The Bible and Cultural Challenges – Part 3: The role of ethnic divisions and prejudice

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From time immemorial, humans have held prejudices against others based on their ethnicity, the colour of their skin or factors such as where they’re from and how they speak. We are all guilty of it, it is best to recognise it so that we can do something about it, it impacts how we read the Bible.

 

An example of this is Numbers 12 v1, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite”. A Cushite was a Black African. I have read some comments on this where prejudice against Black Africans is recognised. However, this is probably us bringing our experience of prejudice to the Scripture, whilst Westerners may have once considered Africans a slave race, in the Nile River valley of ancient Egypt, the Hebrews were the slave race. It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. 

 

Paul describes divisions in the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1 v10 – 12. As we tend to fall out along doctrinal lines or because we are drawn to one pastor over another, we can assume this is what was happening in Corinth. It is more likely, though, that the divisions among the churches in Corinth were not theological. We may be failing to note ethnic markers that Paul sprinkled all over the text. Apollos was noted as an Alexandrian (Egyptian) Jew (Acts 18: 24). They had their own reputation. Paul notes that Peter is called by his Aramaic name, Cephas, suggesting the group that followed him spoke Aramaic and were thus Palestinian Jews. Paul’s church had Diaspora Jews but also many ethnic Corinthians, who were quite proud of their status as residents of a Roman colony and who enjoyed using Latin. This may explain why Paul doesn’t address any theological differences. There weren’t any. The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic- speaking Jews, Greek- speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians.

 

Written by Tony Thompson

Catherine’s Living Seeds Trip 2019

As you may know I visited Sierra Leone in the summer to run a three week Summer School for the Primary-aged children of the students and of staff at Living Seeds.

Living Seeds, run by a Christian couple in Harpenden is a social enterprise based on their strong Christian commitment which takes young people from the poorest backgrounds and provides them with quality vocational training and a chance to work. Many of the students have had little or no schooling before joining Living Seeds.  The young people learn a professional trade, to develop and grow as a person, to gain some dignity, and to make a life for themselves. They are encouraged in the Christian faith and have the opportunity for Christian ministry to help discover their purpose and identity in Christ. Practically, Living Seeds makes and sells workplace uniforms made by the students who are trained to a high standard and are now diversifying into office wear and the beginnings of training in producing fashion wear.  They have been supplying major companies with their garment requirements since 2010 and have established an excellent reputation for quality and customer service. 

 

 

This is the second Summer School I have run at Living Seeds. This year they purchased a set of school tables and benches which really helped to motivate the children to be focussed in their learning. Living Seeds recent newsletter referred to my Summer School: 

‘The school was a great success and all the children loved it!  They wept bitterly when she left and complained that life was boring without her. Catherine also has a great gift of relating to people and all our factory staff loved having her around.

 

Thank you for all your financial support which contributed to resources in the classroom and my travelling.  Also, prayers for me during my trip. It was a privilege to teach the children lessons based on their curriculum which will help them to progress at school.  I am in contact with the couple who run Living Seeds and some of the people in Sierra Leone. I hope to be able to go out again to do further work.    

 

Written by Catherine Simons

The Bible and Cultural Challenges – Part 2

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In my previous blog I challenged the church culture that elevates marriage over singleness in a way that the bible doesn’t. In this blog I want to challenge a Western perspective on money which is at odds with a non-Western, Biblical viewpoint.

Outside the West wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves. If you make your slice of pie larger, then my slice is now smaller. In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor. This is contrasted to the Western view that there is unlimited wealth and so everyone can accumulate as much as they want without impacting anyone else.

 

Wealth as a limited resource underpins the way biblical authors viewed the world, for example in Psalm 52: 7 where it describes the wicked man who “trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!” In our Western mind, this man demonstrated his wickedness in two ways: he trusted in wealth and he destroyed others. Yet the psalmist considers these to be one action. This is a type of Hebrew poetry scholars call synonymous parallelism, in which the two clauses say the same idea with different wording. In other words, hoarding and trusting in wealth was destroying others. 

 

This is a powerful challenge to our perspective on individuals and nations accumulating wealth.

 

Another challenge to mine and the Western churches perspective is regarding the encouragements we find in the bible to “dress modestly”.

 

Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty. Where sex and money collide, we see which is more important to us, sex. We therefore understand Paul’s exhortation that women should dress modestly to mean only that their clothes should not be sexually revealing. If we recognize that his concern might instead be economic, then the exhortation is timely for most Western churches, in which everyone keeps their shirts on but in which some dress in ways that say, “We have more money than you.” This is the way to understand 1 Corinthians 11 where what we wear in worship and how we celebrate the Lord’s supper as addressed. In both cases the issue is that rich people were flaunting their wealth in the context of worship.

 

The costly challenge to cultural ways of thinking is brought out when Peter is told to eat “unclean” animals in Acts 10.

