Different Names for The Same Thing

It is a most curious phenomenon that paying experts disproportionately large sums of money to fix people continuously reveals new ways in which people are broken.

In the hours immediately prior to my father’s passing a palliative care physician stopped by. He got to chatting with my brother and I about where we were from when we weren’t in Victoria, what we did, that sort of thing. When the doctor learned I was a professor in Vernon, he told me he’d recently played a hockey tournament in Lumby, a neighbouring town. Lovely area, we both agreed, love me some Lumby (my brother, to my knowledge, has never been to Lumby so he, quite sensibly, gave no reaction at all, not at this stage). When talk got around to missionary life in Chile, the doctor commented that…wasn’t Chile already a Christian country? Who, the doctor wanted to know, got to decide that Catholics weren’t Christians in the right way or to a sufficient degree?

The silence that greeted this new line of inquiry was immediate and uncomfortable. Probably, my brother, my dad, and I would each have given different answers to these questions. But as my dad couldn’t speak, I didn’t think it fair that I answer for or against him. My brother did not respond either. When my dad died, maybe like 30 minutes later, those questions still seemed to linger.

I imagine that my dad, if he could have talked, would have insisted that: 1) Chile was not a Christian country and Catholics in the main were not Christian. 2) Every word in the Bible was the word of God and every word was to be interpreted literally in perpetuity. God say go ye across the world and preach the gospel. He’d done as he was asked. God will judge me, you may not.

Not wishing to speak ill of the dead, but speaking ill of non-evangelical Christians was pretty much the speciality of the house over at Casa Snowsell. All of them needed saving. Ninetyninepointnine per cent of the world’s Christians were doing it wrong. Catholics. Mainline Protestants. Obviously, all the Mormons and Jdubs. My father hated (loved them for Christ) them all quite passionately. He especially had it in for the United Church—Dead as a Doornail!” he would hoot as though even the idea of United Church so-called pastors trying to get into heaven struck him as funny. To be fair, he was generous with his hatred (love for Christ) of all the other Christians, and he would happily condemn as well any Scientologists that crossed his path, so too adherents of the Church of Christ, Scientist, and most of the older Baptist denominations as well. It offended my father that these people called themselves Christian. It was my father’s steadfast belief that all of these Christian-not-Christians were doomed to hell. It wasn’t my dad saying that. He was saying that on God’s behalf.  

As for the second point, what was there to know? Either you believed in evangelizing missions or you were wrong. “The Great Commission”—Git Yo Ass all over the Globe and Preach the Gospel—is right there in black and white and it means what it says: Go Ye to All Areas of the World…including the ones to which you’ve already gone so many times that you’ve completely worn out your welcome and then just keep going (you can never go there enough times) to tell them exactly the same things they already know and which it isn’t your place to keep telling them.

Although my father was exceptionally enthusiastic, there wasn’t anything particularly exceptional about his beliefs. Everyone I knew thought sending Canadians trained in Regina, Saskatchewan to all of the major Latin American metropolises to reach the unsaved (almost all of whom already identified as Catholic or some other Christian variant) was the most natural and normal thing in the world. My dad didn’t have any aberrant theological beliefs in this regard. Everyone knew that:

1) The Great Commission is ongoing until Jesus Christ returns—in the most literal sense, as a physical person you can hang out with on the same couch.

2) The Great Commission reveals itself internally to individuals. Once any Christian says that they have heard the voice of God then no other Christian may say that they haven’t. This is sacrosanct. You wouldn’t contradict a Christian who says they have heard the voice of God any more than you’d refuse to use a person’s preferred pronouns. Out Of Bounds. If you tell me God is calling, then God is calling. The issue is settled and final for all time’s sake.

3)  The Great Commission is of such unrelenting urgency that missionaries must be fully focussed on their worka mental state not achievable to parents raising children; therefore, abandoning your children is of God, a sacrifice that has received his highest blessing for the holiest of endeavours.

Nothing about what my parents were planning struck any other adult in 1970s Canada as bizarre—not even the non-Church-going ones. If there were people around me back then who thought it was ill-advised for parents to give away their children, I never heard about it. Before I went overseas, I had only one adult ask me what I thought about this whole thing. How do you feel about being separated from your parents and being sent to live at a Christian school in a strange country, she wanted to know? She was a “non-Christian” mom of one of my Grade Five friends and I remember being surprised at the question. Everyone else told me I was lucky that my parents had been “chosen”. My parents, especially, played it up big: insisted that boarding school in another culture was a once-in-a-lifetime, God-given privilege—a real adventure. I doubt it was then cognitively possible for me to trust my parents any other way but fully and completely. I told my friend’s mom the truth: I told her I was excited to go.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t blame my parents at all—not at this stage of the story. Contrary to everything they told themselves, there was nothing remarkable about becoming a missionary.

If you’d gone to bible school you had two choices for professionalizing your faith:

1)     you could become a pastor in a medium-sized Canadian town;

2)     you could become a missionary in an exotic locale to which the denomination would fly you and your family, all expenses paid, and put you up, at their own expense, in a house where, with the transfer rate between American dollars and everything else, you could live in a luxury not possible if you stayed home.

In the former scenario you’d remain in the Canadian heartland, close to your bosses and easily accessible to everyone you ever knew. In the latter scenario, you would be working nearly entirely unsupervised, plus leaving your family behind would be considered an act of great virtue. Inevitably, missionary work attracted a certain kind.

Many Xtian Doodz of the 70s and 80s had a Top Gun approach to Macho! Macho! M…issionary work. Real men went overseas. Real men didn’t flinch when asked to give up their kids. Others were careerists putting in time on the front line to later spin the cachet onto an executive fast track back in North America later, or they were adventurers who in any time would have found justification for doing whatever they wanted, or they were running from something they’d done or were afraid they might do and the further away the better. Some of them were one hundred per cent true believers.

Even when missionary work revealed itself as antiquated and culturally offensive, even when it was clear that the boarding school to which they had sent their children was shockingly regressive—a colonial-era relic of an immersive, communal Christianity no more justifiable than First Nations’ residential schools in Canada—all these types of missionaries became the same. Because they shared one thing in common: they refused to see anything that interfered with what they had already decided to do and from which nothing could have swayed them.

Maybe all of life is justifying as need what is always only want. In which case the admonition to “be careful what you wish for” takes on even greater weight: want of any kind brings into existence a temptation that could not have existed without it. I want my life to be seen to mean something. If that means giving away my kids, they’re gone. The desire to live a less ordinary life isn’t malign, but it has unmistakably led to a lot of catastrophic adventuring that in the absence of ego could not have occurred.

Yet no single thing leads to worse results faster than the creation of a class of people—a clerisy—invested with not only the right and the obligation to find fault in others, but who are also provided handsome financial renumeration for doing so. If there’s one thing of which I am certain it is that as long as people continue to be paid to find sin, sin is safe as houses—it is never, ever going to go away. It is a most curious phenomenon that paying experts disproportionately large sums of money to fix people continuously reveals new ways in which people are broken.

What I’ve found is that faced with such temptation we truly are all the same. Christian missionaries and progressive professors are equally powerless before the great temptation: It’s very difficult not to take the money and the benefits, downplay the damage, sleep well at night.

This is an unfair attack, here at the end of this essay, tainting contemporary progressive professors by comparing them to a largely extinct strain of evangelical Christianity. Guilt by association without any evidence? I’d never dare.

Next time though.

Until then.