by Vinoth Ramachandra
One-sided nationalistic vision hinders global perspective and partnership in mission.
A GLOBAL VILLAGE?
With the approach of a new millennium, we have been inundated with international seminars on "advanced leadership training" and consultations on "reaching the world by 2000 A.D." Most of these gatherings are arranged by U.S.-based organizations with a rather homogeneous orientation towards world mission. Why am I skeptical about this particular approach to global partnership?
First, evangelical Christians, especially in the U.S., have been seduced by the myth of the "global village." The fact that I can call New York from Colombo more easily than I can call Madras does not prove that the world is becoming one. All it means is that the communications media, now as in the past, follow and reinforce the prevailing pattern of political and economic relations. All information flows one-way: from the seats of power in the First World to the peripheral sites of the Third World. This is because the technology of communications is owned by powerful business concerns whose primary interest is control and expansion, not education or global development. So the fact that we can watch the CNN and BBC news relays every night on Sri Lankan television, along with inane British and American soap operas, does not so much reflect local taste as it does global power realities.
There are, of course, many benefits from the communications glut. For instance, we are often amused that to find out what is happening in Colombo-especially after some civil commotion-we have to switch on the BBC World Service rather than the government-censored national radio/TV. However, owing to the inequities of the global economic order, what is labeled "world news" is only that which is deemed of interest to the U.S. and European media.
It is not simply that all the footage and reporting is biased to serve Western interests (e.g., the exaggerated "success" of allied bombings during the Gulf War), but that of the myriad of events occurring every day, the few that count as "news" are determined by the Western news agencies. The only time Third World societies make the "news" is when there is a riot, an air crash, a famine, or some gory disaster. Little wonder that the image of the Third World in the eyes of many Westerners is that of a miserable, backward hell-hole which needs the ministrations of Western charities. We, on the other hand, are treated to a blow-by-blow account of the antics of the British royal family, or a preview of the evening gown that Mrs. Clinton will wear at the presidential ball-all by courtesy of CNN, UPI, Reuters, et. al. That there might be anything the West could learn from the Third World, including its poor, is not a thought worth entertaining.
DISTORTED PERCEPTIONS OF THE WEST
Not surprisingly, Third World perceptions of the West are also distorted. None of the American soap operas or sitcoms, for example, depict life in the decaying inner cities. The men are all wealthy, the women glamorous. Even the black families who appear are all living in the lap of luxury. Many men in Asia believe that all white-skinned women are sexually "loose." Is it any wonder that Western embassies have a daily battle fending off long queues of would-be immigrants?
It is tragically possible, then, to be surrounded by the most sophisticated electronic media in the world and yet never experience authentic communication. It is tragically possible to live in the global village of satellite technology and yet only see a world that is a reflection of one’s own mind. It is tragically possible to travel from one hotel to another, one international conference to another, and yet remain quite insular in one’s outlook.
Second, we need to remember that, historically, Christian mission has always affirmed cultural particularity while being global in scope. The events of Pentecost served to "sanctify" vernacular languages asadequate channels of access to the truth of God. From the point of view of the gospel, no culture is inherently unclean in the eyes of God, nor is any culture the exclusive norm of truth. This commitment to a "Christian pluralism" (which endorsed social and linguistic diversity) was no mere tolerance. It was to recognize that, in God’s plan of salvation, the heritage of all the nations, purged of all their idolatrous accretions, will ultimately serve his kingdom (e.g., Isa. 60; Rev. 22:24).
One of the apostle Paul’s great contributions to the early church was his double-sided vigilance: against Jewish cultural hegemony on the one hand, and the syncretizing tendencies of the Greco-Roman cults on the other (e.g., Acts 15:1-2; 1 Cor 10:14ff.; Gal. 2:11ff.; Col. 2:13-17). Ethnicity is thus legitimized without being absolutized.
The translation of the Bible into over 2,000 languages has been the chief instrument of indigenous cultural renewal in many parts of the world. By believing that the truth of the Bible could be distinguished from the language in which it was embodied (an assumption that challenges the deconstructionist tendencies of post-modernism), and that the vernacular was adequate for participation in the Christian movement, the more serious-minded missionaries and translators have preserved a great variety of languages and cultures from extinction, and lifted obscure tribes and ethnic groups into the stream of universal history.
