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On History, Memory, and a Missionary Spirit

Ocean Cliffs (1881) by Edward Mitchell Bannister

Transformation and change are the themes of this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide. In Ephesians, as well as complementary passages in Colossians, Paul instructs his listeners to do away with their sinful behaviors and take on the characteristics of a God-driven life instead. The message is illustrated by the metaphor of dirty clothing, discarded in favor of fresh garments and a new outlook on life. 

The lesson emphasizes both the personal and social responsibility inherent in this lifestyle change. Beyond promoting personal growth, many of the actions that Paul condemns and suggests have a direct impact on others. For example, Colossians 3:12-14 states: 

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 

With God, a new identity is formed. The lesson’s Teacher Comments explain that this signifies “a genuine transformation of a person’s worldview, lifestyle, character, and relations with the other members of the church and members of humanity.” Instead of picking over other people's spiritual journeys, each individual is meant to work on their own development, placing it in the context of their relationships with others. 

In the thoughts and comments section of the lesson, the content takes a sudden turn to speak on cross-cultural mission work. Drawing a connection between the sinful Gentiles in Ephesians and local cultures abroad, an abrupt question is asked: “What elements of local culture could be celebrated and preserved, and what elements of the local culture are part of the ‘old self’ and must be abandoned as sinful and of ‘this world’?” 

While the study guide acknowledges that “contemporary society values inclusivity, acceptance, preservation, and promotion of local cultures, lifestyles, and worldviews,” it also defends against those who critique “old-style” missionaries who model “Western” interpretations of Christianity. During my time as an English major at Andrews University, I had several conversations with my classmates about the ethics of mission work in a decolonizing world. In classes on global history and literature, I was exposed to the deep cultural destruction and pain that Christian missionaries have enacted upon local cultures. The study guide enters into these conversations, walking a careful line between promoting diversity of cultures and insisting that only biblically-approved practices are worth keeping. 

While reflecting on the lesson, I was reminded of a poem by Derek Walcott, titled “The Sea is History.” Walcott, a celebrated poet and playwright from Saint Lucia, often wrote on colonial and post-colonial themes. This poem is no exception, detailing the experience of stolen history and lost lives in the West Indies due to slavery and colonialism. Walcott uses biblical imagery throughout the piece, parallelling the devastation and destruction with familiar stories and phrases. In doing so, the poem emphasizes religion’s entanglement in this pain.

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

. . .

Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.

The loss mourned in this poem—of history, memory, and lives—was a direct result of powerful nations deciding and discarding the worth of other cultures for their own benefit. Manifest destiny and a hunger for power caused entire ways of life and being to be lost. While many of these explicit forms of colonialism are now in the past, we still experience their effects in the present. Phrases in the Teacher Comments like “the missionaries must allow the biblical absolutes to determine the new teachings and practices of the converts” must be read in the context of this knowledge.

I know firsthand the immense good that Adventist mission work can have around the world. I have friends and family who are mission-oriented Adventists, who celebrate new cultures, and who understand the deep impact of their work. I also know that there are objectively negative elements of culture that all of us—no matter where we come from—face. However, I think that our missionary spirit must be defined by an awareness of the histories and cultures of people that we engage with, as well as knowledge of the damage that has been done in the name of religion in the past.

Paul does not tell his listeners to force others into new ways of Christlike being and living. He tells them to look inward and make the personal change first, then approach others with respect, kindness, and forgiveness. Christ’s word should be shared, mutually, not imposed. The changes of “clothes” and life must be a personal choice on the part of a believer. While missionaries can offer God’s message of grace to others, there is a line between inviting others to experience God’s good news and discarding the aspects of a culture that don’t make the cut.

Colossians 3:17 states, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” When clothed in God’s new life and accompanied by the Holy Spirit, compassion, love, and understanding should be foremost in the Adventist character. In the same way, they are the transformative elements of a true missionary spirit as well.


Isabella Koh is Spectrum's 2023 Summer Intern. She is a recent graduate of Andrews University with a BA in English literature and minor in chemistry. She has a passion for storytelling and plans to continue developing her writing career in the future.

Title image: Edward Mitchell Bannister, Ocean Cliffs (1881), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of H. Alan and Melvin Frank (creative commons zero license).

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