Jonah is an anomaly.
His book is unique among the prophets because it is entirely autobiographical. He did not desire the incredible ministry successes he experienced. God took the initiative to show His grace to the Assyrians by sending them a missionary. Jonah was not merely apathetic about this, he was antipathetic–he did not want that ethnic group to be converted. They were a different skin color, language group, and geography from him; and their culture was vastly different. He wasn’t interested in their conversion.
And after ten years on the mission field, I can see that Jonah was not the only missionary to struggle with racist feelings.
What, a racist missionary? Isn’t that an oxymoron? How could a racist be a missionary? Well, emotions of bitterness and cynicism towards the people on your field don’t come all at once. Missionaries don’t ever go to the field thinking that they could even become close to being racist! After all, they’ve given up everything because of their love for another people group, right? Nevertheless, negative emotions towards the very people you want to love can creep in over time after many adverse culture-shocking experiences. (Look at the results of “culture stress.”)
Jonah is a good bad example of NOT loving the people to whom you are sent. Thus Jonah’s story is a great starting-place in a biblical discussion of racism. Jonah was “very angry” when God showed mercy to the Ninevites. So God used an object lesson of a quick-growing, then quick-dying gourd, with some gentle questions, followed up with a gentle, insightful rebuke to show Jonah that his hatred towards the Ninevites was wrong.
And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?
And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Who are these persons that God is talking about? Who cannot tell the difference between their right and left hands? Isn’t it the children? In other words, some litmus tests of whether you are racist or not are the following:
- if you are unable to show love towards people from another ethnicity
- if you wish for genocide including the children
- if you believe that a person from that race cannot be converted, or
- if you believe that all the people in that culture are only bad, thus even the children have no good potential.
I still remember a defining moment for Seth and me as new missionaries. We had just moved to a rural village in South Africa and were visiting neighbors in an attempt to meet them and learn their culture. We came across an old man who had been almost raised by Swiss Presbyterian missionaries who pioneered missions to the Tsonga people. They had sent him to school abroad, and his English was excellent.
Trying to answer his wife’s questions as to why we were there, we began evangelizing, assuming that they knew basic ideas of salvation and the Gospel because of their background as staunch Presbyterians. Imagine our surprise when his wife inquired what we meant by “salvation.” She queried, “You mean, baptism?” Startled, Seth began expounding the Gospel. Her husband cut us off with an eye-opening statement: “Oh, you’ll never get them to understand details like that. These people will never get the details.”
The Gospel? Details? Sadly this man was a living example of his own stereotype.
I remember another shocking scene in my first year here. Our landlord came over drunk one night to visit with us. I will never forget him pouring beer on the hood of our pick-up truck for his pet monkey to lap up, while saying, “This chimp is smarter than any of those * blacks.”
After years of ministering to a pagan culture, missionaries can get very discouraged from witnessing repeated sinful behaviors. They can get bitter from attacks or disappointments by untrustworthy people. They can become cynical, wondering if fruit is real or how long it’ll last this time. Harmful generalizations are made: “These people are all like that. They will never get better.”
Missionaries to less civilized people groups eventually have to deal with the question, “Why are these people like that?” When a missionary hits that disillusioned stage of being so frustrated, it seems that two paths lie before him. He can explain the deficiencies he sees in another culture in one of two ways:
He could say that those people are like that because they are inherently inferior. They are simply unable to become an enlightened, Christian culture. He could become like our landlord, bitterly saying that the people have no more hope than animals. In other words, he could become a racist.
We have decided to take the second path, however, which explains stereotypical problems of another race with this answer: The Devil has blinded their culture for so many thousands of centuries and they have had so little common grace given to them, that they need a lot more time and work of the Holy Spirit to reflect Christianity in their culture. (2 Cor. 4:4) In other words, it is Satan we are fighting, not people.
Missionaries need to guard their hearts and thinking about pagan cultures. If you don’t believe that cultural sins and deficiencies are strongholds of Satan, and that these are spiritual issues deserving of your empathy, you will become a racist missionary, constantly embittered and frustrated instead of responding with compassion. Because if the answer is not that the Devil has a stronghold in that culture, then the answer is that those people are just inferior, inherently, for centuries. And that is racist.