Monday, March 19, 2007

On Being a Global Christian

One of the things that is most troubling to me as I travel around the world is what has been called the tribalizing of Christians. By this I mean that there are so many Christians in so many countries who have absolutely no contact with, nor much concern for other Christians in other countries. Their identities and awareness are chiefly shaped and formed not by their character in Christ but by their cultural identity and preferences. And yet these 'other people' are our brothers and sisters in Christ. When a Christian places his love for his own ethnic group or national group above and before his love for Christ's people anywhere and everywhere he or she by definition has violated the very sense and spirit of what Paul was talking about when he said "in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile... but all are one in Christ" (Gal. 3.28). Just so, and we have been fighting the battle of the retribalizing of Christianity ever since. I saw a great cartoon the other day. It showed two Indians carrying a dead turkey on a stick between them and heading for a picnic table where three Puritans were sitting waiting. The first Indian said to the second " Look I know they have a great work ethic, but their illegal, they should go back where they came from and enter the country legally."

One of the many forms that this tribalizing tendency takes is cultural parochialism or elitism, the assumption that it ought to be obvious that our culture and cultural expression of Christianity is so clearly superior (and more blessed by God) than any other such form that the best way for the lost in other nations to become saved is to re-create them in our own cultural image. Never mind that our culture has the huge besetting sins of greed, various forms of idolatry, rampant sexual immorality, materialism and a host of other self-centered and selfish practices that in no way honor Christ and his self-giving love. And yet we take it as without question that we should want to preserve many of these aspects of a culture at the expense of life, limb, and sometimes even liberty and at the expense of our Christian commitments and obligations.

One of the things that can be done to change this sort of cultural myopia is spending time regularly in cultures different than our own, going on cross-cultural mission trips, learning a foreign language since it is the gateway into the life of another culture, and in general working on our xenophobic tendencies. What happens, after one gets over the cultural vertigo is one discovers that we all have a lot to learn from each other. In many ways, many other cultures have simpler, more healthy , less self centered lifestyles than most Americans have or aspire to. Learning to see the world through the eyes of others not like ourselves is learning to see the world with eyes like that of God himself, who as the Bible says is impartial and no respecter of persons (see Acts 10).

I must tell you that having had the privilege of teaching right around the world, we are all pretty much the same-- we are all created in God's image, but are now fallen, and are badly in need of redemption. And once brought to Christ, we all have a chance to blossom and be a blessing to others, to be servants of Christ manifesting all the fruit of the Spirit--- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control.

Let me just briefly tell you the story of my friend Issah, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem. He was born and baptized in Bethlehem and today he is a world famous camera man who works the Middle East beat for major networks, including CBS. Everyone knows and loves Issah-- Jews, Palestinians, people from the West, people from the East. And its easy to see why-- he is such a kind and joyful person, just like his namesake-- for Issah is the Arabic name for Jesus. When he parks his car in Jerusalem or Bethlehem or anywhere pretty much in Israel, all he has to do is leave a piece of paper on the dashboard which says 'ISSAH' in Arabic and Hebrew and English, and people know to leave his car alone.

And yet despite all this Issah has troubles. He lives know in one of the few integrated neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where Jews and Palestinians try to make there own personal peace with one another. Yet there are days when Jewish children come to his house and taunt his children and tell them they will be killed, and don't belong in Israel. Never mind that his family has lived in the Holy Land since the Middle Ages or before. Of course this story could be reversed with Palestinians treating Israeli Jews this way as well. But you see my point. Despite it all, Issah is trying to live out the beatitude 'Blessed are the Peacemakers' not just pray for peace.

There were many nights during my last shoot in Israel for CBS where the whole film crew, Jews, Christians, and Palestinians would all go out together and have dinner. They ask me to pray for them all, and I did. For them all. Because God loves them all and wants them redeemed--- all of them. Being a world Christian you see not only means caring about Christians everywhere. It also means making a good faith effort to love even those whom you might normally regard as your enemies, because Jesus said to do so.

I would like to leave you with the lyrics of one of my favorite songs, one by Al Jarreau, just let you ponder them as you reflect on the question--- How does God view people different from you? Does he really love the world?

This one
That one,
Each one
Is God's gift to the world.

They are
we are
Each one is God's gift to the world.
There are no extra people
In a mansion or a ghetto
Each heart and soul is counted
Though they're different from you

So look across the ocean
See those on distant corners
Or see one beside you
Look in their eyes and you will know it's true.

And all the lonely people
The first ones and the last ones
All the great and small ones
The ones that win and lose

All of the remembered
And the forgotten
From every single nation
Is God's gift to the world.

Chorus repeated

From the CD Tomorrow Today


Steve said...

Nice. I live in the suburbs of Dallas and serve a wonderful church while finally working through seminary. But I grew up in East Tennessee.
I wasn't fully prepared for the wealth here and it remains a source of tension as we try to struggle by, surrounded by some of the most beautiful (broken) people in the country. It's been a few years since we've been out of the country, and I dearly miss the way that used to correct my outlook. And I deeply miss staring into the eyes of a believer with whom I am unable to speak, but knowing he was thinking exactly what I was--"Someday we'll talk, my brother."

Dawn René said...

I grew up in South Georgia, a place not generally known for its cultural diversity. Thankfully, I have been able to travel abroad and meet firsthand the brothers and sisters in Christ that I have in Europe, Central America, and South America.

One thing that strikes me most about the gospel overseas, particularly in Uruguay (where I have traveled most frequently) is the amount of love that they lavish on God and their fellow man. I traveled there once with a team of students, many of whom had built fortresses of "cool" for themselves that were impenetrable. The people in Uruguay lovingly coaxed them from their bondage. One girl in particular - you know her: perfectly coiffed, half-ton of makeup always in place - went tousled and makeup free for the first time since I'd known her. Her reason - she knew the people there really didn't care what she looked like and still loved her. These are lessons we all could benefit from learning.

Brett Royal said...

I can't (or don't) fully comprehend it, but I often tell people that we as Christians have more in common with the Christian living in the remotest part of Africa than we do with our non christian co workers.
One is temporary, the other is eternal.

Alex said...

See Gary Burge's book "Whose Land? whose Promise?" for a related message.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

Half the problem is that many 'Christians' here in the US don't act like a Christian so they have no idea what their so called faith is all about. Plus the US acts like Corith on such a regular basis I'm beginning to think that Paul wrote those letters not just for Greece but for the US as well...

Lee said...

Enjoyed the post Dr. Witherington.

I am afraid that I have a question that is a little off-topic, so I hope not to derail the comment thread for too long. I am currently a Religion major at Baylor University in Waco, TX and recently a homosexual/transgender advocacy group arrived on campus, known as Soulforce. They seek to support homosexuality from the Bible and bring up the greek words "malokois" and "arsenokoitai". They claim that there is trouble in translating these words today and that they don't refer sexual orientation. Is this the case?



KN said...

Great idea, but a suggestion. Instead of sticking with the traditional mission trip model, which seems to generally just serve as a cover for tourism, what if churches sent groups on "learning trips"? They could go and learn the history of the country, the Christian church there, and most importantly, the needs of the Christians in that country. With that understanding, they might better be able to serve the people there.

Just think, if instead of sending 20 high schoolers to Tijuana to build a house, you employed local Mexicans to do the same, you would give locals a job. The obvious flaw is that 20 high schoolers wouldn't want to go to Mexico to learn. But still, it would work with adults, if we only lose the task-oriented mindset and learn how to listen. Just some ideas I thought I would throw in.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Lee: Those two Greek words refer to behavior, not orientation. Same sex sexual behavior including intercourse, is prohibited in the NT as in the OT. The issue of orientation is irrelevant.

Ben W.

Stefan said...

Thanks brother for the encouragement. My wife and I are actively preparing for a life of ministry abroad. We are excited, among other things, to play a role in advocating for the church abroad to North Americans and vice-versa. There certainly is a lot of fear and ignorance about how powerfully the church is responding to the gospel in amazing ways. is a great resource to keep tabs on some of that.

Robert said...

It is true that we must think globally and consider others who come from different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities. I agree with your assessment bout how we think of other cultures and disregard their worldview. The sentence in your blog that got me is the one of “When a Christian places his love for his own ethnic group or national group above and before his love for Christ's people anywhere ……” I agree with you, however, Even though I have a strong passion for Christ’s people everywhere, I also have a passion for ministering to Latino students (since I am Latino).

I am a college minister and minister to everyone in the name of Jesus, nevertheless, I have a specific interest in reaching Latino students. I have often found that when I disregard ethnicity in any approach to ministry usually non Western students stay clear. I know that this contributes to a vicious cycle of having ministry for whites, black, brown, etc. How can we break the cycle and have a truly inclusive approach to ministry without leaving others out?

Ben Witherington said...

Cultural appreciation doesn't need to mean uncritical acceptance of all aspects of a culture. Of course the Gospel can and ought to be indigenized in many different cultural expressions-- indeed this is the genius of the Good News that this can be done. However with indigenization comes cultural critique as well-- the Word of God is a two edged sword.

James Garth said...

Check out these stats regarding church attendance by country. The stats reflect the % of surveyed people who claim to attend church at least once per month.

Interesting how we hear so much about Christian 'moral leadership' needing to come from nation #11, but very little about what nations #1-#10 have to say...

#1 Nigeria: 89%
#2 Ireland: 84%
#3 Philippines: 68%
#4 South Africa: 56%
#5 Poland: 55%
#6 Puerto Rico: 52%
#7 Portugal: 47%
#8 Slovakia: 47%
#9 Mexico: 46%
#10 Italy: 45%
#11 United States: 44%
#12 Belgium: 44%
#13 Peru: 43%
#14 Turkey: 43%
#15 India: 42%
#16 Canada: 38%
#17 Brazil: 36%
#18 Netherlands: 35%
#19 Venezuela: 31%
#20 Uruguay: 31%
#21 Austria: 30%
#22 United Kingdom: 27%

sean said...

Dr. Witherington,

Your post was refreshing and reminded me of the Cross and the Sword series of Gregory Boyd (author of "The Myth of A Christian Nation"). I really appreciate understanding that Christianity is not a matter of nationality but of belief and practice and when we get that confused disaster results (conquest of America, Crusades, etc.)

Chip Burkitt said...

James, I am a little confused at some of the percentages in your list. Do more than 40% of the people of Turkey and India claim to attend church? If so, what in this survey constituted a church?

fisherwoman said...

Interesting that 62% of Americans claimed to be Christians, but 91% admit to lying, regularly.

50-60% of married couples admit to adultery.