Sweden is the country that receives the most asylum seekers per capita of all the European countries. We also incomparable have literally the highest contributions. We are horrified at the continuing austerity measures in the Danish refugee policy. Why do we like such an extreme? Could it be that we still live in the missionary times and therefore constantly use the expression that it is “our responsibility” to take care of all who come to us? Does the fact that Christian colleges educate large groups of journalists further reinforce a fundamentally religious view of what is Swedish society’s responsibility?
The title above is from Karin Sarjas (Verbum 2003) book about the Swedish missionaries abroad. It comes under ‘folk revival and the time of church renewal.” Sweden was one of the countries with the most extensive international operations. Foreign missions took off during the religious revival in Sweden in the 19th century. But even though people left their homes all over Sweden for the salvation of “pagans” we do not know today if they were 10,000, 20,000 or more who went off to Africa, Mongolia, China and South America to convert and help people that we perceived were in need.
It is futile to try to get reliable mission statistics from the Swedish church and close to a dozen other churches. They don’t exist. Only the small Swedish Evangelical Mission has been able to give me a figure of 1,200 missionaries in 150 years of operation. No researcher or graduate student has so far taken on the task to map the extent of the great church mission. Our libraries offer several hundred books on the personal fortunes of missionaries during the period from 1860 to the present day. Titles like “The battle for the kingdom of God” and “Everything to win as many as possible” indicates what the journeys to foreign countries was for.
The only really major setback was when 56 Swedes, including 15 children, were killed during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900. It was one fifth of all deaths of missionaries in China and shows the extent of the Swedish mission. The Swedish mission was active for a hundred and fifty years without our society trying to analyse the consequences of these tens of thousands of missionaries trying to convert people worldwide. Nor how it affects our society even today.
The missionaries and their children came from places such as Vårgårda, Saleby, Tibble, Norrfjärden Långbanhyttan, Backträsk, Siljansnäs and Gideå. But also from Härån, Växjö, Insjö, Brunskog, Färgelanda and hundreds of other Swedish small towns. These travellers have, of course, in their turn, affected their relatives, congregations and communities for over a century regarding how we should treat one another, those who have not yet been Christianised, those who live in poverty and can only be rescued by the Swedish goodness.
Motions have been written in parliament in order to map out development aid and the extensive foreign mission (eg Motion 1985/86: U217), dissertations have been written on how individual fates or groups of people have been affected by the Swedish mission. But nothing about how we Swedes are affected in Sweden.
I remember from my childhood an uncle and aunt who travelled back and forth with their children to the then Tanganyika. They came home with “native masks”, spears, elephant feet that could be used as ashtrays, smoked locusts and the first passion fruit I have ever tasted. I also remember that they were part of an important network with both major representatives the Swedish Church and state politicians. The stories of exotic Africa always came “from an above” perspective. Sent out Swedes would take care of and show the way for the weaker, the unenlightened, the untrained. The goal was of course to make these people as equally a good Christians as the Swedes as possible.
Sweden has no harsh colonial history. In France, Britain and several other countries, lays the knowledge of white rule as part of the collective memory. It is also a national history with so much more variations and nuances than the Swedish history. When the former colonial powers receive refugees and migrants from Africa and Asia, it is usually people who already speak the host country’s language. There is, albeit superficial, knowledge on both sides of the origin and history of the recipient countries and administrative systems.
This is completely lacking in Sweden.
We have a single collective memory: we are good and we want to do good to those who have not reached our intellectual and material level.
Have the mission heritage now moved back to Sweden? We have had an immigration that is unparalleled in our history. Above all, it is essentially a non-European immigration without ties to Sweden and we have no knowledge about how we should relate to these others than through the old missionary reflexes. Today, however, without a missionary message as we live in a secular society. All that remains is the tangible goodness.
When we need to relate to groups that continuously advancing their positions, to the hijab and burkini, to the demands of people who come here from many different countries and cultures that we do not have any experience of, we have difficulty to see these people as equals and set demands on them. We still have a legacy of the heydays of the missionaries, where we were constantly the donor. And then there is the elephant in the room: the religion. Again, the former colonial powers had experience in relating to other religions than Christianity from a purely practical perspective. The Swedes have been limited to converting.
Today we try to rid ourselves of a colonial past we never had through being extremely tolerant towards Islam. The Swedish Church, with Archbishop Antje Jackelén supported by the Social Democratic Faith and Solidarity association, is perhaps the most obvious example. Society at large, in its secularism, does not understand religion’s power over every day social functions. The French writer Pascal Bruckner has tied together the European awkwardness with the post-colonial tendencies to put all the blame on the white European man. In his book “The White Man’s tears” (Les Sanglots de l´homme blanc, ed. Seuil) he tries to analyse this self-hatred mechanisms.
In two European countries there seems to be a different mechanism in control. The shame of World War II. In Sweden, it adds itself as a further layer over the missionary’s emotional world. The fact that Sweden and Germany today are the two European countries which receive the most asylum seekers and migrants can even suggest the letters of indulgence. A tradition of the Protestant north that most of us thought disappeared in connection with when Martin Luther nailed his message on a church door. Germany has not yet freed itself from the legacy of having started World War II as an aggressor, Sweden who often puts upon itself a debt from just being a spectator and fellow-traveller through iron ore exports and permitting traffic. For it is the spectator / fellow-traveller and aggressor who must atone for their crimes, those who did and those who have been able to offer resistance but did not do so.
This world of guilt and responsibility has Christian roots. When migration to Sweden today is depicted so is the idea that it is “our responsibility”. Blatantly, this can of course be questioned. Sweden is hardly responsible for the wars and conflicts in Somalia, Iraq or Syria. But behind the expression is a worldview as shaped by missionary, often non-conformist, commitment.
The critical reader, the viewer, the listener today becomes increasingly aware that they need to know who is the sender of a message – or news – as it is portrayed in the media. But rarely do we talk about a group that has a lot of power when it comes to the public’s view of the world and our relationship to events that may affect our society. Who are the journalists who are mediators of what we consume?
Folk high schools, an alternative form of education in Sweden to university or college studies, grounded in Christian principles and with journalism as a subject choice is available at a number of locations in Sweden. Best known is the the school the Pentecostal church has in the outskirts of Stockholm which educates large groups of journalists in an environment with a Christian basis – there is even an educational section called “message of journalism” and openly teaches “communications and campaign planning used in advocacy work“.
Students testify on the website about how they did their internship at SVT, Aftonbladet and the other major Swedish media organisations. Internship often leads to employment in the Swedish media world. Several leading hosts of SVT’s public debate have been strongly committed Christians.
And this is a post on the Christian publisher Association’s website:
“What if we Christians could set the agenda more often”.
“As a reporter at DN, a Christian can propose a story about an alcoholic who was saved. As a television photographer a believer can go to a missionary country and bring to life all who are passionate about a changed world. As a saved radio journalist, you can suggest that more Christians will have a place in the debates on Studio 1 and P1 tomorrow “.