No one has brought this fact out more vividly than the Liberian scholar Lamin Sanneh, now a professor at Yale. He writes:
In many significant cases, these languages received their first breath of life from Christian interest. This is true whether we are speaking of Calvin and the birth of modern French, Luther and German, Tyndale and English, Robert de Nobili or William Carey and the Indian vernaculars, Miles Brunson and Assamese, Johannes Chris-taller and Akan in Ghana, Moffatt and Sichuana in Botswana, Ajayi Crowther and Yoruba in Nigeria, and Krapf and Swahili in East Africa, to take a random list from many examples. . . . Vernacular translation excites vernacular self-confidence, which in turn foments the national sentiment ("Pluralism and Christian Commitment," Theology Today, 45:21-33, April, 1988).
It is perhaps another of the many ironies of church history that such indigenous renewal should turn into antimissionary stridency and later into nationalism.
CONTRAST WITH HINDUISM AND ISLAM
Contrast this attitude to culture with that of Hinduism or Islam. To the Hindu and Muslim alike, sacred texts are untranslatable. Sanskrit and Arabic are the divine tongues, and the culture of origin becomes the universal paradigm. Until quite late into this century, many high-caste Hindus believed that in venturing beyond India one became ritually contaminated. While Islam has practiced social pluralism, it is through tolerance rather than the substitution by the vernacular of Arabic.
The missionary success of Islam is in effect the universalization of Arabic as the language of faith. Every Muslim must step into Arabic on entering the mosque to perform his rites, a daily passage that for many reaches its climax in the annual hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When one considers that three out of every four Muslims in the world are non-Arabs, it is clear that this implies a downgrading of their mother tongues in the fundamental acts of piety and devotion. Cultural diversity is, at best, irrelevant or, at worst, a hindrance to faith.
LESSON FOR EVANGELISM
The lesson for evangelism today is plain. The very nature of the gospel implies that we take, with equal seriousness, both cultural specificity and cultural relativity. The church that is the bearer of the gospel to the nations must be critically aware of its own sociocultural situation and the way its preaching and methodologiesnot only reflect but challenge that situation. But the capacity to challenge is only possible if the church takes seriously its culturally pluralistic nature. If, in Newbigin’s phrase, mission is the "exegesis of the gospel," then a partnership that involves thoughtful, mutual listening among Christians from every tradition and culture within the worldwide church is indispensable for mission.
Cultural critics have shown how communication is distorted by the power relations that operate in the context of communication. The way that our theologies, even our understanding of the biblical message, are often shaped by our cultural presuppositions and socioeconomic status has been so convincingly demonstrated by evangelical theologians, no less than by liberals and Catholics. It was a prominent theme at the Lausanne Congress of 1974, but seems to have receded to the background in recent evangelical conferences which have, as a result, come to be dominated once more by a predominantly North American attitude to global evangelism. (If Asians and Africans are ever put at the helm of such conferences and organizations, they usually tend to be those who have been "acculturated" into the same mold.)
As long as American Christians are blind to the way that American political and economic power operates in the world, their well-intentioned efforts in global communication will only reinforce false perceptions of Christians and Christianity in our non-Christian societies. For example, I am still embarrassed by my inability to answer non-Christian friends who, at the height of the Gulf War, asked me with all seriousness how an international evangelist like Billy Graham could pray on television with George Bush for an American victory. Or think of Bush’s frequent references to "making America the greatest in the world" while espousing "belief in God and wholesome Christian values." I know there are many fine American Christians who have spoken against the bigotry of large sections of the American church, and publicly challenged the identification of the Christian faith with American civil religion. But they are not the ones who are advertized in the world’s media, nor are they among the global "mission strategists" and world evangelism conference organizers whose literature fills our mailboxes.
