Missionaries or Mercenaries?

Jeffrey Metcalfe

When my father retied from the airline industry he decided he wanted to more actively seek a life of Christian service. Taking his pension early, he joined an aviation mission group and traveled overseas where he was assigned to fly medical supplies and doctors into remote villages in Papua New Guinea.

At the beginning, it seemed like it would be a straightforward task. He would fly into small isolated communities, pick up the sick and wounded, and fly them to where they could receive medical treatment.

Yet nothing in life turns out to be so straightforward. On one of his first missions, he was greeted with skepticism by a few of the locals in a village. After a bit of awkwardness, one of the locals approached my father and asked, “You’re new. So, are you missionaries or mercenaries?”

Taken aback and not understanding the question, the local continued to explain to my father that the village often found missionaries coming to their community with mixed motivations. Some came simply to help. Others came under the guise of Christian mission in order to smuggle gold out of the community so they could bring it back to the mainland and sell it at a high price. A few came to do both: taking the gold from the community members and selling it to raise money to support the mission.

From that community’s perspective, these ulterior motives generated two kinds of people. Missionaries were there to help the community and they did so at their own expense, in a way that was consistent with their Christian message. Mercenaries, on the other hand, were there to make a profit—or, in some cases, to help the people by making a profit. They might still be lending aid to the community, but that aid came at a price that the locals experience with ambiguity.

“So,” the local asked my father, “which one are you?”

My question to us in the Diocese of Quebec is: which one are we?

For the last few years a lot has been said about mission in our diocese. We have heard that we as God’s baptized people have a responsibility to help aid God’s mission in the world. In fact, this is the purpose of our church and, insofar as we fail to do this, our reason for existence is diminished.

This has led many of us to reconsider how we use our church’s resources, our buildings, our finances, and our time. Prompting some to take the faithful step of selling their buildings and putting the capital into the diocese’s investment funds. The idea behind this is that we can use the income we gain from these investments to equip ourselves for mission in Quebec and to help our communities flourish. It sounds like a straightforward task, but as we have already seen, nothing in life turns out to be so straightforward.

What we have failed to recognize, but what those villagers in Papua New Guinea did, was that how we raise the money for our mission work is as communicative of the Gospel as what we use that money for.

These are criteria we have yet to lay out in our current diocesan investment policy, where we still place a heavy emphasis on a corporation’s profitability over their social and environmental impact. Although we make an effort to avoid obviously unethical companies such as tobacco firms or weapons manufactures, it doesn’t take too long looking at our portfolio to recognize that some of the profitable names on the list probably shouldn’t be there.

For example, Barrick Gold, a Toronto-based gold-mining corporation operating in Papua New Guinea, was accused by the United Nations of, “In one generation … [bringing] militarization, corruption, and environmental devastation to a land that previously knew only subsistence farming and alluvial mining.”

This is a corporation in which we invest, an investment (and a few more like it) whose profits are contributing significantly to our budget for doing mission in Quebec. Obviously if we are going to do ministry here we are going to need investments that make a profit, but profitability is only half of what investing for mission really means. How we raise the money is just as important as how we spend it and we need to create a diocesan investment policy that reflects that.

I suspect investing in companies whose social and environmental impact is positive would negatively affect our budget line. Whether it’s a workers’ cooperative, sustainable agriculture, or a micro-financing credit union, none of these ventures tend to bring in a higher rate of return. I also suspect most of us would have a difficult time explaining to a rural villager in Papua why our higher rate of return was worth more than their access to safe drinking water and a secure livelihood.

As my father discovered, sometimes, even when people are motivated by the Gospel to do great things, they can end up making compromises that undermine their Christian witness in a way they didn’t expect. That doesn’t make one a missionary or a mercenary; it makes us human.

I think the difference between the two is whether we comfortably stand by the compromises we have made, or whether we challenge ourselves to find new, creative, and more faithful ways to respond to God’s mission in this world.

This article originally appeared in September 2011 edition of the Quebec Diocesan Gazette. It was awarded first prize in the opinion piece category by the Canadian Church Press in 2012.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a deacon in the Diocese of Quebec. While he completes his theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, he serves as the assistant curate at the Church of the Redeemer. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

One thought on “Missionaries or Mercenaries?

  1. it has been happening forever in our countries in south America, and the most part of the missionaries are mercenaries. People do not understand the importance in learning the language, living in the same community the natives live, keeping the same social level they have, learning instead of teaching, we do not need 21st century colonizers wearing missionary clothes, with a bible on one hand and colonization weapons in the other one.

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