Is Christianity Guilty of Othering Post-Colonial Peoples?

It is sometimes argued that Christianity with its emphasis on the gospel and conversion is guilty of othering. Remember for our course that we have defined othering as "the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalizes another group." By declaring someone "other," a culture or group will  tend to stress what makes the "other" in question  dissimilar from or opposite, and this carries over into representation, especially through stereotypical images. This process of othering, or alterity, is deeply at work in much colonial practice, as well as in post-colonial attempts to come to terms with the past.  Often through exotification, orientalism, or forms of denigration, colonial powers developed negative stereotypes of colonial peoples that legitimized and promoted both political and cultural oppression.  In return some groups as they gain independence, tend to valorize their own culture and demonize that of the former colonizer's. Christians should not try to deny this past, nor should we deny that Christians have often been guilty of the practice of othering. At times Christians, in the name of Christ, have made excuses for cultural bigotry and repression.  Yet does it follow that the Christian gospel itself must practice alterity because of the claims of Christ?  I would suggest that the answer to this question is not a simple one. We must account for both the exclusive and inclusive elements of the Christian faith.

At the heart of this issue is this question: "Does Christianity forcefully import something foreign to a native person and/or demand that a native person give up essential elements of his or her identity?" The same could be asked of groups at a larger tribal and cultural level. It has often been charged that Christianity is a "Western religion" and, therefore, missionaries by their very activity are oppressive in some way. Is this the case?

To begin with, Christianity has an exclusive element in that it claims there is only one way to heaven--that through the person and work of Christ. In a biblical understanding, false worship is sinful, and thus, destructive to a tribe's well-being.  God, as the Creator of all humanity, is the rightful lord, judge, spiritual lover, and object of adoration of all humanity. Psalm 117 enjoins us, "Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples." In the first two chapters of Amos, God judges nations for their social corruption, injustice, infidelity, and for false worship.  In the New Testament, the apostle Paul assumes that all human beings have a basic knowledge of God and of sin but that this knowledge has been corrupted by human willfulness (Romans 1:18-20).  Romans 2:12-16 further argues that all peoples have an ethical code that they obey and disobey, and on the basis of this they are judged by God. Likewise, scripture teaches that God also has the right to and indeed does show mercy to all the nations.  The prophet Jonah, for example, had to struggle with the mercy God was willing to show to a city that had oppressed the Jews.  

In one sense, then, Christianity does make a distinction between the one who follows God and the one who does not. However, it does not follow that this is a vision that means to exclude any people's selfhood or identity.  Note the following brief overview of the biblical vision:

  • Genesis 12:1-3--Abram is told that God will bless the nations through him.
  • Isaiah 60:1-3--God will use Zion as a source of light for the nations.
  • Matthew 28:16-20--The Great Commission of Jesus to go and make disciples of Christ in all nations.
  • Ephesians 2:11-22--The inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant of Israel through the work of the cross.
  • Galatians 3:26-29--The essential equality of God's people before him, including that of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman.
  • Revelation 7:9-10--The promise that people from every "nation, tribe, people, and language" will be present before the throne of God.
  • Revelation 21:22-27--The promise that in the New Jerusalem of God, all nations will walk in its light and that the "glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it."

In this sense, the biblical vision is inclusive. The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf has written on the particular "Catholic" (or universal) personality that Christianity affords its followers.  The Church, as the biblical revelation teaches, will be made up of every ethnoi, every identity group. In this sense, Christianity practices what Volf calls "exclusion and embrace."  It has its own particular identity, yet it also is inclusive of all -- "whosoever will may come." Indeed, Christianity is not wholly itself until it is made up of every nation, tribe, language.  The Christian faith is an eschatological one--we are looking to the future to what God has promised to complete, and this includes the full multi-cultural expression of the Church.

As we discussed earlier, the permeable nature of identity suggests that hybridity is a natural expression of God-given diversity and differentiation. In one sense, Christianity is a hybrid faith.  Not in the sense that any of the basics of the faith change, but in the sense that we more fully understand those nascent truths as they are expressed in various cultural settings. Yoruba Christians have things to teach the rest of the Church about spiritual realities perhaps. Of course, not all hybridity is good.  Syncretism, while it is a subset of hybridity, is regarded by the Bible as an attempt to serve multiple masters. The biblical vision does suggest in one sense that the true identity of a people cannot be known until they willingly set aside false gods. One cannot worship both Yahweh and Esu. Does it follow, however, that everything about other religions is false, and, therefore, to include elements of any of it is syncretistic? Depends.

At Mars Hill, Paul proclaimed that elements of local worship and local belief were actually fulfilled in the revelation of God in Christ (cf. Acts 17:22-31).  Paul was quite willing to quote a pagan Greek poet to express a truth of scripture, as well as point to an altar to an "unknown god" and then name that god as the triune Lord. As we saw in Romans 2, there is a sense in which other religions may be regarded as expressions of natural revelation--incomplete, even distorted, but not completely wrong. One way to approach this question is to look at the biblical practice of typology. The Greek word from which we derive our English word "type" means "a form or pattern."  Typology is one of the basic ways in which New Testament Christians understood their relationship to the Old Testament.  Typology asserts that in God's oversight of history, certain events or persons (types)  prefigure later events or persons (anti-types): the former being the implicit shadow, the later being the explicit actual.  Thus, Moses is understood to be a type of Christ because Christ is the New Lawgiver.  Christ is also the Second Adam who brings salvation to a new redeemed race of people.  Salvation for all humanity is prefigured by the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.

Typological thinking helps us to realize that all truth helps prepare us for the worldview of the gospel.  Thus, the Peace Child of the Nanaimo peoples helped prepare them for Christ the complete peace child.  The dying god myths of many cultures can be regarded as echoes of Christ. Of course, to some this can sound fairly dismissive, as if all human culture is waiting for a "Christian" completion.  But if we remember that true Christianity will not be complete until it is made up of every tribe and ethnicity, then perhaps we can understand that this impulse is finally inclusive.    "Old things are put away; All things become new." All things are fulfilled in Christ because they are renewed.  The Peace Child of the Nanaimo helps us better understand Jesus.  Likewise, certain patterns or understandings in other world religions may not necessarily be in opposition to biblical understanding. For example, Andrew Sung Park suggests that a biblically full concept of sin is found in the Asian notion of han--a concept which includes not only one's personal actions, but the relational consequences of sin, as well as shame of the victims, all of which must be healed and erased. Likewise, some have suggested (notably Thomas Merton) that zen as a concept is detachable from Buddhism; one can be a zen Christian, for instance.

Volf suggests that our identity in Christ transcends those of our particular cultural commitments without necessarily forgetting them.  We are, as Jesus prayed, "in the world but not of it."  As such, we are given the opportunity to see beyond our practices of Othering.  We are given a space in which to cross boundaries, revise stereotypes, and most important, forgive past abuses. This also suggests that we are able with Christ's help, to grow into mature people because of the contributions of other peoples and cultures, as these are brought into the body of Christ.

Park, Andrew Sung. The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding