I was recently called eurocentric, in that I am a-okay with Christians hopping over to non-Christian countries and preaching the Really Good News of Jesus Christ. Now while I concede that preaching Christianity could be eurocentric, and that many instances of said-preaching is eurocentric, the diehard association of the missionary Christian with the racist, swaggering, white man is moronic. First, it is no longer true that Europe is the center of world Christianity — that prize could equally go to the Americas or to Sub-Saharan Africa. If we must intrinsically link faith to a culture, then demographically speaking, it would be more accurate to call the pale, sunburnt missionary Afrocentric.
Of course we may say: “But African and South American faith came from Europe, from conquistadors, Jesuits and the white people in Things Fall Apart, so still, this Christian-mission stuff stinks of the rude imposition of European culture.” That is: Christianity is not derived demographically, but historically, and historically speaking, Christianity came from Europe.
But if the first argument was unrealistic in the present age, this one is racist in every age. To say that Christianity is eurocentric has the unfortunate consequence of arguing that all non-European Christians are only Christians insofar as they bow to Europe. To assert that the preaching of one is always domineering and inculturating implies that the conversion of the other is submissive, flaccid, weak — and even snivelling. This, and not Christian missionary work, is eurocentrism — the idea that Europeans may believe a certain creed, but non-Europeans cannot believe, they can only be tricked into “belief” by the powerful Europeans. This, and not preaching Christ, is racist — the vague notion that African Christianity is really European. We feel mighty modern criticizing the Catholic missions to Brazil as inculturation — do we not realize the insult we make, in the same breath, to the Brazilian, whom we have effectively called a powerless, irrational product of cultural force, when he, on the level of religious experience, of prayer, creed, and personal identity, is calling himself a Catholic? Or, for an Internet-level take riff on the same theme:
It all sounds hip and anti-racist until you realize that you’re calling the entire spiritual and intellectual tradition of African-American Christianity un-thought and spineless.
Statements of truth and falsity transcend the level of culture. Whether there is a God, whether he is one or many, whether he communicates with his Creation, whether he is Trinity — these are not culturally-conditioned beliefs, but propositions that inspire assent or denial. All of culture — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and all of the world-historical situation in which one hears proposition is put into question by the question of truth. To divorce the non-European from this experience, to make his experience of these propositions a fundamental matter of culture, so that his acceptance or rejection of Christianity is only ever an acceptance or rejection of Europe and its values, never a rational, heartfelt decision of assent or dissent towards a proposition (and finally, to a person), this is to remove from the non-European his humanity. But if the non-European is, in fact, a human being, than we must also say that he need not give a damn whether the proposition “God exists” comes from the palest of Presbyterians or the nearby palm-tree — he may consider it and decide. It makes no more sense to call the preaching of Christ eurocentric than to call teaching the process of photosynthesis eurocentric. Plants produce sucrose, and man is saved by his faith in the son of God, and both of these quite apart from our particular cultural prejudices. Real respect for another culture is the assumption that it can handle a truth that exceeds it. The vision that seems to respect humanity by leaving it alone, fixated in custom and culture, is really a horrible stunting of man’s capacity.
If it is argued that the Christian mission offers nothing true, and therefore does not and cannot transcend culture, then I say — hallelujah. Here is a criticism that has the piety to take Christianity as she offers herself. If Christianity is wrong, it is because it is utterly wrong — not because it comes from Spain. To make the move from the claim of Eurocentrism to the claim of falsehood is to begin to tackle the missionaries on the terms in which they mission — namely, as news-bearers of the proposition: “God became man.”
But even if there was nothing racist about denying the non-European the ability to rationally and authentically believe a creed apart from inculturation, it remains true that Jesus was a Jew, and his apostles were middle-easterners. Ultimately, claims of an essentially Eurocentric Christianity amount to the same racism as this:
Europe did not give birth to Christianity. She conveys what she received from Syria and Iraq. Calling this cry from the desert, this Jewish event, this Middle-Eastern phenomenon, calling this Christianity European for the simple reason that Europe was bedazzled and converted by the poetry and strength of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem — this seems eurocentric. For I notice no one characterizes the Europeans who received Christianity from the Middle-Eastern apostles as being “inculturated.” Such a thing would be unthinkable. Christianity is the pushy power of white people — god forbid it be the triumph of the Jews. But it is true. Christianity began in Aramaic. The claim that Christian mission is eurocentric is a subversive racism, in that conversion is only ever a submission to inculturation when Africans and South Americans are doing it — when Europeans convert to a proposition from the Middle East no one bats an eye. Europeans, apparently, have a natural superiority — they may convert and believe, their brothers and sisters on other continents can only be dazzled and mowed down by powerful cultures.
Now the spread of Christianity can be done as horrifically as the spread of Communism, and as aggressively as global capitalism. Some evangelization really is eurocentric. Some “evangelization” is nothing more than tribal warfare writ large. But this is a temptation and a corruption of the Catholic, Christian faith, which involves a universal creed, a God-relationship all men are capable of, and no tie to one nation or culture over another. The national Church is an idol. Those who conflate spreading Christ with spreading Coca-cola are fools and anti-Christs. And Christians have been idolatrous fools, worshiping the nation in the guise of their God, calling conquest ‘mission’ and nationalism ‘church.’ But this impulse does not rise out of Christianity — it claws against it. And before the religion-less go into raptures over their own innocuous uninvolvement with universal messages that purport to transcend culture, he should consider how the secular order is prey to precisely the same idolatry, worshiping a culture and a nation in the guise of some universal truth-claim, national wars in the guise of democracy, extraordinarily Western notions of children, family, and sex in the guise of ‘women’s rights,’ human experiments on foreign nationalities in the name of ‘science,’ and so forth. The sooner we get to the question of truth, shedding the ultimately indecisive shell of the world-historical, the sooner we really deal with the problem of Christianity, and more importantly, the problem of the person, who, like a breathing truth-claim, always transcends culture.