February 11, 2010

Missionaries Doing What Missionaries Always Did

When I heard that ten American missionaries are on trial for kidnapping 33 Haitian children and attempting to take them to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, I, like most other people, was outraged. But I can't say I was surprised.

To be sure, the thought that some people, whether missionaries or traffickers, would take advantage of an earthquake to steal children and place them in orphanages - or the sex trade, or the slave trade, or whatever - stirs the conscience. The Baptist missionaries, mostly from Idaho, would have us believe that they were trying to do some good, except that a number of the "orphans" had living parents. And so they were trying to do good deeds, as many of the other missionaries before them. We've been down this road before.

This would not be the first time that missionaries kidnapped Third World children in the name of God. A look back into history reveals the troubling role of religion and its practitioners in the colonization of black and brown countries. Now, I am not condemning those dedicated and committed people of faith who are helping poor communities throughout the world and saving lives. I am sure they are making a difference. But we would be deluding ourselves if we denied the sordid history of missionaries.

After all, missionaries served an important role in the conquest and taught them they were heathens and evil sinners who were bound for Hell. They convinced the so-called natives that their culture and customs were filthy and backward, and told them to abandon their ancestors and belief systems. The missionaries separated the conquered from their sense of self, a psychic conquest if you will, and replaced the old gods with a god who, not surprisingly, looked just like the conquerors. Now softened up, the natives were susceptible to alcohol abuse and other distractions, and ripe for physical conquest in the form of subjugation, enslavement, forced labor, genocide and the like.

Part of the cultural genocide was committed by white Christian missionaries in the name of Jesus Christ. Missionaries worked with the Australian government to rip thousands of half-Abroriginal children from their families and place them in government orphanages, where they were abused. The plan was to "breed" the Aborigine out of them and force them to conform to Western ways. The plight of these stolen children was dramatized in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, in which three kidnapped Aboriginal girls who were to be trained as servants escaped from their captors, and roamed through the outback alone.

And as for the Native Americans, European missionaries tried to convert and "civilize" the so-called heathens from the first point of contact. When the U.S. divided the Native peoples' lands into reservations, they assigned the reservations to Christian missionaries. Reservation schools, both boarding and day schools, served the goals of Manifest Destiny by "killing the Indian" in order to "save the man". Subjected to a regime of forced assimilation, Native students were prohibited from speaking any language other than English. And they were kept from practicing their traditional spiritual beliefs, and were indoctrinated with Christian teachings. Separated from their language and their culture, sometimes they were separated from their families by hundreds of miles. Supposedly, it was for their own good.

So, the kidnapping, exploitation and abuse of darker children by missionaries are nothing new. Haitian children, victims of a devastating earthquake, are also victims of an ancient game that is as old as colonization itself. It is a cold-blooded crime, but for hundreds of years the criminals were immune from prosecution and never saw the inside of a courtroom.

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