Christians and the New World Order
Dr. Lamin Sanneh
The world in 1988 is both different from and similar to the world a century ago, different in the speed with which we do things, different in the accepted wisdom that a college degree and a driving license are our birthrights, different in the sense that a high mortgage rate and general indebtedness are considered signs of coming of age. It's different, too, in that Federal Express and the Kingdom actually belong together in unrealized eschatologywith early-bird delivery service a sign of the approaching time.
Our age is an age of high risk, lowered expectation, and increased anxiety as to whether things will turn out right after all. Never, I think, in the history of the world have so many people with so much in their power felt so threatened. We can use one word to describe this phenomenon: cynicism. It is a corrosive sense of hopelessness, a loss of nerve so monumental that we have lost the capacity to name it. We live in a haunted world, 1988.
Parallels with the Past
This stirring is similar to the general ferment created by science and technology. One hundred years ago technology enabled us to establish new frontiers on land and sea. Today we are brought by the same forces to new thresholds in space and cybernetics. One hundred years ago saw the rise of the West in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. And today we have the rise, in fact, of Africa and Asia and other parts of the world, with the pace, in fact, picking up more momentously in China and India. A new star is rising in our firmament, too, just as it did in the firmament of men and women a hundred years ago, at the turn of a new century, rising this time in the East and the South, where once it rose over the West and the North.
A Major Shift of Religious Power
There has taken place an incredible revolution in our age, a major shift of religious power from the West and North to the East and South, and that at a time of great leaps in communication and space technology. The people of the West and the North have suffered enough from dramatic loss of religious power not for me to exacerbate it, though there is, I think, one affliction from which they have not suffered enough or sufficiently, and that is the contagion of hope. The fact that the world is being increasingly knit together into a tighter whole may hasten that eventuality.
When I speak of the new world order, then, I mean a major readjustment of the balance of forces in which a fresh perspective is called for. It is not so much that Christians must press sectarian claims for a stake in the world, as that world as we know it is being rapidly reconstituted, so that Christians in the West have a high stake in what the final outcome will be. I suggest furthermore that Christians should recognize the signs as part and parcel of the corrective mechanism God uses to move history forward towards consummation in the resurrected and glorified Christ.
All of us can witness the fact that something new and different is occurring in the world beyond our doorsteps, that not only in the Soviet Union and China, but in less conspicuous parts of the world, a new spirit has galvanized the peoples, that young men now dream dreams and young maidens have visions, that the older generations are preparing newer paths, all of which throw the old wisdom and formulas into rapid obsolescence. Nineveh begins to wear the familiar face of Hometown.
Christians are challenged to report movement in the asset with which they have been entrusted, no longer offering the damning excuse that they have held that asset untouched for safe return to their Master when He shall ask of it. So Ninevehs of the East and the West have returned seven times sevenfold the word that was committed to them at the time of their own disfavor.
Western Reactions to Asian and African Christianity
First, that naive sentiment has been fueling the new Christian movements;
Second, that a gullible population in Asia and Africa has been misled by religious operators;
Third, that unfulfilled and unfulfillable material yearnings have found a spiritual outlet, just as the affluence of the new African cities, like Accra, clog the lagoons with the flammable waste of industrial new wealth, tantalizing disadvantaged groups;
Fourth, that Western religious conspiracy has hatched a plot in all these new movements;
And finally, that these new religious movements are a murky but necessary stage towards scientific rationalism, which has the whole world in its grip.
All these reasons, individually and together, are actually evasions, and so, I regret to observe, are the many hasty responses of religious defenders who add fuel to the fire by guilt-ridden disclaimers. The gap has continued to widen between the West's own diagnosis of what is wrong with the rest of the world and the symptomatic evidence of conditions on the ground. A particularly virulent form of the guilt virus has filled the widening gap with addictive symptoms.
I encounter this even in myself. When reacting to persistent complaints that I am minimizing the harm done in Africa and Asia, by the West in general and missionaries in particular, I go over the evidence in my own mind and feel how simple it would be, and how it would make my life in fact gloriously happy, if the evidence were differenta wish that has tremendous appeal even after I have reworked the material fairly rigorously in my mind. But my ideological sensibilities are less strong than my historical scruples, and so I am hoist with my own petard.
