Christ, Culture and reaching the world for Jesus

J.N.K. Mugambi: “I am wrestling with a contradiction: The gospel proclaims good news in specific cultural and historical terms (Lk 6:16-20). Yet missionary Christianity has reached Africa as terribly bad news in which people have been taught in church to despise their culture, their ancestry, their history and their knowledge. How can Jesus the son of God, Who created Africans in His own Image, condone such dehumanization? Either this negative teaching is theologically erroneous (heretical); or it is imperialist ideology rather than theology; or the God this teaching proclaims is an idol created in the image of its proclaimers. The implications of this concern are far reaching and it is too early to predict the outcome.” (from Jesus of Africa by Diane Stinton p. 26)
Certainly one hopes that missionary Christianity in Africa is not entirely “bad news” either in its early years or hopefully now in an era of greater cultural sensitivity. Yet unfortunately there is more truth in this statement than most of us involved in missionary work would like to admit.
Mugumbi continues, “…One of the most disturbing ironies of the modern missionary enterprise was that the missionaries were biblical literalists, yet they did not take cognizance of the resolution of the first ecumenical council of Jerusalem which declared that it was not necessary for a Gentile to become an “honorary Jew” in order to become a Christian. Most missionaries insisted that the African must become an “honorary white,” as a precondition for becoming a Christian. This was a gross theological error.”
But has this not all changed in the present missionary thrust because of the greater enlightenment of missiologists and missionary sending organizations? Certainly progress has been made and change has occurred in important ways. Yet the accusation continues to be heard that Christianity is the “white-man’s religion.” Often today this accusation is made by Muslims who are suggesting that Islam is the “Black-mans religion.” It seems to me that as Christians it behooves us to take such statements seriously and to be reflective enough to consider what level of truthfulness such comments may contain relating to our own lives and ministries and missionary projects.
Do we intentionally or unintentionally teach Africans to “despise their culture, their ancestry, their history and their knowledge?” Many forms of African culture have been identified as demonic by Western or Westernized Christians. To the point that almost all African culture falls prey to this accusation. Somehow we forget our own heritage. Where did “Christmas” come from and “Easter.” What about the names of the week in English? Indeed there are a great many points at which the “demonic” culture of Europe and the West was incorporated into Christianity as defined and practiced there. Yet we seem somewhat short sighted on such issues. These matters are so close at hand and “normal” that we fail to take notice. What about among evangelicals and Pentecostals in America, are we not bathed in sexually explicit advertising and exaltation of fame and wealth. Have these things not found their way into the church and as such are they not just as much a demonic influence as those things we identify in African Culture? Perhaps it is true that the church in all cultures is influenced by the surrounding culture and Western culture is no exception and thus does not have such a high and exalted vantage point from which to judge others.
When a person comes to Christ they cannot come without their cultural heritage. Their identity is tied to their family and personal history. Thus to devalue a person’s culture and history is to take away their identity. This is what Franz Fanon spoke of as a “zone of non-being.” Once a person’s culture, history and way of knowing is taken away or devalued by those who have the power to dominate they become non-persons because if they accept this evaluation of themselves they are then divorced from their own history and way of being and yet never truly a part of the new.
But what does the scripture say? We are not becoming New Creatures in Christ (2Cor 5:17), old things have passed away and all things are become new. Do we become new within our culture or outside of it? For most of us we must become new while living within our culture. Does that mean rejecting our history, our understanding, our way of knowing the world we live in? Or can these things being redeemed become a part of the kingdom of our God? Certainly we must leave behind sin but is everything of our culture sinful? Has Christ not entered into every culture and if having entered can He not transform us as we live within our culture?
Those groups most resistant to the spread of the gospel message, those among whom the missionary task has been least successful are those where this issue is the strongest. Muslims and Native American people are examples. In such people groups virtually everything about their culture is rejected by the church as being demonic or at least anti-God. Those coming to Christ in such cultures become separated and even enemies of their own people. Thus they have no voice within their community and the gospel does not spread. I fear that in many cases the problem lies less in the actual nature of the culture involved and more with our ignorance of those cultures. Does not Christ desire to enter into every culture and every people? Are not the Christians surrounding the throne of God in Revelation 7:9 identifiable as being of various languages, tribes and nations? There is something that allows our culture to be recognized thus something of our cultural heritage has been preserved and all is not demonic. Should we not consider to what extent any cultural expression may or may not be accepted by Christ who looks at the heart and not at the appearance and to what extent it is simply our ignorance of those cultures, cultural forms and ways of living that is the problem? Perhaps we must allow Christ to enter those cultures as well as our own? It may be that He will find different things objectionable or pleasing in His sight.

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