"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Saving Savages, Aliens, And Sinners–The Insane World Of Evangelism

Pastor Robert Billings had been a missionary in the Congo, sent there by his church, a small congregation in southeastern Ohio with few funds but a sound and fervent belief in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, their savior.  Pastor Billings had been sent off with fanfare and good tidings.  There was nothing quiet and reserved about the members of the United Church Of Christ, Reformed; and so their cheering goodbyes to a man who was nothing less than the heartiest of militant evangelists ever to serve the Lord were almost like The Fourth of July.  The organizers of the celebration commissioned the construction of a Bible-themed float with statues of Jesus, his disciples, and worshiping black men at their feet.  Pastor Billings would stand amidships and wave to the adoring crowds as the float, followed by boys and girls, some in African dress – grass skirts, spears, and masks – and others as early Christians in long white robes, beards, and sandals.

“Jesus is Lord!”, said Pastor Billings when the float and its coterie reached the center of the town which had been festooned with banners and flags.  “He is our Savior, our light, and the hope of the world”

“Amen”, said all in one voice.

“I stand before you”, Billings went on, “humbled by his grace, emboldened by his virtue., strengthened by his promise, and happy in his bounteous love.  I go to the land of the heathen with abiding belief in His goodness, and with courage, steadfastness, and overwhelming trust, I will save the souls of the savage”

“Amen, brother, amen”, intoned the crowd.

And so it went on that warm day in June of 1950, the train to New York, and the crossing to Africa up the Congo River into the heart of the rainforest and the wild tribes of the Ngumba.  There was a small missionary outpost on a small tributary of the big river, empty now that Brother Amos had disappeared, presumably taken by the rival Mtumbis as a slave.  Even this haggard, malarial, and stumbling white man had resale value as the early 18th adventurer Mungo Park had personally discovered.  Sent by the Royal Geographic Society to determine the direction of flow of the Niger River, Park was repeatedly kidnapped, bartered, traded, and sold by a succession of tribal chiefs.  He and the legendary explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton documented the endemic slave  trade throughout Africa, a trade both indigenous – i.e. among tribes – and international, organized and managed by Arabs; so it was no surprise that Brother Amos had met the same fate.

Image result for images mungo park explorer

Pastor Billings was surprised by the primitive state of his new home.  Nothing in Ohio had prepared him for what he saw as he stepped off the boat onto the muddy banks of the village where he was to do the Lord’s business.  It was a nasty, hot, fetid, impossibly disgusting place where corpses of dead animals rotted in the sun, naked children defecated in the open, and blind, maimed, and feeble women pulled at the frayed rope of the well while men lay about on rope beds or curled up in the dust. 

Image result for images poor tribal african villages mid 20th century

Pastor Billings  opened his kit bag and pulled out the large silver crucifix  given to him by his church.  He held it aloft and watched the ray of the sun reflect on the miserable scene he saw before him.  “God’s will be done”, he said.

When no word had been received from Pastor Billings for over six months, the congregation feared the worst, proclaimed him dead and dwelling with the Lord.  Their assumptions turned out to be correct, for a contingent of soldiers sent by the regime in Kinshasa to protect the copper mines farther to the east, passed through the village and learned how Billings had been abducted, but because of his by then failed physical and mental state, decapitated, castrated, and thrown to the piranhas in the big river.

The United Church of Christ, Reformed of Bollard, Ohio sent no more missions to Africa, but turned the evangelical fervor inward.  Like the Mormons, they sent young Christian men as part of their evangelical duties to the cities of the East to preach the Word of the Savior.  They were just as appalled as their predecessor, Pastor Billings, at the conditions of the black ghettoes to which they had been sent.  Theses slums were just as uncivilized as those pestilential tribal villages in Africa – drugs, alcohol, nudity, and a nightly violence of murder and rape were the norm.  These innocent white boys were also abducted, forced into slavery – male prostitution and accessories to crime – and since few police ever ventured into these crime-infested quarters, the pleas of the United Church of Christ, Reformed, went unheeded.

Image result for images black inner city slums

Knowing that the forces of the Devil were far stronger than it had ever imagined, he church withdrew even farther from evangelism and turned its attention to church dinners, garden parties, and volunteerism.

The spirit of such evangelical presumptions about salvation was not unique to Bollard, Ohio nor to Africa or the slums of Baltimore.  If Jesus is the Lord of all Creation and His word universally triumphant; then his suffering and death on the cross for the sins of the world is not restricted to this world, this Earth, this small bit of his universe.

The speculation that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe has been current for many years; and Christian theologians are currently debating the existence and nature of sin in the universe, and whether aliens can or should be saved.  The answer for such questions has become all the more urgent since a scientist at SETI estimated that given the super-powerful radio telescopes being developed (China has just inaugurated the world’s largest), it might be only twenty years before contact is made.

