Sunday, September 21, 2008

Savage But Savvy

This passage was written by the Reverend Francis Owen, missionary to the Zulus in the 1830’s and is reproduced in Eric Newby’s delightful A Book of Travellers’ Tales. The description is both fascinating and amusing in that it captures all the elements of the Christian missionary endeavor – the initial polite invitation to hear the Gospel, the skepticism on hearing it, the request for convincing answers and evidence, the missionary’s inability to provide them, his exhortation to just believe, him dismissing his hearers as willful and stubborn and they dismissing the Gospel as unbelievable. Of course what preaching was unable to accomplish military power was and the Zulus, broken in spirit and divested of their lands, eventually succumbed to the message.

At length I told him (the king) it was Sunday, whereupon he bid me to address his people and teach them the word of God. At the same time a he sent Masipulu, his head servant to tell the Indoonas that they were all to be quiet and listen attentively to me. A dead pause immediately ensued…I commenced by telling them that they all knew that there was a great chief above the sky…I proceeded to say that this king was greater than all kings, greater than my king, greater than their king: that they aught to fear their parents, they aught to fear their king, but much more that they aught to fear the great God; they aught to do what their parents bid them, what their king bid them, and also what God bid them! We have none of us, however, done what God has told us to do. We are all sinners before him. He is displeased at us: each of us has a soul that must live forever when the body is dead, but that our Souls, by reason of sin, are filthy and that they must be washed. Until this moment the greatest stillness and attention prevailed but not the contradiction began, and such a caviling and stormy audience never did I before address. It is impossible to give an adequate idea of the despite which lasted for nearly 2 hours. When I began to speak of the need of spiritual washing in order to introduce the Gospel the subject was treated with scorn. One asked if it were to be washed in the river. I said not with water, but with blood! Whose blood was the natural reply. The blood, I answered, of the Son of God, who was Jesus Christ. Where is he? They asked. In heaven, I said, but once he came down to earth, and…whom did he leave behind to wash us. He washes us himself with his own blood. It is not our bodies that he washes but our Souls. – He washes all who come to him by faith. Away, its all a lie. I persisted in crying that Jesus Christ shed his blood and that if they believed in him, that he came down from heaven that he died for them their souls would be saved. They asked me how this person was killed and who killed him. I said, wicked men nailed him to a tree. Dingarn then asked if it was God that died. I said the Son of God. Did not God die, he asked. I said God cannot die. If God does not die, he replied, why has he said that people must die? I told him it was because all people were sinners, and death was the punishment for sin, but he would raise us all again from the grave. This gave rise to innumerable cavils. They wanted me to tell them the day and the hour when we should rise again, who would be witnesses of the resurrection, who would be alive at that day. They said if any generation had been seen to raise from the grave they would believe. I told them that Jesus Christ rose again on the third day, and that he was seen by his 12 servants, and afterwards by 500 persons at once, and that his servants raised a great many other people. Dingarn asked how many days Jesus Christ had been dead. If only 3 days, he said, it is very likely that he was not dead in reality but only supposed to be so! I said, that when he was on the tree a soldier pierced his side from which came forth blood, and that blood, I said, if believed in washes away sin. After a great deal more combat they told me I need not speak anything more about the resurrection, for they would not believe it. They had no objection to God’s word, but they would not believe in the resurrection. I many times broke away from their caviling and exhorted them to believe instead of objecting. The king once asked if all men would go to heaven? I told him plainly, if you believe the words which I now speak you will go to heaven, but if you believe them not you will go to hell. They wanted me to give them proof that Christ was not in heaven; as who had seen him there. What the persons who took him up into heaven said when they came back again. Condensed.


Anandajoti said...

Hilarious. All reasonable questions which still cannot be adequately answered today.

Unknown said...

I understand that was a famous debate in Sri Lanka in the 18th century between Christianity and Buddhism?

Are there any books or records on this (on the web)?

Thanks !

Arvind said...

I read one of your pieces on the net and am looking for the book. It is called ' Who's That Knocking on the Door? A Buddhist's Guide to Evangelical Christianity .' Where can I get the book?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Aravind,
Don't know of any book by that name. But if you find it let me know. It sounds interesting.