Decolonizing Christianity

Lessons from the woman at the well

Deriba Olana
Decolonizing Christianity
Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

In the third century B.C. China was united under the Qin dynasty, which masterminded and developed the Great Wall of China. Though less known, the greatest achievement of this dynasty is likely the fact that it created what political scientists today would call a modern state. Separating the government from the royal family, China’s efficient bureaucracy gave rise to a powerful state that had no equal in Europe until a few hundred years ago.

Remarkable as these achievements are, the Old Testament ignores them. It also ignores the architectural wisdom and advances in civilization of the Mayan people in Mesoamerica, preferring instead to dwell on the shifting power dynamics between Israel and a handful of rivals, all found in the ancient Near East. Is this insensitivity to other civilizations intentional, or is it caused by a lack of the global awareness our postmodern experiences have gifted us?

This question becomes more pressing when we consider that the Old Testament claims to begin history with the origin of humanity. Isn’t it paradoxical that a narrative starting with the creation of Adam, the father of all humanity, degenerates into stories and prophecies about localized contests, between the descendants of Abraham and their enemies, over a relatively small stretch of land in the ancient Near East? 

From Local to Global

Strangely, the provincial stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have since captured the imagination of the world. Similarly, Jesus of Nazareth, a Galilean who was not well traveled, promised a group of culturally narrow-minded men that what He taught them would eventually be heard by everyone around the world. Those peasants who followed Jesus became world-changing agents, with inspiring perspectives of Christ that have endured the test of time. How can we explain the narrative arc of the Bible, which begins globally with Adam, becomes narrow with Abraham, and reemerges as persistently global through the spread of Christianity?

The famous yet nameless Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20, NIV).

Her statement echoes a postmodern critique of narratives that thrive on tension between the violently strong and the weak. God approved worship on “this mountain” for her ancestors. But “you Jews” arrogantly claim that “the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Her accusation is that Jews have dispossessed Samaritans of their sense of time (history) and space by desacralizing Mount Gerizim, the ancestral mountain of worship. In its place they imposed the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was off-limits to Samaritans. 

Christ’s response was not politically correct: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (verse 22, NIV).

By including Himself within the Jews, Christ reasserts God’s long-lived tendency of affiliating with peculiar and local people, lands, and times. Though Abraham’s rural life seems arbitrary and peculiar, it becomes the source of blessing to all families of the world. And from a specific manger in Bethlehem, the promised Savior of the world was born almost 2,000 years after Abraham’s death.

Again and again God identifies with the small, the particular, and the local. He then launches globally impactful cultural and historical miracles from His chosen narrow platform. That is why the pastoral Hebrew literature of the Old Testament still outshines the cosmopolitan wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome.

A Form of Idolatry

God’s entry into the limitations of history defies its limitations. By affiliating Himself with one Abraham, God blesses all the families of the earth. His aim in associating with Jerusalem is not to remain there, for He says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV).1

Responding to the Samaritan woman, Jesus also said, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The true worshipers will worship the father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:21-23, ESV). 

God didn’t want the Holy Mount in Jerusalem to be a cultural fixation that would alienate others. Isaiah says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56.7, ESV). God moves through history from one individual to many, from what is local to what is global. Jerusalem is privileged because God loves the world and wishes to save it.

As God works within the confines of history, humanity unfortunately pays more attention to the instruments of His miracles than to His wider aims. The Pharisees in the days of Christ took great pride in being children of Abraham. While they were his genetic descendants, their hatred of Christ revealed they would have also been hostile to Abraham’s beliefs (John 8:39, 40).

What Abraham physically gave to his descendants was not an immortal seed. Salvation comes only “through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23, NIV). God’s enduring Word reaches one human through another. Abraham’s faithfulness created an effective (though flawed) cultural vehicle that allowed for the unbroken transmission of God’s enduring Word—His thoughts and feelings. Ultimately this manifested itself as a long list of prophets who were inspired by God’s willingness to speak through flawed men and women. 

Yet when God, in His kindness, passes through the wreckage of our misguided experiences, we tend to worship the broken ground He walked on rather than humbly following His steps. This is idolatry. And by doing this, we become worse sinners than before we knew God.

