07 September 2009
A Labor of Love
Happy Labor Day! Slowly carving page 1 of Eliot's Algonquin Bible, Book of Genesis
The Puritans placed great importance on education and literacy, as Puritan individuals were obligated to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This was as much a political as a religious stance, since literacy broke down the exclusive authority of the popes and priests of the Anglican and Catholic churches. John Eliot's Indian Bible falls within this tradition of making the scriptures available to the common person, and it was the first time the Bible was translated for the purpose of evangelization.
English Puritan Richard Baxter once stated that it was "impossible to mention the name of John Eliot apart from the word love." Surely the ten-year process of translating the Bible into Algonquin was a labor of love, and no doubt Eliot grew to love the Wampanoag people with whom he spent so much of his time.
But even love has unintended consequences. Even though Eliot respected the Wampanoag people so much that he labored to convey the gospel to them in their own tongue, it was impossible for Eliot to convey the gospel without conveying English-ness and without denigrating Indian-ness. The spiritual conversion of the so-called "Praying Indians" of Massachusetts required the converted to cut their hair and dress in English style clothing. In addition, Eliot brought his converts into "Praying Towns" and set up a Bible-based structure by which the Indians could "govern themselves" under his guidance. In other words, conversion to Christianity required separation from Wampanoag cultural heritage and submission to the Anglo culture.
Most any evangelizer will tell you that his/her motivation is love -- love for God and/or love for the object of his/her evangelistic fervor. A couple of years ago I was on the receiving end of a fervent mission on the streets of Northampton. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and I was waiting outside while Lynn was at the bank. I hardly noticed the small group of people coming toward me on the busy street until a middle-aged woman thrust a flyer at me and said "Jesus loves you." I smiled and said, "no thanks." Suddenly it was her face she was thrusting at me, and she practically spit at me as she said, "You hate God, don't you?!" I was too stunned to say anything, but as I watched her walk away I became furious -- furious that this woman who had absolutely no idea who I am or the nature of my relationship with God felt entitled to speak to me that way. Did she think she was acting out of love? My experience as the evangelized was that she was acting out of contempt.
This is an extreme example, but I suspect that in some measure both love and contempt are always present in the exchange between the evangelist and the evangelized.