Ethnicity and Race in Contextualisation

Pastor Morris Stuart

Our current context represents a paradox. We have today, a society shrinking under the impact of globalisation. Economic globalisation (the fusion of markets, manufacturing, commerce, finance and banking), which dominates our lives; political globalisation with its vision of universal “democracy”, and cultural globalisation, the “glue”, facilitated by communications media (film, the internet, and satellite T.V.). Globalisation creates a commonwealth of experience of popular culture from the mansions of Malibu to the slums of Sao Paulo. It is the experience of the global mono-culture.

Yet this same context exhibits a surge of regional and religious nationalisms on virtually every continent. (Iran, the former U.S.S.R and Eastern Europe, and in Africa). Also, in the U.S.A., in Canada, New Zealand, and in Australia, there has been a related resurgence, namely, the cultural reassertion of indigenous peoples.

This is a context of racial pluralism. It has led some missions specialists to develop strategies of contextualisation designed to respond to what they see as a major cultural shift, and an unprecedented increase in pluralism. Here, the emphasis is on culturally appropriate forms of communication to so-called “people groups”. This response is myopic and fundamentally flawed. This context represents much more than a cultural shift. Racial minorities today are largely the creature of the power exercised by powerful ethnic groups, employing a trinity of ‘tools’: political and economic power, oppression and marginalisation, and cultural dominance. Now, in the context of vastly altered global and regional political power blocs, this arrangement is being challenged by oppressed and disadvantaged racial minorities.

Hence the presence of racial minority groups is, in particular respects, a modern phenomenon. European imperial expansion and its post colonial legacy, globalisation, regional conflicts, refugee movements, economic migration and persecution, have all contributed to the creation of racial minorities today. These minorities fall mainly into three groups: indigenous minorities, settled minorities and migrant minorities.

Indigenous minorities

Indigenous minorities today would be, for example, the Maori in New Zealand, the so-called Aboriginal people in Australia, the First Nations in America and Canada, the Amerindians in South America, and Japan’s indigenous people, to mention but a few. Missionary practice among these peoples concentrates on their beliefs and hence on the process of conversion. The missionary asks: “Which of their practices are evil, or good or neutral? Which are worthy of respect? Which can be used as a vehicle for propagating the gospel?” This approach often leads indigenous minorities to regard evangelisation as assimilation; as threatening their very existence. They ask:”Why should we leave the security of our already hard-pressed minority racial group, in order to join the group which represents our political, social and racial adversary? Can they really confer on us the gift of brother/sisterhood in a community of faith?”This reassertion of cultural and religious beliefs among indigenous minorities is not essentially about religion. It is about reclaiming identity, autonomy and power. People who are discriminated against, who are the victims of genocide, whose very existence is constantly threatened, are not likely to receive the gospel from the perpetrators, irrespective of how culturally sensitive the presentation is. Challenging non-Christian belief systems are legitimate for the Christian missionary. Nevertheless, issues of injustice and disadvantage cannot be bypassed. No amount of theological and methodological “correctness” will replace the need for acceptance and respect.

Settled minorities

Settled minorities today would be for example, African Americans; the Chinese who settled in Australia following the gold rush. Fijian Indians; the Africans of North Brazil.Settled minorities have long since decided that the majority group has rejected them. They have therefore carved out a spirituality of their own. Apologies designed to encourage them to reinterpret rejection as a new evangelistic strategy are offensive. For example, note the promotional statement on the cover of Peter Wagner’s “Our King of People”, where it is stated that: “Wagner transforms the statement: “11:00am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America” from a millstone around Christian necks into a dynamic tool for assuring Christian growth.” This is offensive. The reason for the segregation is not contextualisation. It is sin. It was vicious racism, not efficient evangelisation and rapid growth, which created the American segregated hour.

Migrant minorities

Migrant minorities comprise the dominant racial minorities today. Their settlement in their adopted countries has not been smooth. Generally their presence has been met with hostility and even open violence. They have been fertile ground for the emergence of Fascist and racist anti-immigration political parties. They have constantly been exploited as cheap labour for undesirable jobs.Migrant minorities bring their churches and beliefs with them. Like indigenous minorities, they also suffer at the hands of the host community and even of the host church. For them also, respect and acceptance are more critical than contextual correctness.

The Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP)

The Homogeneous Unit Principle of church growth, states that “congregations develop into healthy churches when they concentrate on one kind of people”. In spite of its limited shelf-life and mixed reception, this ‘theory’ still lingers on in the mission practice of the church. It does seem to me to contradict the very heart of the gospel, which is to say, reconciliation. Even if ‘race’ or colour binds a minority together, it is principally because as a group they have shared a common history of exploitation.God “…is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of two, thus making peace, and in this body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he brought the hostility to an end.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Reconciliation is to be lived out daily as a sign of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, who, by shattering all barriers that divide the human family, has made possible a new community of faith into which people are called to experience its challenges, benefits and its life of reconciliation.

Date: 21 Jun 1997