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FIRST-PERSON: A darkening culture prefers drug runners to missionaries

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A thuggish band of pushers stalks the children of the world. They peddle a deadly poison that results in hopeless addiction, psychological devastation and societal upheaval. Despite first-rate public relations campaigns and even government-declared “wars” on them, these crafty schemers smuggle their wares across national borders at ever-escalating rates. The only solution appears to be a tough “zero tolerance” policy. This scourge will not stand.

If you think these characters are drug dealers or their multinational crime bosses, you would be wrong. They’re missionaries.

The aftermath of the recent tragedy in the skies over the Amazon River has revealed a jarring new element to the culture wars in the rhetoric of some secularist commentators, namely an almost violent contempt for, of all things, missionaries.

Independent Baptist missionary Roni Bowers and her newly adopted baby, Charity, were killed when their plane was gunned down by a Peruvian fighter jet, which mistakenly believed the missionaries’ plane to belong to the Columbian drug cartel.

Missionary Jim Bowers had barely buried his wife and daughter when Bill Maher, the smirking host of ABC television’s “Politically Incorrect” program, used the death of the missionaries as an opportunity for a sarcastic jab. To the laughter of a studio audience, Maher callously mocked the plane crash situation, wondering if the missionaries were morally superior to the drug runners for whom they were mistaken.

After all, Maher reasoned, the exclusivist evangelical claim to truth carried by these martyred missionaries has done far more damage than the recreational use of drugs. The only real attempt at a rebuttal to Maher was from a panelist who suggested that not all missionaries preach a gospel of Christ as the only way of salvation. Some simply engage in social and medical assistance.

Now social commentator Lionel Tiger has joined the fray. “In the fuss over the human loss and its political implications, what was largely overlooked is the extraordinary vanity and presumption that underlie the zeal of the missionaries,” Tiger writes in the New York Press. “What on earth gives some people the right to decide that their view of God or nature or destiny is the right one?”

Calling missionaries such as the Bowers “frank imperialists,” Tiger ridicules the cramped living spaces, years of language training and threats of violence endured by missionaries “in return for rewards that are mainly in the realm of spirit.” Pouring out one’s life for those in a faraway land is, Tiger writes, “objectionable and kind of cheap.”

But Tiger doesn’t stop there. Even after praising the separation of church and state, Tiger calls on the government to revoke visas for global missionaries since the spread of the gospel is “almost a toxicity case for the World Health Organization.”

“The missionaries on the Amazon who suffered that awful death continue to play gospel music on loudspeakers as they cruise the river,” Tiger concludes. “They should shut them off and come home.”

If the Bowerses and their compatriots in the global missions endeavor are so patently ridiculous, then why are they so offensive to Maher and Tiger? For profoundly theological reasons, evangelical missionaries do not use the thread of the sword to gain “converts.” They simply proclaim Christ and offer salvation in him. Do Maher and Tiger really believe those coming to faith in Latin America and around the world are too unsophisticated to turn down this “insult” to their native cultures? Perhaps these poor, uneducated Third World Christians should instead listen to the cynical and sophisticated pundits and late-night comedians who know what’s best for them.

On second glance, however, the growing derision in the culture for global missions should come as little surprise to evangelicals. Even the biblically anemic “Fatherhood of God, Brotherhood of man” social gospel of the early 20th century’s liberal Protestant missionaries would rile today’s culture, if only for the non-inclusive gender language employed. The message of the biblical gospel that the only hope for a condemned world is faith in a crucified and resurrected Messiah named Jesus is, as always, scandalous.

The first Christian missionaries faced more than the smirks of the commentators when they took this message to first-century Ephesus. Faced with a loss in figurine profits if the populace turned from goddess worship to Christ, the silver industry of Ephesus sparked a riot against the “frank imperialism” of the apostle Paul.

Southern Baptists and other evangelicals should take note of these comments of hostility against missionaries. It is one thing for mainline Protestant councils to denounce urban evangelism as a “hate crime” or for secular commentators to deride once-venerated missionaries as the moral inferior to drug cartels. It is quite another for the quiet suggestion of legal penalties against such evangelism to be offered, to no great uproar, in the public square. As our Baptist forefathers once knew, the murderous thoughts of the culture mavens can often quite rapidly take us to the whipping post and beyond. It could well be that the Lottie Moon Christmas Offerings of a coming generation of Southern Baptists might need to be smuggled overseas, under penalty of death.

Such should remind us of the revolutionary truth of the gospel we publish before the nations. It should propel us to prayer for the lives of the lost around the world and, yes, for the salvation of skeptics such as Bill Maher and Lionel Tiger. Roni and Charity Bowers did not waste their lives for “wholly conjectural” spiritual rewards. They will one day be called from their silent graves by the voice of the conquering carpenter of Galilee who will then rule the cosmos to the glory of his Father. There will be no late night televised sarcasm then.

And that, come to think of it, is indeed more dangerous than a drug war.
Moore is assistant to the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His first book, “Why I Am a Baptist,” co-edited with Tom J. Nettles, has just been released by Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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  • Russell D. Moore