Then I Will Never Follow Him

I have a refugee friend in the US who is a member of a minority stateless people group. Being traditionally nomadic, his ancestors migrated from their original country to the country next door. This was about a hundred years ago, when the concept of the nation-state and firm borders was still very new in this part of the world – and for nomads, not really relevant. They had always migrated back and forth across the borders of empires, and even built a lifestyle around the advantages of this (such as smuggling). However, once the nation-state they settled in became more centralized and formalized, the government refused to recognize this people group as citizens. Their original country wouldn’t take them either. So they were stuck, and to this day no one really claims them.

My friend was eventually resettled in the US. But in his final years over in this part of the world he was taken hostage by a terrorist group. Rescue came just in time, when the group was getting ready to execute him. But – and my friend was very keen on pointing this out – he made it through this situation whole and with all of his teeth. He was not so fortunate as a new refugee in the US. For questionable reasons American city governments like to resettle refugees from war zones in some of the most dangerous parts of their new host communities. The idealistic claim is that refugees will use all their immigrant drive and energy to revitalize these drug and crime-afflicted urban neighborhoods. The result, not surprisingly, is often to add trauma on top of trauma. My friend came from a desert country where walking the streets late at night was very normal and mostly safe – even families with small kids are out shopping at midnight. But in his first weeks in the the States he was out walking at 1:00 am and he was mugged – getting one of his front teeth knocked out. “I get kidnapped by terrorists, I keep all my teeth. I come to America, I lose my tooth! Why?” he often asked. All we could do was shake our heads and try to empathize with him.

This friend started studying the Bible with me and even visited church with us regularly for a season. He would show up, long-haired, in a suit that was too big with a collared shirt unbuttoned and showing chest hair, 1970’s style. My fellow bible college students always complimented him on his unique Central Asian style. I had high hopes that as we studied the Bible together, my friend would come to see the beauty of the gospel.

Things went pretty well until we reached Matthew 5:43, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” My friend, far from being struck by the beauty of this kind of teaching, was instead deeply offended.

“If you follow Jesus,” I explained to him, “He will ask you to love your worst enemies and no longer to hate them.”

“What?!” He responded. “Even them? Do you know what they did to my people?” He was alluding to one of the dominant regional people groups that had historically oppressed and committed genocide against his minority group.

“Yes, even them. That is what it means to follow Jesus. We can’t naturally do this. But God loves us when we are his enemies, he gives us new hearts, then he calls us to love our enemies.”

“If that is what it means to follow Jesus, then I will never follow him. I will never stop hating them. It is impossible!”

And with that, he closed his Bible, and disappeared out of my life for the next year and a half. We all know that the truth of the gospel can be offensive. Some doctrines are naturally compelling to certain individuals and cultures while others are naturally offensive. Timothy Keller has called these the A doctrines and the B doctrines. For my friend, the call to love his enemies was a bridge too far. For many a Westerner, this teaching is one of the A doctrines, one of the outcomes of the good news that we find very compelling. But for my friend, coming from a minority oppressed people group who had suffered for centuries, even suffered genocide, it proved to be the teaching that was too hard to bear. He would hold onto his hatred of his enemies rather than be forgiven – and asked to forgive.

The more I learn about how much suffering has taken place in this part of the world, the more I understand his reaction. Every group here has experienced incredible suffering – and has dirt. Just go far enough back in history and everyone is guilty of taking someone else’s land, committing slaughter and genocide, and oppressing the groups weaker than theirs. In fact, this is not only true of our region, but of the whole world. We just lack the historical memory or records sometimes and so we become fixated on the actions of the most recent dynamics of oppressors vs.oppressed within a society. And yet it’s never this simple. My friend’s Muslim people group had been victims of genocide in the last few decades. But few of them knew their own history well enough to know that one hundred years ago they had been active participants in the genocide of ethnic Christian groups. And they are by no means unique. Throughout human history, the oppressed became the oppressors almost every single time. Yes, the Jewish Israelis have some very real historical grievances. Yes, but so do the Palestinians. And both have in turn done some terrible things. How then should we think about justice and forgiveness when all of our ancestors are genocidal murderers? Or do we somehow believe that the victimization of our more recent ancestors somehow wipes away the atrocities of our more distant ancestors? No, to believe that we come from a line any less tainted with oppression than any other line is to embrace both a historical and a biblical naivete.

