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Ethnicity and Discipleship

The Antioch story of how we got our name marked a milestone in the growth of Christianity (Acts 11:19). Our spiritual forefathers believed they had been given the task to “tell the message only to the Jews” (v. 19), to people who shared the same sacred text, same history, same diet, and same culture. To do otherwise would threaten their group identity. However, some of the younger believers became restless and, like unruly students in a Christian college dorm, left the compound to do something forbidden.

“Let’s preach the gospel to non-Jews!”

“No way! This is against the rules.”

“But these rules are self-serving. Nobody can be in charge of God! Remember how Christ broke such rules?”

“OK, but, man, the rabbis in Jerusalem will have a cow.”

And off to Antioch they went. As the capital of Syria, Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman world, like Chicago in the United States, was fifteen to twenty times the size of Jerusalem—an urban, pluralistic, multi-ethnic center. Seleucus, one of the four generals of Alexander the Great and the founder of the city, not only built a wall around the city, he also built walls within the city. He reasoned that every culture, every race, every nation, any group with any identity at all feels superior to the other. In the markets and on the streets, violence could occur at the slightest provocation. So Seleucus built fortresses inside the fortress with at least eighteen quarters for major ethnic groups.

Stepping into this social setting, the uninhibited adventurers of the gospel were not prepared to deal with what they put in motion. They had no idea of the impact the life and message of Christ would have in a city such as Antioch. Barnabas came to intervene, followed by more brethren from Jerusalem, and finally Paul arrived. What was the trouble? Vastly different people were crossing the boundaries to be with each other. Although Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Africans, Indians, barbarians, and others used to be all for and by themselves—each in their own quarters looking out for their own interests—when they heard the sweet and radically inclusivist teachings of Christ, they began climbing over the walls, making friends, becoming one body.

But most puzzling for the observers, no riots were reported! When asked, “Who are you?” members of this new community did not know how to answer. Their new identity went deeper than being Greek, Jew, Chinese or African. They became an enigma in the empire, a new kind of people, what Peter later called “a holy nation.” They became a winsome community without walls, but since that was too long to say, and since they talked about Christ’s life and teachings as their greatest mutual treasure, people began calling them “Christ-ians.”

The fact that we got our name as a result of this collision of identities places the issue of conflicting identities firmly in the center of what it means to be a follower of Christ in any era. Among Christians, respect for diversity is commonly understood as nothing more than a virtue—a desirable value—but it was not so for early followers of Christ. The issue of how Christian identity related to other identities was not an appendix to the gospel, but the heart of it. Here are some of the related dynamics:

  1. We divide the world in a way that gives value to us. Without the experience of being wanted and loved into this world, we live with a fundamentally insecure sense of self-worth and look for something larger than ourselves to give us meaning. As a result, we construct belief systems that affix special value to a group we belong to. We create justifications as to why it is better to be part of our ethnic group, race, gender, culture, political party, and sexual orientation. But Christ tore down the wall between God and us by demonstrating how deeply God loves us and how our identity does not depend either on the accidents of birth or performance. He removed our need to justify and recommend our group over others and thus tore down the walls between us. (Eph. 2:14, 1 Pet. 2:9–10).
  2. The gospel gives us critical distance from our own culture. Following Christ expands our identity and somewhat lifts us from our original cultures, uniting us with people very different from us. Every culture has norms, values, and commanding truths that are not religiously neutral. From a critical distance provided by our larger identity of God’s beloved, we can identify the idols of our groups. For example, Christians from Eastern cultures can help Western Christians identify their idols of unbridled consumption, rugged individualism, and complacency within the empire, thus helping them learn the values of simplicity, connectedness, and mindfulness. Christians from Eastern cultures can learn about a need to dethrone the idols of authoritarianism and intolerance and learn the values of freedom and individuality. That is why, in the Hebrew Bible, we often see God sending strangers with answers, solutions, and deliverance to God’s people. In the New Testament, Christ consistently used people from other ethnic groups to teach the meaning of the gospel (Matt. 15:21–28; Luke 7:1–11, 17:11–16; John 4:39–42)
  3. Over the centuries, we have trapped Christ in a Christian subculture. Western Christians have created their own subculture—their own ethnic group, so to speak—with norms, values, and commanding truths that resemble its Western cultural cradle, colonial past, and courtroom theology. To the Westerners, Christ has become defined by Western Christians who have “captured” Christ in Christian teachings. Christian identity has settled and the interpretation of Christ has halted. This explains the reaction of some Western Christians attracted to the fresh expressions of Christianity discovered in the Eastern religions in general and Eastern Orthodox teachings in particular.

    Today, we are called to acknowledge that God is among “the other” outside our Christian subculture, Christ who is “all and in all” (Col 3:11, compare John 1:3, Acts 17: 26–28). If we cannot find God there, among “the other,” we will have a God confined by us and therefore hardly a God worth worshipping. Missiologist Vincent Donovan writes, “The area in which the church must now find its meaning and live out its life is indeed, for the first time, the entire world. We can no longer think of anything less than the world.”1 He reflects further:

    [Over the centuries] Western theologians looked for no more revelation, and expected none, from outside the [Christian] culture. They began to think like the Judeo-Christians of the first century. What possible revelation could there be outside of the pale of Christendom?…The growth and development of Christ grew thinner and fainter until it stopped completely. Christianity and Christendom had completely monopolized Christ.…The church should have realized that no single group has monopoly on Christ or on the truth.2

  4. Abraham’s blessing for “all peoples” goes much, much further than we thought. God called Abraham to step out of his town, out of his nation, and out of his worldview—to be an outsider. But not in order to create a new inner ring. Instead, God said: “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household … and I will bless you…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1–3). In other words, “Your religion will be measured by the blessings it brings to outsiders.” But there is more.

    Monotheism at its best is even better than this. We are not only called to be a blessing to others. We are also called to love others the way God loved us and therefore allow them to be a blessing. The value of one’s religion should be measured not only by how much it gives outsiders. “Us” must learn not only how to bless “Them” but also how “Us” can be blessed by “Them!” Our job is not merely to do good, but also allow other nations, cultures, and religions to be the carriers of God’s blessing as well. To only bless the Other puts us in a position of control of both God and the Other. To receive the blessing from the Other acknowledges God and the sacred in the Other and makes us interdependent with God and humanity. That’s why God has been sending strangers such as priest Melchisedek and Wise Men who followed a star to bless us. Monotheism that will matter in the future will be a humble one, one that does not pretend to contain God, one that can acknowledge one’s own creaturehood, and thus one that expects the limitations of one’s own perspectives.

In the twenty-first century, the winsome community of God will be the one that crosses not only ethnic barriers but also religious ones. It will have generosity of spirit to locate one’s own God, good, and grace in the Other, and learn to receive with gratitude as a creature.

Contemporary globalization is shifting the issues of ethnic, racial, tribal, national, cultural, and religious identity to center stage again. Our planet is becoming smaller and our lives are being woven together with the Other ever more closely. The tension between the identity of being followers of Jesus Christ and the identities we have been given by virtue of being born into a specific ethnic or religious community will either diminish or deepen our spirituality. Like the early church, we now have a new opportunity to be surprised by God. The rules we have created have established us as the brokers of God to the world, confined the gospel into Christian language, and transformed the mystery of God into a theological straitjacket. Maybe we should break the rules again? Maybe we should declare our God as “the one who we cannot be in charge of”?

Notes and Reference

1. Vincent Donovan, The Church in the Midst of Creation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1989), 128.

2. Ibid., 52, 53.

Samir Selmanovic is a founding clergy member of Faith House Manhattan, in New York City.

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