Vinoth Ramachandra

Racism in Other Guises

Posted on: April 24, 2018

Racism and sexism are increasingly, and belatedly, being identified as major issues on 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/Sexism manifest themselves not only in hiring practices, unequal pay, hate speech and acts of overt violence, but 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 American campuses that are divided not only on denominational lines, but on the basis of skin colour. 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 colour-based “churches” on a Sunday.

Moreover, it is from rich, predominantly white churches and organizations that we in the Majority World are bombarded with evangelistic “programs”, training courses and methodologies. They show no interest in learning from us. What they produce is for universal consumption. Whatever we produce is local. Ironically, these churches and organizations have little impact on their own cultures and societies.

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 re-surfaces in the popular “People Group” methodology of mission, developed in the 1980s at the US Centre for World Mission in Pasadena 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 criticised Afrikaaner theology’s idolization of cultural diversity: “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… 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. To play the one off against the other is to miss the entire point. Unity and socio-cultural 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 importantly- 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 (e.g. Eph. 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 “indigenising principle” and the “pilgrim principle” in history. Both these principles derive from the Gospel. The indigenising 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 behaviour 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 “indigenises” 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 indigenising principle the Christian also inherits a “pilgrim principle” which “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.”

The indigenising 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.

(The closing paragraphs are taken from my book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World (InterVarsity Press-UK and USA, 1999) Ch.4)

7 Responses to "Racism in Other Guises"

The problem, as I see it, is with teaching and preaching. The ideas of dividing walls being broken down and as justification explained not simply as a way to get to heaven, but as the force by which the table of fellowship is open to all, are simply not being explained at most local church levels.

I was a conservative evangelical in America for some years, and I remember meeting less than five African-American men in the congregations I was involved in. Everyone basically looked and acted just like me. Is this the way it should be? No.

I’m not sure ““People Group” methodology of mission … was propagated uncritically around the world”. There was pretty much a universal outrage when it was presented in Cape Town (Lausanne Congress 2010), that the leadership had to apologies the following day in order to appease the participants. Of all the people I speak to, that was undoubtedly the lowest point of the congress.

@Colin – Good to know PG approaches to mission was rejected at Lausanne 2010 and that happened, I believe, because of what people like Vinoth and others from the two-thirds world have been complaining about for two decades. I spoke to a person last year from an American mission organisation and she said the PG approach was still key to their mission strategy in China.

Just thinking out loud here. Maybe the glorification of cultural diversity was sort of a reaction against the occasional cultural insensitivity shown by Christian Western missionaries of the past? Like for instance, many of my friends here in India still have an issue not with the message of Christianity, but with the Western culture that sort of accompanies the faith system. So yeah, maybe this whole thing was a reaction against the former way of thinking that everything in the culture was evil.

Let’s beware simplistic generalizations, Jeyapaul. If you ask your Hindu friends what they think is “the message of Christianity” I’m sure they will answer (like Gandhi and others) with a “Hinduized Sermon on the Mount”, not the cross, resurrection and the renewal of creation.

And remember that Gandhi was one of the biggest racists who demonized Western culture wholesale. And if you read any serious work on the history of Christianity in India, you will find that very few Western missionaries claimed “everything in the culture was evil”. In fact, Christians and even the British Raj (the two are not synonymous) did more to recover and protect Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and sacred buildings/institutions than did most Hindus and Buddhists themselves. The denigration of low-caste and tribal cultures in India was, and remains, a prominent feature of Vedic Hinduism.

Thanks for this peace VR. A couple of thoughts. I don’t think the idea of the People Group method is wholesale bad. It depends on the motivation. It seems an improvement on the ‘white man’s burden’/imperialist model which promulgates the idea that doctrinal ‘purity’ and the call to missions is mainly the preserve of those of European descent. Amongst many of its failings, it conveniently ignores the fact that Christianity had a long established history in N and NE Africa for example, long before Europeans were evangelised. If the PG movement encourages indigenous churches to be self-sufficient, I can’t see the problem. If however, it is as you suggest, so that those planting the churches can return to their cosy Christian enclaves without having to interact with diverse cultures, then indeed it’s an issue.

I also think Jeyapaul makes a fair point. I can’t speak to the example of India with any authority but the overall argument stands. Diversity could have been a backlash against the aforementioned Western imperial (maybe even supremacist) methods of disseminating the Gospel.

Dear Vinoth,

Being involved in leading a church formed from refugees of one particular ethnic/linguistic/religious background in a Western country with an entirely different set of background I had to deal a lot with this kind of argument. Interestingly enough it never comes from people of the background I am serving in, but always from the dominant one – “your people should attend our church. Separating yourself as you do is wrong and unchristian. Church is meant to be international” etc. etc.

And then when people attend – they end up being excluded by way of language, culture and else and never find their way into full acceptance and participation – unless they are extraordinarily gifted in terms of resilience, adaptability and language skills.

Sure, we could wait for the dominant culture churches to adapt to the fact that their monocultural days are gone and past – but should we in the meantime not worship? Not teach and receive teaching in a language understood by all? Not deal with the specific pastoral problems our church members’ background brings along – often not understood by anyone outside of the background they come from? Should our leaders only be those fully conversant in dominant language and culture?

Church is meant to break down boundaries – and it does so amazingly well. But while the boundaries are crumbling the majority of flow is still always into the direction of lowest resistance, not across the boundaries.

If PG is understood as enforced apartheid it is wrong. If it is a response by minorities to the resistance of dominant culture churches to change then I think it is appropriate and necessary – at least for a while.

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April 2018
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