Racism and sexism are increasingly, and belatedly, being identified as big issues at North American, Western European and Australian universities and are not merely “developing country” phenomena.
See, for instance, the recent report from a British task force.
Racism and sexism manifest themselves not only in hiring practices, unequal pay, hate speech and acts of overt violence, but also in everyday paternalism, willful ignorance of and separation from others, and the language we use in identifying others.
Sadly, these are huge blind spots in many Christian churches and organizations.
For example, many foreign Christian students are shocked to find Christian groups on U.S. campuses are divided not only on denominational lines, but on the basis of skin color.
And, feeling little welcome from the dominant host culture, such students often end up forming Christian ghettos themselves.
In the wider society, people who may work together during the week migrate to segregated color-based “churches” on a Sunday.
Afrikaaner theology in South Africa promoted the idea of “separate development” of races by arguing that cultural diversity was intended by God and that, therefore, each race/culture should develop in separate spaces without contamination from or engagement with others.
The biblical premise was correct, but the conclusion drawn was profoundly anti-Christian.
This kind of theology resurfaces in the popular “people group” methodology of mission, developed in the 1980s at the U.S. Centre for World Mission in Pasadena, California, and propagated uncritically around the world.
It marries a dubious sociology with a flawed theology: gospel preaching aims to plant a church within a “people group” so that nobody has to cross any awkward, let alone hostile, boundaries in becoming Christians.
This makes for numerical growth, as “people-group churches” are homogeneous, like attracting like.
Hence, the mushrooming of homogeneous groups, all calling themselves “churches,” and not in any kind of communication with each other.
The great South African theologian David Bosch criticized Afrikaaner theology’s idolization of cultural diversity, saying, “Paul could never cease to marvel at this new thing that had caught him unawares, as something totally unexpected: the Church is one, indivisible, and it transcends all differences. The sociologically impossible … is theologically possible.”
“All this most certainly does not mean that culture is not to play any role in the Church and that cultural differences should not be accommodated,” Bosch continued. “However, cultural diversity should in no way militate against the unity of the Church. Such diversity in fact should serve the unity. It thus belongs to the well-being of the Church, whereas the unity is part of its being.”
He concluded, “To play the one off against the other is to miss the entire point. Unity and sociocultural diversity belong to different orders. Unity can be confessed. Not so diversity. To elevate cultural diversity to the level of an article of faith is to give culture a positive theological weight, which easily makes it into a revelation principle.”
It distresses me, therefore, to find this methodology still pursued and promoted in some “evangelical” circles.
We are given metrics about how many “decisions for Christ” were made through such a methodology, while never asking what these “decisions” are or – most important – which “Christ” they are talking about.
It cannot be the Christ who breaks down dividing walls of hostility between peoples and reconciles them together into one new humanity, of which the church is called to be a sign and foretaste (for example, Ephesians 2:14ff).
One way of understanding the dynamic of Christian conversion is in terms of the creative tension between what the church historian, Andrew Walls, has called the “indigenizing principle” and the “pilgrim principle” in history. Both these principles derive from the gospel.
The indigenizing principle witnesses to the truth that God accepts sinners like us as we are, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection alone.
He does not wait for us to correct our ideas or tidy up our behavior before he welcomes us into his family as adopted sons and daughters.
Christ, so to speak, immerses himself in all that we bring to him from our background in our initial conversion and “indigenizes” our discipleship, calling us to live as Christians and as members of our own societies.
But not only does God in Christ take us as we are, but he takes us in order to make us what we ought to be.
So, along with the indigenizing principle the Christian also inherits a “pilgrim principle” which, Walls writes, “whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society, for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system.”
“Jesus within Jewish culture, Paul within Hellenistic culture, take it for granted that there will be rubs and frictions, not from the adoption of a new culture, but from the transformation of the mind towards that of Christ,” he observes.
The indigenizing principle, then, associates Christians with the particulars of their culture and group, testifying to the sanctifying power of Christ within their old relationships.
The pilgrim principle, on the other hand, associates Christians with the wider family of faith, bringing them into a new set of relationships with people whom they would have never associated with before and with whom their natural groups have little kinship.
The pilgrim principle testifies to the universal scope of the gospel. All those in whom Christ dwells through faith, all who have been accepted by God in Christ, are now family members.
The Christian thus has a double nationality: his own former loyalty to biological family, tribe, clan or nation is retained, but now set within a wider and more demanding loyalty to the global family of Christ.
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: The closing paragraphs are taken from chapter four of Ramachandra’s book, “Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World” (InterVarsity Press-UK and USA, 1999).