Intercultural Christian witness gets critiqued from many quarters, usually with good reason. After all, one never moves between cultures without making mistakes or displaying blind spots.
Many critiques are obvious enough — Constantinianism, European colonialism, American neo-colonialism, cultural mal-adaptation, theological or intellectual arrogance, religious syncretism, mis-use of wealth, linguistic provincialism. Every generation revises old lists and adds new critiques.
Recently in a Middle Eastern Christian home I happened into a conversation that took an unexpected turn. In this setting Christians are a tiny minority. Second-class citizenship for followers of Jesus is the rule. Social costs for conversion to Christ are high.
“In our house fellowship a few years ago, we met secretly,” said a Middle Eastern Christian. “Later it was broken up by a police investigation.” We nodded sympathetically.
A local Marxist-turned-Christian spoke up. “We live in a culture of fear,” he said. “Because of rejection that will follow, people fear coming to Jesus.” Again, no surprises.
He went on, “This fear also pervades the church. We avoid speaking up publicly. We expect to be rejected, so we avoid unnecessary attention.” Well, yes.
“But this undercuts our witness,” he said. “We have a minority psychology. Minorities everywhere learn to keep their heads down to avoid suffering.”
I remembered the minority psychology of the European and North American Anabaptism I grew up with. I reflected on the centuries-old minority traditions of Middle Eastern Christianity. I thought, “This minority psychology is unavoidable, isn’t it? Who can blame anyone for avoiding unnecessary suffering? In order for our witness to continue effectively, we will keep our heads down.”
Our friend, however, was not finished.
“The missionaries who come to our country have fostered fear among us,” he said.
His wife agreed: “Ethnically, we are part of the majority here. When we become believers, we do not lose that status just because our religious commitments are unpopular. But new believers here pick up a spirit of fear from foreign believers who are overly concerned with their security and residence permits.”
Her husband continued: “When I was a Marxist, I was taken by the police, blindfolded and beaten. I know what that’s like. But I kept my head up, working boldly for change.
“Later as a Christian, I got tired of putting my security up front. I’m public now. I don’t know what that means for my future, what I may suffer for Christ. But I’m not going to play games with my identity and my witness for the sake of my security and reputation.”
I wondered: What will he say five years from now, or 10? The story will continue, I know. But in an instant I had been catapulted back into the New Testament stories of Jesus, Peter and Paul. I remembered the stories I had learned and often recounted from Anabaptists and other bold witnesses.
Furthermore, I saw the steps of faith and sacrifice already evident in the lives of our friend and his wife. Selling a car to keep food on the table, losing a secure job. These are big sacrifices.
I thought about the measures I and many others have taken to maintain personal security and reputation in the name of effectiveness. I wonder if we have done the right thing.
Richard Showalter, of Irwin, Ohio, travels as an overseer, mentor, consultant and teacher in the U.S. and global church and is adjunct faculty at Bethany International University in Singapore.