When beef was rare

Recently, CBC posted an encore podcast of Eleanor Wachtel’s conversation with Khushwant Singh, one of India’s most outspoken Sikh writers, who passed away in March at the age of 99. With trademark wit and grace, Singh responded directly to Wachtel’s challenging question about his criticism of India’s varied laws regarding the killing of cows.

While the common assumption is that the Hindu faith directly informed the laws’ creation, they in fact emerged to reduce poaching in times when beef was scarce. There are ancient texts, he said, that clearly show consuming beef as an acceptable Hindu practice. The laws, therefore, are more practical than spiritual concerns, so given where the world is now, there is little value in holding onto them.

Singh faced frequent criticism and outright hostility in response to his views from the Hindu majority, most notably from politicians and legislators: How can you possibly question a belief held for so long and by so many people? How dare you?

Uncomfortable questions

This refrain is a common one for anyone who lays claim to a religion with history. We have difficulty hearing criticism, even when a cherished belief or tenet’s origins might be at odds with or irrelevant to today’s reality. In “I, Missiotourist,” my June 9 column, I raised the possibility that the value of Short Term Missions is worth questioning, and some of the response to that piece has followed the familiar refrain.

Questioning missions makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable. Yet hearing Singh’s unapologetic stance against those outdated Indian cow laws and the response to my column makes me wonder whether missions might bear similar consideration. Could it be that our mindset and approach to missions, extended and distinct from the biblical mandate, is a reflection of outdated values and understanding?

Like it or not, our faith institutions reflect the historical and cultural context from which they come. Hindus have their cow laws. Many of Islam’s most adhered-to beliefs as “revealed” to Mohammed can be aligned with his needs as a tactician and political leader. Christianity, too, began to find its strongest voice while enmeshed with the colonial aspirations of its protector states.

Thankfully, the rather prosaic and strategic underpinnings of a faith’s revered tenets don’t necessarily devalue the faith as a whole. If they did, when faced with as many uncomfortable truths about itself as any other religion, Christianity would find itself in trouble. Truths such as the possibility that our mindset when it comes to missions is a product of a colonial worldview and a profound misunderstanding of the cultures to which we send our people.

We have to help them

To me, knowing this makes healthy criticism of our church’s missions not only permissible, but essential as stewards of our great mandate. In “Mum 2 Mum,” a story of mine appearing in the next Dalhousie Review, a church youth group runs a used-baby-stuff sale as a fundraiser. My main character, a pregnant, unwed mother, asks what the admission fee will be used for:

As though I’ve passed some test, her eyes light up. She introduces herself – she’s a Madison, of course – and launches into her spiel, punctuated by enthusiastic words she’s obviously been coached to say. The sale is a Longstanding Grace Youth Group Tradition, a Fundraiser for a Missions Trip to Uganda to Help The Africans.

I ask, And you’ll be going, too?

It’s my third trip, she says. They can’t even build their own wells or churches.

Madison’s last words, while situated as a bit of ironic humour, are those of a former student, and used verbatim. Unfortunately, the attitude behind them is not uncommon in our circles when we talk about sending missionaries – short and long term – to minister to those we think are most in need. They can’t do it. We have to help.

It has been asked whether this is news at all, and whether any of us might still be sleeping to the reality that our missional philosophies are worth questioning. The answer is, of course, yes, we are. All we have to do is scan the images we use to trumpet our success overseas – single, white faces surrounded by grateful, non-white throngs – to see that something is worth questioning, if not changing outright.

Keeping each other from asking difficult questions about an issue so fundamental as missions, even in a historical and cultural context that shows how outdated our approach might be, allows Christ’s mandate to become just another sacred cow; a protected, lumbering animal that does little more than get in the way.


  • Brent van Staalduinen

    Brent spent six years in the Middle East and Asia teaching, writing, and trying to make sense of the borders people create. A graduate of Redeemer University College and the Humber School of Writers, he is now working towards an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. He works and lives in the Westdale neighbourhood of Hamilton with his wife Rosalee and baby daughter Nora. For more information, follow him on Twitter@brentvans or visit www.brentvanstaalduinen.com.

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