I recently listened to a podcast that highlighted the ethnic tension that has increasingly been at the fore of our pluralistic culture in America. It specifically looked at how the growing population of Somali refugees in St. Cloud, Minnesota has unsettled many of its local citizens. Some of their concerns regarding this influx of refugees are understandable. But many of their concerns seemed to be rooted in a fear of what’s different and a desire to maintain their cultural status quo. This kind of situation isn’t unique to St. Cloud though. Such a response to the encroachment of others cultures is a common reaction among all people. Human beings tend to look apprehensively upon foreign cultures because they often perceive their own culture as both right and normative. The word for this is ethnocentrism—the belief that your own group or culture is superior to others.
We display ethnocentrism in a variety of ways. In some cases, our ethnocentric attitudes display themselves in relatively harmless ways. For example, we may see an Indian family eating a meal with their hands and think, “They aren’t eating the right way.” That thought is ethnocentric because it assumes that the way we eat food in America—with forks and knives—is the definitive way to properly eat food. In assuming that our own cultural practices are right, we end up equating what is different to what is wrong. The end result in this scenario is: “Indians eat food the wrong way.”
But we also display ethnocentrism in more serious ways. Racism, for example, is a clear and serious manifestation of ethnocentric thought. It claims that the people and culture of one ethnic group are superior to those of another. The desire to keep one’s neighborhood as ethnically homogenous as possible is also a manifestation of ethnocentrism, for it betrays an underlying suspicion toward people and cultures that are different than one’s own.
The Bible however dismantles the notion of ethnocentrism. It does not allow us to look negatively upon people who are different than us. We find a clear example of this in the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter was a Jew. Cornelius was Gentile (i.e. He was not part of the Jewish people group). And in those days, there existed a deep-seated animosity on behalf of the Jews toward Gentiles. The two groups comprised a bitter rivalry! Jews would never associate with Gentiles because they perceived them as unclean. In other words, the Jewish people remained very ethnocentric—they believed that their own people and culture were superior to those of the Gentiles.
Yet in this story we see how God remarkably intervened to strip Peter of his superiority complex. God gave Peter a vision indicating that he was not pleased with the animosity that Jewish Christians were harboring toward other races. Despite being initially confused as to the meaning of the vision, Peter followed God’s command and ended up in the house of Cornelius, alongside a slew of other Gentiles! It was then and there that Peter’s ethnocentrism began to crumble. After Cornelius explained the series of events that led them to that gathering, Peter made a breakthrough discovery: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Don’t miss the magnitude of this shift! God here sovereignly works to dismantle any notion that Jews are somehow superior to Gentiles. In fact, this story reveals God’s desire for Gentiles to be included in his Kingdom plan. That was a paradigm shift for the early Jewish Christians! God, in his love, actually desires to gather people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into his Kingdom. This is no ethnocentric agenda, but rather a cosmic plan to unite people of all ethnicities together in Christ.
When dealing with the realities of living in a pluralistic culture, we must bear in mind God’s heart for all ethnic groups. Biblically, we are not permitted to remain ethnocentric in our attitude toward those who are unlike us. So rather than disdaining the encroachment of other cultures in your city or neighborhood, consider it an opportunity to extend the love of Christ across cultural boundaries. And in our American culture that has been fractured and marred lately due to racism and ethnic tension, such cross-cultural love from the body of Christ can be a powerful testimony to the gospel.
Clint is from Raleigh, North Carolina, and studied at both Appalachian State University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves in South Asia, where his focus is on urban church planting. He helps equip national believers and pastors to be disciple-makers and church planters in the cities in which they live.