Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ethno-Theology: A Response

In response to a recent blog on “ethno-theology,” one reader suggested I give an example of the difference between theologies born out of a different cultural context than of the West. While I am happy to do so in the limited space of this venue, I start off by saying that I do not consider myself an expert in this field and there are varied opinions on the subject. Nevertheless, I am happy to give a short-overview of the topic.

In 1991 I attended a conference in Riga, Latvia. This conference was for pastors throughout the former Soviet Union, which broke apart just a little over a year earlier. One of the pastors that spoke was a Russian ethnic Hungarian who spoke of the persecution on his people for decades under the brutal hands of the Communist government. His text was 2 Kings 5. This is the story of Naaman the leper and how he was brought to Elisha for healing through a slave girl from Israel. Most sermons I had heard from this passage dealt with how leprosy is a type of sin and that the river of Jordon, where Elisha had told Naaman dip seven times, was a type of salvation (an act of obedience of accepting grace through faith). However, this pastor, whose people suffered not only slavery but also death at the hands of their Russian masters, interpreted this passage differently - much differently than a Westerner might. He said this,

“For many years we were under bondage. We now have freedom. Our former masters are dying, what shall we do? In retribution of how they persecuted us shall we just let them die and say may the God of heaven judge you for your atrocities? Or shall we, like the servant girl tell our former masters about the One who can save them? Shall we, the Church of the former Soviet Union, show grace or revenge?”

As I listened to this pastor’s message, the people gathered were weeping as they, too, had suffered much for their faith under their Communist masters. I thought then that only someone under such a context of oppression could possibly interpret the Scriptures in such fashion.

The principles of Scripture are universal, which transcends borders, ethnicity, time and space. However, it is through the context in which man lives how those principles will be applied, or even realized.

Kenyan theologian John Mbiti writes,

“Theology should strain its neck to see beyond the horizons of our traditional structures, beyond the comforts of our ready-made methodologies of theologizing; it should be with the Church where it is, rubbing shoulders with human beings whose condition, outlook, concerns, and world views are not those with which we are familiar.”

“The African theologian who has experienced the agonies of having a burning appetite but nothing to eat will surely theologize differently on the theme of food from the American theologian who knows the discomfort of having a plate full of steak but no appetite.”

Friday, July 24, 2009

Africa Theological Seminary

I have been in Kitale, Kenya two weeks teaching "Introduction to Missions," and "Cross-Cultural Studies." Some of my students are missionaries working in the Sudan. It's like being home as we lived here 14 years.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Call for Ethno-theologians

The first day of our classes in Kenya this past week produced an interesting discussion and thought. I made the statement that one of the real needs of Kenya, as indeed of every nation and region, is for ethno-theologians. The comment was made in the context that all theology is biased and, because much of the church throughout the world is still dominated by western theologians, much of our theology is produced with a western biased interpretation. My appeal was that Kenya and Christians from other nations be more engaged in developing theology from their own ethnic perspective and worldview.

From the back of the classroom a woman, who is not only a student but also a teacher in the public school, made this statement. “Perhaps one reason Africans do not have more theologians is because of western missionaries.” I conceded, that in the climate of colonialism and post-colonialism and among some missionaries and mission agencies today, the promotion of national theologians has been slow if non-existent. My knowledge of what seminaries are doing throughout the world in promoting national theologians is limited, nevertheless, I am assuming there are noted national theologians from Africa, Latin America and sending countries like Korea and Philippines. But when I asked my class if they knew of any Kenyan theologian the only name that came up was John Mbitii.

On further reflection of the classroom discussion I had an emotional knee-jerk reaction to the comment that “it’s the missionaries fault,” that there are not more Kenyan theologians. One of the easiest things to do is to blame the ills of the world on the western missionary and, in some parts of the world, just about all the evils of the world can be traced to our short-comings. There was a time when it was fashionable in mission classes to beat up on our early missionary fathers, and gathering from the comments in the classroom it’s still a popular past time.