We don’t often remember the historical context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The Jews by that point had been under the thumb of foreign domination for five hundred years – with only a brief interlude of Maccabean independence (and even that full of corruption). The things that the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Greeks and the Romans did to the Jewish people were horrific. A little perusal of the life of Antiochus Ephiphanes will give you a sense of how bad it got, including 80,000 residents of Jerusalem at one point slaughtered in cold blood. So when Jesus said those little words, love your enemies, it’s remarkable that he didn’t spark a violent riot on the spot. This deeply offensive posture – that the deepest problem of the oppressed was not their societal and political oppression, but their slavery to sin – was one of the reasons the political right and left of his day got together to support his sham trial and unjust murder. And yet, Jesus knew every detail of their oppression to an infinitely greater degree than they did. And into this deep knowledge of their suffering and injustice he told them to go two miles if their oppressor asked them to go one, to turn to their head and expose cheek if their oppressor hit them in the face, and to even pray for and love these very real and very cruel enemy occupiers. How shameful. How offensive. How inhuman. How desperately needed in places like this – in a world like this. Nothing else can break the cycle.

My friend eventually got back in contact with me, years later. I’ve gotten to share the gospel with him a few more times in depth. I still pray for him. He has softened considerably toward his enemies, through the comradery that comes to be built between former enemies who simply struggle through the refugee experience together. But he still doesn’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know yet what it is to live inside of God’s love for his enemies – a love so powerful it makes them adopted sons and heirs. I pray that one day he will know this love and be transformed by it. And in doing so, become a reflection of God himself.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)

Photo by Cristian Grecu on Unsplash

The Greatest Social and Cultural Transformation

I’m currently on a trip to my previous city and engaged in multiple days of back-to-back visiting. So I will likely be writing a bit less this week and instead posting a few articles that I have found very influential over the years.

This first one addresses the very relevant question of how missionaries can achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation. Should they make this kind of transformation a direct focus of their work or should they only focus on the “spiritual” work and trust that the transformation will follow in due time? In this article, John Piper comments on the research of J. Dudley Woodberry. Woodberry’s stunning thesis in his project, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” is to show that the historic presence of conversionary protestants is the most important variable in whether a society has developed a free and democratic society or not. When these conversionary protestants focused primarily on preaching the gospel and planting churches, significant social change was the consistent result. Piper says,

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.

I live and work in a part of the world where we have many acute social needs. There are a thousand good causes I could devote my time to and if I did this many people would find real and meaningful help. So why do I spend so much time studying language and focusing on sharing the gospel, discipling believers, and ultimately, planting churches? How can I do this work in good conscience when my place of service is full of honor killings, FGM, refugees, genocide-related trauma, domestic violence, unemployment, human trafficking, and dozens of other issues that desperately require reform?

This article and the accompanying research help provide data that accompany the conviction that it is not unfaithful to focus on church planting in such a context. It is in fact the truest path toward true and lasting reform.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A Central Asian Proverb on Stereotyping

Let the the wet wood not be burned with the dry.

local oral tradition

The beautiful thing about learning local proverbs is how they can succinctly provide a winsome response or even a rebuke in a touchy conversation. This is my go-to proverb when local friends say, “All the members of that people group are filthy/bad/fathers-of-dogs.” Amazingly, when I respond with this local proverb, I am usually met with chastened agreement.

Photo by Denis Kirichenko on Unsplash

Divided America Visualized

The above picture shows the population of Louisville, Kentucky, color-coded. God is not mocked; we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). Can a nation truly have peace between its different ethnicities if they live this segregated? Some of this ethnic-sorting was institutionalized as late as 1951 in what is known as red-lining. Seventy years later we continue to self-sort, because that is what is easiest. Check out the rest of the US Racial Dot Map here.

We Need More Multiethnic Churches

Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

“Don’t go downtown tonight. Lots of protests planned.”

This is not an abnormal sentence for life in our corner of Central Asia. This time however, it was spoken about our home city in the US, where we are currently on medical leave. Like dozens of other cities, ours has been rocked by protests this week, sparked by the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Much ink has been spilled rightly lamenting the patterns of sinful injustice along with the sinful responses to these developments. Situations like this, with their impossible complexity, highlight the depths to which all sides are grievously affected by the curse. It all seems like a horrible Gordian knot. We desperately need the servant of the Lord from Isaiah 42 to untangle it, to bring justice in the gentle and supernatural way that only he can.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.

May he come quickly.

However, should he tarry, I want to advocate for the goodness of multiethnic churches as one key part of moving forward in race relations in the US, and even all over the world. Or did you think racism is a uniquely American problem? Sadly, it’s not. Racism is a global cancer; America is just comparatively public and loud about its racism issues (which is something to be commended). Many other nations, for face-saving reasons, do not air their dirty racism laundry, but oh, it is there, sometimes with twisted roots which are thousands of years old.

