Our theme for the month of February is “plants.”

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.” (Matthew 13:3-4)

The problem—or one of the problems, anyway—with Missionary Conquest, an evangelical board game published in 1992, is that it’s easy to dunk on. That’s likely why I first heard of it on Twitter. “Missionary **Conquest**?” reads one tweet, followed by a gif of Jay Z making a yikes face. “Good Lord,” moans another. Measured in tone, the original tweet features a half-hearted attempt to link the game to mission trip culture of the kind familiar to anyone who’s hung around predominantly white US churches for a while. But that effort goes pretty much ignored in the replies. There, between the game’s guilelessly grotesque title and the delicious own-goal it scores while trying to entice players—“No Bible knowledge required to play the game,” declares the box—Twitter was too busy giggling furiously into its hands.

Photo from worthpoint.com

I’m tempted to continue giggling (furiously) here, both at Missionary Conquest and at the blithely crusading approach to Christian witness it represents. The pleasure of a good dunk, after all, is the sense of superiority that comes with it, and heaven knows it’s easy to windmill slam on an out-of-print evangelical board game from the 1990s. Yet while we ought to count it a small mercy that the latest wave of nineties nostalgia has passed Missionary Conquest by, I’m less inclined to write the game off as irrelevant. Rather, because the danger of the dunk is also what makes it enjoyable, my gamble in this post is that the distance between the ghoulishness of Missionary Conquest and the more polite strains of Western Christianity that have, at least, the good sense to be embarrassed by the boardgame’s imperialist worldview is not as far as it might seem.

For its own part, the game plays like a cross between Monopoly and Risk, a comparison I don’t mean to be flattering. Like Monopoly, brightly colored squares line the edge of the board, with a square on the bottom-right corner for the game’s equivalent of GO. Like Risk, a tidy world map unfurls in the center of the board, color-coded and neatly subdivided along national borders. Play proceeds by dice rolls, and as players march their pawns around the board, they vie against one another in a competition to see who can rack up the most “Blessing Points” and win over the most countries to Christ.

Along the way, players must also contend with what, for Missionary Conquest, is the gameplay’s beating heart: the inevitable roadblocks, hiccups, and complications of a global proselytization campaign. Players might discover for instance that not all Cubans take kindly to foreign missionaries leveraging their platform to denounce communism in public spaces (good for 75 Blessing Points, but at the cost of deportation). In more extreme cases, players might elect a high-risk/high-reward mission trip to Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, so-called “martyr countries” where you might die for your faith or establish a vital stronghold for Christendom. Finally, there are financial considerations. Negotiating with toy money, players perform acts of charity, dicker over whether to co-finance mission trips, and attempt to rope each other into “Financial Opportunities,” randomized investment schemes—from gold mines to hot dog stands (there’s always money in the hot dog stand)—that can bring about a helpful windfall or debilitating bust. Well-heeled players can afford more mission trips. Insufficiently liquid ones, meanwhile, risk an ignominious trip to the “Bad Stewardship Circle,” a Christianized spin on Monopoly’s jail.

As I said at the top: Missionary Conquest is very easy to dunk on.

But then, too, it’s very easy to dunk on in a way that spares the would-be dunker from feeling particularly implicated. Of course gamifying mission work as a form of empire-building is in bad taste; don’t these people know their history? And of course it’s racist and Islamophobic to single out Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as the only martyr countries; how else do you explain those choices? Such objections are satisfying precisely because they preserve an uncomplicated sense of right and wrong, of us and them—us versus them. Yet to the extent that these objections fixate on “problematic elements” in the game’s design, that fixation can prove insidious, distracting from the many ways Missionary Conquest’s colonialism for Christ is not exceptional at all. Instead, the game often just exaggerates assumptions and anxieties already present in Western Christianity.

In fact, stewardship offers one of the best illustrations. A governing metaphor for resource management in Missionary Conquest, stewardship is one of the game’s measures of success. Effective stewards (good and faithful servants) find ways to grow their resources while giving generously to those without. By contrast, poor stewards (wicked and slothful servants) refuse to put their resources to work, or else have squandered what was entrusted to them. And for many US Christians—and perhaps especially many white US Christians who like me are more or less affluent—it’s difficult to imagine what could possibly be wrong with this model. To say nothing of Dave Ramsey–style altar calls to Christian wealth management, stewardship positively saturates Christian discourse. Stewardship is how we’re encouraged to think about Creation care. It’s how we learn to imagine the development of our minds, our capacities, our talents. From those with much, we’re told, much will be expected.

Or, better: with great power comes great responsibility, Peter.

Yet if Missionary Conquest has gotten everything else completely ass-backward, why should we be so confident that here, at last, at least, it’s right?

We shouldn’t. And in explanation, I want to end this post with the two ideas that, throughout, have hovered in the background of my thinking. The first, unsurprisingly, has to do with the parable of the sower—which might as easily be called “the parable of the sowed” for how often the fate of the scattered seeds get prioritized. What does it symbolize, we wonder, that some of the seeds fell on rocky ground? Or that others were choked out by thorns? Or that still others were gobbled up by birds? By contrast, I recall far fewer Bible studies and sermons that emphasize the sower—God, maybe, or anyway some allegorical Christian witness—who, as they stroll through untilled fields, hurling fistfuls of seeds every which way, seem in many respects the exact opposite of a conscientious steward.

The second idea is related to the first. Reflecting on the Gospels, I’d be hard-pressed to name examples of Jesus charging those with much—much land, much wealth, much “Bible knowledge”—to go out and minister to those with little. Far more often he’s recruiting the fishers and the women, the hated tax collectors and the lepers to go forth and testify not to some vaguely spiritual afterward but to the eminently material, revolutionary good news of the present. Catholic social teaching, I think, calls this pattern God’s preferential option for the poor. I’m not sure what Protestants call it. Either way, this topsy-turvy gospel world of the Gospels reads as the exact inversion of the world that Missionary Conquest endorses and that so many Western Christians, comfortable in their wealth but confident in their Christian calling, unthinkingly embrace. Who, we should instead be asking, is actually the missionary here? Who is God’s chosen witness, the catechized center or the “godless” margins?

And if the answer to that question isn’t what we have been led to expect, what then does stewardship become?

 

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