Suppose you are a member of the Mission Committee of your church, and there are a number of missionaries that you support around the world. There is a missionary who you specifically are very fond of, a bright, committed and active guy in the jungles of the Amazon, working among the indigenous tribes there. He sends back amazing reports about scores of natives converted to Christianity, evangelistic outreach, churches planted and so on. The Mission Committee is happy to support him, and your church is proud to display him as one of the most successful missionaries you’ve ever supported.
One day the Mission Committee authorizes you to make a mission trip to the Amazon and visit the missionary and see his work first hand. You pack up your video camera, your toothbrush, and clothes for a couple of days, and one Saturday afternoon, after a short and uneventful flight, followed by a long a very eventful ride in an old Landrover through a rainforest where the ground has never seen the sunlight break through the canopies of the trees, you are safely accommodated at the comfortable though far from luxurious home of the missionary. He is excited. He has talked to you the whole way from the airport, and now he has retired to prepare his sermon for the next day, giving you the opportunity to relax and even get some sleep.
The church service the next day is amazing. The building is full, scores of people, some from other villages, singing hymns, taking communion, and some of them even reading from the Bible. The tribal chiefs are there too, singing and worshiping with the rest. The mission is an obvious success, and you don’t miss to record it on video.
Then comes Monday morning. The missionary has told you that he needed to travel to the nearest mechanic shop to fix his car, so you are left in the village, and you have the opportunity to sleep late and then spend some time with the local people. You are awakened early in the morning by monotonous singing of several male voices. You look through the window and you see not far away a dozen of men on their knees before something that looks like a Tapir hide on a pole. They sing a few words, then lay prostrate before the pole, then back to their knees and sing a few more words. When you look at the faces of the men, you can recognize some of them from the church service the previous day, and in fact, you can also recognize the village chief who read from the Bible the day before!
You frantically dress up and go to find your translator to ask him about what you just saw. His answer is that the chief and the men are going hunting and they are praying to the spirits to give them good luck—in the form of a nice fat Tapir, of course. Before you can recover from your astonishment, the men end their prayer, get on their feet and go to their huts to get their weapons. One of the men, before he leaves his hut, grabs his wife by her long hair and starts punching her mercilessly in the face, yelling at her in their language. Then he pushes her aside and follows the chief and the other men as they disappear in the jungle. You ask the translator why the man beat his wife. The translator says that she was not supposed to feed her mother anymore because she has reached the “separation” age. “What is a separation age?,” you ask, only to get the horrible response that this is the age at which old people are left in the jungle to die or be eaten by predators to save expenses for the family.
This is now too much for you. While meditating on the events of the morning, you hear terrible squeals. You run there to see what’s happening and you see a group of boys and a small pig. When you get closer, you see they are some of the boys on the church choir of the day before. But then you see the reason for the squeals: The boys are torturing the poor animal! They are using their knives to flay it alive, and you can see it still kicking and screaming in their strong hands. But the picture is not complete until a group of girls joins in and laughs merrily at the desperate squeals of the pig.
You run back to the house, disgusted and shaken, and you are trying to gather your thoughts. The translator, alarmed by the distressed look in your face, has come back with you and he is now trying to understand what the reason for it is. “Didn’t you see what all these people are doing?” you ask. “The prayer to the spirits, the man beating his wife, the old woman about to be sent to die, the cruelty of those young kids?”
The man is confused. “Yes, sir, I see them. But . . . what’s the problem with those things, sir?”
“What’s the problem!? Are you serious? These people were in the church yesterday, and today they act as if they have never heard the Gospel!”
The man is still confused. “But our missionary never told us anything against those practices.”
Now you know whom to talk to.
A couple of hours later the missionary is back, and you meet him, determined to corner him and get the truth out of him. The guy is in a cheerful mood; obviously he had success with repairing his car, so now he sits and listens to you with a content smile on his face. You tell him about what you saw a couple of hours earlier. He doesn’t seem moved.
“Well, Mr. Missionary,” you ask sternly, “what do you have to say about it? I saw a few practices this morning, clearly idolatrous and barbarian, and the translator tells me you never really told these people how abominable these practices were! Now, tell me the truth. What exactly are you doing here as a missionary?”
The missionary doesn’t seem to be concerned at all. In fact, he seems to have expected your questions.
“The truth, Mr. Sponsor, is this: I am a Christian missionary, not a social reformer. I am here to preach the Gospel, to save souls, and to plant churches. When I came to your church and asked for support, I didn’t say I was going to do anything else but those three things. I did not say I was going to try to change their society, their customs, and their political structure. I am not trying to tell them how to build their economic system. I am not here to interfere with their education or welfare programs.
“The things you saw are exactly this. You saw the chief and his men going to work. This is part of their economic system. Praying to the spirit of the Tapir is their way of preparation for work. It gives them the psychological and emotional preparedness for the economic task ahead. I know, it seems weird and backwards, but who am I to try to impose my American way of business and economics on them?
“The man beating his wife was only following an ancient custom. The family is a sociological unit, and there are specific rules in the family that are part of the overall social environment. I personally don’t like it but again, I am not a social reformer, I am a missionary. And yes, it is important that her mother is left to die, because otherwise she would be an economic burden on the family. This is the way their welfare system works: Someone has to sacrifice or be sacrificed so that the rest have enough to eat. Can I interfere there? Based on what authority? I am here to preach Jesus to them and give them the opportunity to save their souls; I am not here to give them solutions to social problems.
“In this society it is not considered cruelty for children to torture animals; on the contrary, it is part of the educational system. All of the productive time of the men is spent providing food by hunting. The children need to learn from an early age to kill an animal, skin it, and cut it into pieces. They need to learn to reject their natural impulse to not inflict pain. It is important economic education, as well as political, because the same skill is necessary when the tribe defends its villages against other tribes. There is no mercy in the political world of the jungle, and I can not allow my American prejudice dictate to them to change their political and social rules.
“In short, Mr. Sponsor, my work is with the sacred, not with the secular. I am not a liberal reformer, and I am not preaching a social gospel. I am preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of men, not their institutions or their societies. That’s why I don’t believe I have the authority to tell the Christians in this village to change their social and political practices. The Gospel is about salvation of souls, not about changing cultures, and that’s what I am doing here.”