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Amahoro: cultural imperialism

7 June 2009

Roger Saner posted a couple of interesting pieces on his blog recently in preparation for the Amahoro Gathering this week, and for a while it looked as though there would be some interesting conversation, but now it unfortunately seems to have fizzled out.

In a comment on another post Roger said:

Brian McLaren is currently in Canada, meeting with Native Peoples/First Nations, discussing, among other things, the ways the Christian message was warped and distorted to justify atrocities committed against the original Americans. Brian writes, “Similar distortions are happening every day … often against immigrants, Muslims, gay people, and others … and often supported by Bible verses wrenched from their context.”

Brian McLaren will be one of the speakers at the Amahoro Gathering, which begins tomorrow. Roger asked “Where else has Christianity been used to abuse others?”, and I thought I would quote a few paragraphs from my thesis to illustrate this.

There was little change in the first couple of decades after the purchase of Alaska by the USA in 1867, but the passing of the First Organic Act of 1884 opened the way to an aggressive cultural imperialism on the part of the US government in alliance with Protestant missionaries. Sheldon Jackson, the first commissioner of the Board of Education in Alaska, who served from 1885-1908, used his position to promote his own version of Presbyterianism in educational policy. He explicitly announced his intention of wiping out the Orthodox faith. He divided the Alaskan natives and territories among various Protestant denominations, and imported teachers to instruct the natives in “civilised” methods of food production. He prohibited the use of native languages in missionary schools that received federal subsidies. There was a conscious and deliberate policy of suppressing native language and culture, and assimilating it to the Western (i.e. modern) worldview. Modernity was to be imposed by the government educational system (Ellanna & Balluta 1992:300; Oswalt 1990:137ff; Oleksa 1992:171ff).

The contrast here is stark, but it was not unique to the Alaskan situation. There are significant parallels to the South African Bantu Education Act of 1954, which effectively nationalised most of the church schools in South Africa, and thereafter tended to limit access to them to the three Afrikaans Calvinist denominations whose theology had much the same source as the Presbyterians favoured by Sheldon Jackson (see Kinghorn 1997:147).

There were also, of course, significant differences. In the USA, the aim was the assimilation of the newly acquired territory of Alaska to the dominant culture of the USA as a whole. In South Africa, the Bantu Education Act was aimed at furthering segregation, which was in many ways opposite to assimilation, and the supporters of the Act claimed that assimilation was precisely one of the evils the Act was designed to prevent. Nevertheless, the manner in which it was imposed represented crude cultural and political domination by the state, in alliance with certain religious bodies, and with the aim of eliminating the influence of other religious bodies.

Protestant missionaries in Alaska, such as the Moravians, found it very difficult to accept even the non-religious culture of the Alaskans. They were appalled at the lack of cleanliness, and especially at the dirty clothing. Eskimo skin parkas were never cleaned, and might not be discarded until they were full of holes and the fur worn away (Oswalt 1990:83). But St Herman of Alaska, we are told, “did not wear a shirt, but instead a smock of deerskin, which he did not take off or change for several years at a time, so that the fur on it was completely worn off, and the leather glossy” (Oleksa 1992:119).

In the case of Alaska, then, Orthodox missions were far less insistent on cultural change than Protestant missions, with Roman Catholic missions falling somewhere in between (Ellanna & Balluta 1992:299; Oswalt 1990:134,183).

Fr Michael Oleksa, in his book Alaskan missionary spirituality gives an example:

This is illustrated in the correspondence between Mrs Agnes Newhall, matron of the Jesse Lee Home (a Methodist institution in Alaska), and Fr Alexander Kedrofsky, the Orthodox Dean of the Unalashka District (Oleksa 1987:328ff). Fr Alexander was concerned that children were being abducted and sent to the home against their will and the will of their parents, and that in the home they were not allowed to practise their Orthodox faith. He wrote to Mrs Newhall about a girl who had died in the home and was buried according to Protestant rites, and complained that he had not been called to minister to her in her last illness.

In her reply, Mrs Newhall said that interference in the running of the home would not be tolerated, and went on to attack the Aleuts thus: “Is not the moral condition of the greater part of the natives in this village deplorable? Very religious as outward forms go, but intensely sinful in life. Most of their homes are veritable brothels of sin. Is not dishonesty, profanity, adultery, fornication, lasciviousness, strife and drunkenness rife? Is it not an insult to God and the cross of Christ for such workers of iniquity to call themselves Christians? We think so” (Oleksa 1987:332).

Father Alexander replied that the home was established as a hostel attached to the school, that he appreciated its aims, but that it was promised that it would not interfere with the religion of the children, but that this undertaking had recently been broken: “Can it be that Protestantism finds in our Savior’s words (see Matthew XXVIII, 19) authority for missionaries to act as your Home has acted here in Unalashka?! No! The Lord does not command deceit and craftiness as methods to be used in missionary work, to propagate His teaching, but directly forbids them, for that such things are of the Devil…” (Oleksa 1987:334).