Because of this, in His argument with the Pharisees Christ drew attention to the violent tension between the their perverted human logic and divine realities (John 8:31-59). To the Pharisees who took pride in their physical association with Abraham Christ said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him” (John 8.44, ESV). These are stern words of caution for anyone who gives greater worship to God’s earthly instruments than to the more enduring and infinitely expansive love of God for all.

Flawed Agents

In the years since the New Testament canon closed, the way God intervenes in human affairs has not changed. History confirms Christ’s accurate prediction that the gospel would begin in Jerusalem and reach Samaria before spreading across the world. Though its initial spread depended on the apostles, who were descendants of Abraham, the Word of God was not chained when they were imprisoned and killed.

We must then ask: Who became the preeminent cultural vehicle to transmit the gospel after the disciples? Who has primarily carried the burden of copying and translating God’s Word while also preaching Christ in the most remote corners of the world? We cannot deny the presence of resilient Christian traditions in Armenia, India, or Ethiopia during the past 2,000 years. But these traditions were not primarily responsible for launching a worldwide gospel enlightenment in keeping with Christ’s prophecy.

That Europe became the main platform of Christian activity after Jerusalem cannot be contested. In the centuries after the Reformation, this became only more emphatic as the gospel was disseminated with a global power that has not been equaled since Pentecost. Today millions are literate because they (or their ancestors) first learned to read the Bible in their native tongues. We have such revolutionaries as Tyndale, Knox, and Luther to thank for this.    

We cannot speak of the success of Protestantism in Europe and America while turning a blind eye to its unfortunate cruelties. Many missionaries of European and American origin shared the pitiful bigotry that animated colonial oppressors. The fact that the gospel was committed to them filled many preachers with a oppressive sense of triumphalism as they came in contact with societies that didn’t know God.

While honestly facing the sad aftermath of this shameful underside of Christian history, we must also remember that God always uses flawed beings to communicate His goodness to humanity. And God’s mercy is always more stunning than the savagery of our hypocrisy; Christ’s power to save overrides those who misrepresent His gospel. There is no human flaw (be it Peter’s or Calvin’s) that will impede His communication with the world. Christian Eurocentrism is a perverse interpretation of the reality that God used Europe as an instrument to change the world. But it did not impede God’s design of reaching those who will be saved.

In his day, dealing with the same unfaithfulness of the human instrument, Paul wrote, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” Instead “our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God” (Rom. 3:3-5, ESV). 

We don’t have to reinterpret biblical history and prophecy to reckon with the evils perpetrated by European Christians against indigenous people and the Global South. The rapid growth of Christianity in Africa is an ironic reminder to increasingly secular Westerners that Christianity means more to people of color than injuries caused by dead European colonial strategists.  

In converting to Adventism, a believer from Cambodia doesn’t have to subordinate their cultural identity to the Western perspective of American missionaries. Patriotically equating Christ with America leads to racist nationalism, which will receive God’s just condemnation. Likewise, reducing Christian history to a Marxist dialectic of oppressed and privileged nationalities creates a cursed, atheistic vacuum that denies God space in history.

God has chosen to enter history and use its limited instruments to save all of humanity. Anciently He worked through Jerusalem to reach the world. In the most recent past His work centered on Europe and America to (again) reach the world. How do we know this? Because when God moves in a certain place, He does so to bless the whole world. And we see that God has blessed the world through Jerusalem, and God has also blessed the world through Europe and America.

These shifting locations suggest that God can work from any place and time of His choosing. The miracle that transcends the limitations of space and time always belongs to God, while we are responsible for the dust of confusion that is created in its wake. We should therefore leave our prejudicial mountains of worship and turn to our Father in spirit and truth.   

“To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel  . . .” (Dan. 9:7, ESV). “The Bible has little to say in praise of men. Little space is given to recounting the virtues of even the best men who have ever lived. This silence is not without purpose. . . . All the good qualities that men possess are the gift of God; their good deeds are performed by the grace of God through Christ. Since they owe all to God the glory of whatever they are or do belongs to Him alone; they are but instruments in His hands. More than this—as all the lessons of Bible history teach—it is a perilous thing to praise or exalt men; for if one comes to lose sight of his entire dependence on God, and to trust to his own strength, he is sure to fall.”2

1 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

2 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890, 1908), p. 717.

Deriba Olana