In chapter 7 of Controversies in Mission, missiologist Ken Nehrbass evaluates how US Americans are perceived in general and particularly in the work of global mission. In the abstract of his chapter, he writes:
Even as the United States wields substantial cultural influence in this era of globalization, US Americans are controversial figures. US Americans who sojourn overseas are even more controversial. Expatriates from any country are often received with ambivalence, whether they are migrant workers, refugees, or successful business owners, but among controversial Others, the US American missionary is especially provocative, as the United States of America represents “Gospel and gold, ointment and gun, oppressor and oppressed” (Conn 1984, 55). Opposing images of missionaries from the United States are portrayed in major motion pictures and best-selling novels, and they are coupled with the ubiquitous metaphor of the “Ugly American” (who is presumably NOT from Canada). Evening news broadcasts of flag-burnings and protesters holding signs that read (in Arabic) “Death to America” (Al Jazeera 2013) further reify the notion of anti-western and especially anti-American sentiment.
Such negativity is prevalent to different degrees across the globe- sometimes reflexively in the form of “western self-loathing.” However, the United States continues to receive a fairly high international approval rating in polls. And in the midst of this ambivalence about the West and the United States in particular, the country which sends out the largest number of missionaries is still the United States (see Steffan 2013). In what ways do missionaries from the United States experience this phenomenon of anti-American sentiment? How do international stakeholders in Christian mission perceive US Americans and especially missionaries from the United States? Is the “ugly American” any more of a reality than “the ugly Canadian” (or the ugly German, Russian or Pakistani, etc.?) Are images of the US missionaries in film and news broadcasts congruent with the experiences of missionaries abroad? And how do international perceptions of US Americans affect mission strategies?
Since an understanding of international opinions of US Americans in the 21st century can help shape how we design mission strategies for the future, this chapter examines the pervasiveness and lived reality of anti-American sentiment in the setting of missionary work. To accomplish this, I interviewed 19 participants (US Americans and internationals) who have resided outside of the United States for at least two years to gain insight regarding the broad spectrum of international perceptions of US Americans. I then analyzed this data in order to develop a theory that explains the impact of anti-western sentiment on missionary work.
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