Missionary Confidence in the Face of New Critics
It was a few days after Christmas during the last winter of the war in Bosnia. I was sitting by the roadside at night in some bombed-out village, studying a map and listening to the Voice of America radio broadcast for whatever news might be relevant for my journey to Sarajevo the next day.
Snowflakes darted in the cars’ headlights, promising treacherous roads in the morning, just as news of fresh fighting promised its own kind of treachery ahead. Suddenly, at the newsbreak in one of those vividly ironic moments, Louis Armstrong’s voice cut through the radio’s crackle:
I see trees of green, red roses too;
I see them bloom for me and you.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
What I had seen the past few days wasn’t bright and sacred — it was dark and hellish. Even now, I can see in my mind the gravediggers in Mostar taking advantage of a truce to dig extra graves in the city park. I can see the dozen blackened, bombed-out towns that were as lifeless as a moonscape.
But Satchmo’s rich voice continued,
The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by.
I see friends shaking hands, saying, “How do you do?”
They’re really saying, “I love you.”
Then I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
“How do you do? . . . I love you”? I was sitting in the middle of a vast killing field in which the ethnic cleansing among Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians had left one hundred thousand dead in the previous four years — and an additional two million displaced — all in a region the size of the state of Wyoming. And this war was just the latest in a centuries-long list of ethnic, religious, and political bloodlettings. As has often been said of the Balkans, “Too much history, too little geography.”
Then I went into the house where a Croatian pastor was discipling two newborn brothers. One was a Serb, and the other was a Bosnian.
Over supper, they shared their stories of God’s transforming grace and of a cross-centered forgiveness so complete that, having been reconciled to God, they now were reconciled to each other as well. Each of them had family and friends killed or homes destroyed by militias of the ethnic groups represented in each of the others around the table, but now they were brothers in Christ. They were still Croat, Serb, and Bosnian, but somehow — strangely, supernaturally — they also were family.
Their wives were there too, and their children were playing together. And they all worshiped together in the same church. I was witnessing a living, breathing Balkan version of Ephesians 2:
Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:13–14)
There was indeed in Louis Armstrong’s ironic benediction over that bomb-cratered country a reminder of another world — of a gathering kingdom — made wonderful by the power of the gospel that crosses every kind of barrier, even those stained with blood. The world’s best diplomats could not come close to bringing about the peace that I witnessed that night.
This gospel that redeems and reconciles us is my North Star to navigate these times of the growing Balkanization of my own country. The fracturing of American society is also reaching far into the church, as Christians are shaken by these tectonic shifts.
It’s good for us to remember, though, that Christians have always been caught in the cultural and political complexities of their little span of time. Believers living in Boston in 1775 lined up on different sides of the issue of independence for all sorts of reasons: the neighborhood they lived in, their profession, their pastor’s opinions, or perhaps whether their daughter was engaged to a redcoat or a minuteman. These kinds of scenarios have played out in every century and in every place.
But in our here and now, how will these days shape our thinking, our fellowship, our voices, and our pursuit of God’s mission here and to the ends of the earth? To pick up on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, race-based ideology can trigger a kind of Christian fragility as it shakes our confidence in the gospel’s work and shames us into silence because we do not know our family’s Story — the church’s history.
To be clear, the church has never been in better hands, and God will lose none of his people. Our Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:11), and he did not die in vain. God’s mission is not jeopardized by our country’s current situation. Christians have been through far worse times in the past, and Christians are in far worse situations in other parts of the world today (think of almost any band of believers from North Africa to North Korea).
It should come as no surprise that those who would seek to rewrite history to fit one comprehensive, race-based narrative of oppression would also rewrite the history of the church and especially of Christian missions. Yet it is a smear to paint the long line of pioneer missionaries as agents of colonialism, imperialism, and racism who presented a “White Jesus” to bolster their superior race and religion.
Of course, there were missionaries caught up in the politics, prejudices, and cultural attitudes of their day — just as there are in our day. Perhaps a few were false, but the vast majority were not. In his patience and mercy, Christ has long sent out imperfect messengers, and it has been that way since Peter’s forced meeting with Cornelius. And the cultural baggage lugged into missions isn’t a white problem only. My experiences with Han Chinese missionaries in Central Asia, Korean missionaries in the Middle East, and Ethiopian missionaries in Somalia all underscore that this is a common problem.
The vast company of missionaries past and present, though they struggle and stumble with their ignorance and arrogance, have sought to “become all things to all people” for the sake of Christ and out of love for their people (1 Corinthians 9:22–23). These missionaries’ greatest legacy is as Light-bearers, giving and preaching and teaching God’s word. They would gladly say with John Piper, “Because of Jesus, I care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”
And so William Carey, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, John Paton, Amy Carmichael, Mary Slessor, Samuel and Amy Zwemer, and thousands of unknown others built hospitals, devised written languages, established schools, fought human trafficking, protected the most marginalized, and made economic opportunity possible. And these pioneers of the kingdom often marked the trails they blazed for Christ with their own graves.
It is not surprising that people who have rejected Christ would reject his messengers and dishonor them, but it is surprising when Christians who don’t know or value their family’s story join in.
In these quick, crowded years of our vapor-life, we dare not glory in ourselves, our skin color, our group, or our political party. Rather, we glory in the cross-centered message of the gospel, through which Jesus takes hopeless, lost sinners bound in all the superlatives of despair — blind, thirsty, deaf, and dying — and extends to them a stunning offer of life, freedom, peace, and a place at the King’s table forever.
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
This gospel saves and binds together all sorts of unlikely people with the cords of unbroken and unbreakable grace. In Christ Jesus, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Neither Croat nor Bosnian, neither Serb nor American, neither Black nor White nor Hispanic, neither Republican nor Democrat.
When I think of that world, the world our risen, returning King is preparing — one filled with his people redeemed from every race and every place — I hear echoes of Louis Armstrong singing in that winter war zone long ago: “Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
”Tim Keesee is the founder and executive director of Frontline Missions International. He has traveled to more than ninety countries, reporting on the church. He is the executive producer of Dispatches from the Front and author of A Company of Heroes.