I have many friends, close friends, who have served or are serving as evangelical Christian missionaries in other countries. Some of these countries are not favorable to Christians, particularly western Christian missionaries. And for very good reason, considering the fusion of Christian missions from the global North with commercialization, capitalism, and westernization throughout the history of the church. Yet they serve faithfully, loving people, evangelizing, and making disciples of people. It is very good work and I pray for their success.
But here is the challenge that I rarely see addressed by my friends or the mission organizations they serve with. They are often serving in countries where Christians are often persecuted, and much of the time, especially recently, persecution is resulting from a dangerous and pervasive form of nationalism. Nationalism is not always harmful. Nationalism can be unifying such as when a country does well in the Olympics or World Cup, or when a tragedy strikes and the nation largely pulls together to mutually support one another. But in the past decade or more, as a backlash to increasing globalization, a very dangerous kind of nationalism has set in; one that does not just lift up a perceived national identity, but goes further and identifies those who do not fit the very narrow defined nationality as “others” or enemies.
We have seen this in India where, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they have turned their backs on a secular and inclusive constitution that began their country, and have instead embraced Hindu supremacy with violent attacks against religious minorities.
Nationalism is often seen in harsh anti-immigrant policies in such places as Hungary under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Nationalism is also seen in the bizarre belief in the super-human qualities of being a member of that country’s nationality, such that they do not need to pay attention to science. This is seen right now in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro where, in the face of the uncontrolled spread of COVID, Bolsonaro has repeatedly lied about the pandemic to such an extent that some are accusing him of wanting to spread COVID for his own twisted political gain.
I have evangelical Christian missionary friends who have served or are serving in all of these places and other places as well. And, for the most part, these faithful missionaries want nothing to do with any form of political engagement since they are more focused on evangelism and discipleship. And they are – mostly – right to steer clear of direct advocacy in the countries they serve because of the damaging history of western missionaries’ political, economic, and even military intrusion into the affairs in other cultures.
However, where my friends and many other evangelical Christian missionaries go wrong is in their complete abdication of political engagement in their interactions with their mostly evangelical missionary funders back home in the States. All of the countries I mentioned – India, Brazil, Hungary, and so many more – have been heavily influenced by Trump-inspired nationalism that has spread like a plague, as dangerous as COVID. trump’s nationalism included all of which I described under the other leaders – anti-immigrant policies and hatred, a rejection of science, and a fusion of allegiance to the country which is intimately tied to cult-like allegiance to the leader.
What is most ironic is that nationalism is not spread in a vacuum. Nationalism breeds nationalism. So, the trump-supporting, America-first, evangelical, Christian nationalist that gives money to evangelical Christian missionaries to do evangelism and discipleship in foreign lands – often out of the principle that they do not want to support missions that engage in any sort of politics – is at the same time supporting a political ideology that is doing such damage both domestically and in the foreign policy of the United States, that it is hurting the ministry of the missionary they are financially and prayerfully supporting.
The missionary, serving nationals who are faced with persecution because of the pervasive spread of nationalism that is drastically limiting the evangelism and discipleship work they engage in safely, is in danger of becoming ineffective or even removed altogether from the country they serve and the people they love.
Thus, what I have strongly urged my evangelical Christian missionary friends serving in other countries to do is to lovingly and strongly confront the nationalism of their supporters. I know this is challenging. Some funders, when confronted with their possible idolatry, could very well choose their idol over their call to support and spread the gospel. Funds will be lost. But unless funders are lovingly yet forcefully shown that support for nationalism at home directly impacts the effectiveness of their ministry in other countries, my missionary friends will be like the one who pushes the boulder up a giant hill, receiving help from their friends, all the while those same friends are funding excavators to add dirt to the top of the hill. The hill eventually becomes impossible to climb.