One noted theologian suggested that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross here on Earth was the moment of salvation for all intelligent life in the universe:  “So why can his death not include other alien races too…?  Maybe what Jesus assumed that is important is not the human form, but the rational free spiritual form, and this is what he redeemed, thereby including all personal races, alien or human.”

In other words Jesus, the cross, and his resurrection are at the heart of all salvation.  Thus not only for all humans but all aliens as well:
All things were created…through Jesus and for Jesus… He is before all things, he holds together all things. In other words, he stands as the head of the cosmos, as its beginning and end, its past and future…  Nor can there be other Jesuses, since Paul is clear that it was “by the blood of his cross,” that peace was made.  It is unlikely that if Jesus was incarnated on another planet he would be killed there by a cross as well…  He would be killed in some other way.  But Paul is clear that by the blood of his cross, this Jesus saved all things, whether in heaven or on earth.

Image result for images jesus on the cross

It might seem odd that with more than enough sin to go around on Earth, evangelists and theologians are considering extraterrestrial salvation.  Yet for those within the religious community, the issue is not trivial, for it goes to the heart of the nature of God and Jesus Christ.   If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, and if he saw fit to send his only begotten son to save a race of human sinners, how could he be so indifferent to the needs of others?  If Jesus Christ is in fact the incarnation of God; if he did indeed suffer for mankind on the cross; and if he is the God of the universe, then his grace and mercy have no bounds, no limitations, and certainly no perimeters which include only Earth.

The United Church of Christ, Bethesda, Maryland had its own particular evangelical notion.  Its congregants were profoundly and passionately progressive, and had for decades done everything in their power to improve the lot of the black man.  They, despite the warnings of churches like that of Pastor Billings which had lost young missionaries in America’s own heart of darkness, had persisted in their zeal.  For them like other secular evangelists there was no cause of the black man, no matter how trivial or configured, to be denied.  

Yet when the field became crowded – when both religious and secular missionaries were taking the black man as their own – they began looking for other horizons.  The particular intellectual cast of the congregation – a church whose members were lawyers, jurists, managers of large non-profit organizations, and liberal ex-politicians – demanded a more philosophical bent to their salvational efforts.

The increased transparency of the government on the possibility of life beyond Earth and the increased investment in SETI – the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence – gave the needed intellectual cover to what might have been seen by anti-religionists a silly enterprise.  If there were indeed such things as aliens, and Jesus Christ was indeed the Lord of All, then wouldn’t it be prudent, even necessary, to begin deliberations on their salvation?

Image result for images seti

The intellectual tradition of the early Christian Church gave the Bethesda church additional cover.  Athanasius, Augustine, Clement, and other thinkers of the first centuries debated long and hard over the nature of Christ and divinity; and they concluded that those who believe in the primacy of Jesus Christ can only conclude that he must have appeared – or will appear – to alien races for the same spiritual reasons.  

Those who prefer the primacy of God the Father (a  non-orthodox belief dismissed once and for all at the Council of Nicaea in 325) assume that salvation can occur without Jesus; but no one who calls themselves a Christian today can deny the mystery of the Trinity – one God in three divine persons – and based on that belief, Jesus is central to salvation wherever it may occur.

Image result for Images Athanasius. Size: 150 x 217. Source: www.blessedmart.com

A SETI Committee was set up in the Church, and began its deliberations in earnest.  The United Church of Christ, Bethesda would be among the first, if not the first, to be called on to minister to the first extraterrestrial beings to visit the planet.  While many in the congregation thought that such and enterprise was folly, and that the black man still needed attention and succor, the pastor felt strongly that outer space was the new Christian horizon.

As importantly, theologians in other religions were debating the same issue, and to be first meant to be proactive.  The deliberations of Muslims was the most worrisome, and they should not be allowed first contact.  Verses in the Quran reduce the importance of humans in the Universe:

Assuredly the creation of the heavens and the earth is a greater (matter) than the creation of men; yet most men understand not (40:57).
Assuming the aliens that Man were to encounter were similar enough for communication between races to exist, then the Muslim reaction would be:
To  suspect that out of the 124 000 prophets sent by God for guidance to the World, as mentioned in the prophetic tradition, quite a few might have been sent to our non-human brethren, and we will thus likely try to search for common elements between Islam and the aliens’ belief system.

After all, as emphasized by many Muslim authors, God is described in many places in the Quran as the Lord of the Worlds (plural). We may surmise that debate and even proselytism will follow suit, encouraged by the fact that according to the Quran, all the living creatures will be accountable before God for their deeds on Judgment Day (Islam&Science)

And so it goes in the annals of evangelism.  The presumptuousness, cultural myopia, and spiritual arrogance of the earliest missionaries to Africa was not unique, nor would it be mitigated by experience.  The sense of absolute right, received wisdom, and the visionary light of the true path to Jesus Christ has never changed.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.