On the sinful condition of the natives, he asked, “From what do you conclude that the natives of these parts live such very sinful lives? Coming to the list of the sins which you say prevail among the natives, I must inform you that some of these sins do not exist among them at all, others do exist as you say, but not universally by far; and others again exist in no greater degree than, I dare say, we shall find them in ourselves, you and I! — if only we take the trouble to learn impartially to ‘know ourselves’ and if we dig, with severe self-criticism, to the bottom of our hearts… The alleged total depravity of the natives causes you deep sorrow; yet do tell me, on your conscience, is the moral life of the people from whom you came here, any better than theirs?… Lastly you should know that, if the people here can sin, they can also repent and that is what most imports” (Oleksa 1987:336-337).

It is this desire for humility, the view of oneself as the first of sinners, which was particularly strong in the monastic missionaries, that tended to mitigate the worst effects of the association of Russian mission with colonialism. The entanglement of mission with colonialism in the Russian empire, as in other European empires in the 19th century, had as much potential for evil in Russia as it did anywhere else, and this often led to actual evil. But the Russian missionaries, especially the monastic ones who had been influenced by the late 17th-century monastic revival, as the Valaam missionaries who went to Alaska were, were accustomed to try to cultivate the virtues of modesty and humility, and so not to see themselves, their moral lives, their culture or their nationality, as superior to those they went to. In the case of Alaska, it was above all the example of St Herman, who not only preached these virtues but lived them, who enabled the Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians to adopt the Orthodox Christian faith as their own, despite the abuse they received at the hands of officials of the Russian America Company (Mousalimos 1991:157f).

This emphasis on humility was linked to the premodern worldview that remained, at least to some extent, in the Orthodox Church. From the Renaissance on, Western culture tended to place less emphasis on humility. Humanism emphasised human rights and dignity, and pride in human accomplishments. To those who live in them, “civilised” societies had more accomplishments to boast of than “primitive” ones, and such an attitude of cultural superiority became inextricably linked with modernity.

I’m not sure whether that has anything to say about postcolonial Christianity in Africa, which is the theme of the Amahoro Gathering, but perhaps we can also think of examples closer to home.


  • Ellanna, Linda J. & Balluta, Andrew. 1992. Nuvendaltin Quht’ana: the people of Nondalton. Washington: Smithsonian.
  • Elphick, Richard & Davenport, Rodney (eds). 1997. Christianity in South Africa: a political, social and cultural history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Kinghorn, Johann. 1997. Modernization and apartheid: the Afrikaner churches, vide Elphick & Davenport 1997.
  • Mousalimas, S.A. 1991. The account from Old Harbour: regarding the baptism of the Kodiak Alutiiq (1794-1795). Greek Orthodox Theological Review. Vol. 36(2). Pages 155-168.
  • Mousalimas, Soterios A. 1989. Contrasting theological outlooks on ancient Kodiak culture. Greek Orthodox Theological Review Vol. 34(4). Pages 365-378.
  • Oleksa, Michael (ed.). 1987. Alaskan missionary spirituality. New York: Paulist.
  • Oleksa, Michael J. 1993. Orthodox missiological education for the 21st century, in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly. Vol. 37(4). Pages 353-362.
  • Oleksa, Michael. 1992. Orthodox Alaska: a theology of mission. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  • Oswalt, Wendell H. 1990. Bashful no longer: an Alaskan Eskimo ethnohistory, 1778-1988. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 June 2009 6:28 pm

    Thanks for this post, Steve – I do indeed see many similarities to South Africa, and as South Africans, it’s wise to know how our story fits into the larger story.

    It’s amazing how in the colonial narrative the colonisers were either oblivious to their own culture, or saw their own culture as the centrepoint around which all other cultures must see themselves in relation to.

    I’m still waiting for Arnau to respond to my comments – he said I misunderstood him in my first response to him, so I’m hoping that I’ve rectified that – but only he can tell.

    By the way, if you’re happy to bring your own food to the conference, then you’re free to attend without needing to pay the R200 a day (I only confirmed this yesterday, so if you’d like to bring more people with you, go ahead). The big organisational issue (as far as I can tell) is making sure there is enough food for everyone, so if that bit is sorted, then there’s no need for the R200. You can quote me (or find me!) if anyone gives you any trouble about that 🙂

  2. 8 June 2009 7:00 pm

    Small note: The Americans talk about “Native Americans”. In Canada, the correct collective noun is “First Nations”.

    The Canadian story is very mixed – the Residential schools program being the prime example of a dark chapter. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as in the US – some tribes actually fled to Canada to escape wholesale annihilation in the US – the Dakota Frist nation south of Saskatoon is an example.

    But to get back to your missionary focus: In northern Canada, the Moravians working with the Inuit developed the Inuktituk Alphabet, still commonly used. The Inuktituk language has official status in NWT, Nunavut and some parts of Northern Quebec.

    The term “Eskimo” is considered insulting in Canada and Greenland.

    An indigenous missionary, Umik, developed a ritual called the siqqtiq (literally meaning transforming), which accompanied conversion to Christianity. Siqqtic including the ritual eating of forbidden foods such as caribou heart, to indicate that the shamanisitc beliefs that controlled these taboos no longer held sway. Baptism got called siqqitiqtuq. I have not been able to find anything else on Umik yet.


  1. Amahoro Africa conference: The African Reformation « nextchurch

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