Theological Language & Ethnocentrism: A Commentary on Acts 10
The Gospel is for everyone in every culture. The Great Commission allows believers to participate in God’s work by actively sharing the Good News with people from every nation. Jesus’ command in the Great Commission is the framework for the Revelation 7:9 church. Reaching the nations means the body of Christ, by definition, is multi-ethnic. It is not simply the goal, but the essence of God’s work through Jesus Christ. However, white American Christianity is entrenched in a worldview which tends to see multi-ethnicity as the hope instead of the heart of the Gospel. As a goal, there are opportunities for theological concepts expressed in language to become barriers that ultimately support ethnocentric realities to the detriment of others.
Peter had his own ethnocentricity exposed in Acts 10. God gave Peter a vision of a sheet filled with all kinds of reptiles and crawling animals. God told Peter to “rise, kill and eat.” Peter refused, understandably so, because Jewish law and custom deemed these animals unacceptable to eat or touch. However, God challenged Peter’s application of the law saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Peter’s ethnocentricity affected not only how he viewed animals in God’s creation, but it became clear it impacted how he interacted with God’s image bearers.
When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house to hear why he was summoned, he connected the truth of his vision to the reality standing before him: a Gentile household in need of and worthy of the Gospel. Words like “common” and “unclean” were instrumental in bringing this incorrect application to light. Peter once used these theological concepts to separate himself from Gentile image bearers. But God redefined and reapplied these words to elucidate and challenge his ethnocentricity. When Peter applied God’s truth correctly, he said, “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.” The multiethnic church, at the heart of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations, was realized in this moment. Getting there required that Peter reexamine interpretations and applications of important theological concepts captured in words.
Considering Peter, Cornelius, and the emerging multiethnic church in Acts 10, believers should consider how theological language can support ethnocentric ideologies. America is a country full of diverse people groups, yet the way American Christianity uses words like “race”, “justice”, and “repentance” reveal an anemic theological understanding of the not only these concepts, but also the Gospel. Unfortunately, these limited perspectives within American Christian churches continue to create barriers which promote ethnocentricity in American Christianity, especially whiteness.
“Race” can be defined as a family, tribe, people or nation belonging to the same stock, a people with shared characteristics, habits or interests. In America, colonizers created these distinctions and assigned them value predicated upon skin color. Race was not only socially constructed, but constructed in sin, for the sinful purpose of subjugating black people. American society is so racialized that it necessitates discussions on “race and the Gospel” in attempts to reconcile the two theologically. However, race is too narrow a descriptor to be an adequate term for God’s creation. In America the word is loaded with negative historical and theological implications. Using “race” to define different ethnicities without a robust understanding of the imago Dei easily caters to a white ethnocentric view of Christianity by passively acknowledging the imposed differences between ethnicities and elevating one ethnicity’s perspective over the other.
Historically, “justice” is correlated with secular social issues and liberal ideologies. Often what happens theologically, is that justice gets relegated to individual salvation. Justice means to administer that which is good and adjusting conflicting claims. We are justified in Christ through his death, burial and resurrection. Thus, Christ’s death demonstrates how God adjusted the discord between humanity’s sin and his holiness while administering his goodness and righteousness. Justice is enacted on behalf of the individual, however not only for the individual. Justice needs to be applied to the whole of the individual’s life in a way that considers the well-being, rights, and livelihood of their entire existence. Failing to apply a more holistic approach to the term justice ignores biblically supported and theologically rooted justice for minorities and immigrants at best and denies it at worst.
“Repentance” means acknowledging transgressions and turning from them with the commitment to demonstrate a change in heart and deed. Repentance requires some action to make it right. When an individual acknowledges the grievousness of their sin they say, “what must I do…?” The required action is simple enough: believe. While belief requires movement in the heart and mind, white ethnocentric repentance has allowed it to stop there. A weak theology of repentance supports a individualistic Christianity because it remains focused on individual transgressions not systemic or societal transgressions. Doing works in keeping with repentance is not emphasized much beyond personal spiritual disciplines. Applying the word repentance to American society at large shifts this act from individual to societal and jumpstarts expanding the Christian’s view on the scope that actions can demonstrate repentance. A correct application will also actively tear down the structures of ethnocentricity in Christianity as the church seeks to repair the damage done from the sinful construct of race.
Acts 10 provides hope that the multiethnic church can thrive despite the damaging histories that have produced narrow definitions of theological concepts. Peter saw the multiethnic church begin right before his eyes once God exposed his barrier inducing ethnocentrism. The multiethnic church in America can expose the white ethnocentric terms that have supported white supremacy over the decades. Race, justice, and repentance are just three words in a long list of other theologically descriptive words that require scrutiny and reevaluation. A more robust theology that re-centers these words in accordance with God’s message and plan for his imago Dei should reflect a Revelation 7:9 church now.