The problem with fallen humanity is that we self-sort by default. Despite our best intentions, most naturally ooze in the direction of those most similar to ourselves. This dynamic has been well-documented recently for political orientations, leading to our current situation of Democratic cities surrounded by Republican suburbs and countryside. But it also happens along ethnic and linguistic lines. In missions circles we call it the homogenous unit principle. The gospel flows most quickly along previously established blood and relational lines – the so-called “Bridges of God”. People tell their family and friends about Jesus and then ended up worshipping Jesus with mainly their family and friends. And in one sense this is only natural. It’s so natural that many question the need for multiethnic churches at all. After all, what’s the big deal with white folk wanting to worship in their culture and black folk wanting to worship in their culture? Don’t we believe in the goodness of a church for every people group in the world? Doesn’t God get glory from each unique cultural and linguistic expression of church? Doesn’t he preserve these differences such that they are still visible in eternity in prophetic passages like Revelation 7:9? Yes, there is a strong biblical case to be made that the gospel is for every language and for every culture. It uniquely redeems and honors each of them and should be uniquely expressed through each of them, like an opal displaying a thousand flaming colors within. God really does turn Babel on its head, turning the curse of many languages and peoples into a display of eternal glory. This is a truth worth dying for among the remote unengaged people groups of the world.

Yet alongside the gospel’s power to redeem every language and culture stands the biblical truth that the gospel is powerful to unite diverse cultures. To miss this is to miss one of the main themes of the New Testament, that the gospel is reconciling the previously irreconcilable – the Jew and the Gentile. Because the gospel was preached to both Jew and Gentile, many New Testament churches were multiethnic, a hodgepodge of Romans, Greeks, Palestinian Jews, and Hellenistic Jews. Hence the many issues that provoked passages like Romans 14. Paul labored until the end of his life to maintain the unity of these early multiethnic churches against the barrage of cultural and theological issues that threatened to divide them, issues such as food differences and the observance of sacred days. Though not mentioned explicitly, one can easily imagine the many history-related interpersonal issues that could arise between the Jewish believers, the oppressed, and their Greco-Roman brothers and sisters, the historical oppressors. After all, put in modern terms, the Greeks and the Romans were both repeatedly guilty of genocide against the Jews, alongside many other forms of oppression.

While monoethnic and monocultural churches proclaim that the gospel uniquely redeems a given ethnicity and culture, and such churches may at times be necessary or all that is possible, multiethnic churches return to the apostolic milieu, displaying the radical power of the gospel to reconcile those from different races and cultures even as it redeems each one individually. This display alone is worthy of the hard work it takes to establish and maintain these kinds of churches. And it is hard work, harder than ever in the age of Trump. However, along with this, multiethnic churches accomplish something very simple and practical. They supernaturally push back against human self-sorting and help diverse believers to actually know and hear one another.

Multiethnic churches provide a context where people from different races and cultures can deeply know one another, through the mutual bonds of covenant community. Communication differs tremendously from person to person, as every married person in the world will readily attest. How much more then does it differ from ethnicity to ethnicity and from culture to culture? If two people from the same culture are struggling to understand one another, the best thing they can do is to spend more time together and keep on communicating. Sooner or later they will learn how to get on the same frequency, they will come to understand what the other person actually means when they speak certain verbal constructions. The exhortation to “Pay attention to what he means, not what he says” is only possible after a certain degree of personal knowledge. But if believers self-sort, and don’t find themselves in contexts where they can know and be known by those different from them, then how will this communication threshold ever be reached? How will white and black believers ever be able to understand what the other actually means if they don’t spend abundant time together working for the kind of friendship where there is deep mutual understanding? Respectful distance will not be enough. Respectful distance will only lead to more misunderstanding and division. What is needed is a spiritual family, one committed to speak and listen to one another in biblical ways.

American Christianity remains remarkably segregated. There are reasons for this. On a practical level, it is very deflating to be repeatedly misunderstood, and those most likely to understand us are those most like us. So we drift toward worshipping with “our people” whether by default or by discouragement. Yes, we are all speaking English, but my contention is that white and black believers in this country aren’t really hearing and understanding one another. How can they when they remain so separate? Even if they worship together, most majority-culture believers are not awake to the real cultural and communication differences that underlie different American subcultures. But these differences are present and active nonetheless, a more present reality to those from minority cultures who must navigate between their culture and majority-white culture on a daily basis.

What do these points have to do with the protests spreading across America right now? In short, we cannot address the root issues of injustice in our society if we cannot truly understand one another. After all, a cultural and perhaps linguistic divide led to injustice even in the early church, which led to the establishment of the office of deacon (Acts 6). As one who lives in the daily challenges of cross-cultural (mis)communication, I believe that such failure of understanding and communication is a major element of racial issues in America, though because of the assumption of a common language it often escapes notice. As a Christian and member of a multiethnic church, I know that only in the church do we possess the spiritual resources necessary to truly unite those from different ethnicities and cultures. Yet American churches are highly segregated, because self-sorting is what naturally happens. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the midst of a divided nation, multiethnic churches can be seedbeds for inter-racial and cross-cultural understanding. And not just understanding, but even friendship and love. That’s why we need more multiethnic churches.