Before you get your pitchforks out, I will like to make explicit in advance that my view on religion leans towards agnosticism.
When it comes to understand spiritual faiths, I am more invested in learning more about them as narrative instruments and how they served to organise human collaboration. Throughout history, religion has been used equally to advance both good and evil; and to dismiss the existence of one or the other is to be ignorant.
This year, I am reading Leo Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom, a collection of daily entries curated by Tolstoy himself from ancient and classic texts. They draw on wisdom from a diversity of schools of thought; from Lao-Tzu to the Bible and even Seneca.
On his March 17 entry, he opens it up with this line: “We can improve this world only by distributing the true faith among the world’s people”. At this point in the book, Tolstoy is very clear about his Christian faith.
A society cannot live without a united faith and purpose. All social activity cannot really improve our social life if it is not based on the foundations established by religion — Giuseppe Mazzini
Perhaps, from the perspective of religions and their designers, all they had was a vision for world peace. Lofty, sure, but they held the belief that the way to achieve this peace is for humans to be united in a common faith and purpose. And “faith and purpose” can only be shaped by the virtues we hold dear to us.
These virtues are born of the narratives that surround us — the belief systems we hold dear — and religion has been that instrument for centuries of human history. Unfortunately, the same instrument that advanced “civilisation” beyond the age of cannibals was also used by bad actors. The religious often dubbed their actions as “acts of the devil”
While everyone’s threshold of what is considered an “act of the devil” increasingly varies in this disorderly world, the original goal of evangelicals might have been positive all along.
In order to improve people, you begin with only one thing: you can become better yourself
Perhaps evangelicals had their own thresholds of moral good and only wanted to help improve others using the narrative instruments they were entrusted with to help spread the virtues they hold dear. And mission trips are just an exercise to keep these evangelicals in line to ensure they observe the same virtues they preach on their journey.