You must remember that I was once an ideological addict myself, so that the ideological condemnation of mission hits me with particular force, arousing all my veteran foraging instincts. There are so many points of attack. "Can I not see that missionaries despise the people and destroy their cultures?", my critics ask. "Can I not recognize the face of the enemy in the missionary who sided with the colonialists in suppressing whole African communities and in perpetuating a mischievous image of the native to affect Western attitudes?"
All of this makes an identical cause between nationalist pride and anti-missionary sentiment, and presumably for that reason irresistible for somebody like me. It is a measure, I think, of the depth of the Western guilt complex that people like me should continue to be mistrusted for not mistrusting the West. Many of my Western friends would be alarmed if they realized how they are expecting their word on missions to stand against everyone else's, as if imperialism has only now shifted places.
Pacesetters Among the Crowds
I am constrained to reply that we few stand in line of a great history, the line of those pacesetters and pioneers who, like Abraham, set out on a course to which all history now points. The remnant, the small band, the sojourners, the people of transit camps and tent ministries, the gaiety of spirit of the Mother Theresas of this world, which sets lowly hearts ablaze at the margins of lifeall these and more are the signs that surely the time of God's favor has not passed us by. But we also live with trembling hope for the promise and the blessing, for the joy and the call.
The Christian Movement Has Not Stood Still!
On Pentecost Sunday the church's mission began with the believers hearing for themselves in their own native language God's mighty acts, an experience that unleashed the unprecedented Christian movement from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond. Pentecost was the consecration of mother tongue aspirations, however much the partisans of Hebrew, of Greek, or Latin might pretend otherwise. Ever since that glorious day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended and blew like a cleansing gale through the stuffy halls of tradition and convention, the Christian movement has not stood still. Believers today continue to find strength in the extended limbs of Gentile membership, not in the attempt to recover the innocence of Bethlehem.
How remarkable has been the workings of Providence! The Bethlehem of the Christ Child lingers now only in the festive memory of the stars and shepherds and the manger room. As for Jerusalem, only the Holy Sepulchre, with its litigious Christian claimants and an Israeli government drawn into perpetual arbitration, remains as the most visible structure of Jesus' earthly ministry.
I never realized until recently that the words of that first Easter dawn, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?", had a meaning far greater than the immediate Easter scene. To find him whom we seek, we have now to look for him in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Corinth, in Athens, in Rome, in Canterbury, yes, in Illinois, in Iowa, in Arizona, the Carolinas and beyond, to Nigeria, to Nairobi, Swaziland, Taiwan, and so on. Christianity is nearly alone among the great religions of the world for being peripheral in the place of its origin, and for being central in areas once considered marginal to Moses and the prophets.
The Remaking of History
Why this new world order? Chronological sciencebeing merely episodic, repetitive and anecdotalcan tell us very little about that question. And sociology, in spite of its occasional precociousness, knows very little of this phenomenon to enlighten us. This new world order has come about because Christians, even while they held their noses and stopped their ears, allowed it to be said that nothing, by God's grace, is unclean in God's sight, with the enormous corollary that, as a safeguard, no one culture or language is the exclusive norm for God's salvific action in the world. If there are no taboo languages or cultures, there are equally no exclusive ones, either. The progress of Christianity in the world is the outworking of that extraordinary insight.
I cannot begin to tell you all the specific consequences of this. But think about it for a second: the whole world is our inheritance, and where national or political boundaries exclude us, they cannot exclude their peoples from the effect of this general spirit. All human beings are equal in God's sight. All are deemed worthy of God's esteem in Christ. All have an equal dutyno more, no lessof responding to the claims of Christ. Whether or not people accept those claims, they have an eternal right of choice in those and in other matters.
Consequently, Christians must make a judgment about all systems that exclude and absolutize themselves, whether or not their interests are immediately at stake, although of course it is not their business to be judgmental about others. In the general matter of exclusive stigmas and intolerant absolutism Christians carry, in the New Testament sources, an explicit judgment, even though for ideological reasons it might be more convenient to be silent about it. But I pray we may become less and less comfortable with such a silence.