Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pearl S. Buck - Disillusioned Missionary

Grant Wacker indicates throughout his account of the exploits of West Virginian female foreign missionary to China, "Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse" that missionary fervor fueled by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening were doused by a sense of disillusionment, secularization, and apprehension towards the imperial elements and abuses of the Christian faith which peaked by the 1930s. Coinciding with international militant and economic effects of WWI and the Great Depression, such disillusionment may stem from the fatigue of continual warfare and the insurmountable fiscal and moral cost of unjust bloodshed, rather than a simple attribution to the ineffectiveness of Christian missionaries. Despite external factors, Buck’s reflective account regarding her ministry in China reveals how, though well-intentioned, many American missionaries were obliviously unaware and insensitive to the cultural practices of those they sought to reach. Her commentary and publishing later in life on the effectiveness of American foreign missions is brought to the forefront of conflicting debate that hotly rages today as in Buck’s life – a debate which simultaneously praises and critiques the expanse and benefits of capitalism and Christendom, but a debate nonetheless regarding the demands such a venture cost.

Receiving the Literature Nobel Prize Laureate (1938), Buck’s use of Chinese idioms and Biblical parallels fill her literary fiction, such as displayed through her famed The Good Earth. The novel’s style and intentionality derives from her own experiences growing up in China. Paul Doyle’s analysis regarding her narrative suggests that Buck believed “these good, solid farmers formed the heart of China. Her interest in them as people gave her a starting point, and love and affirmation for the Chinese peasant became one of the principal ingredients of her thought and writing"[1] as well as in her ministry. After reaping the prestige from being the first US woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the novelist became a recognized political Christian activist who founded the East and West Association “to aid the Allied war effort in Asia by helping Americans understand the culture and concerns of the people of China and India.”[2] She later formed a scholarly movement known as “critical internationalism” – a “perspective working against colonialism and racism in Asia and in the United States during World War II; [an organization which would later] expand that world to include a critique of the Cold War.”[3] Her social activism highlights concerns stemming from her earlier days as a missionary serving in China, bearing witness to the ill effects of racial and national superiority being entwined with the Christian message by well-intentioned missionaries.

Though a controversial public figure, Buck's courageous critiques on imperialism met with admiration and resentment. She functioned as an expert on Chinese diplomacy and internal affairs while also serving as a "popular authority on the truthfulness of Christianity and the validity of the Christian missionary enterprise in China."[4] However, her earlier writings revealed her contempt for the wickedness and depravity she witnessed in Chinese society and especially the "absolute corruption of the official class. Family life riddled with opium addiction, drunkenness, [how daughters-in-law were treated like a slave of the family], foot-binding, and female infanticide."[5] Most missionaries operated for decades in the area in which they were assigned and yet, “the enterprise in which they were involved was heavily influenced by imperialist assumptions regarding the West’s superiority, including ideas about the superiority of women’s status in Western civilization. American Protestants imagined that the United States most closely reflected God’s kingdom on earth and that their country should therefore serve as a model for all the world.”[6] Female missionaries banded together to create the first denominational foreign mission board in 1819 (the General Board) as well as the most successful female agency, the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, directly formed to aid and assist women in living in scenarios which they viewed as oppressive. Buck’s writing aligned with the accounts of barbarism other missionaries encountered. With renewed justification and a millennial sense of immediacy, they were determined to purge the sinfulness from their lives with the light of the gospel coupled by Western social graces.

Though the evangelistic desire to witness weighed heavily on her mind, the concept that "evangelists focused too much on saving souls and too little on saving bodies"[7] increasingly disturbed Buck and caused her to vocalize the need to first minister to the physical detriments of the people they were trying to convert. The tone of her evaluations changed in the 1930s which showed an appreciation for the distinctiveness of Asian culture as well as China’s development as a nation. Due to this reevaluation, her pen turned toward critiquing the leviathan of Western imperialism as well as the traditional and dogmatic aspects of Christ's followers. Buck emphatically noted throughout her writings of how early Protestant missionaries, “although they produced a good number of conversions, were [ultimately] rejected by the Chinese, especially by the intelligentsia, for they were regarded as imperialistic enforcers of sweeping disapproval of Chinese culture. Those who opposed ancestor worship consisted [largely of missionaries apart of] the China Inland Mission - the largest Protestant mission group. They had received basic theological training and brought with them not only their Christian beliefs but also Western social and cultural symbolism. They sincerely believed that only their religious system was appropriate to express the true Christian faith, and they failed to understand Chinese culture.”[8]

Pearl’s frustration was not unwarranted. Missionary effectiveness in China became dampened by dissident factions which spurred sociopolitical uproars, such as the Taipei Rebellion and seeded other forms of unrest due to the “international treaties imposed on the Chinese, [including] the 1858 Toleration Clauses. These placed not just the missionaries but all Christians under the protection of the foreign powers. While that made persecution less likely, it was a situation open to abuse. Most Chinese viewed westerners as oppressors and had no way of distinguishing missionaries from the rest. In the course of the Boxer Rebellion, which lasted until 1901, 230 foreign missionaries and over 32,000 Chinese Christians lost their lives.”[9] The cost of evangelizing and converting was high for all parties; jeopardizing not only social standing and economic stability, but also one’s reputation as well as life.

However, Buck never rejected the usefulness of foreign missions and greatly admired the first missionaries, realizing their ventures out from European shores and into a vast unknown would understandably be fraught with errors and their practices in great need of revision. She considered figures such as her missionary father, Absalom Sydenstricker, as "willful conquerors, proud and quarrelsome, brave and intolerant and passionate, nonetheless good and innocent because they were blind”[10] to the destructiveness to their ideologue-like nature. Instead, her wrath fumed over the behavior of contemporary missionaries who “seem weak and despicable” in comparison, “shot through with doubt and distrust of themselves and their message."[11] Buck appears to have looked regretfully over the past, disillusioned with the initial approach to missions work as well as the ineffectiveness of current missionaries, but it also can be projected that the famed author and activist came to see to the beauty and purpose of missions, including the movement’s imperfections. Although attacking denominations for their common inability to integrate Christian teaching respectfully through their evangelization methods, Buck clearly asserted that there is indeed a "Case for Foreign Missions," despite offering a disclaimer that the "authoritative, unchangeable, and exactly phrased body of doctrine" may need to become more fluid and that the presentation of the gospel ought to allow flexibility in reaching the hearts of the intended.

[1] Paul A. Doyle. "The Good Earth." In Pearl S. Buck, Rev. ed., 29-41. Twayne's United States Authors Series 85. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
[2] R. Schaffer. "Pearl S. Buck and the East and West Association: The Trajectory and Fate of “Critical Internationalism,” 1940–1950." Peace & Change 28, no. 1 (January 2003): 1-36.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Grant Wacker. "Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse1." Church History 72, no. 4 (12, 2003): 856.
[5] Ibid., 857.
[6] Karen K. Seat. Providence has Freed Our Hands: Women’s Missions and the American Encounter with Japan. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.
[7] Wacker, 858.
[8] Paul de Neui. Family and Faith in Asia: The Missional Impact of Social Networks. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2010, 188.
[9] John Pritchard. Methodists and their Missionary Societies 1760-1900. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing, 2013, 125.
[10] Wacker, 872.
[11] Ibid.

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