Beyond Ethnocentrism in Theology & Praxis

Ethnocentrism is the assumption that your own culturally embedded ideas, beliefs, behaviors, values, ideals, and rationales are automatically superior to all others.

The ethnocentristic person/culture acts as though he/it resides at, or is at least on the way toward, the apex of human knowledge, achievement, and satisfaction. That person/culture views the person/culture who is most dissimilar as impotently flailing about in the dark.

The rhetoric should be familiar. The modern world dubbed itself as "The Englightenment," and hence, assumed the role of taking "enlightened" ways of thinking and being across the world. But some have argued that the modern Western world's script of "technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism" has largely failed to produce the sort of enlightenment it promised. That failure has formed us into potentially the most unhappy and medicated society in world history.

I encounter ethnocentric thinking all the time in conversations with students - in harder and softer forms. Just the other day, in fact, one student engaged me in this conversation:
Student: They [the Roman soldiers] just thought Jesus was dead on the cross, but he probably wasn't.
Me: Really? You really think they could be that naive?
Student: Well, they didn't have heart monitors and stuff back then.
Me: You do realize that the average person back then knew a lot more about death than the average person today, right? We send our dying people off to finish their dying in a hospital or assisted-living units. Ancient people died at home in the company of family, friends, and neighbors.

Whether he understood or not, the point is clear:
This student assumed that our technologically-advanced culture could determine whether or not a person was dead better than people who lived before us. "We're right, they're probably wrong," was his train of thought.

The church at-large in the Western world suffers from similar thoughts. Our impressions of God's blessing on us, and God's faithfulness to us, are intrinsically connected to the size of our toys and churches.

For instance, another student told me his parents were blaming God because their house is in foreclosure. Apparently believe that God should cover their inflated tally of household expenses - cell phones, premium cable with TIVO, internet, movies On-Demand, fashionable clothes, dinners out, etc. That is not the cause of all foreclosures, but that is surely the cause of this one. While there's nothing wrong with those things, we must understand that it's not a reflection on the faithfulness of God if someone can or can't afford them (contrary to what Jentezen Franklin and Creflo Dollar would like their audiences to believe).
To move beyond our Americanized version of Christian ethnocentricism, we need to avail ourselves to the world wide web of theology and praxis. So here is my attempt to "span the globe":

African Christians
These Christians have maintained the "warfare worldview" that sees humans, the earth, and the whol cosmos as the battlefield on which heavenly and hellish beings (angels and demons) battle for supremacy and authority. In his book, God at War, Gregory Boyd insists that this view is closer to the biblical worldview than the traditional view that everything (sin and evil included) moves along according to God's divine blueprint.

Latin American Christians
These Christians emphasize the liberating power of God, as well as God's special concern for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed people in the world. Whereas most American Christians focus on the more "spiritualized" beatitutes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Latin American Christians highlight the more concrete, but similar, teaching of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49). The version in Luke's gospel comes on the heels of Jesus' self-proclaimed fulfillment of the messianic vocation given in the book of Isaiah (see Luke 4:16-21), which includes tangible socio-economic implications.

Asian Christians
These Christians appreicate the kinship, familial, and communal aspects of life better than we who have been raised on individualism devoid of any historical roots. Whereas Asian Christians are more likely to acknowledge that "It takes a village to raise a child," we in America are more likely to echo William Ernest Henley, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." That collective framework informs their understandings of justice. Their paradigm is based in shame, honor, and restorative justice, whereas ours is based in crime, punishment, and retributive justice.

I am not suggesting that American Christians are ALL wrong while non-American Christians are ALL right. I am suggesting that all cultures impart particular norms to their members. Our responsibility, therefore, is to move beyond ethnocentricism by acknowledging that we have a small window through which we see the world from a particular angle.

Once we acknowledge that, we're free to discuss, observe, and possibly even adopt  the ways that Christians in other cultures explore theology and praxis. We're open to watch, listen, and learn from them; and they are free to watch, listen, and learn from us. In that process of giving and receiving, the Church is strengthened in ways that could never have happened when we were all looking out own little windows.

Related Posts:
Stanley Hauerwas: Conviction & Candor
Let the Old Folks Speak


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