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By Nathan Bierma


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MISSIONARY IMPOSITION?

Campaign volunteers, charity 5K runners, advertising executives—everyone's on a mission these days, desperate to disseminate their views and values and have the world conform to them. In fact, the deepest divide in the world today, writes Richard Shweder in the summer issue of Daedalus, is not between left and right but rather "between those who embrace universalizing missionary efforts of either a religious (Christian, Islamic) or secular (human rights, international liberationist) sort—and those who react to such missions with diffidence, doubt, distrust, indignation, and even fear."

Count Shweder among the diffident and fearful, says Martin Marty in an entry in his Sightings newsletter. Shweder is responding to President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, in which Bush suggested that "non-negotiable demands of human dignity" are the basis not only of a good society but of an American effort to reform the world—and that these truths are so objective as to overcome the risks of "imposing our culture," as Bush put it. Shweder, Marty says, rehashes the instances of cultural imperialism that have resulted from such self-righteous missionary efforts (the British empire's "white man's burden" to tame savages makes its requisite appearance). Unfortunately, Marty doesn't question Shweder's false alternatives: preachy imperialism versus a mostly hands-off affirmation of the variety of valid cultural norms.

The problem is that after Shweder all but dismantles the notion of intercultural applicability of moral absolutes, he then lamely tries to rebuild the idea in his own terms. But after his setup, he is unconvincing in his cautious endorsement of certain "objective judgments about moral progress" and "non-negotiable demands of human reason that apply universally." He pronounces that one such demand is the willingness of an "insider" of a culture to engage with a respectful "outsider" in a dialogue about the good of the insider's cultural customs. As a "universal missionary effort," this is as arbitrary as anything Bush proposed; would not an insider be reasonable in declining to participate in such a dialogue if she feared that it could lead to the dilution or domination of her culture by the outsider?

Besides, Bush did play by Shweder's rules: he outlined what he saw as an objective good that is universally desirable, then outlined the specific situations in which his policies would, in Shweder's words, bring "more and more of something that is desirable." The better way to argue against Bush's invasion of Iraq—which occupies Shweder for his last three pages—is to say that while Bush's aims to bring "the rule of law," "equal justice" and "religious tolerance" to Iraq were indeed commonly desirable, the misinformed (as we now know) and reckless (it can be argued, given the lack of a workable plan to rebuild Iraq) military invasion was a poor way to achieve these aims. That is a more workable argument than discrediting Bush's moral foundation and then awkwardly attempting to lay another one.

Earlier:
Daedaluson happiness
The dubious conspiracy theories about Bush and religious fundamentalists
Related:
Mark Noll on the history of missions, in B&C

PLACES & CULTURE

From the New York Times :

OLYMPIA, Greece — Until the original Olympics were banned as a pagan event some 1,600 years ago, naked male athletes gathered every four years on the bone-dry plain here to sprint, grapple and heave javelins in the most famous sporting competition of the ancient world. Not much remains from those glory days but ruins: ridged columns felled by earthquakes, the stone outline of a temple to Zeus, the judges' marble box seats and the stone starting line for foot races. But on these ruins—not in the floodlighted stadiums of modern Athens—the Olympics really returned home [last week]. Olympia was host to the original Games, a much different affair from the 21st-century pageant of sport and commerce in Athens, 190 miles to the northeast.

Related:Smithsonianon the Ancient Olympics

VIGO PARK, Tex. — It was just a little country post office in the panhandle in the back of a 1907 general store where shelves still held World War II meat-ration coupons. The mail for 52 people was sorted into 18 old paymaster's boxes from the Union Pacific Railroad, and the combination to the antique post office safe was scrawled on the wall. Until, that is, Nov. 27, 2002, when United States postal inspectors swooped down on this quiet rural crossroads between Amarillo and Lubbock and busted the quaint operation—acquired only months before by an Austin couple through thoroughly modern eBay. Nearly two years later, with Vigo Park's only store still closed, forcing people to drive some 55 miles round trip for groceries in Tulia, the tale remains murky. The Postal Service will not discuss its action against the operators.

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