“Wow, you have learned our language! That’s great. Those _______ people live here for decades and never learn the language. They are fathers-of-dogs! You know that word, right? Fathers-of-dogs, am I not right? Hahaha!”
The high ranking security police officer was egging me on to join him in his racist jokes. While I appreciated the goodwill built by his appreciation of our language learning, I wasn’t thrilled that the conversation had taken this turn. I didn’t engage, and thankfully, he turned to his supervising officer for affirmation, and then stamped our paperwork.
In other circumstances I’ve sometimes been bold enough to offer a proverb as a rebuke to these kinds of comments. “As your people say, Don’t burn the wet wood with the dry wood.” This day I hesitated, not sure whether to take that route with this high-ranking official, and the moment passed.
Our focus people group, like all people groups in the world, struggles with the sin of racism. In years past, they were the oppressed, and hated their oppressors en masse. Now, the tables have turned in our region, and they still hate with a vengeance that very same people group – who have now become the oppressed.
Our focus people group’s racism has roots in legitimate grievances. Genocide. Betrayal. Blood feuds. War. Enslavement. Now, the formerly dominant people group also carries legitimate grievances from the injustices committed against them more recently by people like the officials we dealt with that day. They even had some legitimate grievances when they were the oppressors. Whichever position a group is currently in, the sins of the oppressed and the oppressor tend to intermingle in a tangled web of historical chicken and egg accusations.
How far back shall we go? If we stop keeping score at a certain point in history, is that not an arbitrary decision? If we stop where the records stop, is that not to naively proclaim the oppressed group at that point uniquely innocent in the history of humanity – that the absence of records proves that they alone did not do the very same things that every temporarily dominant group tends to do? Is not every people group – in the broad lens of history – simply another representative of this great democracy of the damned? For yes, all people groups have sinned grievously against others and fall short of the glory of God.
But these questions are not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to highlight a subtle danger faced by missionaries everywhere, and especially by those working with historically oppressed groups. The danger is that in our love for our people group, we will go beyond appropriate empathy, lament, and action – and begin to absorb some of their racist views and attitudes.
It’s very easy to do. As a cross-cultural worker you strive to love your focus people group so much that you actually become like them. You strive to put on their language, culture, and lifestyle to the extent that you are personally and biblically able. The momentum is in the direction of absorbing huge portions of the cultural cake. But here’s the problem. Racism always comes baked into that cake. And sometimes we ingest it.
In our context, we find ourselves starting with a preference for how our focus people group does things (granted that we come out of culture shock alright). Then, that preference starts to mutate into feelings of judgement when we see how the enemy people group does things. Before long we find stereotypes coming true in our own experience and realize that have to check ourselves. If our jokes and our attitudes and our side comments about those people groups begin coming out slanted, it likely means our hearts have already followed our local friends’ into dangerous places.
How can we fight this momentum such that going deep into a certain language and culture doesn’t mean taking on its unique racist tendencies? A few practical suggestions. Believe and preach what the Bible says about how the gospel overcomes racial animosity. Pursue relationships with at least a few members of that “enemy” group. And finally, aim to plant multi-ethnic churches.
The Scriptures are not silent about the power of the gospel to overcome deep-seated hatred between oppressed and oppressor people groups. The fusion of Greco-Roman and Jewish Christians into local churches in the early church is what precipitated and resulted from passages like Ephesians 2, where Paul celebrates how the gospel has torn down “the dividing wall of hostility” between the Gentiles and the Jews. In Acts, the inclusion of the Samaritans in chapter 8 and the Gentiles in chapter 10 is intentional, and would have been a shocking racial development for the mainstream cultures on both sides. And it’s not like they then self-filtered into homogeneous groups. The diverse leaders of the Antioch church in chapter 13 and the ongoing conflicts present in books like Romans tell us otherwise. Jews and Gentiles, oppressed and oppressors, became fellow church members. Believing and preaching these kinds of possibilities for current people groups that hate each other provides the knowledge and passion that can mount an effective defense against absorbed racism taking root.
I was once in a taxi with a group of friends from an international church. When I spoke to the taxi driver in the local language, he went down the typical road of complementing me and proceeding to throw millions from his enemy people group under the bus as idiots who don’t learn the language. “Yet I’m one of them,” a voice piped up from inside the taxi, speaking in the local language. I suddenly remembered that one of the passengers in the car with us was a believer from the enemy people group. I’m not sure what I was about to say in response, but I remember feeling very certain that it would not have been as respectful as it should have been for a member of that group to be in the car with us. This was a bit jarring, realizing that my friendship with this man (and his presence) caused me to alter my response so much for that taxi driver. But it was also very healthy check. Knowing this young man meant I was able to better humanize his people group in that encounter. Knowing him as a brother in the faith meant the family honor was on the line. This is exactly why we need to pursue relationships with the enemies of our focus communities. Their faces and their names will serve as vital safeguards against absorbing our adopted group’s racism.
Finally, the danger of putting on the sinful racial attitudes of our focus people group calls for the long-term goal of planting multi-ethnic churches, where former enemies can worship side by side. Planting language-specific churches is very appropriate. A common language means biblical church order can actually take place. And as a language learner myself, I testify that no one should be forced to worship God in another’s language. Doing so should only be embraced by free choice, as we have done. For groups that have experienced suppression of their language, a language-specific church is even more vital. But if enemy people groups or individuals share significant linguistic overlap, then working toward local churches that display the broken wall of hostility should be our aim. Just like the New Testament church, if we live in a context of diverse groups at enmity with one another, we should strive to be able to verbally and visually proclaim that “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).
We don’t have to absorb the prejudice and racism of our adopted people groups. We shouldn’t strive to become like them in that way. Yes, the temptation is real – and subtle. Fear of man, love for our people group, and our own natural tendencies all push us into an unhealthy worldview where other groups are viewed as less human than the one we are called to. But this can, and should be fought. After all, the dividing wall of hostility has been destroyed. And so we are free. Free to love the oppressors. Free to love the oppressed. Free to guard against burning the wet wood with the dry.