Missions in Albania:
Is It a Case of Culture War?
As the ideological influence of Marxism has disintegrated in most regions of Eastern Europe, evangelical missions from the West, particularly from North America, have proliferated. A global "culture war" is in progress in Eastern Europe, and evangelicals from the West are one of the contenders in it.1
Italian communist Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony provides a theoretical approach for the analysis of the ideological and competitive dimensions of contemporary evangelical mission within Eastern Europe, specifically in Albania. Gramsci's theory is a dynamic approach to religion. It illuminates the manner in which social groups use the power of ideas to initiate societal change according to their specific vision of the future. This theory will be used to answer the question: does North American evangelical ministry in Eastern Europe promote American ideals such as democracy, voluntarism, individual rights, and free enterprise under the cloak of Christian mission?2
In order to test the assumptions and my own hypothesis about evangelical missions using Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, I conducted research in summer 1994 among member organizations of the Albanian Encouragement Project (AEP), an evangelical umbrella organization with administrative offices in the capital city, Tirane. AEP currently includes some 65 organizations with over 300 long-term missionaries working in Albania, almost all from North America and Western Europe. In addition, approximately 100 other evangelical missionaries from the West who are not members of AEP are currently active in Albania. In Albania I conducted extensive interviews with 35 key AEP missionaries and with representatives and leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim communities. In addition, I presented and tested, using a questionnaire, the conclusions of this research with 38 representatives of the AEP member organizations at their recent annual meeting in Switzerland in October 1994.
The general attractiveness of Western culture on a popular level, especially North American culture, makes evangelical missionary presence hegemonic, for it unavoidably represents and embodies a culture that currently holds a powerful attraction in Albania. However, this causes a dilemma, for evangelicals perceive many features of North American culture, such as hedonism, individualism, and materialism, to be antithetical to the gospel they attempt to communicate. Thus, North American evangelical missionaries are at once reluctant and powerful representatives of North American culture. My research showed remarkable consensus among missionaries: they see their cultural hegemony that originates from the magnetic appeal of North American culture as being both an asset and a liability in their efforts at communicating the gospel effectively.
Yet, while North American evangelicals are inevitable representatives of North American culture, they are not deliberate, conscious promoters of it. The overwhelming evidence from my field research is that North American evangelical missionaries are generally more critical of American culture including the American evangelical church, and more optimistic about Albanian culture than any other North Americans in Albania I interviewed.
I would like to cite several ways that I observed evangelical missionaries in Albania exercising unintentional cultural hegemony.
Missionary self-respect and confidence
Missionaries in Albania almost unanimously feel relevant, effective, and privileged. This self-respect and confidence of a particular group of North Americans is powerful, even magnetic, within a chaotic, changing, and humiliated society. Missionaries feel more confident about their ability to have a positive impact on Albanian culture than within their own.
Respect of Albanian culture and optimism for Albania's future
Evangelical missionaries I interviewed were overwhelmingly positive about Albanian culture. This contagious and powerful optimism seems to be based on convictions about both the gospel (it will triumph) and culture (Albanian culture can, like American culture, be positively affected by gospel values). Western missionaries who show respect for a demeaned people in whom they see great potential naturally command attention and appreciation.
Embodiment of hope and vision
Evangelical missionaries, as a group, serve a prophetic role in Albania. The prophet, or the organic intellectual in Gramsci's scheme, is one who is in touch with the longings and aspirations of the common people and who can articulate and demonstrate a corresponding vision of the future. Evangelical missionaries, as prophets, embody change and hope. They stand in solidarity with the common people, communicating their positive views about, and faith in, the potential of ordinary Albanians, by inviting them to join in their faith communities and to assume responsibilities within them.
The final feature of unintentional hegemony is the pragmatic organizational network of AEP. The communication and networking infrastructure, originally developed out of necessity within the context of Albanian infrastructural collapse, today would appear to eclipse anything done by any other organization in the country. What makes AEP unique is that it is a network of diverse organizations with a common general goal, rather than a monolithic, centralized bureaucracy. This is both perceived to be, and actually is, a powerful entity within Albania. It allows local adaptations in every region and rapid responses to changes occurring within Albanian society. It gives the possibility of an amazing voluntary solidarity within general social fragmentation. In a society whose infrastructure is in shambles, where there is a distrust of neighbors and bureaucracies, voluntary organizational networking and technological interdependence is in itself hegemonic.