Peter’s reaction to the vision is probably not simply righteous indignation; maybe it is nausea. No doubt Peter would have been disgusted by the very idea of eating the animals presented in the sheet. Restrictions against eating pork and shellfish are legalities to us. But for first- century Jews, they were deeply entrenched dietary (cultural) ways of life. Peter would have felt as we would if we were confronted with a sheet full of puppies and bats and cockroaches and “Kill and eat,” says the Lord. Like Peter, we would almost certainly reply, “Surely not, Lord!” 

 

It is reasonable to assume that the faithful Jews who were Jesus’ first followers felt much the same way to Peter. That means deciding whether Gentile converts to Christianity should follow Jewish dietary laws wasn’t simply a theological debate. How were Jewish Christians to share a table of fellowship with people whose breaths stank of pig fat? 

 

This is all very challenging to us, to allow the Bible to properly challenge us and to be willing break some cultural practices that are barriers to the gospel.

 

Written by Tony Thompson

The Bible and Cultural Challenges – Part 1

I love the Bible, as I study it, I find God reveals himself to me. I learn more about Him and consequently more about myself. However, I have become increasingly aware that I read the words of Scripture with certain cultural preconceived ideas which limits my understanding or even causes me to misunderstand. Being surrounded by fellow believers from different cultural backgrounds is an important help, especially if I spend time listening to their perspectives.

I have just finished a book that seeks to identify ways that western Christians have consistently misread the Bible. I found it insightful. Some of the areas it identified were not new to me, but many were. I therefore intend to share some of the thoughts in case you too find them helpful. The book, in case you want to read it for your self is “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien.”

 

An area that I had already seen as being an unhelpful Western perspective on Scripture is the focusing on those parts of the Bible that encourage marriage and to ignore the parts of Scripture that encourage celibacy. This has caused major damage within the church and caused unmarried people to feel and to be treated as second class citizens. This is at odds with the New Testament where celibacy and remaining unmarried was promoted and honoured as a Christian challenge to the prevailing culture. 

In Roman Society the expectation was that everyone should get married, in fact there were no alternatives. Young women were given by their parents into marriage and childbearing as soon as they entered puberty. Roman men were practically expected to commit adultery. Into this context Paul offers women an opportunity for ministry outside of the home and he commands Christian men to limit sex lives within their marriages. See 1 Corinthians 7.

We need to regain this counter cultural perspective within our churches, bringing to the fore the high calling of singleness.

 

Written by Tony Thompson

Listening to Christians from other contexts: Part 2

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In my previous blog I shared insights from a book written by Arab Christians with contributions from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine amongst others. Their reflections on the church in the Middle East and the Western church was challenging and stimulating. In some cases, shocking. I would recommend you read the book. 

Click here to view amazon link

The perspective of Palestinian Christians is revealing and challenging. E.g. 

There is some religious persecution. On 6 October 2007 Rami Ayyad was murdered, martyred, in the Gaza Strip. This is very rare, as are other forms of bodily harm. The number of Christian Palestinians – including some of my own friends and neighbours – murdered by the Israeli Defence Forces far exceeds the tiny number of Christians killed by religious extremists. My main argument here is that Christian and Muslim Palestinians suffer together under an unjust military occupation. Returning briefly to religious persecution, there is societal discrimination and pressure. Some Muslims have told Christians to leave on the grounds that the land should belong to Muslims. Other Muslims accuse Christians of not suffering under the occupation. We, Palestinian Christians, reject both charges and the ideology behind them. 

The perspective of those from the Middle East on suffering and persecution is very different from that of the West as well, e.g. 

On 15 February 2015 a video was released online showing the murder by members of ISIS of twenty Egyptian Christian labourers and a Ghanaian in Libya. The graphic video is thought to be the only one ever made of an actual martyrdom. The victims refused to denounce their faith and were, therefore, brutally executed. Their story became a great source of encouragement to Egyptian Christians to believe that this centuries- old understanding of martyrdom was still relevant for the twenty- first century. Instead of frightening or intimidating Egyptian Christians– as ISIS had intended– this video was the source of a real revival of true commitment to Christ among millions in Egypt. 

A major topic raised by most of the contributors is the problem of emigration. 

I frequently observe symptoms of this among Christian leaders as they make decisions, putting security and safety for their families on a par with God’s calling on their lives. 

One of the problems is that we are inclined to discern God’s will for our lives based on open doors and closed doors, or green lights and red lights. This type of thinking assumes that we are to enter every open door and stay away from every closed door. Conversely, this assumes that we are never called to persevere even in the face of closed doors, or to resist some open doors. I find this type of thinking very troubling, and the outcome damaging to the church. …………It is the leaders who have access to open doors, much more than the rest of their community. Should this always translate into leaders leaving because they encounter open doors, while their congregations stay and become shepherd-less because they face closed doors? 

What I firmly believe is that many, though not all, of those who emigrate to the West have a harder time as believers than they would have had if they had stayed in Egypt. 

Interestingly many of the writers advocate multi-ethnic churches, either in the Middle East itself or in the West where people emigrate to.

The multi-ethnic church continues to be God’s hands to help the poor, challenge oppressive powers, fight discrimination and spread the comfort of God to the ends of the earth. We are a sign of hope. 

I have expressed to all congregations that we need to be working together more deeply, for two reasons. First, in heaven we will all be together, so we probably should start now. Second, in ten years the children in all these groups will feel Canadian and start to pull away from fully identifying with their country of origin. Therefore, we should help the children worship together, as part of a broader, diverse community. 

The message that the Arab Christians want their Western readers to hear is summarised at the end of the book.

One message from the Middle Eastern church to those of us who are members of the Western church is that those who attempt to “protect” them from outside the region are causing as much harm as those in the region who are attempting to oppress them. This is a strong statement. The perception that people need protection from outside distances them and makes them vulnerable within the countries of which they are a part: societies that they are endeavouring to influence. 

 

A second message to Western Christians is not to encourage Middle Eastern church leaders to emigrate. Stop offering them jobs in the West. ……..The only people who want to see all Christians leave are some of the violent jihadists. Everyone else, including some we might term as Islamists, desires their continued presence. They recognize that it is Christians who are the leaven that permeates the whole of society. 

And I leave the final word with a Syrian Christians. Solutions that work in the West rarely work here.

 

Written by Tony Thompson

Listening to Christians from other contexts: Part 1

posted in: Book Reviews, Tony Thompson 0

In my early years as a Christian I was heavily influenced by Leslie Newbigin who wrote about what mission should look like in pagan Western society. One of the things he advocated was the need for a global church in which older Western churches listen to the non-Western churches. I have sought to do this, however it is difficult to find material from non-Western churches. The West is producing libraries full of books, whilst the rest of the world seems to be busy serving God rather than writing about it.

It was therefore a joy to find a book written by Arab Christians with contributions from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine amongst others. Their reflections on the church in the Middle East and the Western church was challenging and stimulating. In some cases, shocking. I would recommend you read the book. 

Click here to view the Amazon link

For example this perspective from Egypt, which challenges the common held view of the West.

 

A Positive Picture This approach will frustrate many. It will frustrate some Egyptian Christians who desperately want to leave their country for a better life in the West and to do so must convince themselves– and the countries which might grant them asylum– that life in Egypt is unbearable for Christians. It will frustrate some leaders of Christian ministries in Egypt who believe that their support from Western organizations depends solely on painting a picture of Christians in Egypt as a totally persecuted minority. It will frustrate Western fundraisers who have bought into and often exaggerated this persecuted- minority image of Christians in Egypt and have thus created for themselves a donor base of people who give with the wrong motives. It will frustrate Christian revolutionary idealists who had hoped for an Egypt with a Western model of democracy and feel that I [Ramez Atallah] am a compromising pragmatist who has sold out to the establishment. Having studied and worked in Canada and the USA for eighteen years, being familiar with the day- to- day lives of close relatives and friends in North America today, and leading a thriving and growing Bible Society in Egypt, I am firmly convinced that the opportunity for serving Jesus faithfully in Egypt is much easier and more fruitful than in any so- called “free” Western country. True, there are many daily challenges in Egypt, but most are related not to our faith but to the complexity of life in Egypt. For the past twenty- six years the staff of the Bible Society of Egypt whom I lead have been determined not to be discouraged by the many obstacles which face us. 

 

So lobbying the government to help alleviate the plight of Christians in Egypt usually results in more restrictions in society in general, which ultimately makes life harder, not easier, for Christians. 

 

This positive view of the situation is repeated by many writers, with a deafening cry that Christians should not see themselves as victims which they see the West as trying to force them into. 

 

For indeed, when Christians in the West perceive Arab Christians as minorities who need to be rescued, this victimizes and minoritizes them. 

 

We should stop playing the part of victims….. and become agents and apostles of peace, justice and love. The thought of a Middle East without Christians must prompt us to remind ourselves of God’s desires for us and for the region of which we are a part.

 

Whether or not we like it, God has placed us where we are and, like the Israelites in exile, we must engage with the society where we are. We must get over whatever is holding us back from getting involved. 

 

We [Middle Eastern Christians] have to take our message outside our church buildings and Christian communities to everyone. This requires rising above minoritization, refusing to accept the constraints that others seek to impose on us. 

 

I am convinced that we need to listen to people on the ground and not impose our views on them. As is said in the book,

 

As a global church, we need to hear the clear request of those in the Middle East to be very careful about how we describe their context and how we stand alongside them. They do not seek protection or rescue: these harm them more than support them.

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