The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries


The classically liberal British weekly, The Economist, is known for its authoritative, tightly written, analysis-infused news coverage. While I sometimes disagree with its editorial conclusions, I include myself among those who find The Economist a satisfying read.

But even the news outlets I favor the most are capable of sometimes publishing pieces that leave me wondering.

Such was the case with an Economist piece from earlier this month on the spread of Christian missionaries coming from the Global South (formerly known as the Third World) to North America and Europe — a 180-degree reversal from the historical pattern.

This reverse flow says a lot about the state of global Christianity. It speaks to the real possibility of the political and cultural West entering a truly post-Christian age. And it underscores how the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America — are likely to define Christianity’s future.

But why now? Why did The Economist  bother to publish, both online and in print, a story about a phenomenon that’s been picking up speed for several decades and play it as if they’d uncovered a breaking trend?

Why would a publication as exemplary as The Economist  publish a piece that reads as if its been sitting in the magazine’s ever-green file for years?

Not sitting in on the publication’s editorial meetings, as I certainly haven't, means I’m only making (hopefully) educated guesses here. But that’s what we often do here at GetReligion, so here I go.

First, however, you might want to actually read The Economist article, so you’re better able to follow my thinking. It’ll take just a few minutes to get through.

Here’s the link, though you may be stymied by the  magazine’s paywall. In case you are, I’ll provide the story’s lede graphs, and a bit more.

Every two weeks Ali Nnaemeka, a Roman Catholic priest … travels between Sept-Îles in Quebec, Canada, and a remote mining town, Schefferville, 355 miles (570km) to the north. The trip, usually by train, takes at least a day, sometimes longer. It requires cutting through a mountainous river valley and travelling past flat lakeland, frozen for much of the year. It is a bleak, monotonous journey. But it is worth the trouble. Mr Nnaemeka, who spends most of his time as a parish priest for two indigenous First Nation communities, is on a mission from God.

Christian missionaries have always travelled to remote spots to spread the word. In previous centuries those places tended to be in Africa and Asia; many were colonies of Western powers. The missionaries tended to be European or American. These days the flow has partly reversed. Poor countries are far more devout than rich ones. As the piety gap grows, missionaries from the global south feel called to save the rich world from perdition. Mr Nnaemeka, a Nigerian, is just one example.

So what? The substance of the story may be accurate, but it reads like a document preserved in a time capsule.

What I want to know is, what’s changed since Philip Jenkins, for one, crystallized the discussion about Global South Christianity? Click here for his classic feature in The Atlantic, “The Next Christianity,” back in 2002. Here is another piece he wrote for First Things in 2006.

How, for example, have generally more traditionalist Africa, Asian and Latin American missionaries — who often bring with them cultural quirks unknown to most Global North Christians, lapsed or otherwise — fared? The article hints at problems, but fails to explore them in any depth.

Often, it is tricky for missionaries from poor countries to get visas to the West. Skeptical officials sometimes suspect them of seeking a better life in this world for themselves, rather than eternal life for others. Mr Nnaemeka’s organisation is big enough to smooth his way. African priests from little-known churches find it much harder, especially since the backlash against immigration has grown stronger in Europe and the United States. Yet even as the West seems increasingly unwelcoming, the new missionaries will keep coming. The early evangelists braved stormy seas and the risk of being thrown to the lions. Their modern heirs will not be deterred by a few rude atheists or long waits for visas.

Frankly, I find the above paragraph, the article’s final graph, to be too flippant (plus I question its use of “priests” in the sentence about would-be missionaries from “little-known churches.” Are none just “ministers,” as evangelical Protestants might call them?).

However, since the piece opened with a Quebec scene-setter, in the interest of space I’ll restrict myself here to what The Economist could — make that, should — have said to put the lede in context.

I’m referring to the fraught history of Canada’s First Nation people (as Canadians call the indigenous groups referred to as Native Americans in the United States ) and the Roman Catholic Church.

If you're unaware of seriously practiced Catholicism’s relatively quick collapse in Quebec, here’s a 2016 Economist piece that explains it.

Or read this 2018 article from Toronto’s The Globe and Mail that explains the situation from the vantage point of the steep decline in the ranks of Quebec’s Catholic nuns and sisters. And if you need a refresher on why Quebec’s aboriginal people have a general poor opinion of their past encounters with Catholic (and other Christian) missionaries, please read this 2015  Montreal Gazette article about church involvement in the government’s notoriously abusive residential schools program that was designed to sever all tribal ties and forcefully push assimilation.

It’s not as if Economist journalists do not have access to the same information I’ve offered up here. Or that Economist writers and editors are ignorant of the importance of history and context; they are, after all, some of the most sophisticated journalists plying the trade.

So how did they ignore how the Rev. Nnaemeka, the Catholic priest cited in The Economist’s lede, is getting along with his First Nation parishioners and, in particular, with those who ignore or even despise his efforts in Schefferville? Do they view him through a different lens because he's African and from another colonized part of the world and not just another white guy?

Aren't those the real, and certainly more interesting, news angles here?

As I said, sometimes even my most liked news outlets leave me wondering.

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