The colonial conquerors all considered themselves to be Christians and were convinced that they were bringing enlightenment to the poor heathen of the conquered nations. Francisco Pizarro and his men went for the direct method – they rounded up the Inca leaders, forcibly baptized them and then executed them. In their minds, this expedient served a dual purpose: they were sending the souls of the Inca leaders directly to heaven, while at the same time eliminating the chief opponents of Spanish rule.
Other conquerors may not have been quite so brutal, but all attempted to suppress the indigenous religions and forcibly implant Christianity. One might question whether the kind of Christianity being implanted was really any improvement on the indigenous religions.
Here in Canada, the practices of native religions were banned by law and native children rounded up and sent to residential schools where they were supposedly taught the whit man’s ways and the Christian religion. These schools were run by a variety of churches – mainly Roman Catholic and Anglican. Verbal abuse was common, which in some establishments escalated to physical and sexual abuse. After finishing school the children were sent back to the reserves to live out the rest of their lives apart from the mainstream of society. The intention may have been good, but those good intentions destroyed homes and lives.
For most of the 20th Century the USA and the Roman Catholic Church expended much effort in Haiti to exterminate the voodoo religion, to little effect. An unintended result is that voodoo and zombies have entered into American folklore with interpretations that are wildly imaginative and do not have much basis in reality. In Haitian Kréyol a zombi is a person under the complete control of a master, in other words a slave. It reflects the fear of individual or collective loss of control, an issue that has never been far from the surface in Haitian history.
I am not wishing to defend voodoo or other native religions. I just don’t think that the sterile and gutted form of Christianity imported by the colonizers was much of an improvement. It is no wonder that there is still much resistance in many places to the “white man’s religion.”
The answer, of course, is indigenous Christianity. Not a different kind of Christianity, but Christianity that is not forcibly implanted and applied from the top down. Christianity that is sown in new places and allowed to take root and grow.
The missionaries of past generations have been accused of being in the service of the colonial powers. Perhaps some were. A great many, however, were concerned with acquainting people with the power of authentic Christianity and giving them the Bible in their own language so that they could take on the task of spreading the gospel among their own people. Where this was done without too much heavy-handedness on the part of the missionaries, the gospel has indeed taken root.
Genuine Christianity is universally relevant, All people everywhere are in need of pure, unadulterated Christianity, applied to their specific situation and needs. Only the Holy Spirit can make true Christianity grow and thrive. Yet there is still a need for those who sow and water, as long as they do not try to take credit for the growth that results.