Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Reading Mother Teresa XXVIX--Bringing Christ, and seeing him
In Cornelius Kuipers' 1930s novel about mission work in the Zuni pueblo of New Mexico, Chant of the Night, a young Zuni man named Ametolan agrees to take three Anglo missionaries for a day-long hike up on Zuni mountain, a deeply sacred place to his people. As they climb, they learn some things about the Zunis' history of great suffering, first at the hands of the Spanish, then at the hands of missionaries from the south, from Mexico, stories told by hand and footholds carved into the sheer sides of the mountain so the people could escape persecution and death.
The white folks joke with each other, remain interested in the history, but don't respect the story and don't revere the holy place, as does Ametolan. When one of them says she wants to meet the god of the Zuni mountain because "he must be some guy," "the party laughed,"says Kuipers, "but not Ametolan."
Kuipers is himself an Anglo missionary, a man who spent decades in the Zuni pueblo. That he would criticize his colleagues and fellow Christians' disrespect is remarkable and, in its own way, lovely. He breaks the stereotype of Christian missionaries who were often what Native people determined them to be--piously disguised scouts for a cultural cavalry who sought, as did the U.S. Cavalry, the demise of the indigenous people of the American frontier.
I don't claim to know anything about missiology. I've never been a missionary, and I don't know how missionaries are trained. But I do know something about how Christian mission has often blundered with Native people, killing them and their spirit with righteous intentions. Almost a century ago, a missionary named Kuipers seemed to understand that too--and he used his novels to try to explain what he'd discovered on the mission field, not to the Zunis, but to his own people, the Anglo Christians.
Why was he different?--I wonder. How did he come to understand that banter in holy places is always off-key? The title of his only non-fiction book is Zuni Also Prays, which is to say, I think, don't demean people you think somehow pagan. Pride is always the first of seven deadly sins, spiritual pride the most hideous.
This morning Mother Teresa taught me something that might have made Cornelius Kuipers somehow different. Mother Teresa took to heart that absolutely central passage of the gospel recorded in Matthew 25: "As you did it to the least of one of these, you did it unto me." While she dedicated her entire life to bringing Christ to the poor on the streets of Calcutta, she was equally sure, odd as this may sound, that when she met them, she met Jesus. She not only brought Christ, she met Him there in the wasted streets of that massively overcrowded city. She looked into the faces of the poor and, quite literally, saw the Lord.
When I read the novels of Cornelius Kuipers, novels meant for his people, the Dutch Reformed who supported him, I can't help but think that he saw Jesus there in the Zuni just as surely, a vision he knew would be difficult to communicate to people back home.
Really, all of this isn't just about missiology anyway. It's about the very character of the Christian life, don't you think?