Friday, May 30, 2008

Jesus in the Amazon

Every once in a while a headline from Yahoo! News actually piques my interest. Today they posted aerial pictures accompanying a brief article about an "uncontacted indiginous tribe in the Amazon." The article notes that there are some 100 uncontacted tribes like the ones pictured throughout the world. Only 100? Have we really explored every place there is to explore on this earth and deduced that there are only about 100 tribes that have been untouched by civility?

Second, and more the focus of this post, now that we are more aware of at least this one particular tribe and its whereabouts, do you suppose that some missionary is going to go evangelize to these people? All sarcasm aside, should they be evangelized to? I don't think it's necessarily arrogant to say no, but I'm not sure I wouldn't say yes.

The word evangelism itself brings up an image that makes me uneasy. In my mind I see evangelism as brow beating and evangelists the brow beaters, wielding the Bible like a weapon. It reminds me of my Intro to Evangelism class at Cincinnati Bible College where we were to "evangelize" to 2 people during the semester and write up a report about it for a grade. One of the criteria of the report was to note whether or not I thought my evangelism worked. Did the person I evangelized to "come to Christ" as a result of my evangelism technique? I fear that this is the mindset that will bring a missionary or even a whole group (oh, I mean team) of missionaries to "bring Jesus to the ends of the earth." In this case I am comfortable in thinking that this tribe is fine just as it is and is, in fact, better off without the missionary team.

On the other hand, what do we do with verses like Acts 1:8 and Acts 13:47 and any number of other passages that speak to taking the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. I guess it depends on your view of salvation. If this tribe never knows about Jesus how can they be held accountable for it? No doubt this tribe worships something, and something that makes perfect sense to them. Does God accept their genuine worship even though it may not be specifically directed toward him because this tribe does not specifically know his name?

Should a missionary go in and teach them about Jesus? How would that change that tribes way of life? Does it matter that their way of life was changed if they now know about Jesus? What if that knowledge changes the tribe for the worse because it could confuse what they've always known or cause divisions in the tribe between those who may have accepted the knowledge and those who may have rejected it. Then there's a whole new cycle of the acceptors thinking they are better than the rejectors, and oh the rabbit trails this takes you down.

I didn't even address the bit in the article about how the tribe and others like it are in danger of losing their land because civilized people are knocking down all the trees. At that point there's more of a justice aspect that enters the picture rather than a salvific aspect.

Ultimately my question is simple though the answer, if there is one, is not so much. How does God/Jesus apply to this tribe of people?


Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Your pessimism about the gospel is disturbing, to put it mildly.

Let's assume the debated theological point that it might be the case that unevangelized peoples are judged according to their limited access to revelation and may even be "saved" as a result. Does that make it less likely that they will be saved if they hear more revelation. Kinda odd theologically if receiving more revelation makes it harder to be saved. What kind of God would operate that way? Surely not the one who loves humans enough to die on a cross for them.

So let's assume that the same people who are responding to their limited revelation and being saved by it will also be saved if they hear the gospel. So there's no advantage, right? I say wrong.

First, that's wrong because the gospel consistently brings benefits in the here-and-now, which happens to be pretty important. I don't think that your bleak notion of ill effects does justice to either to the history of blessing to human life brought by evangelism or to the very real and very universal impact of human sinfulness on unevangelized peoples, including "undiscovered" tribes. It takes a very romantic, unrealistic view of the "noble savage" to imagine that the gospel will bring people down.

Second, on the eternal side of the equation, are there people who don't respond to the revelation that they have now who will respond to the revelation of the gospel. If Romans 1-3 means anything, it means that the answer to this is a resounding yes. It's sinners under judgment for whom Christ died, and surely there are such folks in remote areas. If there are some who will "make it" in that place without the gospel (and theologically I can't say with confidence that there are), then there are more who will "make it" with the gospel.

I'm sorry that your experience or impression of the Christian mission is so dismal. Granted that as sinners, many Christians have managed to turn the good news into bad news, I will still insist that when evangelism really embodies the evangel (and it very often does), it changes human life for the good in a way that nothing else can. I know too many people from too many walks of life and too many cultures who affirm that loudly and clearly.

Mel said...

Dr. Weatherly,
I am honestly intrigued by and will spend some time thinking about your response. I intended this post to spark some discussion on the broad matter of evangelism so I'm delighted that it has.

My time spent at CBC has shaped a great deal of my faith, which is always in a state of being worked through with fear and trembling. That was also a time in my life where I blindly accepted everything I was taught and never gave true and honest thought to what I said I believed. I assumed that I was in the right and had guaranteed my spot in heaven because I believed what everyone else around me did. That said, I did take offense to the Intro to Evangelism class and, in my opinion, it's very arrogant view of evangelism. I was never ok to evangelize for a grade, nor was I willing to truly accept that I ever had the right to say whether some person was going to heaven or hell. This is the source of my pessimism as you noted.

The questions posed in this post are honest and legitimate questions that I wrestle with when I think about evangelism/missions. If I neglect these questions then I am nothing more than a Christian robot straight from the factory. I do not believe this was God's intent when He created people. So I ask them, albeit somewhat sarcastically, but nonetheless honest.

In response to your first question: "Does that make it less likely that they will be saved if they hear more revelation?" I think it is entirely possible that people can be less likely to accept the gospel depending on how it is presented. For instance, I was immediately defensive after reading the first line of your response. That makes me less inclined to accept what you had to say in the paragraphs following. However, once I took some time to unpack your thoughts and to figure out who you were, I was able to set aside presentation to engage you in dialogue.

Can you assume that this tribe of people will not be immediately defensive even at the presence of someone entirely foreign to them? Why would they give a missionary the benefit of the doubt? If these people are truly uncontacted they will more likely be afraid of a missionary and will most likely react with hostility. Then they will be told that everything they've known about worship and gods is wrong and they will be punished eternally for it. Their fear would not be misplaced-they are being conquered. Not physically but spiritually. I am not comfortable with "conquering the world for Christ." This language, I believe, is hurtful and divisive. In this light I can see how it would be less likely for someone to be saved by hearing more revelation.

The rest of your response requires more time to think about than I have at 4:10 on Monday afternoon. I plan to return to the conversation later when I can give it more devoted attention. I appreciate this dialogue and wish that I had spent more time asking these kinds of questions when I had the faculty of CBC at my more direct disposal. However, I don't begrudge it too much as it's where I'm at right now.

Thank you for your response!