Missionary, in some circles, is like a curse word. It represents the very worst of colonization, the impulse to vacuum up “pagan” cultures and replace them with what the colonizer has deemed proper. Like a spiritual Manifest Destiny, this kind of missionary expands religion hoping for grateful acquiescence but willing to extract obedience through force if need be.
This is unrecognizable to me, as a staff member of Cru, one of the largest missionary forces in the world. But I was confronted with how painfully real this image was and is to many as I read the biography of Edward S. Curtis in Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
One hundred years ago, Curtis, a man I have never heard of before, gave his life to capturing the cultures of Native Americans as they were before Europeans came to colonize. That is, as much as he could capture. Many of the peoples and ways were rapidly slipping away. As Curtis traveled amongst dozens of the people groups of North America, he began to truly love them. Perhaps he even idealized them. Nonetheless, his heart burned against the injustices they had faced, and he worked tirelessly, even recklessly, to preserve authentic customs and real, powerful lives on film and in writing.
Curtis had grown up the American West, the son of an itinerant preacher. His father never made much of himself, and is presented by Egan as a tragic figure. The reader isn’t exposed to what that man thought of the gospel, what methods he used, or even the primary audience he was ministering to. But it was clear that whatever exposure the younger Curtis had to the Bible left him unmoved.
How opposite his interactions with the various native faiths he encountered. Through patience, observation, and humility, Curtis gained access to many sacred rituals, such as the Snake Dance of the Hopi and the Yeibichai Dance of the Navajo. He was transfixed. While stereotypes and gross misrepresentation of Native life abounded in white America, Curtis saw real humans. He experienced communities of integrity, warmth, and deep spirituality, not confined to ceremony alone but certainly present in it. And he was transformed.
Paradoxically, this gave him a kind of missionary zeal to explain the Native life for the broader American culture. For example, during a traveling exposition of his work, he stated “It is often said of certain tribes that they are sun-worshippers…To call them sun-worshippers is, I believe, in most instances about as nearly right as it would be to call all Christian people cross-worshippers. In other words, the sun is but the symbol of the power”(211,12).
By drawing this analogy, Curtis was working hard to communicate well to a predominantly Christian audience - culturally, at least. But he didn’t hide that it was often “Christian” workers who had spread false views of native religion, and missionaries who traveled far and wide to crush native ceremonies, to wipe them away. A missionary to him was one who destroyed, not one who brought life. The most vibrant community of natives Curtis ever met were the only ones that missionaries hadn’t yet reached, way up in the arctic north near Russia.
The drive to preserve, interpret, and protect pre-colonization Native life consumed Curtis, destroying his health and family. Late in life, literally on trial for how he could be so famous and yet possess zero assets, working for free to support whole peoples but neglecting his wife and children, Curtis was asked by a judge why he would do such a thing. This masculine symbol of American fortitude cried on the stand as he answered, “Your honor, it was my job. The only thing…the only thing I could do that was worth doing” (293).
On reading this, my heart overflowed for this broken man, long dead. I have felt the same pull myself, but towards the gospel mission.
I have no reliable sense of what irony actually is, but this feels ironic to me: a man on a mission for the faith of others, whose greatest enemy seemed to be Christian missionaries, embodying the self-sacrifice that their Lord asked of them. It produced two tragedies, equally weighty.
The first is that Curtis pursued a beautiful thing in destructive ways. To pour out one’s life for the sake of others is truly Christlike. To neglect one’s family, the wife of one’s youth, is not. Nor was Curtis able or willing to offer the gospel. He was unable to save the native cultures he loved, nor was he able to offer them reconciliation with the God who made and loved them-a double loss.
But the second tragedy is more severe, because it is a failure of the church. How could those coming in the name of Jesus, Jesus who would never break a broken reed or tread on a vulnerable heart, how could they come with such cultural imperialism? It is great sin to conflate the universal gospel with any specific cultural expression, a sin which wreaks unspeakable damage. If you can read this book, and its story of native demise, without weeping, I suspect you have no heart.
This story demanded that I look at my own heart, and my own expression of mission. Are there any places where I would demand a person change beyond what the gospel asks, to conform to something in me or my culture that is unnecessary and even harmful to God’s purposes? The gospel is God’s beautiful power, but it is wielded by imperfect, sinful humans. We must take great care, friends. We must go, but we must go in God’s Spirit, asking much forgiveness for what has been wrought before us where necessary. God help us to have courage and humility in equal measure—to love like Curtis, but even more, to love like Christ.