The missionaries with whom I spoke believe that they can maximize "appropriate hegemony" in ways that will help to set the direction for the emerging evangelical Albanian church, ensuring that the gospel shapes the cultural reformation of Albania, moving the nation in the direction of freedom and democracy. Four main areas of deliberate hegemony were identified and affirmed by the majority of AEP representatives.
1. The promotion of religious freedom
Religious freedom, defined as the separation of church and state, is seen by North American evangelical missionaries as a gospel-derived principle that has been incorporated into American public values for the good of all. In the absence of a religious monopoly evangelicals believe they have a fair chance to win the hearts and minds of growing numbers of Albanians. They are convinced that only in the context of unfair competition, that is, if religious "monopolies" are allowed to be reestablished in Albania, would evangelicals fail to compete successfully.
The opposition of Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim religious communities of Albania is predictable, for they recognize their own relative disadvantage if they are forced to compete in a religious "free market." While some leaders of the historic religions of Albania understand and appreciate in principle the basic incompatibility of modernity with religious establishment, their own strategy for realizing cultural hegemony is to secure government restrictions on religions other than their own.
2. Unity within organizational diversity
Evangelical missionary cooperation across denominational and organizational lines involves sophisticated communications systems both within Albania and overseas?information- gathering and sharing, coordination of joint service projects, and planning of events.
AEP member organizations are becoming aware that if they begin to work independently, their impact within Albania will become fragmented and defuse, opening the opportunity for the reestablishment of religious monopolies by the historic groups that have at their disposal tremendous organizational power and external financial resources. AEP member organizations have recently made clear commitments to build and strengthen their network of communication, information-sharing, and cooperation during the next few years. This unique strength of evangelicals will likely remain a powerful and attractive feature of the evangelical missionary community within a modernizing society that is recovering from repressive ideological control and that views with suspicion any alternative that threatens to monopolize society through a centrally organized ideology.
3. Empowerment of the growing Albanian evangelical church
The value of the inherent dignity and potential of the individual on which Western democracy is based is seen by evangelicals to be compatible with the understanding that humans are created in the image of God. Western evangelical missionaries are uniquely equipped, both culturally and theologically, to empower Albanians by integrating them into their churches, by sharing their knowledge, optimism, and vision about Albania with new members, and by equipping ordinary Albanians to serve and lead new congregations. Emerging local churches, composed of individuals empowered by hope, encouraged and educated to lead, with a new way of conceptualizing the world, may become a significant new force within Albanian society. This kind of empowerment is seen by North American evangelicals as appropriate cultural hegemony that has the potential to make a positive impact on all of Albanian society.
4. Promotion of a vision of a "good society"
The majority of those I interviewed saw their activities in Albania as contributing to a cultural reformation that would help establish a "good society" in which freedom, democracy, and justice would be enjoyed by all. Most evangelical missionaries were outspoken in their opposition to uncritical promotion of North American culture as a model for Albanian society. Instead, they affirmed the ability of Albanians, with the growing influence of Albanian evangelical Christians, to build their own version of a free and just society.
The evidence gathered from the research data does not support my original hypothesis nearly as strongly as I had expected. In fact, the results necessitate a revision. My conclusions can be summarized as follows. Evangelical missionaries from North America have a vision for Albania that includes religious freedom, democracy, an effective and equitable economic system, and a moral foundation on which these can rest. Evangelical missionaries are convinced that the Christian faith of Albania's emerging evangelical church is the key to healthy development for the country as a whole. Their vision, then, not only goes beyond denominational agenda, but includes Albanians of all faith traditions, or of no religious beliefs at all.
North American evangelical mission activity in Albania, instead of being an enterprise driven by nationalistic impulses, is driven by a vision that transcends national boundaries and interests, a vision at odds with features of every culture, including many aspects of North American society.3 This vision motivates evangelicals to wage an international culture war as an extension of the "culture war" being waged with decreasing success within America against the dominant "post-Christian" culture. This global culture war is essentially the same in Eastern Europe as in America, with one main difference: Eastern Europe, where the cultural hegemony of Marxism has collapsed or is greatly weakened, is perceived to have within it areas of opportunity, not only to wage cultural wars, but to win them, something that no longer seems possible to do in the West.
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© 1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies