Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity?
Does Christianity Crush Diversity?
Senganglu Thaimei (Sengmei to her friends) was born to the Rongmei tribe in the extreme northeast of India. She is a professor of English literature at Delhi University and writes short stories that reimagine the tales of her tribe from the perspective of their marginal women. Professor Thaimei is also keenly engaged in preserving tribal culture. And preservation is necessary. Like the other Naga tribes, the Rongmei were reached by Western missionaries in the early nineteenth century. Today, the tribe is over 80 percent Christian, and tribal traditions are declining.
For many, the idea that Christianity is a white, Western religion, intrinsically tied to cultural imperialism, stands as a major ethical barrier to considering Christ. Yet, we celebrate diversity and lament the ways religion has been used by Westerners to destroy indigenous cultures.
Sengmei was raised by nonreligious parents and she started following Jesus when she was a teenager, after a Rongmei friend brought her to church. Today, Sengmei is married to a man from a kindred tribe who is a pastor for a multiethnic, multicultural church in New Delhi, and her passion for literature is surpassed only by her passion for sharing her faith.
Sengmei’s story illustrates an uncomfortable truth: some of the people most affected by the wrongs of Western Christians are also some of biblical Christianity’s most ardent advocates. We should not give Western missionaries too much credit for the Christianization of the Naga tribes. Westerners saw only a handful of converts, who then effectively evangelized their tribes. While Sengmei deplores the ways Western culture was packaged with Christianity, she is equally clear about the positive effects of Christianization, particularly on the status of tribal women.
As cultural anthropology professor and proud Naga tribe member Kanato Chophi put it, “We must abandon this absurd idea that Christianity is a Western religion.”
Is Literacy Western?
Perhaps an analogy will help. It’s not that there is no connection between Christianity and Western culture. Christianity dominated Europe for centuries. Many cultural artifacts produced in the West—paintings, plays, poems, and palaces—are infused with Christian ideas. But while Christianity held a monopoly on Western culture, Western culture never held a monopoly on Christianity. Indeed, calling Christianity “Western” is like calling literacy “Western.” Western culture has undoubtedly been shaped by literacy, and Westerners have sought to impose literacy on others—often to the detriment of traditional living. But there are at least three reasons why no one in his or her right mind would claim that literacy is innately Western: first, literacy did not originate in the West; second, most literate people today are not Westerners; and third, it is frankly offensive to the majority world to suggest that they are literate only by appropriation. The same reasons make the claim that Christianity is a Western religion indefensible. What’s more, the Bible itself rejects that claim.
The Bible’s Diversity Ethics
Contrary to popular conceptions, the Christian movement was multicultural and multiethnic from the outset. Jesus scandalized his fellow Jews by tearing through racial and cultural boundaries. For instance, his famous parable of the good Samaritan was shocking to its first hearers because it cast a Samaritan—a member of a hated ethno-religious group—as a moral example. Today’s equivalent would be telling a white Christian who had been raised with unbiblical, racist assumptions a story in which the hero was a black. Likewise, John’s Gospel records Jesus’s life-changing conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews did not associate with Samaritans—much less a Jewish rabbi with a morally compromised Samaritan woman! Jesus cared deeply about this marginalized, religiously and sexually suspect female foreigner.
The diversity of the Christian movement kindled by Jesus caught fire after his resurrection. Before leaving them to return to his Father, Jesus commanded his Jewish disciples to “go . . . and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and in the book of Acts, which records the first wave of Christianity, God’s Spirit enabled them to proclaim Jesus’s message in different languages. Those who heard were “from every nation under heaven,” including people from modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Italy (Acts 2:5–11).
The apostle Paul, whose mission was to reach the non-Jewish world, ripped up the social barriers of his day. He wrote to the church in Colossae, “In this new life it doesn’t matter if you are a Greek or a Jew, circumcised or not. It doesn’t matter if you speak a different language or even if you are a Scythian. It doesn’t matter if you are a slave or free. Christ is all that matters, and he is in all of you” (Col. 3:11; ETR); and to the Galatians, “Now, in Christ, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or free, male or female. You are all the same in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; ETR). Socioeconomic diversity was likewise a core ethic from the start (James 2).
But in the New Testament, we also meet a highly educated African man who became a follower of Jesus centuries before Christianity penetrated Britain or America (Acts 8).
We do know that in the fourth century, two slave brothers precipitated the Christianization of Ethiopia and Eritrea, which led to the founding of the second officially Christian state in the world, half a century before the Christianization of Rome. We also know that Christianity took root in Egypt in the first century and spread by the second century to Tunisia, the Sudan, and other parts of Africa. Furthermore, Africa spawned several of the early church fathers, including one of the most influential theologians in Christian history: the fourth-century scholar Augustine of Hippo. Today, while most of Northern Africa is dominated by Islam, over 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa identifies as Christian. By 2050, this part of the world could be home to 40 percent of the world’s self-identifying Christians.
The fact is, even today, Christianity is the most ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, and racially diverse belief system in all of history. The fact that it unites an Arabic and me across age, sex, race, culture, and country of origin proves the point!
The Middle East: Home to the World’s Oldest, Fastest-Growing, and Most Persecuted Churches
Centuries of Western art depicting a fair-skinned Jesus incline us to forget that Christianity came from the Middle East. Jesus’s followers were first called “Christians” in Antioch, the ruins of which lie in modern-day Turkey. Today, this region has one of the smallest proportions of Christians. But what Middle Eastern Christians lack in quantity, they make up in history.
Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world—churches begun centuries before the foundation of Islam. The rapid decimation of these ancient faith communities is tragic. In 1987, the Christian population of Iraq was estimated at 1.4 million (about 8 percent of the population). After the Gulf War, that number dropped dramatically. And since the rise of ISIS, some of the oldest Christian settlements have been entirely depopulated by persecution. Some of the world’s oldest Christian communities are being stamped out at the hands of radical Muslims.
But the story of the Middle Eastern church is not only one of retreat. In 1979, there were an estimated five hundred Christians from a Muslim background in Iran. A year later, the Islamic Revolution transformed a relatively tolerant Muslim-majority country into an oppressive regime. Women were deprived of rights they had previously enjoyed. Extreme imams grasped power. Public executions became commonplace. This led to much religious disillusionment among Iranians. Unprecedented numbers sought refuge in Christianity, and today there are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran. Sprouting from a tiny seed, the Iranian church is the fastest-growing Christian movement in the world.
Does Christianity Belong in India?
If Christianity is the most ethnically dispersed major world religion, Hinduism is the least. India is home or ancestral home to the vast majority of Hindus. Muslims form the largest religious minority, representing 14 percent of Indians, while the twenty-seven million Christians in India are slightly more than 2 percent. So, does Christianity really belong in India?
The current Hindu-nationalist government would say no. Partly in reaction to the history of colonization by Christians and Muslims, the government is seeking to equate being Indian with being Hindu. The history of British imperial rule has led many to see Christianity as synonymous with Western culture.
But India’s Christian heritage is ancient. The church in South India claims a lineage going back to the first century, when the apostle Thomas is believed to have brought the gospel to India. Christianity was in India at least no later than the third and fourth centuries, and perhaps much earlier. Thus, Christianity took root in India centuries before the Christianization of Britain.
One of the areas of tension between Hinduism and Christianity is precisely the question of diversity. The traditional Hindu caste system categorizes people according to prescribed social status and ties this to beliefs about Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
Today, the caste system is no longer officially endorsed, and India’s current president comes from a lower family. But its vestiges remain. Every day in an Indian newspaper, I have read, you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals [or] riding a bicycle.
The Bible, by contrast, insists on the equal value and dignity of all humans. The first churches united high and low classes, rich and poor, slaves and masters, and people of different racial backgrounds in uncomfortable, fellowship that crushed man-made boundaries.
A disproportionate number of India’s Christians come from the untouchable class. If the dominant belief system places little value on your life, a faith that elevates you to being a worth-dying-for child of God becomes attractive.
Gandhi is supposed to have said: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The mind-set that melds Christianity with Western cultural dominance does not belong in India. But biblical, NT Christianity, which lays a foundation for human equality and love across differences, certainly does.
China: The Largest Christian Country in the World?
While the church in China likely does not reach back as far as in Egypt, India, or Iraq, there is evidence of Christianity from as early as the eighth century AD. For most of the twelve hundred years since, however, Christianity had not truly gained a foothold. Until quite recently, that is. Today, despite frequent government crackdowns, the Christianity in China is growing in a way that almost no one could have predicted. I say almost no one, because there is a sense in which one Western missionary to China did predict it.
James Hudson Taylor died in Changsha in 1905, fifty years after he first set foot in Shanghai. Unlike many other missionaries of his day, Taylor refused to package Christianity with Western culture. He wore Chinese clothes, grew a pigtail (as was the custom for Chinese men), and renounced Western comforts. Taylor had a deep love for the people he served. He undertook medical training to serve those he sought to convert.
It is hard to get accurate data on the number of Christians in China. Due to government persecution, many worship in unofficial “house churches.” But, conservative estimates in 2010 put China’s Christian population at over sixty-eight million. Experts like Fenggang Yang predict that there will be more Christians in China than in the United States by 2030, and that China could be a majority-Christian country by 2050.15 Of course, there is much uncertainty. Government resistance to Christianity seems to be surging. But if China does swing from Communist to Christian in the next thirty years, the consequences for global politics could be immense.
Many associate Christianity with white, Western imperialism. There are reasons for this—some quite ugly, regrettable reasons. But most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western by the day. This is partly thanks to the missionary activities of non-Westerners. For instance, despite its small population and Christian minority (29 percent), South Korea exports the second largest number of missionaries of any country in the world. As Yale law professor and leading black public intellectual Stephen Carter has observed, there is “a difficulty endemic to today’s secular left: an all-too-frequent weird refusal to acknowledge the demographics of Christianity.” Carter points out that in the US, black women are by far the most Christian demographic, while “around the globe, the people most likely to be Christians are women of color.” He warns, “When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are.”
Read the New Testament, and you will find that trying to marry biblical Christianity to white-centric nationalism is like trying to marry a cat to a mouse: one is designed to hunt the other, not mate with it. We also hurt our cause of spreading Christianity in the US by portraying immigration as an erosion of America’s Christian identity. In fact, the opposite is true: most immigrants to the US are Christians, and the racial demographic that is eroding Christianity in America is white.
The Most Diverse Movement in All of History
The fact that Christianity has been a multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic movement since its inception does not excuse the ways Westerners have abused Christian identity to crush other cultures. After the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Western Christianity went from being the faith of a persecuted minority to being linked with the political power of an empire, and power is perhaps humanity’s most dangerous drug.
The habit of equating Christianity with Western culture is itself an act of Western bias. The last book of the Bible paints a picture of the end of time, when “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will worship Jesus (Rev. 7:9). This was the multicultural vision of Christianity from the beginning.
Take home message: Pure, NT Christianity does not crush diversity. It is, in fact, the most diverse, multiethnic, and multicultural movement in all of history.