“The Dinka national characteristic is laziness.”

The title of this post is taken from an article in the Church Missionary Society’s Gleaner newspaper in 1906. Missionaries of the new CMS mission among the Dinka people of southern Sudan were reporting back on what they were learning. As you might guess from this extract it’s not all that positive.

I gave this article (which I found while doing research at school this spring) to my class of Dinka students in the Sudanese American Theological Institute that I’m teaching at in Phoenix this summer. We were talking about the early years of the European mission effort in southern Sudan. Here are some other extracts from the article:

The value of the medical mission in breaking up the fallow ground is again receiving marked demonstration in the Dinka Mission. Illness is naturally prevalent owing to the fact that the Dinka will use the same water hole for drinking, washing himself, and watering his cattle! As the benefit of proper treatment is appreciated the pioneer doctor’s hands are kept full.

Contact with clothed Europeans is also having an excellent civilizing effect. Clothes are desired, and the possession of cloth leads to the need of soap. Clothing does not harmonize with the daubing of grease, red ochre, and ashes, and so the civilizing process goes on.

(This is actually not true. In separate letters home, the doctor and others complained about not having enough to do because the Dinka basically ignored them. But facts never got in the way of anyone’s fundraising appeal!)

The article makes me wince when I read it. It reeks of the late Victorian, noblesse oblige that so characterized mission efforts of that time. The way the word “civilization” is used constantly is a reminder that missionaries saw it as their job not just to spread the good news but also to bring with them their cultural suppositions.

I gave it to the students and I wanted to know what they thought. Right off the bat, one male student read it and said, “That’s accurate.” A female student agreed and said that it was the women who do all the work in Dinka culture. That prompted a male student to say, “They didn’t understand what men do in Dinka culture.” And the conversation took off from there. (For what it’s worth—and I noted this in class—I’ve read lots of ethnographies of Dinka from various points of the last 150 years and it’s amazing how often the word “lazy” crops up.)

We ended up talking at length about how—if at all—missionaries can separate their own cultural background from the gospel they are seeking to share. Ultimately, the answer is not entirely. The gospel is always enculturated. Missionaries share the way they understand the gospel and then it is received and transformed as it enters a new culture. The question for missionaries to ask, then, is what parts of what I am sharing are essential to the gospel and which are not?

This is all pretty obvious stuff for folks who’ve been engaged in cross-cultural mission. But it’s worth reading wince-inducing mission histories because it reminds us of this central dynamic in Christian mission between gospel and culture.

Mainline Protestant denominations have, in the past several years, moved away from explicit evangelism to a partnership model of mission that stresses the development of relationships. There is much to commend to this model and I’ve written a book that essentially endorses it without, of course, losing sight of the kerygma of Jesus Christ.

Even as we do so, however, I think it’s still important to step back and ask ourselves the question: what is gospel and what is culture? In working with other cultures—even in partnership—we still bring with us cultural suppositions as deeply rooted (if less obviously offensive) as those the first CMS missionaries brought with them when they went to southern Sudan.

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