- David Bennett
True Unity Within Diversity: Christianity is Universal, not solely Western
We are called today to in some way to ‘decolonise’ or ‘deconstruct’ the Western-centric nature of (evangelical) Christianity in order to free it from the notion of being in any way a Western construct and to unearth its deeply Eastern roots. Such a deconstruction is not to reconstruct cultural hierarchies, but to reclaim the universal nature of the Christian Gospel and its saving truth and to demythologise it from the false reality of ‘whiteness’.
When we read the pages of scripture, we are met with radical words of the Apostle Paul, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3:28) In Genesis, we see that the word for humanity, Adamah (אדמה), referred to the ground - something like earth, a ruddy-brown or ochre colour like soil. The colour of original humanity in the text is imagined like (or created out of) the Earth as most likely black or ethnically distinct to the images we see in many churches where original humanity is depicted as white. While we must hold some historical contingency in these representations we must also be on guard against a picture of humanity and the Church which isn’t colourfully diverse and racially freed from oppressive homogeneity and uniformity, and the myth of whiteness which functions like an ‘absence’ of identity or ethnic history.
Paul’s world was ensconced in racial, gendered, and ethnic divides that were so ingrained they affected the very way that God could be accessed. In the early church, especially in Paul’s ministry, Christianity was being attacked by imposters who taught that the Gentiles had to conform in every way to a Judaic understanding requiring Torah obedience and circumcision. Whilst the early Christian church right up to today is called to understand itself in Jewish and first century historical terms; once the Messiah came, the Gentiles were incorporated by God. For Paul the future had come now. The long-awaited Messiah had arrived, and Israel would finally become the light to the Gentiles it was meant to be. The vocation of the Jewish people to be a sacral community that brought the holy goodness and righteousness of God to the nations was fulfilled by Jesus – by God the Father in the Spirit who declared Jesus the Son of God in power.
In his epistle to the Romans, Paul was confronted with a Roman world where the Jews had only recently been kicked out of Rome by emperor Claudius’ edict. Even though the world was so inflamed with ethnic tensions, some like Paul believed, that there was now a way to unify Jew and Gentile through Jesus, the Messiah. For Paul, this meant facing, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the divisions between Jew and Gentile, which led to the birth of a community of reconciliation between different ethnic groups through a shared salvation in Jesus the Messiah, and the restoration of one humanity through one blood (Acts 17:26). God’s goodness was being vindicated as he promised to come and save Israel, and with and through Israel, the world (Romans 9-11). What this incorporation meant wasn’t a deletion of difference between Gentile and Jew, but it did mean a relativisation of that difference toward heavenly and loving unity.
For example, Paul circumcised Timothy, a gentile, so he could work among the Jews even if he didn’t require gentiles to be circumcised (Acts 16). Whilst Peter was called by the Holy Spirit to sit with Gentile brothers and sisters and eat foods that weren’t allowed under the Torah (Acts 15). The Kingdom of God was God’s presence drawn near – a now but not yet tension – but the Church is called to lean forward into it, not to minimise difference, but to unify it and relativise it to a greater reality of love and the truth of our universal humanity in Jesus. Anything less spurns the work and life of Jesus to make us whole.
Today we are faced with many tensions – Augustine’s two cities – clashing with each other and yet together and affected by ethnic and political tensions. What we are called to is to model a repentant unity that doesn’t render the other uniform with us but frees the other to truly be themselves and which seeks to love that difference in unity. We are called to embrace our other-engendered and enculturated neighbour as a way of celebrating the advent of the Kingdom of God, where one day, we will be perfectly unified in a love that enhances, celebrates difference and yet exceeds it in its glory, colour, diversity and richness of affection.
In my studies I have seen how important this is for discussions of gender and sexuality albeit in a way that is distinct form discussions of ethnic or racial diversity, but for Paul, it was most important for discussions of race, ethnicity and the defence of the very goodness and righteousness of God in Christ. How much more must we seek to live out this ethic of unity that didn’t see equality with God something to be grasped but humbled itself even to the point of death on the cross for our ethnically different or racially distinct neighbour? Christianity was never a Greco-Roman or purely Jewish affair but brought both Gentile and Jew, East and West into a harmonious, new human society called the Church. It’s for this end’s restoration and actualisation that we labour today, facing and rooting out racism and the fear of difference which sinfully keeps us divided into factions, feuds and grasping hold of false, human power, rather than living in the pattern of the cross that lays its life down for its friends, its enemies, and the other beyond the self.