One of the central insights of mission studies in the last several decades has been the idea of “translateability”: the good news of Jesus Christ can be translated into different cultures and contexts across the globe. It’s an idea associated with the late Lamin Sanneh, an historian of world Christianity and an adult convert to Christianity from Islam. In his book Translating the Message, Sanneh points to the example of St. Paul. In the process of sharing the good news of Christ around the Mediterranean world, Paul realized that aspects of religion he had once thought central—male circumcision, dietary laws—were “relativized” in the process of mission. Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without adopting the religio-cultural practices of his Jewish followers. As Christianity crossed the Jewish-Gentile cultural frontier, some aspects of the Christian faith changed. Rather than refer to Jesus as the Messiah, for instance, Christians could now call him Christ, a Greek word rather than a Hebrew one.
Sanneh also reflected on the fact of Bible translation, a key preoccupation of many Christian missionaries. When missionaries translated the Bible into local vernaculars, they didn’t use the English word “God” for God. They used the local word for deity, implicitly indicating that the God they proclaimed existed in the culture before their arrival. The great evangelical Anglican missionary statesman Max Warren put it this way in the mid-20th century: “The first thing we do when we arrive in a new place is take off our shoes and understand that we are on holy ground.” That is, God is present before Christian missionaries arrive.
Needless to say, not all missionaries in Christian history have been sensitive to this reality. Many have believed that they are bringing something completely new to the local culture. Many have been unable to separate their cultural practices from the good news of Christ. David Livingstone, for instance, said that he was spreading “Christianity, commerce, and civilization” in Africa. From his Scottish context, the association of these three things might have made sense. From a missionary perspective, there was no need to tie Christianity down in this way. It was attitudes like these, however, that led some missionaries to insist that their converts gave up drinking or polygamy or drumming and dress according to western fashion. Unlike St. Paul, they insisted on associating the good news with a particular set of religio-cultural practices.
All of this came to mind yesterday during Primate Fred Hiltz’s apology for spiritual harm to a group of indigenous members of the church. It was the emotional high point of the first day of the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod. You can read the entire apology online but here are a few extracts:
I confess our sin in failing to acknowledge that as First Peoples living here for thousands of years, you had a spiritual relationship with the Creator and with the Land. We did not care enough to learn how your spirituality has always infused your governance, social structures and family life….
I confess the sin of our arrogance in dismissing Indigenous Spiritualities and disciplines as incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus, and insisting that there is no place for them in Christian Worship.
I confess our sin in acts such as smothering the smudges, forbidding the pipes, stopping the drums, hiding the masks, destroying the totem poles, silencing the songs, stilling the dances, and banning the potlatches. With deep remorse, I acknowledge the intergenerational spiritual harm caused by our actions.
One way of understanding this apology is that Bishop Fred is apologizing for the ways in which non-indigenous Canadian Anglicans failed to understand the translateability of the Christian gospel. We failed to understand that the good news of Jesus Christ could be expressed in a different culture in a different fashion or through association with different cultural practices.
I have found Sanneh’s writing a powerful aid in thinking about Christian mission and I teach it to my students. But it has always raised a question for me: what are the limits of the translateability of the Christian gospel? Looking back 2000 years we can of course say that one need not follow the Jewish dietary laws to be a Christian. But the New Testament contains a pretty clear record of the massive disagreement that this sparked in the early church. Furthermore, there are some cultural practices that are clearly out of step with the gospel. Many Christians today would say that it is not possible to practice female circumcision and be a Christian. There are people of good faith in the Anglican Church of Canada who are uncomfortable with the idea of bringing indigenous practices of smudging, for instance, into the church. Indeed, sometimes the most vocal proponents of doing away with traditional cultural practices are the first generation converts in the local culture. In my research among the Dinka in South Sudan, for instance, it was first generation Dinka converts who led the way in destroying all the ritual objects associated with their traditional religion. Bishop Fred acknowledges this and has this to say:
Many of the elders have followed the former bans out of loyalty to a church they love. Many of these have, at the same time, kept alive the values, ideals, and teachings of their own elders. Today, they are an essential guide both to the underlying teachings that are embodied in the practices of the past, as well as the teachings of our own faith. Today, we ask them, with great respect, to help guide us to honour the wisdom and practice of the past and to live into a truly Indigenous expression of our faith in the future.
In response to the question, then, of what are the limits to the integration of Christianity and culture, we might say that these are decisions that need to be made in specific, contextual settings through prayerful discernment. The Apology for Spiritual Harm opens up the space to have that conversation.
One last point: it can be relatively easy, when looking to the past or looking to other cultures, to see the way in which the gospel and the local culture interact with one another. Those of us who are not indigenous can look at indigenous practices of smudging, drumming, dancing, or smoking and see them as something other from what we know. But one of Sanneh’s key points is that Christian mission is important not simply because of the impact it has on non-Christians but because of the impact it has on Christians themselves. St. Paul’s experience of cross-cultural mission transformed his Christian worldview. It helped him realize that his understanding of the good news was shaped by cultural practices that could be transformed. Across history, Sanneh argues, the impact on missionaries has been the same: “when missionaries went overseas, the first people converted were the missionaries themselves.”
The Apology for Spiritual Harm is important for what it says about where the Anglican Church of Canada is on its journey of reconciliation with its indigenous members. But it’s true significance may be greater: by reminding non-indigenous Anglicans understand the way in which gospel and culture relate to one another, it may help non-indigenous Anglicans think in new ways about how we are called into mission in our local contexts. How is non-indigenous Anglicanism shaped by the culture in which it finds itself? Is it too strongly influenced by the individualism of western culture, or the dominance of property and economic relations? How is non-indigenous Anglicanism called to move beyond the white, English-speaking cultural context it has known for so long?
The Bible holds before us a vision of a church “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” united before the lamb on the throne (Revelation 7:9). May this apology—both through its meaning to indigenous Anglicans and its impact on non-indigenous Anglicans—be one more step on the journey towards our realization of that glorious vision.
The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink is principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College.