From “Other” to Brother: Ethnocentrism and the Spread of the Gospel

Usually the people you are most for—the ones you support and care for—are the people you’ve built a relationship with. There may even be things about that person you view negatively, but through relationship you can view those negative things—or simply different things—in another light. I think it’s because you have more understanding of that person. You understand why some things are part of their life that are not a part of yours. And as you see them in that different light—still as different, but just as much a real person as yourself—you are much more inclined to have compassion and care for them.

Viewing People As “Other”

There’s a natural inclination to view self as central and others as “other.” It’s not a negative thing; it’s reality. We have a point of view. But what is valuable is being able to see another person’s situation from their center. If we see from our center, we view their situation as other and are much more disposed to view it as lesser. But if we try to see from their center, we can grow in understanding and hopefully compassion.

Allow me to skip to the point where this is going—there is great value as a Christian in being able to view others—their cares, their sins, their value—from outside of our personal viewpoint.  The mild danger it avoids is misunderstanding, but the greater danger it avoids is ethnocentrism and gospel hindrance.

Jonah’s Viewpoint

I’ll bank on your familiarity with the story. Jonah considered himself as deserving of God’s favor and others as not. Israel was center; the Ninevites were other. Not only that, but the Ninevites were a threat.

The book of Jonah points out the foolishness of Jonah’s thinking. While Jonah was fleeing from God on a boat with a bunch of non-Hebrew fisherman, there is some significant irony in that the non-Hebrew fisherman are the ones fearing and crying out to God while Jonah is sitting on his butt during the storm. Additionally, the Ninevites end up repenting in sackcloth and ashes from such a short sermon, but Jonah, the Jewish prophet, continues in his stubborn fit.

This book is a slap to the face not just to Jonah but to the Israelite nation that is represented in the story. God certainly has a different viewpoint than Jonah. Perhaps the point of the book is to correct Israel’s tendency of viewing the other nations as lesser.

God’s Viewpoint

God wants to bless all the nations, and it’s been that way since the beginning. He sees the other nations not just as rebellious people but as people in his image who don’t know their left hand from their right.

This stood out to me while I was in Myanmar. There’s something significantly different between thinking of heathen bowing down to idols and thinking of lost people being led astray. When I saw children following their parents’ footsteps, blindly walking in circles and bowing down at pagodas, I couldn’t help but think the latter. And I can’t help but think there is no better way for me to reflect God’s heart than to burst with compassion for them. Many other viewpoints would react only with distaste, but God sees the full picture and responds with compassion.

The Needed Lesson in the Old Testament

Believe it or not, the Old Testament has a flow to it, and I think the book of Jonah serves a strategic purpose in that flow. Start by thinking about it this way. There are Abrahamic echoes throughout much of the Old Testament. God makes a covenant that involves promises of land, seed, and blessing. God is going to bless and preserve Israel, God is going to give them a land, and God is going to dwell with them.

So now think about Joseph. He goes through a lot, yet towards the end he can testify to his brothers, “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph affirms that God was working all things together for good for those who are called according to his purposes (Rom. 8:28). Specifically, the purposes that God was working in Genesis have to do with blessing and preserving God’s people, giving them a land, and dwelling with them. And that’s exactly what was being accomplished in Joseph’s life. Through his exile in Egypt he became able to provide food for his family so that they will survive the famine.

But what about the other promises? What about the land that God promised? Exactly. That’s why the next book in the Bible is Exodus, which records God’s incredible delivery of Israel so that he can bring them to a land where they will worship and dwell with him.

Here’s the problem: as God continues to faithfully bless and keep his promises to Israel despite the sinful people and crazy circumstances that get in the way, Israel started to view the other nations as lesser. It’s true that God was blessing Israel and those blessings were suppose to set them apart from the rest of the nations. But God’s blessing didn’t come to them because they were deserving; they were recipients of God’s blessing because he is gracious—so gracious that he intends to bless all nations. But that’s the part Israel overlooked.

God’s blessing was not suppose to lead to ethnocentrism. Israel needed to be reminded of God’s heart and goal for all the nations to be blessed. And that’s perhaps why the book of Jonah was needed in the flow of the Old Testament story.

The Needed Lesson in the New Testament

Some say that God’s blessing to the nations through Israel could be described by the phrase “come and see.” In other words, God would bless Israel so that other nations could see His glory through Israel’s blessing. But the mission for God’s glory continues in the Church Age. Though, instead of “come and see,” it is now “go and tell.” God’s glory is being spread to all the nations, and it happens by our “going” (Matt. 28:19).

And here is where I try to loop back to the original purpose of this post. Our reluctance to move towards those who are “other” will serious limit that outworking flow of the Gospel to all nations.

Consider the following two types of ministry.

Multicultural Ministry

Multicultural ministry is the way forward for much of America. Urban America is already diverse and incredibly skeptical of monogamous groups. To be stuck in a clique or to refuse navigating the inconveniences of multicultural ministry is to limit gospel progress. Again, there is “an increasing diverse and cynical society [that] is no longer finding credible a message of God’s love for all people when it’s preached from segregated pulpits and pews” (George Yancey).

Multicultural ministry doesn’t so much require crossing distinct cultural lines as much as figuring out how to include and operate with a multitude of them. Pastors from these types of congregations acknowledge the difficulties, but “leadership in such a place will not have to work as hard as some to develop or maintain with the congregation a heart for others beyond its walls. Rather, such understanding is inherent in the DNA of a church populated by diverse individuals who have chosen to walk together as one in Christ for the sake of the Gospel” (Mark Deymaz). 

If a church has an environment where multiple cultures combine, not only are they better situated to reflect gospel diversity and stay focused on mission but the inevitable byproduct is going to be bicultural believers who are far more equipped for cross-cultural missions.

Cross-cultural Ministry

Cross-cultural ministry is the only practical way bridges will be crossed and all nations will taste the glory of God through the gospel. The Great Commission requires pioneering. And my hope is that as people become more compassionate and understanding of different people, they will become more inclined and equipped to hurdle the obstacles required in order to reach the difficult and detached people in the world who desperately need the gospel just like everyone else.

In both cases of multicultural and cross-cultural ministry, we have to move from a perspective that views different people only as an “other”  to viewing all people as a potential brother. The task is great, but we will see generations of Christians overcome these challenges as they shift their thinking from “other” to brother.

Photos from my trip to Myanmar.

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