Not Burning the Wet Wood With the Dry

“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.

Photo by Timon Wanner on Unsplash

He Identified with His Adopted People Completely

After first-generation Irish Christians are kidnapped and made slaves by a British warlord:

“In sadness and grief, shall I cry aloud. O most lovely and loving brethren and sons whom I have begotten in Christ (I cannot number them), what shall I do for you? I am not worthy to come to the aid of either God or men. The wickedness of the wicked has prevailed against us. We are become as it were strangers. Can it be that they do not believe that we have received one baptism or that we have one God and Father? Is it a shameful thing in their eyes that we have been born in Ireland?”

The British Christians did not recognize the Irish Christians either as full-fledged Christians or as human beings – because they were not Roman. Patrick, whose awkward foreignness on his return to Britain had been the cause of numerous rebuffs, knows in his bones the snobbery of the educated Roman, who by the mid-fifth century had every right to assume that Roman and Christian were interchangeable identities. Patrick, operating at the margins of European geography and of human consciousness, has traveled even further from his birthright than we might expect. He is no longer British or Roman, at all. When he cries out in his pain, “Is it a shameful thing … that we have been born in Ireland?” we know that he has left the old civilization behind forever and has identified himself completely with the Irish.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 112-113

Photo by Yan Ming 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.