Mention the word "missionary" to an assortment of people around the world, and you are sure to see quite a range of reactions. For some, it may evoke a 19th-century colonialist with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet hacking through a jungle. For others, it will bring to mind a white-suited televangelist hollering calls to repentance on a "crusade." For others still, it will simply be those who proclaim the gospel in a slum or the inner city.
While some see missionaries as obedient followers of God's calling, others see them as a corrosive force bringing only division and intolerance. In India, for example, a radical Hindu leader named Swami Dayananda Saraswati has described religious conversions as violence. Now, an increasing number of governments around the world are barring foreign missionaries and restricting evangelism by local Christians.
If we forget all the prejudices attached to the missionary label, what is really at the heart of this aversion to Christian missionaries? Why is the spread of faith singled out as particularly dangerous, more so than the spread of intellectual arguments, or women's rights, or cell phones?
It often has to do with preserving a status quo, whether the dominance of a different religion, or a political system with no room for alternative allegiances, or even secular humanism. In much of the world, religion is an important marker of community identity. If a person's identity has more to do with where they belong, rather than what they believe or what they do, then switching affiliation to a new religion can be seen as subversive, dangerous, and destructive.
I see some truth in the charge that missionary activity can damage communities where missionary methods are culturally insensitive, patronizing, or disrespectful. This fits with the Catholic document, Dignitatis Humanae, which argues that each person should be allowed to seek religious truth freely and coercive methods by missionaries should always be avoided, "especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people."
There are plenty of examples of poor missionary practice, both historical and contemporary, and this is something which must be guarded against. Western-based agencies also should take care to avoid careless, insensitive, or disrespectful reporting of religion in countries where missionaries are viewed with distrust.
However, it is dangerous and oppressive for governments or dominant religious majorities to resist the conversion of "vulnerable" groups on their behalf and to cocoon them from new religious faiths. It dehumanizes those people and puts the status quo first. This is a recipe for real trouble. Ask one of the many apostates from Islam with horrific testimonies on account of changing their faith. And in the arena of international law, a series of resolutions passed by certain countries seek to protect religions from defamation, which reverses the whole logic of human rights protecting individuals from tyranny and oppression.
Missionaries of one shape or another will not simply melt away, whatever governments try to do. If the method is respectful and fair, there should be no shying away from the right to spread faith.
David Griffiths is the South Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization which specializes in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs, and promotes religious liberty for all.