A few days ago, Spanish Minister of Interior, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, presented a study carried out by sociology professor José Juan Toharia on the attitudes of Muslim immigrants living in Spain. According to Rubalcaba’s evaluation of the study, the "Islamic community in Spain is tolerant, liberal, and westernized. It is well integrated and practices an open form of Islam." He also pointed out that Muslims in Spain have practically the same attitude as Spaniards in general related to the important issues of our day, and an even higher degree of trust in various institutions in society than other Spaniards.
The one thing that really stands out to me, as an evangelical missionary, and American citizen, living in Spain, is what this study has to say about anti-americanism, both among Muslims and other Spaniards in Spain. When asked "To what degree do each of the following people or institutions seem trustworthy to you?," the answers of the Muslim immigrants were as follows (on a scale of 1 to 10):
The Spanish King 7.2
Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) 6.8
The Spanish Parliament 6.5
The Police 6.2
The United States 2.4
The study also added that the attitude of Muslim immigrants towards the United States is essentially the same as the rest of Spaniards.
Having lived in Spain for the last 16 years, none of this really surprises me. But reading in print the results of this study and the comments of someone of such stature as the Minister of Interior, lead me to make several observations. I believe that as American Christians, trying to impact the world with the Gospel of Jesus, we cannot "stick our heads in the sand" as if this reality did not exist. Perhaps there are some areas of the world where, as Americans, we still have an open door, relatively speaking, to influence others with our ideas. But, at least in the areas of the world with which I am more familiar, this appears to be less and less the case.
How should we respond to this reality? I would offer several suggestions:
1. If we really take seriously the core value of making disciples among all nations, we cannot afford to "put all of our eggs in the basket" of our personal witness as American missionaries and American volunteer teams. Even though we, as individuals, do our best to overcome negative stereotypes, there are still significant barriers that our national identity puts in the way of many in regards to their open and objective consideration of the message we hope to proclaim. Because of this, I believe we need to seriously look for more and more ways to support the witness of believers of other backgrounds (both nationals and other foreigners), who do not carry with them so much negative cultural baggage, and content ourselves with having a more "behind the scenes" testimony and presence.
2. At the same time, we should not shirk our responsibility, as Christ’s disciples, to put the "talents" with which He has entrusted us to the best use possible towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission. If we are going to support others in their evangelistic efforts, we must first show them how. We must be faithful at setting a good example, in spite of the difficulties involved, as well as develop quality relationships of trust and camaraderie with those who will eventually "take the baton" from us. We should do this, however, to the best of our ability, in a way that minimizes as much as possible the potential "stumbling-block" of our national origin.
I am not suggesting being ashamed of who we are, or being unnaturally self-deprecatory. This, at times, requires a delicate balance. What we should not assume, however, is an attitude that communicates that others should pay attention to what we have to say, just because we are Americans. In the past, in some places in the world, we have used our American-ness as a "calling card," which has met with varying degrees of success. More and more, however, I sense that this approach, at least in the areas of the world with which I am familiar, is likely to "fall flat on its face."
In spite of all this, though, around the world, "people are still people." Most, in spite of the cultural prejudices they may harbor, still respond positively to sincere friendship and a humble, servant attitude that seeks to love them for who they are. We must give our best effort to do just this, while at the same time avoiding everything that might only serve to confirm their stereotypes of the "ugly American."
3. Believers and churches in the States should be more aware of the difficult situation in which this reality places the missionaries they send out around the world. Trying to communicate to love of Christ in such a setting can be a serious blow to your sense of self-esteem, if it is not firmly grounded in who you are in Christ alone, and not who you are as an American. Those who support missions back at home should also be aware of how political issues in the States can, at times, make the burden that the missionaries they send out have to bear, even heavier. Without compromising on our God-given responsibility to be salt and light in our society, and maintain a prophetic voice in the face of evil and injustice, we should be sensitive as to how our public image affects not only our witness on the home front, but also, more and more, on the international mission field, as well.