The day before the class I was reading a brief biography of a Ghanaian theologian by the name of Carl Christian Reindorf (why he took on such a western name I don’t know). Reindorf lived between 1834 and 1917 and worked with the Basal Mission in Ghana until he died at the age of 83. In relation to my classroom discussion I thought of how that there were some African Christians who did make their mark in mission history, though they are not well known. In the brief account I read on Reindorf’s life I learned that he was sanctioned by the Basal Mission for his radical practices (using a drum in church services) three months before his death; another example of colonial heavy-handedness.

Through the reading and the discussion in the classroom I realize that the history of missions is a mixed bad. The truth is that, while western missionaries were and still are obstacles to growth and national leadership, not all that they/we did was wrong and because of their/our efforts the Gospel has made some remarkable accomplishments. Like all lessons of history, we should continue to take to heart our failings and strive not to repeat the mistakes of the past while at the same time recognize God’s work through history for His honor and glory.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Maintaining Momentum

The other day in reading one of Ravi Zechariah’s books he presented a thought on maintaining spiritual growth. Maintenance and growth almost seems a contradiction of terms. His analogy was that of a person trying to lose weight, a subject I can relate to very well as I’ve been fighting the battle of he bulge since I was a kid.

As a dieter we all have a goal…a weight we hope to attain. The problem with so many dieters’, me included, is that after we reach a certain goal if we are not diligent in maintaining, in a short period of time, we will put back on all the weight we lost. The endless cycle of weight loss and gain is wearisome. It’s truly euphoric to attain a weight loss goal, but it takes constant vigilance to maintain that victory. In fact, in some ways it takes more discipline to maintain that which we have attained and, through diligence, the discipline of maintenance in reality leads to growth, not in terms of pounds or kilos, but growth in discipline and life style habits.

There are many things that fall into this category of maintenance for growth. One example is learning language. I quickly learned the basics of Swahili. It’s a temptation of all cross-cultural workers to learn “just enough” to get by. By attaining basic communication, too many missionaries stop learning new vocabulary and grammar. I have a friend in Kenya whose Swahili is as bad today as it was 30 years ago. Yes, he can communicate, but to listen to him speak is torture. The nationals who know him well can figure out what he’s saying, but even they wonder why he is still butchering the language.

On a spiritual level, we all know that we will never attain complete and total understanding of God or His Word. I’ve been a Christian for over 50 years, but having seniority in the faith doesn’t mean I’m automatically a spiritually mature person. Only through a lifetime habit of prayer and study of His Word will I maintain my spiritual journey and through that maintenance I grow. Conversely, if I don’t maintain my spirituality I will digress into sinful and destructive behavior. Perhaps that is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes, “Work out your own salvation.”

Whether it’s a weight level, our relationship with family and friends, learning a language or striving to live in a way that is Christ honoring, we must realize we never attain, but we can succeed if we actively maintain.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Michael Jackson and Anthropolatry

“Mobs torched buses and cars…stoned police on the streets ahead of the funeral. At least two people were killed before his burial. One was a man who was shot by police after their bus came under attack as people raged about not having a last opportunity to see [his body]...Dozens of mourners and police were hurt.”

No, this is not a headline of a Michael Jackson funeral service, as I write this blog one day before his memorial service. That was a news story about an Indian film star by the name of Rajkumar three years ago. This past week, hearing about MJ’s death and the 24 hour non-stop news obsession about his life and death and the live broadcast of his memorial tomorrow, my mind has turned to that day in Bangalore and Rajkumar’s funeral. I can’t help but wonder what will be the headlines after MJ’s memorial extravaganza?

As an anthropologist I am always intrigued with human values and, in this case, the worship or veneration of another human being. In India, where almost anything and anybody could be a god, people will commit suicide because of the loss of a god-like figure. Some, who perceive their celebrity “idols” as endowed with some type of divine gift, often confuse talent with anointing.

Anthropolatry is as old as humanity itself. The Pharaohs of Egypt, a mystic named Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the “enlightened one,” i.e. Buddha, a cult figure named Jim Jones or David Koresh, or a healer called Sai Baba, people, for one reason or another, want to touch divinity. Groups still visit Graceland just to be near the spirit of the another “king,” one named Elvis.

Why are people drawn to other flesh for veneration? Perhaps because we have a desire to see our gods, not just have faith in them. Though we idolize our hero’s we certainly don’t want to emulate their lifestyle. Neither the King of Rock or Pop were great father figures. Mohammed, God’s last great prophet, according to Muslims, had as many as 20 wives and didn’t exactly live a life of peace. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, was married three times, was abusive and convicted of fraud.

So why do humans become devout followers of other humans? No doubt it is because we see in others traits we wish we had or at least admire. Charisma, self-confidence, beauty, intelligence, wisdom, talent or spirituality, humanity is always in search for that which we cannot find in ourselves but hope for in others. When someone becomes “bigger than life,” it doesn’t seem to matter that they are flawed mortals; their star power is a greater force than the reality of who they are as persons. Princess Diana’s funeral/post-funeral coverage overshadows the death of a little nun in India called Mother Teresa. There is a footnote on Friday November 22, 1963. Besides the assassination of JFK, a man named C.S. Lewis dies that morning of a heart attack, one week before his 65th birthday.

Most of MJ’s fans mourn his passing for his musical talent. For others, their grief will be inconsolable as though one of heaven’s deities has been taken away from us, forcing them to live with the void of his presence.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Ethnocentrism versus National Pride

4th of July is a big day for Americans. Not only is it a summertime holiday, it remains a day of pride for our country as we celebrate the birth of our nation. We remain proud of who we are as Americans and the things accomplished by this great nation we call home.

In my classes I spend a good amount of time on the subject on the curse of ethnocentrism in working with people of other cultures. Ethnocentrism is the attitude that one’s own culture is the best while looking down on other people in the process. The attitude that others are dirty, lazy, or stupid, has no place in the life of a Christian, yet it often creeps into our mind-set, especially during times of culture stress. Ethnocentrism has been around since the beginning of time and is a universal behavior with every people group I have worked with. I remind my students that, while it is okay to have national pride, when one begins to evaluate others by their own cultural standard, pride becomes destructive and counter-productive in sharing the Gospel.

In the late ‘70’s I was living in Kenya and being an American was not popular. We had just pulled out of Vietnam, Iran was in revolution, inflation was high, there were long lines for gasoline and we were in the grips of the Cold War. Our president at the time was on an apology tour reinforcing the feeling that everything American was evil and immoral. Thirty years later, history seems to be repeating itself. The question becomes, for me, is it possible to be proud of one’s country without being ethocentristic; can one humbly acknowledge our weaknesses without tearing down who we are as a people?

My favorite word, BALANCE, comes into play here. Recognize, first, that all cultures have their flaws. It’s as easy for me to look at what’s wrong with America as it is for me to see the imperfections of other cultures. Part of the work of Christ is that people and cultures be transformed into His image. It is not a matter of who is better but rather how the Gospel can make us better in our values, behavior and love for others. One does not need to go through a campaign or a forgiveness tour to acknowledge that indeed we, and all cultures, are sinners. I reject, however, the attitude that we can justify our miserable state by merely saying, “That’s just who we are, deal with it.” My culture, and the culture of those reading this post, must see our prison of disobedience through the eyes of our Creator. It’s indefensible to accept our moral failings, corporately as well as individually.

On the other hand, God, in His infinite wisdom, created cultures. It is through culture that He has used the best and worst of us to reveal Himself. Though I do not believe God favors America over other cultures, our history of faith, our Church, the core value that “all men are created equal,” has been used by God to reveal Himself to countless millions around the world. Without being ethnocentistic I can humbly be proud to be an American. That’s not a contradiction of terms…it is a balance approach that is always in tension, always something to work through.