Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Sarah Braasch

I leaned over to one of my teammates. “Why are there so many fat, white people on the plane? We’re going to Ethiopia. We’re flying Ethiopian Airlines.”

“They’re missionaries,” she responded, completely uninterested.

“What?” I gasped. It had never occurred to me. I was not pleased.

Everything became so obvious. The Texas drawls. The recitations of Bible verses. The prayers. The seasoned braggarts recounting their prior trips to the Horn of Africa. The newbies airing out their nerves. They couldn’t wait to get to Africa to start saving souls for Jesus. I wasn’t sure I could take a full day of travel with a cabin full of bombastic Texas Christian missionaries, giddy with evangelical fervor. I tried to force myself to sleep.

As I slept on the plane, I dreamt of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The fifty or so pick-up trucks circling hundreds of cheerleaders as they moved into formation, spelling out the words, “How Y’all Doin’?” The firecrackers exploding over the international crowd of tens of thousands. Then-President Clinton’s pasted on smile, which looked more like a grimace of pain and mortification.

When I awoke, I felt troubled. I didn’t want to be a missionary or an apostle. The very thought conjured up excruciating childhood memories of door-to-door witnessing as a Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t want to be an imperialistic colonizing Westerner, bringing the good news to a nation of Godforsaken heathen hordes. I wasn’t bringing them a religious message, but I was bringing them a universal human rights message. I was bringing them the good news of individualism and democracy and rule of law. I was bringing them the light of women’s rights and constitutionalism and secularism. Wasn’t I?

I leaned over to my teammate again. “We’re not like them, are we? I mean, the missionaries. We’re not like the missionaries, are we?”

“Yes, I’m afraid we are,” she replied with the world-weary wisdom of a millennia-old sage.

“But, we’re not going there to impose our beliefs on them. We’re going there to learn, to study their political and legal systems. I mean, yes, ultimately we intend to make policy suggestions in a report, but it’s not the same thing, is it?”

“Hmmm. Well, ultimately, we think we know better than they do how they should be running their country, so, really, it is the same thing,” she said with tenderness and as little condescension as possible.

“Really?” I looked at her plaintively, as if I expected her to grant me absolution.

“Really.” And, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say it wasn’t hers to give.

“Then why do you do it?” I asked her in all seriousness.

“Because I can’t do nothing, you know?”

“Yes, I do know.”

“I think it’s good to constantly question your own motives, to have that interior monologue, to struggle constantly with that ugly truth of human rights work, that, ultimately, we are going to a land not our own and telling a people whom we do not know how they should be living their lives,” she said encouragingly.

“I like to think of it as liberating the oppressed. We’re not telling them how to live their lives. We’re saying that they have the right to decide for themselves how to live their lives.”

“But, they’re already doing that. They just don’t place the same value on individualism that we do.”

“I don’t buy that. I just don’t. I think that that cultural relativist stance is very convenient for those in power who wish to maintain the status quo. And, everywhere I’ve been people are struggling desperately for their individual rights. And, anyway, groups don’t have rights. People do.”

I spent the rest of the trip ruminating on this conversation. As soon as we were in the hotel shuttle van, I was thrilled to be rid of the missionaries. I didn’t want to see another American, let alone another Texan, for the rest of our stay. Then we arrived at the Ghion Hotel.

The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness. The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies. Throngs of white couples and families were milling around with their newly adopted Ethiopian newborns and toddlers. Even the youngest of these infants had huge, terrified eyes, as if they understood that they were being severed from their kindred irreconcilably. And, the missionaries were there. Many of the same faces that I had had the misfortune to encounter on the plane were there. They attacked the front desk with the same self-important hubris with which they attacked the un-baptized.

There was something about the entire scene that turned my stomach. The reek of colonialism sickened me: Ethiopia as baby and soul factory. I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. I was starting to hate myself by association.

We took refuge in the sanctum of our hotel room. My roommate immediately fell into a deep slumber. I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution.

After my bath, my cigarettes were calling to me. I headed out to the lobby. I ordered a Coke from the bar and sat myself at the most isolated table in the room. There was a family with school-aged children watching the television at the opposite end of the room. They were obviously missionaries. They wore the telltale earnest expressions, sensible footwear and frumpy clothing. I didn’t pay them any heed. I was concentrating on enjoying the novelty of my indoor cigarette.

Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?

“Are you in our group?” she asked me.

I tried to maintain a benign expression. “No, I’m here with my human rights clinic from my law school.”

She sat herself down beside me. “Oh, wow. That’s so interesting. Did you know that this is a Muslim country?” She looked like she could barely contain herself, she was so excited to get past the small talk and begin her theocratic spiel.

“Well, actually, it’s a secular country. I mean they have a secular Constitution with freedom of religion. On paper, anyway.” I can never bring myself to be really cruel or rude to someone, even if they are being obnoxious themselves. It’s just not in my nature.

“Did you know that they chop people’s hands off for stealing here?” Ugh.

“Actually, Ethiopia has had a large Christian population almost from the advent of Christianity. They’re Coptic. Have you heard of the Solomonic line of kings?”

“That doesn’t sound Christian,” she responded. I was so not in the mood. I stared blankly off into the distance and blew smoke in her direction. It didn’t seem to help.

“Are you Christian?” she asked me. She was eager to get a head start on her conversions to show off to her companions, and I’m sure I cut a far less intimidating figure, what with my white skin and Western demeanor.

“I was raised Christian, as a Jehovah’s Witness.”

She winced, “They’re not Christian.”

“But now I’m an atheist. And, a human rights activist.”

She winced again. She looked a bit fearful, like she had bitten off more than she knew how to chew. This was an unanticipated challenge that had not been addressed in her preparatory apologetics and theocratic ministry education. She bit her lip. She decided to try again.

“Our church does human rights work too. Especially for women and children. Of course, we don’t call it human rights work. We just call it God’s work.”

Both my cigarette and my patience were finished. I bade her good night and headed off to bed.

I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing. Why had I allowed her to upset me so much? Why was I so indignant? Of course the missionaries are obnoxious and ignorant and embarrassing. Of course they are doing more harm than good. Of course their barely disguised self-interest belies any superficial attempts at philanthropy. But, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was so personally offended. Was it simply a matter of being forced to grapple with the morality of human rights work?

I couldn’t turn my brain off. I was incensed. I replayed the conversation over and over again in my mind, and each time I came up with wittier, more acerbic and more biting comebacks. I wished that I had screamed or yelled. I wished that I had shamed her into packing up and going home. How did she not understand the harm she was causing?

Spreading the gospel is not human rights work. Missionaries spread ignorance, hatred, death, disease, famine, overpopulation and war. They spread AIDS. They propagate the sexual slavery of women and girls. They encourage the torture of witches. They are the apocalypse.

I think the missionaries are right. They are doing God’s work. And exactly what kind of work is God doing in Africa? Apparently, he instructs parents to pour acid onto their children’s faces to rid them of demons at the behest of church leaders. He leads parents to abandon their albino children, because they have been condemned as witches by their churches. He sends missionaries into communities that practice sorcery to teach them to torture one another for so doing as the Bible demands. And the American churches that established these Christian communities in Africa? They disclaim any responsibility for these atrocities. But, what happened to God? Apparently, God left when the missionaries did.

And, then, it hit me. Christian missionaries are undermining our ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. Undermining it to such an extent, that most of the world rejects international human rights as a strictly Western, and explicitly Christian, ideology. To the majority of the world, it is tantamount to the venom and vitriol spewed forth by the Christian ignoramuses imposing themselves upon the heathen Third World nations.

This phenomenon threatens not only the credibility and viability of international human rights organizations and activists from the West, but also of homegrown, grass roots movements within developing nations. Their governments attribute a Christian (i.e. Western) agenda to all human rights activists. This has become a particularly virulent epidemic in Muslim nations, especially for women’s rights activists.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, for most of the world, state and church are one and the same. There is no separation between religion and government. Thus, not only are Christian missionaries undermining human rights activism around the world, they are undermining the US government’s ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. (This wasn’t made any better by the previous US administration’s explicitly Christian agenda.) Christian missionaries, unfortunately, are viewed as an aspect of US foreign policy. I shudder to think. Throw in some overt Christian proselytization by the US military, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We don’t need anyone to think that the US military or government is doing God’s work. I think we need a campaign to educate the international community that Christian missionaries represent only themselves and not very well at that. We need to start reminding the rest of the world that we are indeed a secular state, just like France. And, not like Texas.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...