GALEN HOLLEY: The exclusivity of Jesus, mission work and ‘The African Queen’

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

There was a time when the Catholic Church, mostly with good intentions, thought it could Catholicize the world.
Some very good movies, like “Mission” staring Robert De Niro, demonstrate this belief. It’s now implausible to many contemporary Christians that all humanity, regardless of culture, genetics or any of a galaxy of other formative influences, can be convinced to publicly proclaim belief in the Christian gospel in the most explicit way.
The Catholic Church certainly hasn’t been alone in its underdeveloped appreciation of global diversity. There’s no funnier or, for the Christian, more self-effacing scene in the history of cinema than the opening of “The African Queen,” staring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Hepburn’s character, sister to a Christian minister, is playing the organ and trying to lead a church full of very primitive Africans in singing a rather snooty, high-church Christian hymn – in English, nonetheless. The grunts and squawks are a reminder of how differently two cultures, on opposite sides of the world can view life in its most fundamental expressions.
Despite the tireless and exceedingly brave efforts of many Christian missionaries today, who understand that bribery and coercion of the poor are methods unbecoming a thief, much less a disciple, it’s sad to say that some of that misguided push to raise the Christian flag triumphantly over every village of men by whatever means still goes on.
It’s easy to sit in judgment of history. The young, white man who today insists he would have marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., is often the same man who believes that, had he lived in 1st century Israel, he would have recognized Jesus as the son of God.
We can’t be too hard on those who came before us in the faith. As Paul said, we still see through a glass, darkly. A hundred years from now, theologians will wonder how you and I could ever have been so barbaric and insensitive in living out our faith.
The vicissitudes of history create the condition for the possibility of revolutionary ideas. Had there not been an Enlightenment, the basic dynamism of which ran counter to the authoritarianism of the institution of Christendom, there couldn’t have been a Galileo, a Newton, an Einstein.
As a pilgrim people walking through history under the care of a benevolent God, we understand that we make mistakes. We pray for the eyes of love and faith that recognize in those mistakes seeds of growth and discovery.
Perhaps it wasn’t possible, until very recently, to imagine something like what theologian Karl Rahner called “the anonymous Christian,” the idea that, wherever a person acts in accordance with the grace that is always active in every human life, there is a follower of Jesus. The person needn’t be aware, on any thematic level, of the grace within them or even who Jesus is. They need only act in accordance with that best, most godly part of themselves, that part that reflects the image and likeness of God.
Some will find this patronizing. How fortunate, they’ll say, that a white European man has devised a clever way to make every godless savage and arrogant atheist, without their even knowing it, a Christian.
They’ll say those Christians have simply found a more expedient and infinitely less tiring way of converting the whole world, after all.
I like to think of it as a way of acknowledging the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the means of salvation, while maintaining the belief that all people can be saved, even those who haven’t the foggiest idea of the God most of us worship on Sunday.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@journalinc.com.