A Christian church or organization whose decision-making apparatus is drawn exclusively from one cultural tradition has no right to call itself "international." For the only sense that it can be international is in the illusory sense used by the multinational corporations (illusory because all foreign ventures are actually controlled by the parent company for whose profit they ultimately operate). Also, wouldn’t one expect that any attempt at "international training" should begin by listening to the different ways people learn in different social, political, and cultural contexts?
I also find it hard to believe that any of us can have a truly global perspective on mission. That is God’s prerogative. What passes for "global vision" in most evangelical circles today is simply a morass of misleading statistics and some superficial sociological comments. Knowing that 30 percent of Koreans are now Christians, while the corresponding figure in India is only 2 percent, doesn’t tell me very much about what God is doing in either country. A few of us may be able to straddle two or three cultural outlooks, owing to the privileges of either travel or parentage or intellectual ability, but the most we can expect of most Christians is that they (a) first be truly national, in the sense of being concerned to bring the gospel to bear on the issues they face in their own national context; and (b) listen to people of other cultures in order that they may see some of the failures and "blind spots" of their heritage. Global mission arises out of nationalmission.
TOWARDS GOAL AWARENESS
What, then, are the ingredients of a global perspective that may be humanly attainable? I would suggest the following:
1. A sense of world history in addition to our national history. My experience is that most Christians, not least university students and graduates from the best-endowed institutions of the West, are pathetically myopic in this regard. Christian teachers need to confront the parochialism that passes for education.
2. A willingness to criticize one’s own cultural values and national policies in the light of global suffering and injustice. This sensitivity to human need, and of one’s own tacit involvement in structural and personal evils, should be uppermost on the agenda of any organization that claims the world for its parish. Also, talk of human "lostness," or the "need for Christ," will either appear remote and even unreal, or else be co-opted to serve those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, unless it is situated within a critique of the actual realities in which human lostness is expressed.
3. A sense of being co-workers or partners in mission. This is expressed, first and foremost, by following number two above, i.e., being faithful in one’s context but with an awareness of the larger context in which one serves. This larger context can be acquired, not only by long exposure to another society, but through wide reading and friendships with people of other cultures even in one’s own society. Short-term mission trips have some limited value. (They help the ones who go far more than the ones who receive them.) Christians who come to live in the Third World in order to use their special skills or training in the service of others are far more effective than the roving evangelist who drops in for a slickly organized "crusade." Such Christians work side by side with local believers in building up churches and national organizations, rather than setting up branches of their sending church. They see themselves as accountable primarily to the national church leaders, and only secondarily to their home base. They find they are learning through their missionary experience as much as they are giving. The willingness to listen and learn is surely one of the most winsome aspects of Christian leadership.
4. A willingness to share resources. The overlapping of so many leadership seminars and global consultations to orchestrate the evangelization of the world represent a squandering of financial and human resources. Little do these organizations realize that the amount of money that goes into, say, faxes and telephone calls alone could support a team of Christian workers in a Third World city for several months. It is not uncommon to see seminars on poverty and development being held in luxury hotels, reminiscent of the lifestyles of UN and IMF/World Bank consultants in our part of the world. One wonders what credibility these carry among those they claim to be serving.
Another aspect of sharing often overlooked is theological education. It is now a quite common feature of our cities to see several poorly equipped and understaffed Bible colleges and institutes competing with each other. They are usually attached to just one church or parachurch agency, and the few students who study in them are well insulated from the contaminating influences of other churches and parachurch organizations. No doubt these too will one day launch their own "global outreaches" and international "leadership training conferences," totally oblivious of what their sister colleges down the road may be up to. What gospel, one wonders, does a fragmented church have to proclaim to a fragmented society?
These are, perhaps, the thoughts of an idle mind. The activists among you will, no doubt, dismiss them as a dangerous diversion from the urgent task of evangelism. But, the more thoughtful of you will have discerned by now that, far from discouraging the evangelization of the world, I am pleading for it to be taken much more seriously by the very people who proclaim most loudly their evangelical credentials. The gospel is never preached into a vacuum. Nor are we the only ones the Lord may have called to the task. So, we need to do each other the honor of listening.
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