Review of Norbert Friedrich, Uwe Kaminsky, and Roland Löffler, eds., The Social Dimension of Christian Missions in the Middle East. Historical studies of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 18, Number 4 (December 2012)

Review of Norbert Friedrich, Uwe Kaminsky, and Roland Löffler, eds., The Social Dimension of Christian Missions in the Middle East.  Historical studies of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), 252 Pp., ISBN 9783515096560.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

The Middle East was the birthplace of three of the world’s great religions. The aura of their sacred traditions is lovingly maintained in holy sites throughout the region, which have been for centuries the sources of pilgrimages, but also of conflicts between the rival faiths. In the nineteenth century, the region became the object of ambitious attraction for numerous western European powers, for political, economic and military as well as religious reasons. One result as the establishment of new Christian missions, both Catholic and Protestant, home-based in England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Spain and even the United States. Each sought to transplant their own concept of Christian mission to the local inhabitants, as well as catering for the ever-increasing number of tourist/pilgrims who expected to find support for their own pious endeavours in their own language. These large-scale enterprises are the subject of this valuable collection of essays, written by an international and ecumenical cast of contributors. Originating from an international conference in Germany, and largely devoted to German missions, these papers have been excellently translated into English.

Roland Loeffler’s introductory essay makes the point that the remarkable proliferation in the region of European missionary projects in the nineteenth century led to a crisis both on the ground and at home. Their original aim was to convert the Jews who lived there, especially in Palestine. They were almost all unsuccessful. But the fervent expectations of their home boards and the need to keep alive the interest of their supporters propelled them into areas of social work, such as schools and hospitals, whose results would be more promising. Thus the Syrian Orphanage was originally founded by Swabian Pietists, and the Jerusalem Verein by Prussian Calvinists. The Anglican bishop, Gobat, founded his school in Jerusalem for Arab children after his attempts to convert Jews had failed. The reports sent home about such activities stirred up the revival of biblical piety, and later on encouraged the growth of Holy Land tours. But the original ambitions for conversions were largely abandoned.

Recent scholarship agrees that it is crucial to take the missionary presence into account when analyzing the political developments and imperial dynamics of the nineteenth century Middle East. Several articles describe the often conflicting views of the missionaries and their rival forms of geopiety. But the relative lack of success in gaining converts is reflected in the comparative scarcity of accounts by the recipients rather than by the missionaries themselves. This is in contrast to the numerous studies in other mission fields. Despite their disappointing record of conversions, most missionaries in the Middle East still regarded their social work as part of the progressive and emancipatory impact of colonial rule and Christian influence thereon. But in the twentieth century, this was to be challenged and eventually overthrown by two factors: the local populations’ demands for freedom from imperial control, and, in Palestine, by the much more forceful introduction of Zionism. In his article, for instance, Michael Marten describes the experiences of the Scottish Missionary Hospital in Tiberias, which was fated to be replaced by the Israeli health service after 1948. But such displacements also marked the end of the specific expectations of those Christians who had hoped that the restoration of the Jews to their original homeland would be a precursor for their conversion to Christ, which in turn would itself be a precursor for Christ’s eschatological return to earth.

In the post-colonial era of the later twentieth century, when white missionaries from Europe and North America were no longer desired, both the missionary societies and missionary history had to undergo challenging, even painful, readjustments. The result was a rapid diminution of ordained ministers being sent abroad and the dissolution of many of the colleges which had trained missionaries for service overseas. They were often replaced by secular aid workers, such as teachers or doctors, in the same social institutions, whose buildings stood, and still stand, all over the Middle East. But it was impressed on such recruits that they had to avoid the kind of paternalistic superiority feelings so often expressed by their missionary predecessors.

Particularly in the case of one sending country, Germany, and one recipient area, Palestine, these changes were very far-reaching, as described in several articles in this collection. On the one hand, many Germans after 1945 were obliged to come to terms with their nations horrendous crimes against the Jewish people, and shortly thereafter with the establishment of the State of Israel. These developments gave rise to highly ambivalent reactions. One group of Protestants, well aware of German guilt, saw the need for repentance towards the Jews and the renunciation of all ideas of conversion or missions. Some regarded the return of Jews to their ancient homeland as fulfillment of biblical promises which Christians should welcome. In 1980, for example, a statement made by the Rhineland Synod of the German Evangelical Church declared that the establishment of the State of Israel was a sign of God’s faithfulness towards his people, and called for a new beginning in Christian-Jewish relations with a commitment to reconciliation and healing. Another practical result was the establishment, under this groups auspices, of the Aktion Suehnezeichen, a kind of German Peace Corps, to undertake reconstruction work in Israel for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

Other Protestants however took a more traditional line, seeing the establishment of the new state as adding an unwelcome political complication to Christian-Jewish relations, or as a threat to their carefully-created communities in the Middle East. Certainly many of those engaged in medical or social work institutions now found themselves made redundant or limited solely to their Arab supporters. Such developments in turn led some of the younger church members to adopt a strong preference for the Palestinians displaced or evicted by Israeli policies. The resulting clash between the pro-Jewish, or philo-semitic older generation whose memories of the Holocaust were still very relevant, and the younger opponents of what they perceive as Zionist oppression and aggrandizement, is still unresolved.

Very similar ambivalent considerations are to be found in Catholic ranks. The striking changes in Catholic doctrine adopted at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s called for the abandonment of hostility towards the Jews who were now to be regarded as the Christians elder brothers in faith. These views were strongly supported over the following fifty years by such Popes as John Paul II, and had a notable effect on Catholic missionary institutions in the Middle East. For example, the highly-regarded Sisters of Zion, which had been founded a hundred years earlier by French priests for the conversion of the Jews in Jerusalem, now made a radical renunciation of any such intentions, much to the confusion of their mainly Arab congregations. It is only regrettable that none of the essays in this book touches on these later developments in Catholic missions.

We can be grateful to the contributors for their varied insights into the history of Christian missions in the Middle East. They will undoubtedly help us to understand the links between past and present, to see the theological impetus which undergirded these missions’ endeavours, and to envisage the potential future that might have been and may yet be.