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
- 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
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.