“To be Susu is to be Muslim.”
If I heard that once while serving in Africa as a missionary, I heard it a dozen times. Religion, culture, and identity are formative forces in people’s lives. These things wind around each other into a tightly braided cord, soon becoming indistinguishable. Of course, for the believer, this must cause us to ask some very important questions. Where does our identity lie?
Most of you will immediately say that it is found in Christ. Indeed, this is a foundational truth of our faith. Our identity must be rooted in this core confession, our identity comes from our relationship to this person who created the heavens and the earth and ultimately began the process of recreating them in his work on the cross and subsequent resurrection. That our identity is in Christ is certain.
But what does that mean? Am I no longer a Westerner? An American? A Southerner? A white guy? Those are, in fact, all identities I wear. Pressed, we must all admit that none of these identities have changed. I enjoyed BBQ and football before my conversion, and nothing has changed there. While your salvation has made you a new creation, it has not changed your ethnicity or your cultural history. Or, has it? The Bible informs us that we are now children of Abraham, perhaps wild olives on the branch grafted into the tree of Israel.
At this confusing interaction is where we find the heart of Christianity. It is the true story of the whole world, the real history of every nation on the planet. Its understanding of creation is where we all find our origin. If we had some way of looking back far enough into any group’s history, we would find they intersect at the tower of Babel. The Bible is the history of every culture. And yet, it is the story of one people, God’s chosen people. It is the history of one nation in specific. Israel’s history through the patriarchs, the judges, the kings, and the exile is the story of a specific people and a specific culture that grew up quite separate from tribes in Africa and empires in Asia. Nevertheless, to claim Christ is to claim the history of Israel as your own. What does that mean for a tribe in Africa, or the Greeks of the Roman Empire for that matter?
Acts records for us a snapshot of this paradox in chapter 15. Were Gentiles required to become Jewish in custom and culture in order to be Christians? Did conversion require an exchange of culture, an old for a new, in order to take on the new robes of Christ? Of course, the answer was no. Christianity, according to the New Testament, is as at home in Gentile cultures as it is in a Jewish one. In fact, that is a primary message of Acts 15, that Christianity is translatable. That every culture should be able to feel at home in Christ.
However, being at home only goes so far. Peter admonishes the readers of his first letter to live as strangers in their own country, repeating to them an admonition God gave Israel at Mt. Sinai. James addresses his readers, obviously not all Jews, as the twelve tribes scattered abroad. There is certainly something about Christianity that means we all, regardless of our home culture, share a common history and a common culture, one that is found in Israel.
Andrew Walls calls these the indigenizing principle and the pilgrim principle. He writes, “Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be. Along with the indigenizing principle which makes his faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system” (Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History).
These twin principles were at play for our cultural manifestation at one point. Truly they still are and always will be. But our Western understanding of the Christian faith had to develop over time. If we dig back far enough into our past, there was a time when Europe was pagan. Before that, Christianity had to make its way into the world of the Greeks. From the Jews to the Greeks, and from the Greeks to the tribal peoples of Europe, the barbarians, the Christian faith was translated across cultures. Each time it had to make itself at home in the culture of this new group. The result was a unique cultural manifestation of the true Christian faith. This translatability is one thing that makes Christianity remarkable among the world religions. The gospel demands translation.
In bygone eras, this was a topic for international missions, but today, this is a conversation for local church ministry. I think of my local context where hundreds of different cultures live in the same large city. Quite simply, we are doing missions wrong if we expect the Persian community here to wear the robes of a Western, American Christianity. The gospel demands translation, and the gospel will not make sense as a whole in that community until it has been effectively translated.