Gender: The Empire strikes back?

This term I have been teaching the missiology course at the Seminary. This is quite an interesting process as there is much good material in Spanish, such as translations of Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God’s and Bosch’s Transforming Mission (fortunately no Transcending Mission) and materials by Latin American missiologists including the odd book by Peruvians (in one case also a book that is odd…). However there is no book which does the unifying role of a text book, (at least available in Peruvian bookstores) so much of my time has been spent writing course notes (47,000 words and counting).

One of the issues that emerges is that of imperialism and cultural chauvinism, and the tendency that Western missionaries have had of imposing their cultural values on others. Not that this is exclusive to Westerners. My experience teaching Latin Americans, Africans and Asians is that they are just as happy to consider their own cultural values as normative, however Western Christians generally have had the money and the power to get their own way.

So, how do you react when you don’t want to be imperialistic, but actually think that on a certain issue your culture has got it right, or at least has a better approach? This has led the issue of gender making Western liberals get themselves all twisted up, as waxing lyrically on cultural relativism, pluralism and tolerance comes face to face with cultural practices on gender which are, for liberals, simply intolerable. The response has been the recent unedifying process of retreating from rational debate and the weighing up of evidence to the judicialization of identitarian struggles and the employment of the state’s monopoly of violence to eradicate all dissent. Some thoughts,

  1. Equal rights, equal pay, mutual submission in the church and the home are superior to Piper’s “slapped for a season” and Gothard’s heretical umbrellas of protection, and certainly better than cultural practices which endorse FGM, for example. However, this is independent of their Western origin. Arguments based on the superiority of Western culture or its contemporary euphemism “the right side of history” are racist, colonialist and should be abandoned.
  2. Even our cultural values which are closer to the gospel come wrapped in a wider package which contains sinful elements. For example, the gender values I endorsed above often come wrapped up with individualism, narcissism, anti-humanism and the erosion of biblical authority.While one shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, it is best to check that the bathwater isn’t poisoned first.
  3. It is usually possible to find the seeds of a healthier approach in the culture you are working in. For example, on Sunday our minister went on at length attacking gender violence and the employment of a theology of submission to endorse it. Helping to foster an approach which is genuinely indigenous and culturally sensitive is much more likely to be effective than simply transposing western values and concepts.

For example, that means that those of us who see no reason to forbid women from exercising any spiritual gifts that God has given them cannot simply translate Western works and commentaries. What is necessary is to encourage local exegesis and theological reflection and trust that the truth will emerge from this process. Otherwise it simply becomes a matter of letting the empire strike back.