Gospel and Gunboat: Strange Bedfellows

As we study Chinese history from 1800-1950, we see two main dynamics happening in relation to foreigners and foreign missions in China. On the one hand, we see foreign imperialists forcing China to sign unequal treaties and taking advantage of an obviously weakened Chinese state, unable to defend itself. With these unequal treaties, we see an opening for foreign missions organizations that come into China on the coattails of the imperialists. On the other hand, we cannot ignore all the wonderful works that the foreign missionaries accomplish, including Bible translation, setting up schools, Universities, and the start of the modern day Christian church in China. In fact, more and more modern-day Chinese Christians are thankful for the work that the foreign missionaries accomplished. And so it seems like a situation of ‘the good, bad and the ugly,’ if you will. On one hand, it was unfortunate that the missionaries came on the wake of the imperialist powers, because in the minds of many modern-day Chinese, Christianity is still tied to foreign domination. But it almost seems like that was God’s plan all together, as a way to forge a way into China.

I agree with all of this.

Contrary to Communist propaganda, the missionaries did not come in as agents of imperialism; they sought merely to propagate the Good News of Jesus Christ.

True, some of them did voice approval of imperialist aggression, since they were both ardent patriots and zealous for China to be opened to evangelism.

True also that some of them, like Robert Morrison’s son, served as interpreters for foreign governments during negotiations for the infamous “unequal treaties.” On the other hand, we should note they that did so usually because (1) no other foreigners were as proficient in Chinese and (2) they hoped to mitigate the harsher features of foreign aggression, and worked for the benefit of the Chinese.

We cannot deny that Morrison himself worked for the East India Company, one of whose products was opium. At the same time, we should acknowledge his strenuous opposition to the opium trade.

Looking back, we regret that so many missionaries, especially Americans and French, sought full support from their governments for protection and even reprisals for damages resulting from attacks upon them and their converts by irate Chinese.

To his immense credit, Hudson Taylor, after a very bad experience early in his career, refused to invoke the aid of his government for himself in later years, and instituted a policy for the China Inland Mission that led to turning down even the reparation money that could have gone to them after the Boxer Rebellion.

We do not condone the rapacious aggression of European powers, including Russia, or of Japan, in the age of imperialism. Even America was complicit in the odious opium trade and our missionaries, as I have said, often insisted upon their treaty rights, sometimes even going beyond the stipulations of treaties, incurring great resentment from Chinese who saw Christianity as a foreign imposition.

On the other hand, we have to agree with missionaries who saw the crimes of foreign nations as means by which God opened China to the widespread dissemination of the saving knowledge of Christ.

Nor are we alone in this opinion. Chinese Christians themselves, while deploring the humiliation of their country and regretting the sometimes chauvinistic attitudes of some missionaries, acknowledge the sovereignty of God in all that, and thank him for bringing salvation through these sad events and sinful people.

At a conference in Hong Kong commemorating the 200th anniversary of the coming of Robert Morrison to China, about one hundred scholars, almost all of them Chinese, presented papers on the missionary movement and its impact. With only two exceptions, they universally praised the missionaries as good people doing good for China. The two dissenters were agents of the Three Self Patriotic Movement.

At the end of the day, we have to admit that our God is able to draw straight lines with crooked sticks. After all, what else does he have with which to work?