionary goal is measured in terms of the number of "body bags" that one is able to accumulate.  Or, I guess that in this case it would be more appropriate to call them "soul bags".  Such persons have no respect and usually little or no knowledge of the religion and culture they seek to destroy. Non-Christian religions and cultures are viewed as the work and product the enemy, of Satan, and of sin.

This view is exemplified by the comment once made to me by a missionary as we walked past an ancient and crumbling Buddhist chedi.  He said that it was his fervent desire that every Buddhist chedi in Thailand crumble into ruins and be replaced by a Christian cross.

Such a view I find abhorrent. I believe that the loss of these sacred structures would be a loss aesthetically and religiously, and that we all, both Buddhists and Christians, would be the poorer for it. But most of all I find such a view abhorrent because I think it is anti-Christian. The heart of the Christian faith is the experience of God or Ultimate Transcendence as a loving Reality that graciously reaches out with respect and reverence towards others. In the view of the missionary I've just mentioned, I find no respect, no reverence, no love, indeed nothing Christian. And it irritates the hell out of me that such a view masquerades as Christian and is understood by many, if not most, people in the world as the Christian stance towards other religions.

How then do I think that I as a Christian missionary should measure and understand success in my missionary endeavors? It may surprise you that I would measure my success in terms of evangelism and conversion. I see both as the fundamental goals of the Christian missionary. But I do not see them involving proselytizing members from one religious community and its traditions into another. Evangelizing literally means "sharing good news".  And that is what it should be! The Christian missionary should share with others the news about what they have experienced through Christ.  Namely that "God"--or, if you prefer, and I do--that Transcendent Ultimate Reality is a loving, forgiving, caring Power and Presence.  And that nothing can separate us from that love, that forgiveness, and that care other than our own refusal to accept it. And accepting it is not a matter of changing one's religious label, religious community or religious beliefs and practices, except insofar as these may contradict the Christian vision of Ultimate Reality as Forgiving Love, Compassionate Power, and Merciful Justice. Often, sadly, evangelistic efforts turn out in practice to be "sharing bad news" rather than "good news". The proclaiming of the Christian religion becomes a condemnation of the other's religion, culture, and personal life rather than a witness to the Loving Nature of God.  The Christian message is presented as a denunciation of all that a person has previously held to be valuable and sacred rather than as an invitation to a new and fuller life within the context of what is truest and best in one's current religion and culture. 

To put it another way, I see evangelism and my task as a Christian missionary in Thailand to be that of helping to make Buddhists into better Buddhists rather than changing them into Christians.  And hopefully in the process they will make me a better Christian.  The goal is for each of us to become a truer human being and a better person. 

The term "Christian" can be viewed either as a noun or as an adjective.  As a noun it refers to members of the Christian community, to those who have been baptized and who have their names inscribed on church rolls and to those who believe and practice according to Christian traditions. All these things are important.  Without them the Christian vision and understanding of what it means to be a human being would soon fade away and disappear.  But much more important to me--and I believe to God--is the adjectival form of the word "Christian". Christian as an adjective means "Christ-like".  This, it seems to me, is what is ultimately important.  Not whether one is Christian as a noun but whether or not one's life, thoughts and practices are like those of Christ. I do not believe that God judges us by the religious label we wear but by the extent to which we aspire to and try to live our life in a similar way to the life of Jesus.  Of course, we all fail in this regard.  But fortunately part of our Christian experience tells us that we are saved by faith not works. Even though our efforts are unsuccessful, it is the faithful effort that counts in the eyes of God. And we who are Christians need to remember that there are many whose religious labels are different from ours, but whose Christ-like aspirations and faithful efforts are much greater than ours. Such persons, I have no doubt, will enter the Kingdom of God long before many of us who wear the label Christian.

You may recall that I said I measure my success as a Christian missionary, and I might add as a human being, in terms of "evangelization" and "conversion".  I began by talking about the former but for the last few minutes I've been speaking about the latter. Conversion in its truest sense means not swapping one's religion for another but changing the way one lives so that one's life is more true and authentic, more in touch with that which is the Transcendent Ultimate Power and Reality in the Universe. Living in a way that is more like the life that Jesus lived. I believe that we all need to be changed into more Christ-like human beings. This does not mean that the Buddhist monk must shed his robe or that the Buddhist layperson must cease participating in their religious and cultural traditions.  Hopefully it does mean that the monk will wear his robe and the lay person participate in their traditions in a new way that reflects a new, deeper and broader insight into what it means to be truly Buddhist and to be truly human. Hopefully it also means that we who are Christians and missionaries will also be converted by our encounter with Buddhists to a deeper understanding and a fuller realization of what being Christian or Christ-like truly means.

I am proud to be a Christian and a missionary and I am appalled by much that I hear said and see done in the name of Christian faith and the Christian mission. I am grateful to have had the privilege to study with and learn from some wonderful Buddhists here in Thailand and elsewhere.  From them and their religious traditions I have gained a deeper appreciation of what human life is about, and I have discovered insights into what I hope will be a new and better way to interpret, understand, and live my Christian faith. 

I sometimes call myself a "Buddhist Christian".  I may say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I say it from the heart.  I hope that as a result of my missionary work with Buddhists there may be some who, though they may not call themselves such, are Christian or Christ-like Buddhists.  Helping to create such persons is what I see my role and the role of the Christian missionary to be.