Ethnocentrism and God’s kingdom

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.

Ethnocentrism Displayed

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.

Ethnocentrism Exploded

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.

Ethnocentrism Rejected

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.

Clinton West Contributor
International Church Planter
Posted in Blog, Missions Resources and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

One Comment

  1. Ethnocentrism is an important aspect when we talk about communication ethics. Indeed, this term means that an individual consider its own culture as more important toward the others cultures. First of all, when we talk about ethnocentrism, we must define what is a intercultural communication, and a multicultural communication.
    Intercultural communication, it’s the communication across the borders, with individuals from different countries, continents. Me talking to an American citizen is an intercultural communication, since I’m from France, I was born with different values, maybe close to American ones. It is different from multicultural communication which happened within a nation. USA is very know for its melting pot population. We can find different religions, different genders (men and women), different ethnicities, and different sexuality (heterosexual and homosexual). This is the multicultural communication. For example, I live with people from France as well, and as an African Latino European, I have a multicultural communication with them since, they are “only” European.
    Ethnocentrism can be an issue in digital communication, public discourse, and print media arenas. Indeed, the fact that people over the world have different beliefs and values, those opinion based on ethnocentrism can bring conflicts. But in another way ethnocentrism in digital communication, public discourse, and print media arenas is a way to show and share our culture through the world, and the other countries, individuals from over the world would be free to know how do we think. The interaction begin by interacting our opinion, and knowledge. The only requirement would be to communicate them with respect and ethics.
    Reciprocity, another communication term, is the most important aspect in order to have a good communication between two individuals. It emphasizes that the two individuals, having differences or not, should be on the same wavelength to understand each other and communicate. “promote voluntary participation in the interaction; seek individual focus prior to cultural focus in order to avoid stereotype; maintain the right to freedom from harm-physical, social, or psychological; maintain the right of others to privacy of thought and action; and avoid imposing personal biases and especially avoid using those biases to mislead or deceive” (Ethics in Human communication, Richard L. Johannesen, Kathleen S. Valde, Karen E. Whedbee, P.226)

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